How To: Vocal Percussion, by Robert Dietz of Ithaca College Ithacappella

Robert Dietz is a vocal percussionist for Ithaca College Ithacappella, an extremely successful all-male group out of upstate New York. Over the last few years, Dietz has won numberous awards for his drumming, throughout the Mid-Atlantic region of the ICCAs. This week, he shares his unique insights on how to successfully execute vocal percussion, specifically in a foreign setting, and under less than ideal circumstances.

OK, so you’re the best vocal percussionist in your group. Heck, maybe you’re the only vocal percussionist in your group. You’ve practiced your kicks, hi hats, and snares for hours. You don’t even need to think about where you’re going to breathe in that clave pattern. It’s all coming natural, but uh oh, your sound guy thinks a VP is the guy who breaks ties for the senate! Where you hear a well rehearsed, groovin’ beat, he hears some college kid spitting like a baseball player with a maw full of tobacco. What are you gonna do?

First, I need to dispel a myth for many musicians. Despite what you may think, and what many of us hope, most audiences don’t have any knowledge or appreciation of what makes for good live sound. In other words if your perc sounds lousy, blaming it on the sound system isn’t going to cut it. Unfortunately that puts you and I, the performer, in the unenviable position of having to control something that is almost by definition out of our control. The good news is that there are a bunch of tricks you can do before, and even during the performance if things go south to help get back on track without missing a beat.

As in politics, the best defense is a good offense. You can avoid a lot of percussion problems before the curtain goes up with a good sound check. If you don’t know your sound engineer, try to spare a minute to talk to him or her and get a sense of whether or not they have done this sort of work before. An a cappella neophyte is much more likely to make a mistake mid-show, and knowing that ahead of time can give you a big leg up when things go wrong.

If you do know your engineer, or if you are running sound yourself, it’s never a bad idea to have a backup microphone somewhere on hand just in case the main VP mic cuts out on you. You can have that mic pre set at the board to whatever levels and EQ are best for you, then turn it off and place it out of sight just in case of an emergency.

Besides getting to know your engineer, soundcheck is the time for you to get to know the microphone you will be using during the show. If you’re a major nerd like me it’s a great idea to practice with multiple mics outside of a performance setting to get used to how they respond to your sounds and what angle you may need to hold them at for best response. If you’re a normal, sane person here’s my tried and true method for finding a good angle to hold your mic on the fly:

Step 1 – hold the mic directly in front of your mouth, as you would to sing, almost but not quite touching your lips.

Step 2 – move the microphone around in a semicircle following your lips toward whichever side you’re holding the mic in. It should come to rest in a small dip between your lips and your cheek.

Step 3 – once you’ve found that “resting dip” in your face, move the mic a few inches away from your lips and, presto, you’re in a good general position for most mics.

The number one mistake I see from VPers is that they hold the microphone too far away from their mouths. Many microphones have a proximity effect that allows them to pick up lower frequencies when placed closer to the source of sound; frequencies that can give your kicks and snares a lot of extra punch. Plus, holding a mic closer allows it to pick up nuances that it might not from farther away. Any good (or reasonably good) sound guy will simply turn you down if you are too loud.

That’s all well and good, but what if your sound guy is really awful? Let’s say you’re mid show and your mic cuts out altogether. There’s no backup mic, and the engineer doesn’t seem to have any ideas. What then?

First off, don’t panic. People’s reactions in these situations can range from confused looks to stopping their percussion altogether. Remember that style can trump substance. The show must go on, and if you keep grooving and looking like you’re having a good time then the audience may not even realize that there’s a problem. If they do, they’re much more likely to stay in the music with you if you stay committed to the performance.

The next thing to do is to find the best way to be heard using whatever else is available onstage. If there are area microphones for the group, move closer to them and angle your face so that your sound is directed toward the nearest pickup. That way you will at least be amplified somewhat with the rest of the ensemble. If there are no group mics, or if you’re not able to get to them gracefully, turn out toward the audience so that your sound is directed at them as much as possible. You would be surprised how much unamplified percussion can cut through a group, even in a large space. No matter what you do, I highly recommend keeping your percussion mic in place as though it were working normally. This will give your sound engineer the best opportunity to remedy the problem if it’s something he or she can deal with from the board.

When it comes to solving sound issues during a show, there is no substitute for a good sound guy. However, when the chips are down and your sound starts going out the window, always remember above all to keep performing. In the end, making music is supposed to be fun both for the performer and the audience. Keep that fun rolling as best you can and people will walk away with a much better impression of the show regardless of whether or not they heard every beat.

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Mike Chin

Mike Chin co-founded The A Cappella Blog in 2007. He continues to share leadership responsibility for the site, overseeing columns, reviews and features as the content manager. He currently lives in Baltimore, MD.