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Drum Heads: Matt Sorum's Recipe For Rockin’ Pockets

2/1/2009

IN ADDITION TO BEING ONE OF ROCK'S ICONIC DRUMMERS (Guns N’ Roses, The Cult, Velvet Revolver), Matt Sorum is also an accomplished engineer and producer with his own production company (Orange Curtain) and tracks for Poe, Candlebox, Ronnie Spector, Little Milton, Sen-Dog, and others under his belt. His most recent production project was for Los Angeles “youth rock” band, Drive A—a gig that prompted Sorum to share some miking techniques, recording philosophies, and studio drummer bummers that can help EQ readers track bigger and better drum sounds.

LAY DOWN THE LAW

“Terry Stirling—Drive A’s drummer—has a lot of chops,” says Sorum, “but I told him to play only what was needed to drive each section of a song. He could have that one fantastic fill, but that was it. When I was young, I do remember being a lot flashier than I am now, and that’s because I learned to play for the song, rather than for myself.”

BIG ROOMS RULE

“I learned about miking drums from Mike Klink and Andy Johns, who had recorded my favorite drummer, John Bonham. I was inspired by all those stories about how Led Zeppelin recorded in castles, and how bands such as U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers recorded in houses, so we decided to record Drive A in a big house out in Malibu. We put the drums in a large living room with 25-foot ceilings, which was pretty cool, but the problem was that the reflections from the walls made the cymbals sound kind of harsh. I had to go around and place some foam in different areas to compensate.”

STEAL MY MIKING METHOD

“For the Drive A project, I close miked all of Terry’s toms with Sennheiser MD451s—which I always used back in the Guns N’ Roses days. I double-miked the kick drum with a Shure 91 inside, and a Røde Classic II outside. On the hihat and ride, I used a Røde NT5, and for the snare, I used Shure SM57s for the top and bottom mic positions. To capture the room sound, I positioned two Neumann TM103s in a kind of stereo spread, and a Telefunken 251 to pick up a mono image. In addition, I did a trick I learned from Brendan O’Brien [producer of Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, Pearl Jam, Velvet Revolver, and others], which was to position a Telefunken AK47 over the drummer’s shoulder as a kind of ‘effect’ mic. For slower-tempo tracks, I also put a Telefunken AK47 in a hallway that was down a staircase. That was my ‘Bonham’ trick to get a delayed and distance ambience. When [mix engineer] Chris Lord-Alge mixed the Drive A record, he’d bring in that mic on the tom fills to make things explode.”

GO NATURAL

“I spent a lot of time during the tracking phase getting a natural drum sound, so I didn’t put any noise gates or effects on the drums. In fact, most of the reverb you hear is from the room the drums were recorded in. There’s just some slight compression on the kick and snare, although I hit the mono room mic pretty hard with a Urei 1176 compressor to get the crunchy sound I like. And because I fear the ball getting dropped in the end, I called Chris before he mixed the Drive A record to let him know that I wanted the drum sound to remain as natural as possible. Thankfully, he thought the drums were tuned well and sounded great, so he didn’t over- EQ or over-process things.”

LET DRUMMERS BE THEMSELVES

“I believe that to get the best performance out of a drummer, you have to make the drummer feel good. If that means he or she likes playing with the front head on, then that’s what you should do. But I’ve had some runins with name producers who tend to like certain techniques. Bob Rock, for example, took the head off my bass drum, and we got into a bit of an argument, because I said I wanted the head left on in order to mic the front head for added resonance. Mike Klink likes to isolate the kick drum by building a tunnel of blankets around it. I like how the kick drum sounds in the room, because you tend to get more low end. Some guys have even built a kind of box around the hi-hat in order to keep it from bleeding into the snare mics. Of course, most drummers hit the cymbals so hard that no amount of baffling or boxing is going to keep the cymbals from bleeding into the other mics.”

ALWAYS ENVISION THE MIX

“When I do a session, I like to track drums with the final mix already in mind. In other words, I don’t like to put stuff on tape that doesn’t sound right from the get-go. That’s what they had to do back in the day— before multitracking and DAWs. Drummers almost had to ‘premix’ themselves back then, because it wasn’t like you had unlimited tracks of individually miked drums to process and tweak. The drums had to sound right in the room. I heard that Ringo used to put his wallet on the snare drum to dampen it during Beatles sessions, but when I talked to him, it turned out it was a pack of cigarettes. Still, the point is that he was thinking about the final drum sound as he was playing.”

FOR ROCK, MAPLE IS KING

“I’ve never gotten into the dynamics of different ply thicknesses for drum shells, but I can say that, for rock and roll, maple drums are the best. I also like the maple reinforcement rings that appeared on old Ludwig sets. The rings put more wood against the drum skins, and they also dampened the sound in a very natural way. I’m a Ludwig endorsee, and I talked to the company about bringing those rings back, and now they’re on the Legacy Classic Series drums.”

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