Interview With Jeff Willet
Making Great Music on Simple Catania Kalimbas

Jeff Willet
Jeff Willet

Jeff Willet is a recent graduate of Lebanon Valley College with a degree in Music Recording Technology. He specializes in hand percussion - including kalimba and HAPI drum, but also plays hand drums from all over the world, as well as drum set. His first recording under the name The Gathering Mist, titled "Rhythmic Epiphany," was a well-made technical masterpiece, but to my own ears the music was overplayed - it was more about showing what he could do and how he could enlist many great musicians to play demanding parts with him, and less about the music and the emotions behind the music.

Less than a year later, Jeff sent me a second CD, Reservoir. It was much less flashy, but the parts were every bit as perfect, and to my surprise, I could not stop listening to it in my car's CD player. He was making good music, and he had captured one critic who had written him off as an overly showy player lacking substance. His playing still has that technical mastery - I called him "a Bill Bruford of the hand drum" - but it has warmth and expressiveness in it too. I am really looking forward to where this young man's career will take him.

You are encouraged to listen to this collage of Jeff Willet's kalimba playing on his Reservoir CD.

Kalimba Magic: Jeff, you are making this music using a wide array of drums and just a few kalimbas. Which kalimbas do you use?

Jeff Willet: I use two Catania 12-note kalimbas, one with the gourd and one without. I actually stumbled upon the first one in a Native American store out in South Dakota three summers ago on a family trip, and felt obligated to purchase it to make their store a bit more authentic, as they are not traditionally a Native American instrument. I had also grown up seeing and hearing them played occasionally by a friend's parents who were involved in a local folk music group. I also have a 17-note Mid-East Percussion kalimba, but haven't been able to achieve the tone i'm looking for once it's recorded. Yet...

KM: Most percussionist's recordings tend to sound like a drum jam. Your recordings sound like songs or musical journeys. Exactly what are you trying to accomplish in your recordings, and how do you do that?

JW: Just that! I'm glad you picked up on it! For some reason, I've always felt a piece of music should have movement and direction, especially for the music that I write since there are no messages that I am trying to convey through any lyrics (my music is all instrumental). I like to leave all of that up to the listener, and it's really a pain to name these pieces beyond maybe a musical theme of the piece or something very obvious about it. It's not my place to tell you what a song should mean to you.

I grew up listening to more songs than drum jams, so that's what's in my head now. There are plenty of amazing musicians out there with similar ideas on piano, acoustic guitar, or other instruments, so I don't see a reason why the same mood can't be created using percussion of various types. And that's one of the great things about playing percussion - there's melodic, percussive, and even ambient possibilities within the same instrument family, as with many others too.

Having gone to college for audio engineering, it helps a lot to be able to represent the idea of the song from the performance point of view as well as the recording, mixing, and editing standpoints once it's in the computer - adding effects and mixing in a way to enhance what I was originally going for. The guest artists have been a wonderful help in achieving the "musical journey" feeling also! I am very fortunate to be able to think, "this piece needs a fujara (bass overtone flute)" and actually have someone I can call for it. Guitars, bass, cello, alto sax, flute, piano, didgeridoo, and synths have also been used in some of my pieces to get the sound i'm looking for, as well as a huge variety of percussion. And, of course, I'd rather use real instruments than software representations whenever possible.

I also try to use new and unique techniques for each instrument as well as modern and different musical concepts to compliment other instruments in the piece for a more united feel throughout the whole thing, like they all belong together playing those parts. I have been applying concepts and techniques from taking tabla lessons onto other instruments, and coming up with new ways of playing them to get new sounds to add to the songs.

Counter-rhythms and polyrhythms are always fun to play around with (see "Caliginous," "Ceramics," from "Reservoir" album, and "Unable to Forgive" from "Rhythmic Epiphany" album - but most if not all tracks across both albums feature some sort of polyrhythm or interesting rhythmic concept - not on purpose, it's just how I compose.)

For kalimba, I try to use three fingers for a lot of it - both thumbs as well as my right index finger for those up-strokes. I have also been using my thumbs to get harmonies of two consecutive notes on each side of the kalimba - usually in thirds - striking and swiping off of one note to hit the note next to/above it on the same side. Combining these techniques allows for faster and more precise playing over a wider range. The arpeggios at the beginning "Batido de Naranja" (track 5 on "Reservoir"), and all throughout "The Surrounding Leaves" (track 16 on "Reservoir") - as well as most other of my tracks featuring the kalimba - use both of these techniques, and took a lot of practicing! "Spectral Glide" (track 13 on "Rhythmic Epiphany") however uses only single thumb strokes from each hand, with a layer or two added on for a few light harmonies. I try to use those techniques and concepts to make this music stand out and sound separate from other music.

KM: So, you haven't modified the tunings on your Catania 12-Note kalimbas, but you are using several different modes. Tell us about how you use different modes to paint different musical colors or evoke different emotions.

JW: Yes, I left both 12-note Catania kalimbas in their original tunings of C major (G-D), however I mostly play them in A minor or D dorian, as they use the same notes. My music doesn't really lend itself to major keys very well, but minor and dorian modes have been very useful for getting my musical point across. Sometimes a section of a piece will slip into a bit of E phrygian or some other mode made up of the same notes as the C major scale.

I bought the HAPI drums that I play after playing kalimba for a year or so, and chose the keys of the HAPI drums based on what would compliment the kalimbas, so the HAPI drums are in E minor and D minor pentatonic, and together they make up an octave and a half of a full D dorian scale. It's great to be able to combine these two instruments - kalimba and HAPI - they indeed compliment each other well!

I also use a lot of layering in my recordings to get thick textures and harmonies. For some, I might play an arpeggio in A minor, pan it to the left in the recording, and then play a similar arpeggio pattern in C major (on the same kalimba), and pan it to the right in the recording (see intro to "Batido de Naranja," track 5 on Reservoir album). The dorian mode has a folksy, somber yet hopeful sound to it (to me, anyway), and I am comfortable improvising around in that mode. The tracks "A Passing Storm," and "The Surrounding Leaves," from the "Reservoir" album have some interesting changes in them, while the tracks "MyriaD Minor," and "Spectral Glide," from the "Rhythmic Epiphany" album tend to stay in one key/mode, as far as the kalimba goes.

I have since tuned my kalimbas differently after completing my latest album, "Reservoir." One is now in C dorian, and the other is now in A dorian, so we'll see what happens next...

KM: Describe how you conceive of a song and how you record the various parts. What comes first?

JW: That is a completely different process for each song. In order to not have the songs end up sounding too similar to each other, I try to stick to that. I either hear a rhythm or melody in my head and try it out on various instruments until something really resonates with it, or just pick up any instrument I have and start improvising on it until something presents itself, and I'll take the piece forward from there.

A few of the songs started as planned out MIDI files on my computer that I later replaced with more and more real instruments and tweaked the structure of as I went, but more of the recent tracks started as improvisations that materialized into a pattern that was then recorded and improvised over for a melody or counter-rhythm, and just seeing where I felt the song should naturally go. From the "Rhythmic Epiphany" album, the tracks "Ephemeris," "Searching Thoughts," and "Keraunoscopia," and from the "Reservoir" album, the tracks "Caliginous," "January," "Underlying," "Prism," as well as the three solo piano tracks started out as MIDI files which were added onto with real instruments. Everything else was created from improvised layering, or other ways. That's another thing I like about this music: because there's no pattern of how its created, I don't think it'll ever become old to me. I am looking to get into other ways of creating a song - being inspired by a picture, film, or setting.

KM: How much care do you spend on the recording process? Do you have special mics you like to use? How do you deal with mic placement on each different instrument? And what do you do to the sound of each instrument in processing? (Obviously you cannot make an all inclusive answer to this, just give us some interesting tidbits!)

Kalimba Mic Position
Samson CO3U

JW: I do have a favorite mic - the Samson CO3U large diaphragm condenser mic - a $99 USB podcasting mic that I bought on a whim to get more acquainted with different mic positions and techniques for my recording classes, just to practice with. When it arrived, I saw in small print that it said, "also great for any acoustic instrument," which is definitely the case! I have actually only recently started using it to record vocals for friends' demos and such. I own two of these mics, but am limited on their usage because of them being USB mics (only one at a time). There really isn't a lot of respect for this type of mic, but I don't think you will be able to tell the difference - the professionals that I've shown my recordings to are always shocked to hear the gear that I used to make these albums - a cheap USB mic into GarageBand 3.

I started college at Berklee College of Music, where I was first introduced to GarageBand, Reason, and other music technology tools. I was taught to use GarageBand to its fullest extent, which I do for many of these tracks. Once I transferred to Lebanon Valley College, I was introduced to large analog mixing consoles and numerous industry standard outboard effects units, as well as ProTools. I know this is starting to seem like a lot of behind the scenes editing took place, but through all of it I firmly believed in keeping my recordings sounding as "natural" and "organic" as possible, with some pieces being more purposely digitally-enhanced than others for a nice contrasting effect with the rest of them. It was nice to be able to apply concepts learned in my recording classes to my own recordings and get practice that way, messing with EQ's, compressors, limiters, reverbs, etc. So I would say that I spent probably more TIME on the songs after they were recorded to make them sound how I wanted to them to sound, but as far as the CARE that went into them, probably about the same between playing and mixing them.

Kalimba Mic Position
Kalimba micing - note left thumb, right thumb and finger.

As far as mic placement - as I said, I only have use of one mic at a time, so I close mic'd everything to focus on getting that sound and nothing else - no room sound, etc. For drum set recording, we were able to mess around with room mics, overhead positions, and different types of mics for each part of the drum set, which was also a great experience. I'll include pictures of my mic placements for various instruments, because I do feel that it turned out well because of that - and there was definitely some trial and error involved. I also used what I know of room acoustics to aid the fact that I only have one mic at a time. I try to pick a spot in the room that will accentuate or attenuate certain frequencies or overall resonance of the instrument(s) being recorded then. In one case, I was recording a jembe (I don't spell it with a "d" in front - I don't believe that's how it originally was...) for the piece "Unable to Forgive," track 8 from the "Rhythmic Epiphany" album. I didn't get enough of the deep low tone that I was going for after playing it upright and mic'ing it how I usually do. So I turned it sideways, played it like a frame drum/dumbek on my lap, but moved where I was sitting so the opening at the bottom of the jembe faced the corner of the room. Corners of rooms are great for bass frequencies, so I knew that this would get the bass resonating in the room more, and it would then pick up better in the mic, which ended up happening. Another time with a different jembe, I knew the room had a room mode of somewhere around a low A (55Hz/110Hz), and thats where the low note of that jembe was around also, so I chose to record that jembe in that room for that reason, which worked out very well on a few occasions (Room modes are those frequencies that tend to resonate well in certain rooms - every room has one, and they can be treated if you choose. You can usually find a good resonating note in your shower that you can hit with your voice - try it!).

Kalimba Mic Position
HAPI drum micing. HAPI = Hand Activated Percussion Instrument

KM: Man, that is the exact same prinicple at work with the Hugh Tracey box-mounted kalimbas - or your Catania gourd - but as these resonant strutures are much smaller, the resonant frequencies are much higher - A = 440 Hz for the Hugh Tracey Alto for example.

JW: Exactly. To get back to the mixing process though, I usually try to isolate the sound that I want from each instrument - a kalimba, for example, isn't going to have much in the way of low frequencies, so I usually put a high-pass/low-cut filter on it to cut out anything below a certain frequency. I usually keep it on the low side around 150 Hz, so I still get the low-mid frequencies that make it as full-sounding as it sounds on my recordings. I also usually turn up around 4kHz in order to get more a "slap" out of the more percussive instruments - jembe, dumbek, etc., and the mastering engineer seems to like to boost 12kHz by about +2dB in order to bring out some of the overtones, and also to 40-60Hz for some more low-end punch, which I am always grateful for!

KM: By the way, your Catania 12-Note kalimbas have a low note of G = 196 Hz - you know that, and now all the readers do too.

Do you use a click track with your recording? What can you tell the up and coming hand percussionists and kalimba players of the world about rhythmic precision?

JW: Yes, 100% of the time I will start out with a click track, and record the first few layers of the song to a click, for obvious time-keeping reasons. It ends up sounding more professional and consistent this way. Anything layered over that, I can usually just play off of the timing of whatever is already there that was originally done to a click. But yes, click click click! Especially for using MIDI instruments, and sharing sessions online with a guitarist who needs a tempo to put his metronome to while he's recording his part in another state.

I also try not to do much time-based editing with my music. There aren't many time limits with this - no label or contracts or release dates other than what I set up for myself and stick to, so I feel free to do as many takes of each part as I can stand, in order to get it sounding and fitting just right in the mix. Also, something could fit right timing-wise, but not have the "feeling" that I was going for - so I'll simply try it again. This project has been a great experience for me from both perspectives, as a percussionist as well as an audio engineer. Sometimes, I'll think to myself, "I don't feel like doing much editing with this, I'll just play it until I get it right," or conversely, "I just need to get this idea in the computer, and I'll just mess with it later if its not up to par when I play it at first."

I feel very comfortable with editing audio, so I can make small or large adjustments sound effortless and seem like not an edit point at all. This is good and bad, haha... But I do feel that precision is a key point to being a percussionist! We are the original time-keepers! The ornamentation and "flashy" stuff can come after the basic feel of the groove and tempo are established for everyone playing along, especially with all of the odd-meters that I love to work with. I can't tell you how sorry I felt giving the sheet music to "Searching Thoughts," track 3 on "Rhythmic Epiphany" to the cello player with all of those time changes, and not to mention it being in the key of E Phrygian Dominant. But because the piano, which I did in fact originally play thru a MIDI keyboard into Reason 3 (MIDI program - version 5 highly recommended!) was quantized to a grid lining up with the tempo of the piece, she was able to do a very good job of playing the cello part to it, and adding her own flare to it as well. This goes for all of the other instruments too - I love seeing their faces when I fill them in on the time signatures they're about to play/improvise on - but it has always worked out because of everything being recorded to a click track.

KM: Wow, thanks so much Jeff. I've learned a lot, and I hope the Kalimba Magic readers have too. I expect to hear great things about you over the coming years and decades - good luck!