Hitting things and being more intelligent about the whole business, claims Geoff Nicholls.
Sound... it's a funny thing, so why aren't drummers laughing? This month Geoff Nicholls puts his mind to the eternal tonal questions that plague the percussionist.
Editors, I'm sure, like columnists to be opinionated. Well, I'd like to convince you that I'm not opinionated, though I do have a lot of opinions. The difference is that although I spend (too much) time agonising over drums, I'd hate to peddle opinions as facts.
To be honest I don't believe there are any facts.
It's obvious from observing any art or craft that there's no 'correct' way to do it. There is, however, a steadily evolving body of knowledge and techniques to be tried, picked over, used or discarded as you feel necessary.
This preamble is not just to salve my conscience. It's rather that after three Drum Hums struggling with the exactness of 'time', I thought I'd try something apparently less definable. Sound.
Sound is the drummer's other major preoccupation (that's opinion). Having talked to dozens of drummers over the past couple of years, sound (and, more specifically, tuning) seems to be the area which perplexes us most. If it's any consolation, I'm always asking better drummers than me how they tune their kits — and they don't know either! To be more accurate, everyone seems to arrive at their own method following years of often painful trial, error and experiment.
Drums are not usually tuned to specific notes. Rather, they're tensioned until they sound 'good'. This begs the question, "Good to whom?" What's more, drummers vary their tuning according to the room, the gig, the band, the studio, and so on. No other instrumentalist adjusts tuning so drastically. Some other musician may have a terrible sound, but it's not improved by altering the tuning.
This freedom from specific tuning should promote freedom of expression for the drummer, but more often it leads to bewilderment. How many of you have suffered the indignity of the not-uncommon 'engineer's greeting': not "oh, what an interesting snare sound, I can't wait to hear the rest of the kit", but "God, the snare's rubbish, can't you do something with it?"
That's not to slag off engineers, whose patience always amazes me. If I were an engineer I'd dread almost every time I saw an acoustic kit coming into the studio. But it doesn't take a psychologist to suss that this is the reaction of fear. There's no 'right' or 'wrong' tuning, so how do you judge it?
Of course, the acoustic drum kit's got everything going against it. It is a bugger to tune, and even when it sounds good there's a dozen mikes to balance instead of one. And you traditionally listen to it first when everyone's itching to get going. Crazy! And listening to anything on its own without reference is extremely dodgy. Thud, thud on the bass drum for hours, fiddling with EQs before you've even heard the bass guitar, let alone the song.
Anything that curtails this agony will be welcomed with open arms. Which is why the Linn Drum and its successors cleaned up. Tight sound, perfect time! And yet of course the same sentence spells the drum machine's weakness. Cleverness equals sterility; reliability breeds boredom.
Yet if there's no right or wrong way, how can you (or the engineer) be sure about your drum sound? The standard refuge is in what's currently 'happening'. The irony is that while the pop world purports to clammer for 'new' sounds, out on the 'shop floor' there's often too much at stake to risk too individual a sound, particularly in the basic beat. (One reason small budget labels/recordings are often more interesting is that there's not so much at stake — therefore more risks get by.) Yet the original, different sound is what inspires. If I were to cite the four rock drummers most talked about in Britain over the last decade or so — Bruford, Bonham, Copeland, Collins — I'd suggest that they're remarkable as much for their sound (all quite different) as for their playing. And I'd say (mentioning no names) that some of them would qualify, soundwise, as engineers' nightmares.
The point is, these four were strong enough to find their own sound and make it work. Would that we could all be so distinctive. Not possible, but the point I'm trying to reach is that personal sounds could be encouraged more often rather than feared. Too often instead of recording an individual these days, the idea is for the individual to try to get 'the happening sound'. But does 'that sound' suit that individual?
Going back to our four drummers, their sound is inseparable from their style and their music: the way they play is an integral part of their sound.
A short story to close: those amongst us who showed up early for Elvin Jones' drum workshop in Camden earlier this year stumbled upon our hero tatting about with a drum key giving the odd turn here and there to the batters of his borrowed Tamas. Before too long he more or less gave up, and sat down to deliver 15 minutes of wonderful rhythm that certainly sounded like Elvin Jones.
I know that's jazz. But in my opinion the best rockers sound that distinctive too.