Son Vo_Gong RecordingGongs are considered by audio engineers to be one of the most difficult instruments to accurately record due to their inherent multitimbral, transient tones. You can’t approach recording them like you would cymbals of a drum set (where you place two overhead condensers in L/R position). They’re more tonally complex.

I’ve recorded many kinds of gongs, either suspended gongs (the traditional Chao/Chinese gong, Burmese gong or Tibetan flat gong) or bowl gongs (which is actually another name for singing bowls, of which I’ve recorded nearly ten thousand). Today, I’ll primarily be focusing on Burmese and Tibetan flat gongs.

Burmese Nipple Gongs (or Bao Gong) can range from 12″ to 24″ and even larger. They have a rather large protrusion in the middle that is meant to be struck, sending out a rich, round, low-mid tone that’s a single tone. When you hit the Burmese gong just a couple inches from the nipple, you’ll bring out its more complex, thick multitimbral tones. Tibetan flat gongs, on the other hand, are more similar to a drum set’s cymbals but with much more complex, shimmering tones. Their sizes range in the same area as Burmese gongs; around 12″ to 24″ or much larger. These flat cymbals, as they can also be called, when struck fairly hard in the center, can explode a cacophony of notes around the room and through your body, making it an audible experience you won’t soon forget. Some flat gongs will even ring out feedback-like tones 5-8 seconds after striking them, creating almost cinematic, haunting sounds. These are personally my favorite gongs because of how dynamic they are and how their random tones will intermingle. Each strike can bring out a completely different audio experience.

In the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of recording gongs for Bodhisattva Trading Company. However, no matter the multiple configurations I’ve tried (stereo, mono, dual mono, Blumlein, etc.) I was never satisfied with the results. The recordings sounded flat and lacked spatial dimension (even with a great preamp and high-quality mics). I searched recording forums and discussion boards but still, nobody really had a solid formula they could share that could help capture that “3D” sound.  So I decided to trust my engineering instincts and dive in. What I came up with in my most recent recording sessions more than satisfied my ears. I could actually feel the gongs’ space on playback and felt like I had finally captured that elusive “3D” quality that had been missing in all my previous recording attempts. I wanted to share this “formula”, if you will, with all inquiring minds.

On the day of recording, I brought in my trusty ribbon mic and my coveted custom multi-pattern tube condenser mic (think Neumann U67). We recorded in a room that was approximately 22′ x 15′ with a high beveled ceiling reaching approx. 15′ high. I placed two mic stands about 5′ away from one wall and directly in the middle of the room length-wise. I placed the tube condenser to my right and positioned it about 5′ high. I selected a position between cardioid and hypercardioid to capture the mid to higher frequencies, giving the gong recordings a more present, up front and accurate representation without any sibilance (good tube condensers solve that issue).

Next I placed the ribbon mic on a shorter stand to the left of the condenser mic, about 12″ to 16″ away and about 3 ½’ high. Because a ribbon mic captures only the front and back (and not the sides), I knew there wouldn’t be any phasing issues. Its purpose was to capture the room ambiance and the large low tones, all the while smoothing out the higher frequencies.

Finally, I evened out the stereo image field, bringing up the ribbon mic’s level to 42db and the tube condenser’s level to 30db., panning them hard left/right (a ribbon mic typically needs higher levels from a preamp over other mics). While recording the gongs, my assistant stood about one foot in front of the mics while I struck them. Some of the gongs were larger so we had to move the ribbon mic 2″-4″ further left of the condenser. I struck each gong in slightly different areas (usually around the middle of the gong) with different levels of attack to find its inherent sweet spot (some have more than one). I also had to experiment with different gong mallet sizes as I didn’t want one too large of a mallet (which can make them sound muted and slightly dull) nor too small of a gong mallet (not enough weight for attack or volume). Once all those adjustments were determined for each gong, I pressed record and the rest is history – Voila! “Big Sounding” gong recordings! On each playback, I was impressed at the level of detail in the recordings. It was a huge breakthrough in terms of capturing the ambient breadth in recorded gongs. I can now consider this to be my new standard for all future gong recordings and I hope it helps other engineers in their quest to record gongs at the highest level .