Drum Heads: Emperor’s Trym Torson on Recording Mammoth Toms

Formed in 1991, Norway’s Emperor became one of black metal’s most influential bands, incorporating classical motifs, and even elements of Norwegian folk music in its bombastic, pagan assault. The band’s violent history—three members were separately charged with arson, burglary, and murder—prompted it to implode in 2001, but it reformed in 2005. Here drummer Trym Torson details how he records his signature tom sound.

“I use Premier Maple Classic drums, and when I first signed with Premier, I asked for the biggest toms they had because I wanted them to sound huge,” says Torson. “But when I tried the 12" in both the deep model and the shorter, power tom, the shorter tom sounded way better. If the shell is too deep, the sound reflects back upon itself, and sound against sound reduces the volume. So I’m really glad I ordered the power toms—I didn’t even change the heads that came with them. I’ve got 8"x7", 10"x8", 12"x9", and 14"x11" rack toms, and 16"x16" and 18"x16" floor toms.

“Here’s what I do to get a big tom sound. First, I make sure the tone of the toms is optimum for producing a thundering recorded sound. I have this tuning instrument that you just put on the rim, and it tells you the tension of the head. The manual gives you rough guidelines about how a tom should be tuned if you want a certain sound. So I did all the top-head tunings to make the toms fairly high, so you can hear the attack. Then, I tuned the bottom heads a pitch down to get the low frequencies. It can be a nightmare to get the lower heads right—it’s so easy for them to get out of tune.

“We used one microphone to record each tom, but we split the signal to two separate tracks. One track was used to bring out the attack, so you could hear all the hits I played. There was no low end at all on this track. The other track was worked to make the tom sound as good as possible—round, rumbling, and intense. This method allowed us to produce all the power and all the attack of the toms.

“Even with this method, though, the recordings never come out the way I want them. It’s the best we can do, but I guess you can’t have everything you want. I can’t make my drums sound like machine guns and like an old Led Zeppelin record at the same time. In addition, the drums have to sound good with the rest of the music. For example, when I recorded IX Equilibrium, I had an amazing tom sound in the beginning, but there was so much low end that it drowned out the guitar. So we had to cut a lot of the tone in the toms. It seems you always have to compromise!”