By Gino Robair
It’s common for engineers to use a drum replacement plug-in to swap out a weak snare or kick for something with more punch. But what if you asked a live drummer to substitute a real drum with something else? What would you choose?
Certainly there’s precedence for using found sounds as percussion. Most famously, Crickets drummer Jerry Allison played a cardboard box with Buddy Holly on hits such as “Baby, I Don’t Care” and “Not Fade Away.” But isn’t that just stuff of legend? Drummers don’t really do that anymore, do they?
You bet they do!
Sometimes the sound of everyday objects—resonant things made from plastic, metal, paper, wood, and even Styrofoam—can give a drum track the kind of attitude that’s missing when conventional instruments are used. Often, it just takes the right combination of microphone and dynamics processing to get a killer sound.
Think Outside the Box
Whatever you can record that has a percussive sound is fair game. The psychology is that an instrument’s placement in a groove helps define its role as much as the kind of instrument it is. If you’re looking for something with a unique timbre, you’ll want to ask yourself: Will this new sound function rhythmically as the bass drum, snare drum, or hi-hat?
Of course, getting drummers to play a cardboard box or plastic tub instead of their prized Radio King snare drum is another issue. But once they hear how the combined mic/preamp/compressor signal chain transforms a mundane object into something powerful, they usually accept it.
And although you may be looking for an item to replace the snare, it doesn’t necessarily have to have a metallic buzz. For example, I was once asked to lay down a backbeat to tighten up a pre-existing rhythm track. After trying out a number of different snare drums, none of which satisfied the producer, we finally settled on a floor tom for the two-and-four, which was nicely offset by the pizzicato of an acoustic bass on one and three.
On another session, the engineer wanted a snare drum that had a nice thwack but without the high end that would interfere with other rhythm instruments. Consequently, we swapped out my vintage ’60s Ludwig snare drum for a cardboard box, which we placed on the snare stand. Because the groove was simple and didn’t require fills, playing a backbeat on the container worked very well. Admittedly, as the player on the session, it was difficult to tell if I was getting a good tone: In the room itself, it sounded like I was hitting a box. But the engineer knew exactly which mic and EQ setting would make the cardboard sound solid and compelling in the mix.
Phonebooks, which may eventually become a thing of the past, also make excellent drum substitutes. A book’s overall thickness determines the relative pitch you’ll get when you hit it, so it’s handy to have a couple of different sizes. If you only have one phonebook but you need two different sounds, simply open it up so that there are different numbers of pages on each side. Dictionaries and other thick tomes are equally percussive.
What you use to hit things with greatly influences the sound you get. A large superball—the kind you find in toy stores—makes an excellent mallet for playing items such as trash cans and plastic tubs. Just poke a plastic chopstick into it to create a handle, and you’re good to go. Hard yarn mallets, which are usually used for playing a vibraphone, are indispensable when playing junkyard instruments. And I never throw away broken drum sticks. Instead, I saw off the sharp end and wrap them in something soft so I can use them with found sounds.
Even jazz brushes work well. The great Dutch drummer Han Bennink has been known to play brushes on a pizza box, or even the side of the stage itself. A good rule of thumb is that sticks often bring out higher-pitched sounds, whereas a mallet gives you lower tones, while brushes yield a softened thwack or swish.
Of course, in the early days of sound recording, the fidelity was such that you couldn’t always tell exactly what the instruments were in a rhythm section, especially when a bunch of things were chugging away on quarter-notes. I refer to that aesthetic as the “rhythm loaf,” where you have an undifferentiated mass of goodness grooving along in the background, yet staying well out of the way of the vocals and solos, in terms of frequency range. You hear it in early rockand- roll records, in the music of soul singers like Al Green, and even in modern recordings by artists like Tom Waits, who are deeply influenced by early jazz, blues, and R&B.
In the mid-twentieth century, that sound was as much a result of the recording technology as it was the delivery format. When only one mic was being used, the physical position of the musicians in a room relative to the microphone determined the mix as well as the sound of the accompanying instruments. So if the drummer in a session played on cardboard boxes, it could actually sound like real drums based on where they were physically situated during the session, as well as the dynamics the drummer used.
Putting your foot down can be as musically satisfying as anything else for some types of music. The “rhythm section” on early recordings by blues artists such as John Lee Hooker was often nothing more than the guitarist tapping his foot on a resonant surface while playing.
At the other extreme, the members of Queen stomp-stomp-clapped the rhythm track on boards in an old church for the song “We Will Rock You.” The beat was built up over several overdub passes, with a bit of delay added to each track. Because the infectious rhythm was multitracked with the musicians in a variety of positions in the space relative to the mics, the results sound convincing, as if the song was created by a crowd of people in a stadium.
Foot stomping can also be used to enhance an existing drum pattern. For a track on Waits’s album Blood Money (Anti; 2002), four musicians created a rhythm bed by getting on their knees and pounding short 2x4’s on the floor of a bedroom-sized reverb chamber to replicate the sound of marching feet. For the players in the room, the ruckus was nearly deafening. Yet, the recorded results were warm, due to the mic and preamp choices, as well as the 2-inch tape recording format.
Location, Location, Location
Where an instrument is recorded is as important to the final sound and vibe as what you mike it with. Close-miking a box or telephone book in a dry space doesn’t give the sound as much character as, perhaps, playing it in a highly reverberant place, such as a bathroom or hallway. Although you can add reverb later to a dry recording, there is nothing like tracking the instrument in a live room.
But the most important aspect is how well the part is played. A lame drummer can make the best kit in the world sound terrible, while a great drummer will make anything he or she hits sound musical.