How the Pros Like to Record Drums

From fusion-heads to the metal maniacs; prog rockers to pop stars, EQ catches up with some of the most exciting drummers of the past 30 years — and the people who help shape their sound — to delve into the underlying philosophies behind why, and how, they record drums the way they do.
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FROM FUSION-HEADS TO THE METAL MANIACS; PROG ROCKERS TO POP STARS, EQ catches up with some of the most exciting drummers of the past 30 years — and the people who help shape their sound — to delve into the underlying philosophies behind why, and how, they record drums the way they do.

Donning dark shades and flashing a million-dollar smile, Taylor Hawkins struts into the New York offices of Red Distribution like a star. The drummer for the multi-platinum band Foo Fighters is rock-star royalty but his recent solo debut, recorded with his band the Coattail Riders, is a garage band tour de force. “When you are making a Foo Fighters record you know it’s going to be on the radio,” Hawkins tells EQ. “Everything is ‘bigger.’”

From classic Genesis/Latin-influenced ride cymbal patterns, layered percussion, to cowpunk country backbeats and bubbling, close-miked toms, Hawkins’ performance might shock Foo fans. “You can hear everything,” says Drew Hester, co-producer and engineer. “It is a very organic, warts-and-all record.”

The lo-fi recording allows us to hear Hawkins’ raw ability. “The drums were literally set up in my garage,” Hester says, who explains that most of the songs were completed in a day (with eight drum inputs via Digi 002). “We didn’t do this record in a big studio with a lot of gear,” adds Hawkins. “It didn’t even feel as though we were even making a record. It was just [like] demoing.”

Hawkins tackled one song at a time — which is not the way he is used to recording with the Foo Fighters, but he didn’t care. “Otherwise you lose perspective,” says Hawkins. “You go in the studio for two weeks to work on getting the perfect drum tracks, then we’re on to the guitars. The process gets too long.”

“If you get one of the top mixers to do your record, they’ll get it done, but the drums will be completely artificial,” says Taylor Hawkins. “It’s like, ‘Why do you actually spend time getting drum sounds the way you want them if they are just going to get sampled and compressed?’”

PERSONALITIES SHINING

Message to engineers: Don’t bury a drummer’s identity. Drummer Mike Wengren, of the band Disturbed, wanted to retain the primal, dry, thunderous tone of the band’s debut for the band’s latest record Ten Thousand Fists. “We experimented with the birch shells in the beginning, but we just kind of gravitated back to my 6-ply maple Pearl Master Custom drums,” Wengren says. “I hit hard and that thickness has become part of my sound.”

John Novello, keyboardist and B3 organ player for instrumental fusionoid band Niacin, captured drummer Dennis Chambers in Novello’s converted triple-car garage studio (2B3). “Dennis wanted the drums to sound the way he hears them when he plays,” says Novello. “We retained the ‘crashy, bangy’ natural sound of his drums through close miking.”

“People always say to me, ‘I love your snare sound. How did you get it?’” says Bill Bruford (Yes, King Crimson, Genesis). “What is heard on a record, especially a live one, has almost everything to do with what the musicians actually played, and almost nothing to do with pushing faders up and down and altering balances artificially.” Robert Frazza recorded Bruford’s “mini” big band — the Earthworks Underground Orchestra live in New York. “I did not close mic any of the drums,” says Frazza. “I put a little air in between the drums and mic, which retained the ‘woodiness’ of the kit.”

“My general feeling about drum kits, particularly when you are recording a drummer who does not have a ‘production’ drum sound, is to simply capture what they are doing,” says Paul Northfield, who engineered and mixed Neil Peart’s instructional DVD: Anatomy of a Drum Solo. “The starting point is always how Neil sounds when he plays,” says tech Lorne Wheaton. “That tonal ring is part of Neil’s character on the drums.”

OPEN MIND, OPEN SOUND

Carl Palmer, former Emerson, Lake, and Palmer drummer and now with the Carl Palmer Band, comments on his two new live records, Working Live — Volume 1 & 2, produced in collaboration with engineer Paul Kennedy. “By using Paiste metal alloy drums, because of the ‘liveness’ of the metal shell, the drums had extra zing” (Palmer was using 57s on the toms, an AKG D12 in the kick.) “I have some of my drums flat so I can hit rimshots,” Palmer says. “I am a kind of balls-to-the-wall prog drummer. I am very un-English when it comes to that. So, we kept the tuning as I liked it, and where the drum would ring we would just gate it.”

UNEARTHING MIC SETUPS

Terry Date, known for his work with Pantera, Prong, and many others, offers a view into mic techniques for the latest Unearth offering, which has a notably “boomy” drum tone. “The kick mic was inside the drum, just off-center from the beater, about 4" inside the front head. The snare mic was just a Shure 57, about an inch off the rim, with the back of the mic pointed at the hat for as much isolation as possible. There was no bottom miking; toms were ATM 125s placed, once again, to maximize isolation from the cymbals. It was a km84 on the hi-hat, 451s on the overheads, four 87s spread around the room, and a couple of trash mics, heavily compressed, for the kit. We also used a Yamaha NS10 woofer in front of the kick to give it a little more sub.”

BUILDING THE PERFECT BEA(S)T

While recording the follow-up to the multi-platinum Pyromania, Def Leppard was served a near-fatal blow when drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm in a car accident. Thanks to the vision of then-Leppard producer Mutt Lange, the concept of mapping out songs with drum programming became essential to the recording process for Pyro’s successor, 1987’s Hysteria. For the recording of the band’s new record, Yeah!, producer/engineer Ronan McHugh and drummer Allen followed Lange’s philosophy and mapped out songs with the help of BFD — the digital sound library of acoustic drum set samples.

McHugh recorded Allen semi-live onstage to achieve the correct tempo for each of the tracks. Once in the studio, McHugh would continue to chase snare and floor tom samples (which were eventually stored in Allen’s Akai sampler for use in Allen’s studio performances), as the drummer recorded in waves: the drums in one pass, the cymbals in another. “The only thing with that approach is you really have to nail both aspects, otherwise it would sound like two people playing,” says Allen.

SECOND SKINS

“Second Skin,” the opening track of Widespread Panic’s latest CD, Earth to America, engulfs with its backbeat. Recorded at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, by producer Terry Manning (ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin, Shakira), Earth To America marks the 20th anniversary of the band, and first time Panic has recorded outside of John Keane Studios in Athens, GA. With seamless rhythms of percussionist Domingo “Sunny” Ortiz, drummer Todd Nance, and bassist Dave Schools, Panic has rarely sounded so coherent and soulful.

Nance set up in Compass’ Studio A live drum area — the same room that brought us the incredible drum sounds of “Back In Black,” “Addicted to Love,” and “Start Me Up.” The double percussion effect is heard (and felt) on Bob Dylan’s “Solid Rock,” “Second Skin,” “When the Clowns Come Home,” and “From the Cradle.”

Manning’s unconventional recording approach contributed to the drums’ booming sound. “I set up Todd’s kit in the Rec Room and used a long snake to extend the mic input cables and headphones,” says Manning. “Mics were placed in a different way from the main tracking room to conform to the space and sound of the Rec Room. I also put a mic about 35 feet away, down one hallway, and up another, and made sure that the building was quiet when tracking. The very distant room mic was two rooms away, and the entire sound wave journey was along concrete hallways. The hallway mic was absolutely crushed with the Lucas compressors.” “Terry gave it that John Bonham reverb effect,” Ortiz says.

The basic mic configuration for Nance’s drums was as follows: an AKG D-112 (through API 512c preamp) for the kick drum; an AKG C12VR and a modified vintage Shure 545 (with the internal transformer removed) for Nance’s snares; a C12 about a foot away from the snare; an AKG 451 on the hi-hat; a Røde NT-6 using gooseneck attachments on the toms; two NT-2000s as overheads placed in an X-Y configuration (at a 90º angle) and centered on the snare; and an MXL V6 room mic placed on the 14-foot ceiling.

Ortiz, for most of the record, was isolated from the band in the Rec Room at Compass. “I couldn’t see anybody. It was a little strange,” Ortiz says. “The mic [we used] was a Rode NT-4 stereo mic, placed back about two to three feet away, centered on his conga setup midpoint,” says Manning.