Before the Internet, e-commerce, and Napster, if you wanted a record, you had to go to a record store and buy it. If your tastes ran to music more challenging than the Top 40, you might also be faced with some serious research or at least a lot of pawing through dusty record bins. Ah, the good ol' days! Back then it was something to get excited about when a friend turned up, say, a self-pressed 45 of some strange San Francisco band or an import LP from an unknown Belgian progressive-rock group. Such records were called underground, meaning that they were noncommercial and often curious releases known only to a select few.
Beyond covering new musical ground, underground records also tended to be interesting from an engineering point of view. Because they were financed and distributed outside the mainstream, they often made use of unorthodox recording and mixing techniques, including experimental approaches that established labels couldn't afford to indulge in. Serendipity played a role, too, in the occasional gem that resulted from the combination of inexperience, second-rate gear, and gleeful abandon. To my ears, even the “dirt” on underground records was interesting.
The literal meaning of underground — subterranean, obscure, buried — pretty much sums up drum recording's early history. Before the refinements of close-miking in 1950s jazz and rock recordings, drums were generally kept as far from the mics as possible. Rudy Van Gelder and other devoted jazz recording artists succeeded in capturing a natural, beautifully detailed drum sound in the LP era's early years. But in pop-music recording, an equivalent level of clarity and presence for the drum kit took decades to develop.
Following the murky abandon of the mid-'50s rock 'n' roll classics, occasional flashes of percussive brilliance can be heard on a variety of productions, including cuts from Phil Spector, the Beatles, and James Brown. In the 1960s, the oft-overlooked Zombies helped raise the bar for well-defined and consistent drum sounds. That band's sparse, intelligent creations — “Time of the Season,” for example — are some of the era's best. But not until Led Zeppelin's John Bonham came along did rock drum recording reach dizzying peaks. In particular, the band's untitled 1971 album (commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV) proved prophetic — check out the spectacular drum sounds of “Misty Mountain Hop” and “When the Levee Breaks” — and to this day is considered by many to be the Holy Grail of rock engineering.
Still, from the late '60s through the early '70s, most pop-music engineers (that is, other than Led Zeppelin engineers Glyn Johns and Eddie Kramer) struggled to get their drums sounding clear, powerful, and undistorted. Attempts to get artistic with drum sounds were heard on records by Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and others, yet many of those early experiments — flanging an entire drum kit, for instance — haven't aged well and today sound gimmicky or heavy-handed.
Not until the mid-1970s did radical yet truly artful drum-processing ideas bubble up from the underground scene. The richest vein of ideas came not from British or American pop stars but from resourceful Jamaican studio wizards. Engineers such as Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby (Osbourne Ruddock) are often credited as the pioneering forces behind imaginative dub versions of instrumental tracks, which were initially placed on the B sides of reggae singles. Their mixing innovations — characterized by a reliance on timed-echo repeats, spring reverb, EQ sweeping, and clever stripping of tracks to bare rhythmic essentials — typically focused on hallucinogenic embellishments of a mix's bass and drum components.
Cross-cultural U.K. bands such as the Clash, UB40, and the English Beat fell under dub's swirling spell in the 1980s. Today dub's influence permeates numerous subgenres of popular music, including trip-hop, drum 'n' bass, ambient, and contemporary remix. Although my collecting didn't begin until about 15 years ago, old-school dub LPs influenced my aesthetic on many recent recording projects (see the sidebar “Depraved-Drum Discography”).
One '70s group that, for me, helped define the term underground was Chrome, not only because of the palette of sounds the band employed but also on account of its deliberately obscured do-it-yourself approach to music making. Here was a group not afraid to compress and overdrive an entire drum kit. Chrome's crunchy drum sounds had roots in 1960s garage-rock primitivism but were shockingly edgy and mixed very loud, often alternating with spliced sections of backward tape and other mutated soundscapes. At its best, as on “You've Been Duplicated” and “Mondo Anthem,” Chrome sounds fresh and remarkably in step with today's techno music — or it would if techno were played by misfit punkers.
Such were the sounds primarily responsible for opening my ears to the radical possibilities of drum recording and processing. Since those halcyon days, I have kept my ears open for new and exciting drum-recording ideas as they crop up in rock and pop recordings. I have paid particular attention to the brave new sounds of Fred Frith and Chris Cutler; Tom Waits; King Crimson; Public Image Limited; Peter Gabriel; and a number of bands engineered or produced by Tchad Blake, Steve Albini, and Brian Eno (see the sidebar “Recommended Listening”).
DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!
Before getting into tips and techniques, a few words of caution are in order. The drum set spans a broad frequency range from the kick drum's low thump to the cymbals' ultrasonic harmonics. Therefore, the drum sounds you dial in (whether straightforward or underground) usually have a major effect on the mix. Putting a wild effect or unusual EQ on the snare, for example, affects the mix's midrange instruments, including the vocal. Likewise, changing the kick drum's sound alters its relationship to the bass guitar, which may in turn modify what happens with the guitars, and so on.
Evaluating new sounds and creative directions definitely takes extra time, so it's important to make sure your clients or musical partners are comfortable with that. Face it: once the novelty wears off, a nonstandard drum sound isn't always appropriate for a particular production. If you have any doubts, cover yourself by also printing an unaffected “straight” mix as a backup or a copy of the unprocessed drum tracks.
Because drums are often the backdrop, if not the canvas and frame, of a pop or rock recording, I prefer to do most of my electronic processing at the mixing stage rather than during the tracking sessions. That way, if I go overboard, I can do another mix easily enough. But a miscalculation on the master tapes could haunt you forever.
Even if I'm making a bold statement, such as running the drum tracks through a guitar distortion box, I prefer to send extreme effects from a mult or prefader aux bus instead of from channel inserts. That allows the option of mixing in clean, unaffected drum sounds to retain the kit's basic flavor while adding a healthy dose of creative seasoning. Aside from that slightly conservative custom, when I'm in the mood to create, I try to ignore the rules; those that I can't ignore, I bend or break.
SORCERY AT THE SOURCE
The simplest and quickest way to get interesting drum sounds is to substitute an unconventional percussion source for a standard kit component. Percussionist and EM associate editor Gino Robair taught me to head straight for the kitchen when I get hungry for new drum sounds. Pots and pans make great surrogate drum kits (remember Spike Jones?), and wire whisks, chopsticks, wooden spoons, and other kitchen implements provide a fresh alternative to standard sticks, brushes, and mallets (see Fig. 1). Large metal mixing bowls can make beautiful, gonglike sounds and issue other fascinating tones when filled with water and swirled while being struck. (Make sure to keep your condenser mics at a safe distance above the splash zone!) A handful of uncooked rice or beans thrown on top of a drum head can add sizzle to an otherwise dull drum part.
One sound I'm partial to is that of an aluminum paint-roller tray on a snare drum. I have also captured distinctive percussion overdubs from a squeaky chair, toy-piano parts, scrap lumber, and a battered Volkswagen Beetle hood. Cardboard boxes and phone books make good substitute drums, especially when miked close and played with the hands or standard brushes. It's also fun to assemble a drum kit in new or just plain wrong ways: piling two or three cymbals on one another, turning the snare drum upside down (to manipulate the snares), or placing objects between the hi-hat cymbals.
For inspiration, Tom Waits's Bone Machine — an encyclopedia of underground recording techniques by the talented team of Waits, Biff Dawes, and Tchad Blake — is a great place to start. No cymbals were harmed in the making of that record, and Waits's dark percussion sounds are somehow roomy and claustrophobic at the same time. Slit drums figure prominently, miked so that the listener seems to be trapped inside the resonant cavity rather than listening from a safe distance. The use of a metal can (“Such a Scream”) and highly compressed scrap metal (“In the Colosseum”) expands the haunting masterpiece's percussive palette.
MILKING THE MIKING
The previously mentioned sounds can be captured using standard cardioid condenser and dynamic mics with conventional close-miking techniques. In addition, you can add ambience by employing a room mic and mixing in the resulting track to taste. (An omnidirectional condenser or figure-8 ribbon is great for that application.) Another inexpensive way to color the sound is to mic the instrument in an unusual space — a shower stall, for example, or inside a length of pipe.
For one of my earliest drum-recording experiments, I placed a cheap dynamic mic inside an industrial-grade food tin, secured the lid tightly, and positioned the tin on the floor a few feet from the drum kit. The combination of weird resonance from the tin, audible distortion from the mic, and the absence of direct sound provided a fascinating and unforgettable drum sound. I also tried that technique using a metal garbage can with a condenser mic (Oktava MK 219) hanging inside; however, the thicker walls and the garbage can's larger dimensions considerably dampened the immediacy of the drum sound, resulting in a more diffused echo-chamber effect.
To capture truly twisted drum sounds, nothing seems to work as well as an inexpensive dynamic or crystal microphone. I have an assortment that I pull out for this task, my favorite being a Japanese-made Fentone 500-C Dual Crystal mic that resembles a miniature RCA 77 (see Fig. 2). The American D22 dynamic mic, though now a collector's item, is also highly regarded for recording lo-fi drum tracks. Fortunately, similar mics from the '50s and '60s are relatively easy to find at flea markets and thrift stores (see Fig. 3). In addition to looking cool, most also plug in easily to a guitar amp for additional coloration.
BACKFIELD IN MOTION
Singers, horn players, and percussionists regularly make use of movement (in relation to microphones) to create dynamic and tonal shifts as well as other interesting effects. But that is hardly an option for kit drummers, who typically are stationary. It is possible, however, for the engineer to move the microphones as the drummer plays. For example, you can hold a stereo pair of ambient mics in a fixed position for the bulk of a performance and then, during a fade-out vamp, walk away from the drums to create a cool-sounding effect. If you try that technique, use windscreens and highpass filters on the mics — especially if you intend to move quickly — to quell wind noise and rumble.
Unless you're Roger Daltrey, swinging a microphone around by its cable may take some practice. But once you get the hang of that, it's a great way to add swirling Leslie-type effects to a percussion part. Make sure that the connection to the cable is secure and don't forget safety goggles for you and the drummer.
A less extreme variation of mics in motion is explored in composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's Mikrophonie 1, which specifies moving a microphone just above the surface of a tam-tam while it is being played. That technique — which can be used as well with a cymbal, gong, or other sustaining percussion instrument — produces a fascinating array of textures as the microphone is bathed in the radiating patterns of ever-changing harmonics emanating from the sound source. Drummer Pierre Tanguay used that trick with a Shure Beta 58 to generate surprisingly deep gonglike tones from a standard hi-hat top cymbal.
Contact mics are another fun and inexpensive tool for capturing resonant sounds from gongs and cymbals. Bay Area drummer Jenya Chernoff caught my attention by amplifying transduced signals in that manner and then routing the signals to guitar pedals for a mind-bending assortment of overdrive, wah-wah, and pitch-shifting effects. Blake, a leading proponent of binaural recording and underground timbres, creates many signature sounds using a specially adapted Neumann KU 100 stereo binaural head. Blake modified his KU 100 by attaching plastic “whirly tubes” over the head's anatomically correct ears (see www.binau.com). Both tubes bend around to the front of the head where their openings are taped together side by side, forming a set of “sonic binoculars” adorning the head's otherwise grim countenance. That setup not only radically alters the pickup pattern of the mics but also introduces coloration from the resonance of the tubes.
MAGIC IN THE MIX
Once your source sounds are recorded, the control room offers an enormous range of processing options. In addition to reverb, echo, and pitch shifting, try flanging, chorus, and tremolo to dramatically alter the sounds of cymbals, drum rolls, ambience, and other sustained sounds. Standard noise gates or expander gates can also be employed, not only for reshaping attack and delay characteristics of drum and percussion tracks but also for their unique key-gating features. Key gating lets you run any sound through the gate (see the sidebar “Art of Art Bears” for inspirational examples) and, using a drum track as the trigger source, turn the sound off and on in rhythm with the music.
Even low-cost compressors frequently provide gates, making it practically mandatory to experiment with radical gating of drum tracks. That experimentation can be followed by extreme compression of whatever sound is let through. Furthermore, you can adjust the gate's release control (assuming it has one) so that the resulting burst of noise ends in time with the prevailing rhythm. You can also make a track flicker unpredictably, sort of like a shorted connection, by tweaking the threshold control just so.
Here are examples of how I used gates and other effects on recent projects: on the song “Long Grain” from guitarist John Schott's Shuffle Play: Elegies for the Recording Angel, I processed Scott Amendola's drums with compression and abrupt gating, with layers of similarly processed backward tracks and reverb. For “Weather” on History's The Virtue of Evolution, drummer Mark Quinn recorded two complete stereo drum tracks with slightly differing accents. I panned the kits hard left and right and gated them mercilessly, which created a chattering backdrop of percussive dialogue between the two speakers. On the Splatter Trio's Hi-Fi Junk Note, I applied various types of drum gating as well as dub effects and other extreme forms of processing.
Extreme compression used to be an exciting option on its own, but drum squashing became so rampant in the '90s that it's one of that era's foremost clichés, just as gated-snare reverb has become a dated trademark of '80s productions. To compress radically, take a tip from Cutler and design a unique processing chain for each song.
PORTION OF DISTORTION
For a still different effect, experiment with a guitar fuzz box on your drum tracks. My favorite “punishment pedal” is the Tech 21 SansAmp GT2 (see Fig. 4), a magical box that several other engineers share my raves about. (It's also the only guitar pedal I use regularly. To learn more about the GT2, contact Tech 21; tel. (212) 315-1116; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.tech21nyc.com.) The SansAmp GT2 sounds best on clean, low-drive settings. The bass and treble knobs, as well as the three speaker-emulation positions, provide a wealth of timbral control. I run the SansAmp off a bus (rather than an insert), which lets me blend clean and distorted sounds with the faders. I typically gate the output to keep it clean during breaks, and sometimes I apply radical gating so that only the kick or snare opens the gate.
If a distortion box is not available or just sounds too dirty (as is often the case), try sending tracks out of your board to a guitar amp or a pair of headphones and then mic the speaker. An inexpensive graphic equalizer can also do the trick and may even provide usable distortion.
Plenty of lo-fi and vinyl-simulation plug-ins are also available in the computer realm. Digital editing and looping, time-stretching, and pitch-shifting digital signal processing can take you out of real time and into wacky new worlds of processing that simply can't be reached in the analog domain. But no matter where you start — at the source, at mixdown, or in your computer — have fun working underground and don't forget to come up for fresh air once in a while.
Myles Boisen spends most of his life within the curious and usually noncommercial confines of Guerrilla Recording in Oakland, California. Send tapes and CDs of your craziest drum sounds to him at P.O. Box 8086, Berkeley, CA 94707-8086. Thanks to Eithen Fletcher, Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, John Hanes, Bruce Harvie, Etienne Conod, Jenya Chernoff, Karen Stackpole, Gino Robair, and Pierre Tanguay.
The following CDs, engineered by Myles Boisen, are recommended listening for the drum-recording and -processing techniques described in the article.
Myles Boisen, Scrambledisc (Guitarspeak, vol. 2) (Wiggle Biscuit, 2000)
a combination of extreme analog mixing and computer-based manipulation of drum and guitar processing on all tracks
Phillip Greenlief and Covered Pages, featuring Vinny Golia, Nels Cline, and G. E. Stinson, Russian Notebooks (Evander Music, 2000)
“Raskolnikov's Attic”: extreme dub-inspired processing
Guerrilla Hi-Fi, 4-20-00 (The Answer to Life Records, 2001)
dub-mixing techniques on all tracks
History, The Virtue of Evolution (Audible Garden Records, 1999)
“Weather”: gating two drum kits in stereo
“The Cliff”: dub-mixing techniques
“Puppeteering” and “Track 9”: drum distortion and other techniques
John Schott and Ensemble Diglossia, Shuffle Play: Elegies for the Recording Angel (New World Records, 2000)
“Long Grain”: extreme drum gating and compression
Splatter Trio, Hi-Fi Junk Note (Rastascan Records, 1995)
“The Sinatra Variations”: gating and dub-mixing techniques
“Clear the Club (dub), maybe …”: dub-mixing techniques
“Cleveland Beat” and “Ace Dag Bee and Counting”: distortion, gating, extreme effects Web www.rastascan.com
Art Bears, Hopes and Fears (ReR, 1978)
Art Bears, Winter Songs/The World as It Is Today (ReR, 1987; Art Bears records are hard to find in stores but are available from www.waysidemusic.com.)
Chrome, Chrome Box (Cleopatra, 1982)
King Tubby and Friends, Dub Gone Crazy: The Evolution of Dub at King Tubby's '75-'77 (Blood and Fire, 1995)
Latin Playboys, with Tchad Blake, Dose (Atlantic Records, 1998)
Led Zeppelin, untitled (Atlantic Records, 1971)
Lee “Scratch” Perry, Scratch Attack (Ras, 1988)
Public Image Limited, Flowers of Romance (Warner Brothers, 1981)
Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mikrophonie 1 (Stockhausen Complete Edition, 1964)
Tom Waits, Bone Machine (Island Records, 1992)
ART OF ART BEARS
A key influence on my ideas about drum recording and processing was the band Art Bears, a splinter group from the radical music collective Henry Cow. Building on the sonic experiments of the 1975 Henry Cow album In Praise of Learning, Art Bears' drummer Chris Cutler, guitarist Fred Frith, and singer Dagmar Krause disregarded many established notions about recording to pursue of sounds on par with their revolutionary musical ideas.
Engineer Etienne Conod recorded and coproduced most of Art Bears' songs at his Sunrise Studio in Kirchberg, Switzerland. His comments about working with Art Bears contain sage advice for any personal-studio operator: “We were a good match because Sunrise did not have the means to be a state-of-the-art studio. So we had to make up for our cheap gear with hard work and creativity, sometimes seeking unorthodox solutions. Art Bears were sick and tired of conventional sounds and eager to keep exploring and inventing.”
Cutler describes some techniques that emerged in those sessions: “The modus operandi for Art Bears was to build the tracks from the voice up. The drums were usually added last. I always worked on the sound as we set up to record the track, with the existing sound of the track already in mind. All effects were added in record mode rather than during mixdown, which, come to think of it, is more musical. The drum sounds were thus designed for each track in real time. Often it would not be drums that I added but percussion elements — for example, treated half-speed tambourines on ‘(Armed) Peace,’ backward cymbals and half-speed gong on ‘Three Wheels,’ and blown tubular bells on ‘The Slave.’”
A particularly striking feature of Cutler's sound in that period is hyper-compressed recording of the entire drum set, often combined with low-cut filtering. That process inverts the dynamics of the drums and cymbals so that attacks are sucked into the background and sustained sounds rush forward. On “The Winter Wheel” (Winter Songs, 1978), for example, Cutler employed “extreme expansion followed by extreme compression that was tuned to a point that made the signal-processing chain extraordinarily sensitive to the minutiae of playing differences. The expanders were dbx, heavily driven, and the compressor was a UREI 1176, also heavily driven.”
Conod elaborates: “The dbx expander was intended for domestic use for noise reduction on a tape recorder. It featured a compressor section for recording and an expander section for playback. For Chris's drums, we used the dbx expander section and then compressed the sound with the 1176. The dbx had a steady ratio of 2:1, whereas the 1176 could be adjusted. Basically, we played around with the dynamics both before and after a Lexicon reverb, creating a sound similar to what you can get today with a gated reverb program.”
Cutler also recalls using an Eventide Harmonizer on his drums at Sunrise Studio. Perhaps most inventively, he and Frith set up noise gates that were keyed to trigger the sounds of radios, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, and lawnmowers. Those sounds were then mixed back in with the drum tracks. Cutler also used various tape-manipulation techniques such as “recording unison toms at different speeds and then mixing them into one sound, speed alterations including real-time varispeed while recording, and mixing backward and forward sounds together.”
The drum-sound experimentation was not confined solely to electronic processing, either. “From the start,” Cutler says, “my modifications were at both ends. I would retune the kit, tape metal trays to the bass drum, cover the surfaces with various materials, and use metal or unofficial objects as sticks. Meanwhile, Simon [Heyworth, engineer on the Slapp Happy and Henry Cow collaboration Desperate Straights] messed with the EQ and reverbs in the studio in real time and then relayed the results back to me in the headphones.”