Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

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Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby Thomas Altmann » Thu Nov 02, 2023 11:38 pm

Hi congueros,

I thought I could share with you an experience I had last weekend.

I had not performed on congas in public for four years, and although I had a massive practice period one year ago, I had not practiced congas in five weeks when I got a call from my former bandleader, Joe Gallardo. He had been invited by a jazz big band to present his own compositions and arrangements for a Latin Jazz concert and contribute some solos. Joe is now 84 years old, and for those who don't know him: He plays trombone and had held the first trombone chair at the NDR Bigband in Hamburg for many years. He had played piano with Mongo Santamaria and composed the grammy award winning "Amanecer" for him.

I have to mention I was still recovering from COVID when I got the call. Joe wanted me to join him with the big band, because he felt he needed an anchor man in the rhythm section, and he knows me, he's familiar with my playing, and he would feel more secure having me on congas and percussion. I felt so honored that I confirmed the gig two days later, calculating that I should be able to make it in twelve days. So I strolled to my practice room like being on remote control and picked up my practice routine, still feeling like undead. Ten days later I realized that the physical side of it was not as much a problem as my nerves. The desease must have affected my nervous sensitivity. I couldn't stand reading my charts or listening to the music. I had to stop preparing the repertoire and rather rely on my sight reading abilities (which are generally not where they should be). Corona is a mean mother...

To make the long story short, I was feeling O.K. just one day before the rehearsal, played it, and played the gig the night after. I have to express my respect for the band, called Jazz-Kombinat, a congregation of young studied professionals from Hamburg and Berlin mainly, their average age being around 30. They were not only extremely talented, but also focused on their art, kind, affirmative and relaxed at the same time. I felt like being at home. Everything was just the way it had to be. Joe played fantastic as always; you could not have guessed his age, it was just amazing.

The only burden to bear was the volume. Big bands can be loud, and they should be loud at times. I was sitting in front of the set drummer, and my principle concern was to find a way to be heard. I was playing a 10.75 Gon Bops oak as the center drum and a 11.5 mahogany hembra, and rare were the passages where people could enjoy my real sound. Actually, it was only in the second set that I instinctively found my way to sound within the big band setting. I guess I played my slaps more open and less muted. It might sound ugly if played alone, but in the forte ensembles, this was about the only way to remind people that there was a conga player in the band. I forgot to mention the congas were not being amplified. I placed the hembra on a piece of carpet, but played the macho on the bare stone ground. The secret is to exploit the full sound potential of the drum without trying to play louder than the drum is capable of. This would work against you, the drum, and the music.

I was just happy I had managed to play the gig, being out of shape and having come right out of Corona, by sheer will and a clever progressive training program.

Cheers,
Thomas
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby jorge » Fri Nov 03, 2023 4:57 pm

Thomas, great to hear you are back in the saddle again with respect to live performing. I did my second gig since the pandemic yesterday and can relate to your description of the volume of the music. This problem only gets worse as we get older, although I am sure Covid didn't help.

Unamplified congas in general and, even more so, smaller congas like a 10.75" main drum, may sound loud when we play them but are no competition for an amplified band. I measured sound pressure levels (SPL) of 110-112 dBA at ear distance (0.5 meter) from the center of the skin, playing hard on an 11" conga. The SPL drops by 6 dBA for each doubling of distance to the listener, so that would mean the SPL is 24 dBA softer at 8 meters (4 doublings) and 30 dBA softer at 16 meters (about 50 feet). This translates into about 86-88 dBA at 8 meters (25 ft) and 80-82 dBA at 16 meters. For comparison, the merengue band playing at an event I went to last week measured 104 dBA where I was sitting, at the furthest table from the band, about 50 feet from the stage. So an unamplified conga at 80-82 dBA would be 22-24 dBA below that SPL, completely drowned out.

I actually presented a paper on SPLs of unamplified Afro Cuban percussion instruments at an occupational health conference in La Habana, and even the loudest instrument I measured, los sartenes (frying pans) played with sticks in street comparsas, measured 120 dBA at ear distance. Loud enough to deafen the player, but not loud enough to compete unamplified with an amplified band.

Bottom line, you are at risk of hearing loss (as well as hand injuries) trying to play unamplified congas with an amplified band, even one that plays at reasonable volume (not like the merengue band). Maybe you could ask Joe Gallardo about Mongo's hands, he played loud and clear, sometimes unamplified, over moderately loud bands, but he had chronic injuries of his hands. I don't know about his ears, you could ask Joe about that too. For these reasons, plus the sound of the band, I suggest playing with good mics for your congas when you play with an amplified band, and demand at least 2 or 3 mic channels on the band's mixer.
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby Thomas Altmann » Fri Nov 03, 2023 9:31 pm

Dear Jorge,

it makes me smile you are coming up with all these serious scientific data. It helps proving points. And it makes sense that you are the one to really nail the information by exact measuring; it is obviously part of your profession.

In fact, as soon as amplification comes into play, I do consider demanding my own mics, if the sound engineer does not provide them automatically. It depends on the general volume on stage, because amps can be used reasonably, too. In big rooms with large stages, PA systems etc, engineers wouldn't leave you without microphones. Then you have the monitor problem arising. You just have to become really pedantic about the monitor sound, because you depend on it entirely for the length of the concert. Sometimes I cheat the engineer intentionally, playing comfortably soft for the sound check, so I have something in reserve later. Another thing I make sure is that the mics are placed at a decent distance of 30-50 cm. I hate close miking.

I remember sitting in with a salsa band on bongos when I was in my twenties. Naturally, there was no microphone for me, but I cut through the whole (amplified) band. When playing with those Puertorican salseros who were actually American soldiers stationed around the Frankfurt area, I received the compliment that I was always being heard. Big bands are commonly unamplified, except for the double bass, the guitar, piano and the respective soloist; they are just loud by themselves. During the intermission I use to ask the conductor and the guys in the wind section whether they could hear me, and they have always answered in the affirmative. I suppose I have that reputation, it has become a part of my identity. And you have seen me: I'm not exactly built like an oger. Maybe someday my age will make me turn around and succumb to amplification, but not yet ...

What had once caused injuries on my hands, were hard skins of 4mm thickness that also pulled the hardware off the drum. What threatens my ears in the first place, are unexpected feedbacks from monitors. And last Saturday, the drummer's cymbal next to my left ear was alarming, too. Once I was sitting in front of a Cuban trumpet player named Oslen. What I got from him from behind, I had never experienced with any ordinary trumpet before. And he had even warned me!

Lately, I was researching Mongo's slap sound, which was relatively dark and broad sounding. He used to draw the left hand back from the center of the head before hitting the right hand slap, so he had more of the membrane surface resonating. But, even though I do emphasize the open tone a lot, Mongo's open tones were inimitable. That was just him. I try to be me. I play a different slap as well.

It's true, it had been my intention to resign from the performing scene "until further notice". I was pissed off by the official political declaration that culture is not relevant for the system, which was kind of voicing the public opinion that art, religion and philosophy aren't anything but unintelligible, useless and pointless. At the same time, a general digitalisation of communication and all areas of social life and infrastructure was being praised and worshipped like the golden calf in the bible, and many deadly stupid things have happened since. I thought people should be left without music for a while to make them think about it. However, that kind of one-dimensionally minded barbarians don't come to my concerts, and actually they never did. As a matter of fact, I have always played for "my folks", and they don't deserve being left without the music they love. Some of them really need it; going to listen to live music is vital for them.

Another thing is: I really missed my fellow musicians, many of whom have become friends with me over the time. The social factor is definitely stabilizing. And there is nothing like playing music and interacting together.

Thomas
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby Greensail » Sat Nov 04, 2023 11:32 am

Great story Thomas. Happy to hear and thank you for sharing your experience in detail. While no way I have ever had the opportunity to play in a similar situation with a full band, I must admit I kind of envy the opportunity. The sound issues I think most of us have experienced at onetimeoranother. I have often played with no amplification with bands that tended to be on the "loud side". Yes, a little more strain on the hands but arguably if you are not mic'ed, they are not expecting you to be a lead or the focus, so I just always relaxed, did what I could, and tried to get into the rhythm and song and simply enjoy the experience. Usually worked for me. That said, mic'ing up in many situations allows a fuller expression of what you and these fantastic instruments are capable of. I use a small mixer that allows me to tweak each mic as desired, sometimes adjusting the volume and/or frequency response for each drum depending upon the tune and then have a single line to the main mix.

I also took note of your comments about the pleasure sharing the experience with friends. Absolutely agrre - A true blessing. Just last night, I played with my mates of many years after a 7 month absence. A true joy and interesting enough, we surprised ourselves in how tight we were. In addition to the conversation, the experience to be in the same musical groove with each other is a bonding and even a spiritual connection. The 7 month absence was spent on a small island in the Caribbean and in that time, managed to start playing with some locals. Interestingly, and very unexpectedly, we are working up an extended jazz set (yes, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderly, etc) Talk about some new challenges for me. The new friends are rewarding and exciting but the old friends are a gift.

Jorge, enjoyed reading your technical explanation. Are you a sound engineer? You impressed me as a physicist. I have penchant for medical ultrasound physics and liked your insights.

Finally, Thomas, hope you recover completely from the Covid and don't suffer from any lasting effects. I've had it twice with minimal effects but have a couple good friends that suffer somewhat from "long covid" and I lost a dear friend to it a few years back. A strange disease.

PS - glad there are still a couple of us here on congaplace.
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby Mike » Wed Nov 08, 2023 5:39 am

Yes, good to hear that some of us have not vanished, and nice to hear from you and that gig, Thomas. You have my utmost respect for your career, experiences and all accomplishments that you have made.
To play a bit of a devil's advocate Here: Frankly I do not understand why one would not play amplified these days! Rspecially in loud bands, especially when hearing and other health issues are evident, as Jorge has pointed out. Sure, it was different in old-school settings, but why cling to them I wonder. Decent monitoring systems are not rocket science either.
Taking care of your physical health is essential, all the more in these troubled times when it is difficult not to lose faith in mankund.
Peace & drum
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby Thomas Altmann » Wed Nov 08, 2023 11:26 am

Hi Greensail & Mike,

what affects my physical health much more than a big band's volume, is the fact that Corona has still left me and my wife with a persistent cough that engages us more than it should. Physicians say it could stay from 3 to 6 months. So thank you for your good wishes, Greensail ... There should be a celestial health department where I could present or cash in all the wishes I received from my friends, and apply for an accelerated proceeding of my case :wink:

As to the amplification issue, I must confess (and it probably showed through my second post) that to a decent degree my abstinence is totally unreasonable, some kind of macho pride, a foolish but somewhat cherishable remnant from my youth.
However besides that, there are also acoustical and musical considerations that don't take long to evaluate: If the set drummer isn't mic'ed up, and if nearly the whole band plays without additional amplification, why should the conga player stick out? If the entire band is amplified except the drums or the percussion, they do not blend well with the rest, and vice versa. And if temporarily in fortissimo and tutti passages the piano cannot be heard anymore, this is natural, so what? Same for the congas. Just don't try to be louder than you can; this is where injuries are lurking. And I don't regard skin splits as serious injuries, not even if they are bleeding; they are just annoying, because you have to play the next gigs with tape or band aid on your fingers. I haven't had that in a long time.
And finally, you would depend on a third party: the sound engineers. And those people are often not as skillful as they should be, especially when dealing with percussion instruments. There's always the risk that you have to cope with a distorted or unbalanced sound situation, without you being able to do something about it - except for the case that you have your own monitor mixer. Unfortunately, I might prove to be as unskillful handling that mixer, as far as I'm concerned. If you can control it - great!

So my decision to ask for microphones for my congas (or not) is always quick and intuitive, the result of "thinking fast", to use the catchy term coined by Daniel Kahneman.

Thomas
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby Chtimulato » Thu Nov 30, 2023 11:36 am

glad there are still a couple of us here on congaplace.


Hello everybody.

It’s good to read news from you, indeed.

I’m still there too. Also with (small) hearing issues, plus some viewing issues, and I also got Covid 19 this summer. But I’m still there.
Re : my hearing, I now use ear protectors while playing with people. Some stock models I bought in a specialised shop, I don’t need the professional custom model.
Re : miking, I don’t use mics on rehearsals, because we can’t rehearse very long at a time, so I don’t want to bother taking the mics out of my bag, plugging them, and then unplug and put them in the bag again. We have a small rehearsal room, so everything has to be stored when not used. For gigs, I use 2 Shure SM 57 with the Shure clamps, and am quite happy with them so far. But like many of you, we haven’t been gigging for... a long time... The next one is in 3 weeks, we’ll see then...

Stay safe, guys.
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby Thomas Altmann » Thu Nov 30, 2023 5:14 pm

Hi Chtimulato,

great to hear from you.

So you are bringing your own microphones. I've seen these Shure SM 57 a lot. You probably can't go wrong with them.

I could have made a good use of ear protection at my rehearsal, which happened to be in a hall designed for acoustic classical chamber music. With a big band, the room almost exploded. Usually I don't care as long as it's acoustical, but the first time I had thought it over was at another rehearsal with a brazilian batucada ensemble. It really hurt me!

I had have made me a special pair of glasses for reading music at a 1m distance. So far, I haven't used them. My main problem is not deciphering the rhythms on the paper, but rather following and counting bars, especially if there is no information about what is happening where in the chart, except for rehearsal marks at best. Arrangers still seem to view percussionists as beat suppliers rather than musicians.

I have almost overcome COVID after two months. As I am relatively sensitive to my physical condition, I still feel I'm not where I had been before, but at least I can pursue a normal life again. Anyway, the world was a better place without Corona ...

Regards,
Thomas
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby Chtimulato » Fri Dec 01, 2023 6:22 pm

I've seen these Shure SM 57 a lot. You probably can't go wrong with them.


Yes, I'm quite happy with them so far. It's a good quality-price ratio. There are certainly better mics, but not at this price.
https://www.thomann.de/fr/shure_sm57_lc.htm


I could have made a good use of ear protection at my rehearsal

I use these, quite affordable (sorry, the page is in French) :
https://fr.acuitis.com/collections/protections-auditives/products/protection-auditive-musique

They really do the job and filter a lot of volume.

Regards.
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby Thomas Altmann » Sat Dec 02, 2023 12:08 pm

Hi Chtimulato,

thank you for your recommendations!

Thomas
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby Greensail » Thu Dec 07, 2023 4:00 am

Seems a shift to microphones. I used Shure SM 57''s for many years. A great microphone. However, I now have used the Sennheiser e604 for about 6-7 years now- a mic for each drum. These have proven extremely good. While I'm in no way a sound engineer or remotely professional, they seem very sensitive with overall a good response over a large frequency range. Small and light, yet so far very durable. They come with clips that worked well but didn't like the way they attached and the mic would vibrate a bit so I now attach with a solid rod mounted to the lug. Quick and easy to mount and no toting around additional mic stands. I run each into a 4 channel mixer that I can adjust each mic, even tweak a particular drum depending on the song. Gives me significant control over the sound. I run a single line into the band's mixer. Overall have been very satisfied with this setup. I am going to check out the ear protectors you mention. Thank you.

Have a 3 hour gig with my old bandmates in our downtown area tomorrow evening. Haven't played too much with them but we are focused on having fun. Here's hoping I can remember what I need to. Good luck with your upcoming gig Chtimulato.

Also wish to extend my best to you Thomas. Here's hoping the Covid has finally left you behind and you are back to feeling good. Stay safe.
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby Thomas Altmann » Thu Dec 07, 2023 5:04 pm

Also wish to extend my best to you Thomas. Here's hoping the Covid has finally left you behind and you are back to feeling good.


Thank you Greensail! I can say I finally feel fine again. I recently smoked a tobacco pipe again after almost six months, and that says something. I couldn't have done that two weeks ago. (I'm neither a smoker nor a nicotine addict in any way, I just enjoy a nice pipe maybe every one or two weeks.)

I have known the Sennheisers you mentioned from my drum set playing. Engineers would come up and clip them on my snare drum and tomtoms, although I ask them to rather use a stand for my snare drum (and Hihat combined), because the clipped-on microphone really gets in my way when I play brushes or want to turn off the snares. Then of course the mics are very close to the membranes, which in my opinion distorts the natural ratio of attack, punch and overtones. I find that it gives a conga drum too much of a sharp, almost metallic attack and high ringing overtones. Once you increase the distance to the drum, all the elements and parameters come together, and the blend results in the organic drum tone we know, including the low punch from underneath the drum, which I think is important. But you may have a different taste or preference.

Greetings,
Thomas
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby Greensail » Fri Dec 08, 2023 1:17 pm

Happy to hear your feeling back to normal. Sounds like you had quite the ordeal! 6 months-Wow!

re: the Sennheiser mics. I do agree with your observations. I use a clamp to attach to the plate on the drum the lug goes through so it does not at all interfere with tuning. I actually cut a steel rod and cut threads on the ends for attaching it to the clamp and the mic. I can then place the mic further above the head than with the clamps. I find about 5-6" works well. Plus, I can adjust my little mixer to tweak further. Still have to adjust the position of the mics/drum rotation to place the mic at a point that I'm unlikely to bump it while playing. But works well for me an way easier than hauling the extra mic stands.
BTW- our gig last evening went very well. Not the full band, just, 2 guitars and myself but....we were very tight. It is a cool feeling when someone deviates or makes a mistake and the others adapt or just go with it, making it largely unnoticeable by anyone other than us.
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby jorge » Fri Dec 08, 2023 4:54 pm

Thomas, I am glad to hear you are feeling better. Long Covid is very unpleasant and it sounds like you are recovering well. Back to the being heard/microphone discussion, yes, Shure SM57s sound good and Sennheiser 604s sound good for close mic'ing, although I agree with you that in many settings congas need more distance than the 2-12" the 604 gives you from the various parts of the skin. At the last gig I did with Joaquin Pozo's group, the video/audio crew used some new mics I hadn't used before, Lewitt 440 Pure condenser mics.
Here is the video they produced, raw with no post editing, using sound off the board mixed with the overheads.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwHsffmVamM

There were 2 mics each placed about 18" from 4 congas. Additional mics for the whole band were 2 more Lewitts for overheads, DI for the bass, and 3 or 4 more mics ((not sure what) for piano and trumpet. The handheld mic you see was for announcements only and was muted when we played.
The congas sounded pretty good to my ear on the recording. Of course, Joaquin sounds good with any congas, any mic or without a mic at all! But listen to how well the congas sit in the mix, and project, in particular the songs starting at 30:48, 40:58, 53:04, and Joaquin's solo starting at 1:01:30.

The Lewitt 440 Pure is a large diaphragm condenser mic (needs 48v phantom power) and you can probably use 1 for 1 or 2 congas or 2 for 3 or 4 congas. Note again that they were placed about 18" from the conga skins, not close mic'ed. An important factor in the sound is the hardwood floor on the stage, no rug which can eat up sound.
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Re: Killing the tiger after a COVID time out

Postby Thomas Altmann » Fri Dec 08, 2023 11:25 pm

Hi jorge,

this microphone arrangement looks perfect to me. I think I can recall studio situations with mics that were looking pretty similar, but I can't tell whether it was these Lewitts or something else. To be honest, I never paid too much attention to the technical aspects of recording, I rather left that to the engineers. I felt my own job was demanding enough.

Live on stage with other instruments you get some leakage, and as long as the engineer can handle it, I'm fine with that. There will always be some trumpet in the conga channel and some conga on the piano mics. I think that's O.K., but I am no sound engineer. I just want to hear my instrument really inside the band and have it's sound mix with the entire ensemble. That's when I feel comfortable, being in control of my dynamics and my sound articulation.

As to the wooden ground, I used to bring my own wooden boards with me, until I found out that, at least for me, the rule that wood was the best ground for the conga did not always apply. I even started bringing carpet tiles, because it was my subjective impression that they brought out the best and even loudest sound out of my drums. It is illogical, and perhaps it was an illusion. But for some reason I felt better like that. Anyway, I try to stay flexible and react to any given situation, experimenting and checking what gives me the best sound of my instrument within the respective ensemble context.

Thomas

P.S.: Greensail, my COVID lasted 10 weeks, not 6 months, but enough anyway ...
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