Without Missing A Beat

An interview with legendary drummer Omar Hakim, who discusses his personal studio, electric and acoustic kits, an acoustically treated room-within-a-room, and more.

Web Clip 1: Go on a video tour of Omar Hakim's studio

As one of the world's elite drummers, Omar Hakim has worked with everyone from Sting to Michael Jackson to Weather Report to Miles Davis. He's known for playing a range of styles, including jazz, funk, R&B, and rock. Hakim is also a composer and will soon be releasing a new solo album, much of which he cowrote with keyboardist Scott Tibbs, with whom he performs frequently.

Hakim has been into personal-recording technology since his teenage years. Currently, he has a studio located in a loft in suburban Westchester County, just north of Manhattan. Its most unique feature is a modular, acoustically treated and soundproofed room that he purchased and had placed in the middle of his loft. Hakim uses the structure, which weighs 12,000 pounds, as his live room for recording his acoustic drum kit, and as his control room (see Fig. 1 and Web Clip 1).

In addition to conventional studio work, Hakim does frequent remote drum sessions from his studio, works on his own projects, and of late has begun mixing outside projects as well. His setup allows him to record both his acoustic and electronic kits, and it offers balanced acoustics for mixing. I recently had the opportunity to visit the studio and interview Hakim.

What are the dimensions of your recording room?

The interior dimensions of the room are 12 by 16 feet, with an 8-foot ceiling. The company that manufactures it is called Industrial Acoustics. It's modular, and made from 2-foot and 3-foot pieces that actually fit together like a puzzle. The room is floated, it's actually on floated bars.

Could it be moved?

It could be moved, it could be torn down and moved. It's not cheap to move it, because it takes a crew of guys.

I see that your electronic kit is outside of the sound room.

I can keep the [Roland] V-kit out here because there's no sound issue with the neighbors. Typically I do MIDI parts and V-Drum stuff out here. And then I can take the V-Drum brain into the main room and dump the data into my main system.

Which is …?

A [Digidesign] Pro Tools HD 3 system. This system out here is a Pro Tools LE setup. And I'm actually upgrading to an 003 interface today.

You do a lot of remote session work.

I've been doing that for more than 10 or 12 years. In the early to mid-1990s I had an [Alesis] ADAT system. I used to get the VHS tapes in the mail. And I can't tell you how many sessions I put my drums on ADAT tapes, spread over two tapes, and I FedExed that over to a producer on the West Coast or wherever, and he flew them into his system and they ended up on albums. I've been a big supporter of technology and new technology.

Have you always been tech savvy?

Even before home studios were the thing. My friend and I used to jury-rig recording systems together at my mom's house. We'd pull together different gear like a Tascam P.A. board and an Otari 4-track tape deck, and we'd wire our own patch bays and make our own cables. We used to do this as teenagers and in our early twenties. It was a fun thing to do and we were learning at the same time. So for me, when the home-recording thing started to take off, I was already in that mind-set of trying to create high-quality recordings at home. Then eventually the computer became the centerpiece of the home studio. I had the early versions of computer sequencers and MIDI interfaces and all that stuff. So I've been in this game since the '80s, really. When Pro Tools came along, and I saw the power of the whole TDM concept, and plug-ins, and working in the box, I was an early adopter.

You use both an acoustic kit and your V-Drums for recording. Is it a big transition to go between the two types of kits?

It's not much different than a guitarist going from a beautiful Taylor guitar, Martin guitar, or whatever to his favorite Strat or Tele. You are making a physical adjustment, but there are things that happen with that electric instrument that will never happen with the acoustic version of the instrument. That's been my experience with the V-Drums.

What's the advantage of the V-Drums?

I could have a drum set [on the V-Drums] where one of the cymbals could be a gong, the bass drum could be a djembe, the snare drum could actually be some weird, high-pitched African drum. I can mix and match the drum set into different things. I can also have a program change in the middle of the song, and actually play the body of the song with one kit and play a drum solo with a different kit. So from that standpoint, there's a lot of power, sonic power, that I can't get with an acoustic kit. But of course with an acoustic kit, there's the immediacy of the vibration of the air and the cymbals, and there's still a little bit more of my personality that comes through. But the electronic drum experience for me has been equally satisfying because the focus now is the sonic possibility, rather than the expectation for my electronic set to feel and play like my acoustic kit.

It seems like sampled cymbals never sound as realistic as real ones recorded acoustically. Do you ever record your drums with the V-Drums but track your cymbals acoustically?

Actually, I haven't had to. I guess because in the back of my mind, if I'm using an electronic drum set, I'm going for something. And I don't want it to necessarily sound just like a cymbal. I have amazing cymbals. So at that moment I'd rather just put up a real one. But when I am making electronic music, and I am using the V-Drums as an instrument, I will use the internal cymbal sounds, which actually are very good. This is the second-generation, top-line V-Drum kit, the TD-20 (see Fig. 2). The first one was the TD-10. The cymbals are greatly, greatly improved in the TD-20. So I've been able to use the cymbals, and I think when Roland added the position-sensing concept to the ride cymbal, that gave it a little more realism.

Web Clip 1: Go on a video tour of Omar Hakim's studio

FIG. 1: A look through the door into Hakim''s Industrial Acoustics modular, floated sound room, which was built inside his suburban New York loft apartment.

Let's talk about miking your acoustic kit, starting with the kick drum. Do you place the mic inside the drum?

Yes, I put it inside the drum. Not dead center, a little off. It might be halfway inside the drum and maybe midway between the center of the drumhead and the inner shell.

Do you have a lot of muffling in it?

Yeah, I do. Not a ton, but I do. Sometimes I'll use pillows, and sometimes I'll use some internal muffling devices.

Where do you position the snare mic?

For the main snare, I like to mic top and bottom. And I'll use either everybody's favorite standby, a [Shure SM] 57, or an AKG D 22. Sometimes I also use an Audio-Technica ATM63; it's also a dynamic mic, which is sort of like their version of a 57. It's a slightly different sound, but really cool if I want a variation. I also like a Shure Beta 56 on the snare. Sometimes I'll use that on my piccolo snare, which I usually don't have to mic bottom and top because it gets a lot of snare sound.

Do you have problems with leakage?

No, because the way I'm positioning the mics, I'm not looking for everything to be so separate. I'm looking at my instrument as one thing.

So you don't want to gate it anyway.

For tracking, I try to get a very good kit sound with no gating. Sometimes after the fact, I do have to apply a little gating to tighten things up. But most of the time I prefer to capture my sound as close to the way I hear it as possible. And also, the way I tune, actually, the vibration and the harmonic overtones are all sympathetic to the instrument [see the sidebar “Hakim Talks Drum Tuning”].

So you're going for a more cohesive kit sound?

Lately I've been using a stereo mic setup behind me, stereo in front of the kit, and then an ambience mic maybe 10 or 12 feet away. And then maybe the only close mics would be kick and snares and hi-hat. Because I've noticed that when I'm mixing my drums, I'm leaning toward the overall sound of the kit rather than the individual sounds. I look at the kit as one whole instrument. So the best representation of my kit is actually the overall stereo one. So I've been having fun using less mics.

So you find that you're getting the main part of your drum mix out of the overheads and then just supplementing it?

Yeah, overheads and the close ambient mics. And then I'm supplementing it with the close kick mics, the close snare mics, and the hi-hat.

You use two sets of overheads?

No, I'm using an overhead behind me — usually it's a 1-point stereo mic — to just kind of capture my perspective. The other is in front of the kit. But there are times when I will use overheads above the cymbals. For certain things I may even use a separate mic for the ride cymbal.

Do you ever have phase problems between the different overhead and room mics?

I do. The ones behind me and the ones directly in front of the kit — I have to throw them out of phase. And it's fine. If I fool around with the position, I get a really nice big sound. And then maybe ten feet away I put some stereo ambience mics.

And just put a little of those in the mix?

Yeah, and it's nice, it's a nice vibe.

Let me change gears a bit and talk about programmed drum parts. It's always a struggle for nondrummers to make programmed drums sound realistic. Any tips?

I've recently heard the latest versions of [FXpansion] BFD and [Native Instruments] Battery, and they are so amazing sounding, really amazing.

Sure, but even with good sounds, one still has to program the parts.

To get yourself to start thinking like a drummer, that's what we're really talking about. It's no different from guys playing orchestral strings on a keyboard. You don't always play triad chords if you really want the thing to sound like an orchestra, because orchestrators don't write string arrangements that way. Usually the harmonies are very wide and very spread out. Part of the idea of dealing with, say, a sample of an orchestra is to also approximate the harmonic concept so that you can fool the ear. It's not just the sound, but it's the use of the sound. It's all about the context that sound is in. That's the issue with the drums, it's the same thing. It's like, how do we contextualize those sounds?

For example, you can't have certain things happening simultaneously if you want it to sound like a real drummer was playing it.

Precisely, it's like the three-armed drummer — the hi-hat that keeps going during the drum fill [laughs]. You know what I mean; unless you use the foot hi-hat sound. You have to remember that drummers only have two arms and two legs, that snare on two and four goes away during the drum fills. Those sort of things. However, I will also say I heard some very creative programming where those things were not necessarily taken into consideration, but the results were still quite cool and fun. I guess as long as you get the results you're happy with, that's really all that matters.

Web Clip 1: Go on a video tour of Omar Hakim's studio

FIG. 2: Hakim likes to use his Roland V-Drum kit for recording combinations of drum and percussion sounds not possible on a conventional acoustic kit.

I suppose one of the other problems is that you don't get the sympathetic vibrations happening between drums when you have separate MIDI-fired samples happening.

Exactly. So maybe a cool suggestion would be to take that MIDI drum set, maybe send it to a pair of speakers, and then mic the speakers and pull it back into your system. For me, that's what I do here for the acoustic drums. Because I can't successfully set my drums up out here [in the main part of the loft] without disturbing the neighbors. But what I can do is take a send of the drums and send it to the stereo system, and I can put the mics out there and create ambience after the fact.

You're doing that to create a bigger sound than you can get in your recording room.

Yeah, because my room is all close-miked. And even if I have an ambience mic 6 feet away from the kit, it's still tight ambience. I have high ceilings [outside the sound room], so I can take advantage of it. I have my stereo system out there, and I just send a feed of the drums out to it. What's fascinating is that I can do that with a MIDI kit as well. I can get the acoustics of the room.

When panning your kit in the mix, I assume you place your snare and kick up the middle, but do you pan the other elements really wide?

It depends. I try to pan my kit the way you see it, from the drummer's perspective. Because for me, it's very hard sitting in between two speakers and hearing the hi-hat on the right. I'm a right-hand drummer, so I'm used to the hi-hat being on my left. I know a lot of engineers pan the kit from the perspective of looking at it. I like to do it from the other way. I know some engineers that actually do that now: pan from the drummer's perspective.

Do you think the perspective really matters to the listener?

I don't think they notice it most of the time. I think that most listeners, especially pop-music listeners, are really keying in on the vocal. And I think that sometimes musicians tend to forget that. Like I've heard a lot of musicians' demos where they're the singer, and they don't really feature their vocal. If they're a guitar player, their guitar is sometimes louder than the vocal. You know what I mean. If they're a keyboard player, maybe the keyboards will be louder than the vocal. And I have said, if you're going to be a lead singer, you need to reexamine the placement of your lead vocal versus your instrument. And whether it's a cosharing of the space, whether that lead vocal is down the middle, or whether, if you're a guitarist, you're going to play the lead vocal a little to the right and the guitar a little to the left, it doesn't have to be certain things dead center and everything spread. You've got this whole left and right perspective that you're dealing with and everything in between. I'm not opposed to having something here and an effect returning in a different place in the mix, and that sort of thing. Pro Tools gives you the ability to get inside of a mix and really do creative things. Not only volume, mute, panning, and a lot of things for the master faders, but also the aux faders. You have that power, too. I'm not opposed to having fun with the aux sends and returns inside of mix automation as well.

Let's talk about your upcoming CD, We Are One. You cowrote some of the material with Scott Tibbs, right?

My collaboration with Scott Tibbs has been really wonderful. He's such a talented keyboardist and pianist. So I've been using some of his music. And we've also written some music together. And that's been a really fun experience for me, just having someone with his experience and his savvy when it comes to the technical thing. And he's an amazing arranger as well. So to have him to bounce off of and to work with has been a tremendous amount of fun for me.

Did you record all of it here, or only your parts?

I've been recording my parts, and the other guys, the guitarist (Chieli Minucci), the bassist (Jerry Brooks) — I have a harmonica player (Gregoire Maret) in the band as well. All of those overdubs have been done here, and the drums. Scott's stuff, because he lives in L.A., was done out there.

The CD will blend a lot of styles together, right?

Even though a lot of people know me as a jazz drummer, quite a few people also know about my work in pop, R&B, and rock music — and I am a fan of all of that music. So it's very natural for me to include those flavors on my own projects. That's why I've got to be careful. I don't want this to really be called a jazz record; it's a record of instrumental music with the spice and flavor of jazz, rock, and funk, and even world music, on a certain level.

Mike Levine is an EM senior editor. To hear more of this interview, go to www.emusician.com.

Web Clip 1: Go on a video tour of Omar Hakim's studio


Sting, Bring On the Night (reissue; A&M Records, 2005)

Bobby McFerrin, Beyond Words (Blue Note Records, 2002)

Omar Hakim, The Groovesmith (OH-Zone Entertainment, 2000)

Victor Bailey, Low Blow (Zebra Records, 1999)

Chic, Live at the Budokan (Sumthing Else Records, 1999)

Michael Jackson, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I (Sony, 1995)

Urban Knights, Urban Knights (GRP Records, 1995)

Miles Davis, Amadala (Columbia Records, 1989)

Omar Hakim, Rhythm Deep (GRP Records, 1989)

Joe Sample, Spellbound (Warner Brothers, 1989)

Anita Baker, Giving You the Best That I Got (Atlantic/Wea, 1988)

Miles Davis, Tutu (Columbia Records, 1986)

John Scofield, Still Warm (Gramavision, 1986)

Sting, Dream of the Blue Turtles (A&M Records, 1985)

Weather Report, Domino Theory (Columbia Records, 1984)

David Bowie, Let's Dance (EMI Records, 1983)

Weather Report, Procession (Columbia Records, 1983)

David Sanborn, As We Speak (Warner Brothers, 1981)


FIG. A: Hakim pays careful attention to the intervals between the drums when tuning them for a session.

Tuning the drums correctly is key for recording them, right?

If you tune the drums right, you don't have those issues of weird vibrations and beating — pitch beating — between drums. All that means is that the pitches of the two drums aren't vibrating sympathetically. So that means that the tuning has to be the proper interval between the two drums. When the intervals are harmonious, then basically all the drums in the kit ring as one whole instrument.

So you just have to make sure that the drums aren't hitting some weird quarter tones.

Exactly, because when the intervals are right, you don't have to gate, unless it is for a specific effect or result.

What kind of intervals do you use typically?

A minimum of a third apart. I've even done minor thirds, fourths, fifths; it depends. It depends on the gig, how many drums I'm using. If I'm using less drums, the intervals are going to be wider. If I'm using more drums, it all depends on the range of that drum. Because the drum definitely has a tuning range that I'm dealing with. Most drums have an optimum tuning range based on their size and the shell material. And depending on the type of drumhead you put on it, the ability to stretch it a little bit above or below its typical tuning range is possible.

The issues are obviously different when tuning electronic drums. Do you ever tune those to match the pitch of a song?

I have the option to do that with certain tunes, but I don't necessarily do it. Most of the time, particularly if the song is calling for a drum set, I'm going for impact and tone and how it relates to the mood of the song.

Do you ever do that kind of pitch-specific tuning on your acoustic kit?

I totally do. I've even done tours where I'll tune the drums for the music, and I try to find a good general tuning that works with everything. And then after I've done that, I will identify what those pitches are, and I will make a reference document so that the tech can actually tune the drums accordingly. I guess because I play guitar and piano, I can easily identify what those notes are. And actually, having that reference makes it easier for me to tune drums quickly.

Web Clip 1: Go on a video tour of Omar Hakim's studio