Six on Six: Drums!

What is, The Big Bang Beat, Alex?If your answer was a character definition of ROCK’s most enduring and affecting instrument, then you got it: More than any other instrument, drums define rock. Guitar sounds are processed by the frontal lobes, but percussive activity takes place at a more primitive reptilian stage of the brain. And even though drums are under siege from automation, they remain at the heart of the classics that defined rock music for the last 40 years. So, just to make sure there’s a Rosetta Stone for how to keep those STEADY ROCK BEATS coming, we asked a few great engineers to recall a favorite project and how they made the drums sound the way they did.
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On David Byrne’s Grown Backwards, there is a track called “Dialog Box” that producer/engineer Pat Dillett, Byrne, and drummer Steve Williams dubbed as having “the Gene Krupa beat.” “It has a loose kick and tom-tom groove and Steve locked into a great feel for it, so good that the performance appears pretty much untouched on the CD,” Dillett says.

In 2003, they were recording in Kampo Studios’s large live room, fitted with an SSL G Series console. “But on the drums I used Neve 1073 and API mic-pres, pretty much bypassing the console on the input side,” Dillett explains. “Since I needed [each of] the drums to speak equally in this particular groove, I miked the kick as well as the toms with 421s. I knew that with the way Steve tuned his drums, I would be able to get the bottom I needed as long as I had the front end that the 421s would give. I used Neumann U-89s on the overheads, keeping them pretty low in order to skew the kit’s balance a bit more toward the toms. The snare was miked top and bottom with Shure 57s. I may have miked the hi-hat with an AKG 452, but I doubt I used much of it in the mix. We shortened the size of the room a bit with baffles to keep the rolling boom of the groove from getting too cloudy.”

The result is a rolling, funky, swinging groove to which we would later add horns in order to marry old-school R&B to swing with just a touch of Latin groove. “In other words,” Dillett deadpans, “we made a David Byrne record.”


Elton John’s Songs From the West Coast, recorded in 2002, is an interesting case study: a conscious attempt to get to the organic band sounds he had on his earliest records. “Elton and producer Pat Leonard wanted the project to be a return to the sound of his more organic discs from the early 70’s,” recalls Joe Chiccarelli, the engineer on the project. Chiccarelli had an advantage from the start: the return to the studio of John’s longtime drummer, Nigel Olsson.

That day, Olsson showed up at Sony Music Studios in Los Angeles with a brand new DW drum kit. It sounded great, but not with the “distressed” sound that Chiccarelli and John were looking for. “We set out to make the kit somewhat retro,” he says, “stuffing the kick with blankets, putting gaffer’s tape on the cymbals and — a truly classic trick — putting the drummer’s wallet on top of the snare. Altogether, it made the kit sound darker, warmer, and deader,” he says. “Just like 1970.”

Chiccarelli followed the classic form, but with a few twists. Instead of one Shure 57 on top of the snare, he taped it together with an AKG 451 on the same stand, flipping one out of phase and positioning them relative to each other until he achieved near-complete phase cancellation. Then he put the phase back to the normal position. “A condenser [the 451] and a dynamic [the 57] microphone will pick up different tonalities,” he explains. “The AKG gets more of the attack and the Shure gets the midrange of the drum.” Beneath, he placed a Sennheiser 441 with its phase flipped 180 degrees in a position mirroring the top mics.

The now-stuffed kick drum was miked using a vintage AKG D-12 (not the D-112) set inside the drum and a Neumann FET 47 set just outside it. Overhead mics were a pair of Blue Dragonflys, which he chose to better pick up the detail in the now somewhat muffled cymbals. They were set about three feet above the kit and angled in toward the point of contact between the sticks and cymbals.

But two other microphone setups truly defined the classic sound: A pair of Royer 121 ribbon mics were placed three feet in front of the kit, three feet up from the floor, and eight feet apart. They were then heavily compressed with a vintage Neve 32264 compressor with a ratio of 3:1 and compression ranging from 2dB to 10dB, depending upon the song. Then, Chiccarelli placed a Neumann U-47 tube microphone into the space created between the bottom of the rack toms and the top of the kick drum, processed with an Empirical Labs Distressor. “That’s a magical little spot,” he says, noting that a large percentage of the overall sound came from those ambience microphones. “The close-in mics provide the definition and impact; the [ambient] mics give you the tone and character.”

It all worked. “From the minute we did the first take, Nigel’s first tom fill was very lyrical and wonderfully behind the beat, as always, and sounded instantly like those classic records we wanted to emulate,” says Chiccarelli. “It was like hearing Tumbleweed Connection for the first time.”


For David Z, blues wunderkind Johnny Lang was the continuation of a thread of white blues singer/guitarists that goes back several generations. “Drums are the instrument that often links the past and the present and the future for that kind of music,” he says.

On Lang’s 1996 debut Lie To Me, Z was working at the rather quirky and obscure Oarfin Studio in Minneapolis. “The room left a lot to be desired,” he recalls. “The walls and the ceiling were all parallel — every sound produced a flutter effect, terrible for a loud instrument like drums.”

Z hit every Salvation Army outlet in Minneapolis, buying up tons of old blankets, which over the course of two days were tacked to and hung from every surface in the studio. “We blanketed the hell out of that place,” he says. “Just to sit down at the drums was like entering a tent.”

Presence, rather than bombast, was the goal for Lang’s drums. Z followed the deadening of the room with close-miking techniques. A Shure 57 was aimed across (rather than obliquely at) the top of the snare, with the tip even with the edge of the drum; an AKG 414 was placed underneath and angled slightly away to avoid phase problems. The 57 was processed by a dbx Over Easy limiter.

Z took the front head off the 22-inch kick drum, then connected a second headless kick shell to it, creating a kick drum “cannon.” Inside the first kick he placed an AKG D-112; at the outer end of the second he positioned a Neumann FET U-47, both held by desk-type stands and with a touch (no more than 2 dB) of LA-2A limiting. “Also, it’s important to put the drums on risers,” he stresses. “It gives the wave from the kick some room to unroll [downward].”

Toms were miked with Sennheiser 421s, one per drum, angled downward and slightly away from each other, again to avoid phase issues. Overhead microphones were usually 452s but Z had bumped into some fairly exotic Russian tube microphones he used instead. “I never saw them again and they sounded great,” he says. “But I’d use a pair of high-end condenser mics up about three to four feet above the cymbals, each angled slightly away from the other.”

But Z’s secret weapon was a pair of “energy” microphones: two Neumann U-87s positioned adjacently on two stands and divided by a layer of foam, about four feet off the floor and three feet back from the toms. “It’s like a set of ears, and then I limit the crap out of them,” he says, using a stereo limiter. “It gives the entire kit a sense of urgency.”


When Al Schmitt recorded the lighter-friendly standard Toto IV, he had a feeling it was destined to become a classic. Those songs — ‘Africa,’ ‘Rosanna’ — they just sounded like hits,” he says.

Recording in Studio B at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, Schmitt set up an AKG 452 with a 10dB pad on top of the snare, close to the skin and about an inch from the edge of the drum. Beneath, he placed a Shure 57 with the phase turned 180 degrees on the console, placed near the snares. “I’ll sneak that in during the mix to catch a bit more of the ‘crack’ of the snare,” he says. “Flipping the phase avoids cancellation problems with mics that close together.”

Jeff Porcaro’s kick drum had an outer skin with a hole, and Schmitt placed an AKG D-112 aimed into that about an inch or two back from the skin. “I’m looking for the punch from the bottom end, but not the pedal sound,” he explains, noting that he’ll help that along with a few dB at 60Hz while tracking. (Otherwise, no EQ at all.)

Rack and floor toms get an AKG 414 apiece, each placed close in — about an inch and a half from the rack toms and two to three inches from the floor tom — set at cardioid and with a 10dB pad. The high-hat had a 452 placed six to eight inches away and slightly above.

Overheads are a pair of AKG 452s set in a modified (i.e., “almost”) X-Y configuration positioned on booms directly over the drummer’s head and forward about a foot. “The ideal here is to get a great balance between the cymbals and toms just from these two microphones,” says Schmitt. In addition, an AKG C-24 (the stereo version of the C-12) was placed about 20 feet in front of the kit at a height of seven feet. “That’s where a lot of the ambience comes from,” he says.

That should do it, says Schmitt. “Nine times out of ten, you don’t need EQ. These days I like to add some of the ‘wood’ room from the T.C. Electronic M-6000, but back then I would have applied a little bit of the studio’s chamber or an EMT plate. That’s it. You let the microphones speak for themselves.”


Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Letter” was recorded in 1989, in Ocean Way’s Studio 2. Engineer Ed Cherney recalls he set out to get the sound down as quickly as possible. “Before you wear out the drummer,” he says. In anticipation of this, Cherney had set up a classic ambient microphone array: a Neumann U-67 set back 10 feet in front of the kit about head-high, flanked by a pair of Neumann M-50s set 20 feet back, 10 feet high, and spaced 10 feet apart. “It’s a huge image,” says Cherney. “But you can really hear the room. I don’t think I used any reverb at all on the drums.” “It’s also a sampler’s delight: Ricky Fataar opens the track with four bars of a naked drum groove.”

The drums’ attack came from several close microphones. The kick had a Sennheiser 421 set inside and close to the beater and an AKG FET 47 set about two-and-a-half feet out from the center. “Where you place that one can be figured out by placing your hand in front of the kick and feeling where the sound wave ends,” Cherney explains. “That mic captures the fundamental, around 50–60Hz; the inside mic gets the 2–3kHz ‘snap.’ Between the two, you wont have to radically EQ it.”

Actually, Cherney says it takes some discipline, but rolling off at key frequencies and compensating with gain on the fader produces a more natural sound than boosting. “I roll off a bit around 250 and get much better phase coherence,” he says.

The snare was recorded using a B&K 4011 on top with a Sennheiser 441 below. “The 4011 is a sensitive mic with a lot of headroom,” says Cherney. “It’s a great mic for a drummer with nuance like Ricky. Also, it’s a condenser. I was getting sick of 57s even then.” A pair of AKG C-12s was placed above the kit to round out the microphone array. “It gets you about as natural a sound as you can get without any sense of it being processed at all.”


“Subtle” and “nuanced” are words often used to describe Steely Dan records, and they certainly depict the drum sounds on the duo’s Gaucho LP, which producer/engineer Elliot Scheiner tracked at A&R Studios in New York in 1980, with Bernard Purdie playing most of the drum parts for the record.

When it came to the snare drum, less was more: He placed only a single Shure 57 on the top of the snare, set about an inch and a half above the rim and about two inches inside the rim. “Those guys didn’t play the drums hard usually,” he explains. “Like the double shuffle on ‘Babylon Sisters,’ you can hear the tip of the stick rolling a little on the skin. Moving the mic further into the center picks that up. It just doesn’t need a bottom mic, and that also eliminates any potential phase issues.”

The kick was miked with an E-V RE-20, placed toward the right side of the front of the drum at the same height as the beater. “That’s the starting point that works for some reason,” Scheiner says. “It gives you a good combination of attack and deepness. Then I move it around from there until I get what I want.”

Toms were miked with Sennheiser 421s mounted two to three inches above the skins and pointed down. Overheads were a pair of AKG 414s set between two and three feet above the cymbals. On the hi-hat, he used an RE-15. “A very directional, very focused microphone,” he says. “It won’t pick up leakage, which was important since we often kept only the drums from those tracking sessions and overdubbed everything else.”

There were no ambience microphones, nor did Scheiner apply EQ to anything other than the kick drum. “Donald and Walter were very sensitive to EQ,” he says. “And I never used any compression — the minute you do that you’re taking the dynamics out of it. Instead, I just rode the faders as I would when doing a vocal part. Drums are a mix within a mix.”