Don Caballero drummer Damon Che is one of the foremost monster players in the indie-rock world. Aside from his ridiculous chops and a lowend setup so awkward that only he can get the right sound out of it, Che works with engineer Al Sutton— owner of Detroit’s Rustbelt Studio— to capture sounds that venture far beyond standard percussion philosophies. I recently spoke with Che and Sutton, and asked them to detail any unusual recording techniques employed for Don Caballero’s latest album, Punkgasm [Relapse].
What was your drum setup for Punkgasm?
Che: I bought this Pearl Export kit in 1985. I’ve got 12" and 13" rack toms with Ambassador heads— which make the toms come at you much more. However, I kept an Emperor head on my 16" floor tom because I hit it pretty damn hard, and a thinner Ambassador head would likely cause drumhead suicide. My snare drum is a 13" Ludwig Power Piccolo with an Emperor coated head. I’ve used that drum on every record except the first one. My bass drum is a 22" Pearl Export with a Tama Iron Cobra double pedal. All my cymbals are rides— except the hi-hat, of course, and I use two botto1m cymbals for that. It’s a brutal sound. It pounds utter weaklings out of the arena! I like the Sabian B8 Pro ride for the same reason— the ding bell is so penetrating that it’s like you’re in a boxing ring when you hear it. My other cymbals are a Sabian Signature Universal ride, and an HHX Evolution.
Isn’t the Export kind of a bottom-of-the-line kit?
Che:It’s an affordable model, sure, but I haven’t played a rental kit yet that can match it. None of them are as loud, or can penetrate like my Pearl Export, and in crap clubs with crap sound systems, that’s what you need, man.
When you went in to record Punkgasm, what ideas did you have about the drum sound?
Che: I went in wanting a slightly tighter, dryer sound than what I’ve come to be known for. With Al, you throw up the mics, and see what you get. It goes pretty fast.
Sutton: When you record Don Caballero, you have to steer a ship that’s going in its own direction, and keep it off the rocks. They know what they want, and they spend a lot of time getting it before they come in. They typically record live in one room, and after two or three takes and a couple of minimal overdubs, you have a song. There’s not a lot of control from my end—Damon’s drum tones are what they are. Well, Damon is certainly open to suggestions, but by the time the band is in the studio, he has already done much of the work in terms of tone selection.
He also has an odd style of playing the drums. He uses marching sticks—those giant things the size of broomsticks—and he holds them backwards so he can hit with the fat end. His snare drum is on an angle I’ve never seen before, and his kick pedal spring is so tight I couldn’t even push it down at first. I can’t play a single beat on his kit! Damon is definitely an enigma in his ability to get tones out of drums—and anything else. In fact, there’s a bit of a legendary story about the first record I made with him around 1997 or ’98. He had a working table saw as a part of his drum set. He would hit the saw blade with a stick, turn the power on, and the spinning blade would bend the pitch. I had to mic this! It was hilarious.
How did you mic the kit during the Punkgasm sessions?
Sutton: I really like miking drums in the old school, Bonham style of using room mics, but, with Damon, he wants so much of the detail in his playing that I have to use close mics for everything. For example, there’s a section on the record when he taps his fingers on the snare drum while holding his other hand on the head, and he wants all that to come through. I even had to mic the kick-pedal spring for a section where he wanted the squeak featured.
The basic setup involves miking the top and bottom snares using a Shure SM7 for the top, and an old AKG C414 for the bottom. I used an AKG D112 on the kick drum. For the smaller rack toms, it was Shure KSM141s, and there was a Sennheiser MD421 on the floor tom. If Damon used a Roto Tom, I’d mike it with a Beyer M 88. I put a mic on each of his cymbals, and a mic underneath the ride—right in the bell. In my experience, you don’t really need to mic a ride cymbal if it’s played well, but, nine times out of ten, when you’re doing a mix and you’re not getting enough of something, it’s the bell. So I put a mic up underneath the bell to get a ping you can blend into the mix after if you need more. I’ll use only that track for those situations. Otherwise, it’s muted. In the older days, I’d print the ping track in with the overheads— that was back when I’d shoot for eight drum tracks. On Punkgasm, we had 15: kick drum, top and bottom snare, one for an extra snare, two crashes, ride, hi-hat, four toms, and three room mics.
How did you mic the cymbals?
Sutton: I started with Schoeps M221s on the crashes, but they sounded too open, so I switched to Beyer M 260 ribbons. There were no actual “overheads” on this session, just cymbal mics. The hi-hat and ride were miked with Neumann KM84s. For the room mics, I used Neumann UM57s, and I had an R-F-T Funkwerk CM-7151 in front of the kick for the low end.
So the Neumanns were stereo pairs, and the R-F-T was in mono?
Sutton: Right. The stereo room mics have a nice, washy sound, but they don’t really capture the rush of air and bottom from the kick drum. However, if you put the mono mic about eight feet out from the kick drum—or from wherever the sweet spot is—you’ll get some good low end.
What other gear was used to document the sounds?
Sutton: I have a 40-input Neve 53 Series console with Neve 33114 EQs that used to belong to Mitch Easter. It’s a very nice desk—much better than the Neve 10 Series consoles. Those are good for tracking, but not so great for mixing. The 10 Series tones are wide, fat, and fluffy, but when you go back to mix with them, it’s like too much of a good thing. The EQ on the 53 Series is a little narrower and more focused sounding, and I like that better for mixing. I have a Fairchild 670, Urei 1176s, dbx 165s and 263Xs, Calrec PQ15 EQs, BBC AM6/14 limiters, and a bunch of other stuff. My DAW is a Pro Tools|HD 3 Accel rig.
I can’t imagine you doing a whole lot of work on the drums after tracking, as Damon’s kit always sounds dirty and raw.
Sutton: That’s the way he likes them. You can’t get it too slick sounding. He doesn’t like any click on his kick drum, so you can’t add any high end. He never has any muffling inside his kick, so it’s wide open and ringy. He’s not too particular on the overall tone of his drums in the sense of EQ. He wants to make sure his parts are there, but, otherwise, he’s a hands-off guy in terms of not getting in the engineer’s business. When I first recorded with him, he came in with all sorts of sonic references and specifics about kick punch, panning, and tom sounds, but now he doesn’t give me input on anything. We’ve got a cool trust thing going.