How does Mike Portnoy—one of the most celebrated skinsman of our time—achieve such monstrous drum sounds? Starting with Awake—Dream Theater’s third foray into the world of modern progressive rock—and peaking with the band’s newest offering, Systematic Chaos, I have become more and more enthralled by Portnoy’s tones. So I decided to finally track down Portnoy and engineer Paul Northfield [Rush, Ozzy Osbourne, Porcupine Tree] to find out how to turn a modern drummer’s sonic wet dream into a recorded reality.
After 1992’s Images and Words, the band’s drum sound changed, becoming more distinct on Awake.Scenes From a Memory  was another sonic leap. What can the changes in sound be attributed to?
Portnoy:Scenes From a Memory was a turning point for the band because it was the first album that John Petrucci [Dream Theater guitarist] and I produced. Previously, we worked with outside producers who ultimately had the final say in the production of the record—from the shaping of the songs to the final sounds of every instrument. It wasn’t until Scenes From a Memory that my drums actually sounded like I wanted them to sound. The drum sounds on Images and Words make me cringe.
Northfield: I have no idea how anybody else recorded Mike, but I attribute his change in sound to his change in approach. A lot of what has an impact is really fundamental—such as drum sizes and his attack. Every drummer has a part of the kit that’s his main focus. Mike plays a lot from the kick drum. It sets up how he comes into a tom fill, for example.
Mike, you say you hate the sound on Images and Words. Part of me agrees—the snare trigger sounds terrible. But, at the same time, I love that record so much that I actually like the bad sounds.
Portnoy: That snare makes me crazy. A lot of people hold that album in such high regard—maybe because it was our breakthrough album. It must be said that when we recorded that album, triggered drum sounds were fashionable. That was right before the grunge wave hit, and drum sounds on popular albums reverted to being very organic sounding. The change in the popular music scene certainly changed the way we approached recording our music.
Was the entire kit triggered on Images and Words?
Portnoy: I believe the entirety of what you hear is triggered. David Prater [producer] was a very difficult person to work with. He was the kind of producer who would lock you out of the studio during the mix, and just do whatever the hell he wanted. I made it pretty clear from the beginning that I hated those drum sounds during tracking, but he had just done a popular record with a hair metal band called Firehouse, and he thought it would be a good idea to use all those drum sounds on our album, as well. That kind of sound may work with pop metal, but it was completely out of place with an over-the-top, progressive metal band. But that was our first album for a major label, and we had no leverage. To this day, I love that album musically, but, sonically, I can’t stand it.
Did you do any sound replacing on Systematic Chaos?
Northfield: No replacing, but I did augment the snare drum to give it a bit more of an explosive quality. Not heavily—because I wanted to preserve Mike’s expression on the kit—but for straightforward backbeats I found I could double the snare with a sample without any trouble. In the case of rolls, though, you can’t double the drums with samples, and still honor the technique.
You record with a variety of kits—most of which are enormous. Do you have those monsters set up and ready to go in the studio, with each part of the kit assigned to an individual track?
Portnoy: Everything is miked and ready to go. We write and improvise a lot in the studio, so we have to have everything ready and waiting. We can’t have any latency in executing and recording.
Northfield: Mike tends to make decisions on which kit to play on the fly, so we set up his kits simultaneously. In the past, that could be a pain, as we were constantly muting and gating tracks, or reassigning faders to different elements due to track-count limitations. As we were using Pro Tools HD this time around, we essentially had unlimited tracks.
Explain the miking strategy for the drums on Systematic Chaos.
Northfield: I had about 36 mics set up. Everything on the drum set was miked individually—except for the cymbals—so there were a lot of open mics. For kick drums we used AKG D 112s. We used Shure SM57s on the top and bottom of the snare, and Sennheiser MD421s on all the toms. The octobans had SM57s and 58s inside the tubes. We used an AKG C 451 for the ride and the hi-hat. The overheads were AKG C 12s. Room mics were AKG C 414s. I don’t mean to be short in my answer, but the mics and mic placement were nothing special. The sound is good because of the room and the console.
How were the mics placed on the toms and snares? Those tracks, in particular, have a lot of body.
Northfield: They were about two inches from the heads, and two inches away from the rim. For the low toms, the mics were maybe a little closer to the center, but nothing radical. With a big kit like that, it’s more a question of “Where can you fit it?” But the benefit of being in a good room—one without any radical reflections coming off the ceiling—is that the signal bleed you get from one mic to another isn’t so offensive.
What about the overheads?
Northfield: I always put the C 12s angled on the sides of the kit. I tend not to do the over-the-head-of-the-drummer approach. The reason is that, although you get a nice pick-up on the snare, the cymbals never really sound that good. If you mic cymbals straight overhead, they sound like big dinner plates—or little gongs—and you end up having to EQ out all the low end to manage them. Those tracks don’t have any natural top end. If you mic them totally sideways, they’re very thin sounding, and they tend to disappear as the cymbal rocks. I try to get an angle as close to 45 degrees as I can to the cymbals, and about four feet away. The only cymbal I point the mic straight down on is the ride.
You said that the drums were recorded in a good room. To you, what makes a good room for recording drums?
Northfield: An environment with a lot of wood—not a lot of super-hard surfaces. If you have a wood floor, you can always put some carpet under the drums so you don’t get the brittle kickback. Ambience should be more low-end oriented, if possible—not hard or bright. Stone rooms, to me, are generally not interesting to record in. I’ve been in studios that have rooms ranging from very, very dead to rooms with glass and tile—which means the ambience is going to be all cymbals. For a drum kit, neither of those works well.
For me, a great-sounding room is something along the lines of a gymnasium—where you’ve got a bit of boom in the walls and floor. Stages can offer a lot of those qualities, as well. I remember drummers would complain their kits sounded great on stage, but have all the life sucked out in the studio. The room at Avatar Studios does not suck the life out of your kit. It’s not a massive room, but with the kit set up, it’s about 20- to 30-feet open in every direction—although we were set up very close to the back wall—and it has a 30-foot ceiling. It’s an ideal setting.
To what degree did you exploit the possibilities of Pro Tools—besides utilizing the unlimited track count?
Northfield: I used Pro Tools mostly for things like delays. But the biggest advantage with Pro Tools is in the sheer amount of tracks available. That inspired us to lay down tons of alternate tracks—extra fills and such that we could edit in at will during the mix.
Portnoy:Scenes From a Memory was the first record we did using Pro Tools. Before then, everything was done on analog tape. On Falling Into Infinity, for instance, I would do five or six different takes of each song, played all the way through. Our previous engineer, Kevin Shirley, and I would listen, make notes, and then start chopping tape. It was a mess. To think that we used to make records like that blows my mind.
Is that the only reason to use Pro Tools? Convenience?
Northfield: Well, I’m a big Logic user. Logic coupled with Apogee converters and a Symphony card is superb. But it’s not a good idea to walk into a studio, and ask them to use stuff they’re not used to. You need support. The basic Pro Tools HD converters are good. Apogees may be nicer, but once they get to be as good as that, there are so many other things you need to worry about—like driving it with the Big Ben clock. The clock is very important in running a digital system, and it makes a noticeable difference on a Pro Tools rig.
What does a clock do that’s so important?
Northfield: The samplers that convert from analog to digital are processing information at a very high speed. If the clock driving the whole system fluctuates, it tends to cause brittleness in the sound. With bad clocking, the first thing you notice is the top end is a bit harsher—it seems to separate from the rest of the sound, and the stereo imaging isn’t quite as good. When you get the clocking the best it can be, you usually feel like the recording medium starts to disappear, and you’re just there hearing the mics coming straight off the console.
What console was used, and why?
Northfield: We used Avatar Studios’ old Class A Neve 8058 with the 3-band EQ. It has so many transformers in it—it’s unbelievable! Every single strip goes through six transformers before you hit tape, or, rather, the digital converters. Here’s what those transformers do: The distortion in a transformer is what is called “first-order harmonic distortion.” This makes the distortion characteristics very sweet. Whether you use a Class A circuit such as the 8058, or a Neve with 4-band EQ—like the 8068 and 8078, which is called a Class AB circuit—the transformers are what make it sound the way it does. In my experience, real audio purists like the Class A circuit better. They don’t make consoles with that many transformers in them anymore because it’s become regarded as not technically a great thing to do to the sound. It’s also extremely expensive in terms of construction. But, musically, it’s very powerful.
Did you mix the album on the Neve, as well?
Northfield: I mixed on an SSL G Series—though I ran the mix bus through some Neve channel strips to maintain punch and density. The G Series is not as thick and dense. It’s more spacious and airy, and not quite as gutsy, although it’s stronger in the midrange. I choose a console based on its fundamental nature. Tracking on a Neve gives a thick, dense sound, but, with bigger arrangements, you need the spaciousness and clarity you tend to get from an SSL. The old Neves tend to get very muddy.
Mike, what’s the most important advice you can give to a drummer who is trying to emulate your sound, but who doesn’t have a great room to record in, or a classic console to mix on?
Portnoy: Don’t deaden your drums in an attempt to control them. If you pay attention, most technical drummers don’t employ that strategy. They want drums that sound live. And don’t tune your drums in ways that aren’t natural in regards to the shell size. Use a large drum if you want a low pitch—don’t just tune the drum down. Using a smaller drum tuned down won’t give you any kickback off the head, and it will sound sloppy. Start at the instrument, and make sure that it sounds good. If you do that, you won’t need a million dollars worth of equipment to make a good recording.