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"Good Drum Sound..."

Article from International Musician & Recording World, September 1985

What is one? Who has one? How can you get one? All these and more dealt with expertly by Bob Henrit

Bob Henrit went in search of the producer's Holy Grail, the good drum sound. He returned with this report.

Phil Collins shows how he gets that big drum sound; a big drum

Over the years there have been certain definitive drum sounds which have become the norm for specific styles of music. Often these sounds became acceptable because of the eminence of the drummers who played them. Ringo Starr's sound would appear to be the most obvious, but John Bonham, Ginger Baker, Keith Moon et al had their own distinctive sounds which invariably told us who was playing them. Moony for instance would play and sound the same whoever he was with and whatever the song. He could make a ballad sound like My Generation. In truth, many of these sounds will have come about by accident, or at least by studio experimentation. Much of Ringo's flat, dead tone was due to the tea towels he covered his set in, while his splashy cymbal sound was due to the fact that he was riding on a crash cymbal.

Of course, environment plays a large part in this sound along with mike placement. Deep Purple used to hire castles to record in; they'd then search for the 'bangiest' room to put the drums in. This gave Ian Paice a very much bigger-than-usual drum sound.

The drum booth at Fisher Lane Farm Studios (owned by Genesis), has stone walls and floor, and a large glass full-length door. It's very difficult not to sound like Phil Collins there.

John Bonham too was frequently recorded in extremely live environments, but his relative lack of equipment helped to enhance his sound. He often didn't bother to setup his toms, which helped the engineer to control, and afterwards shape his drum sound. (He didn't have to battle with bass, snare and cymbal sounds leaking into the tom mikes which of course had to be open all the time even if the toms weren't hit much.) This limitation of bass, Snare, hi hat and cymbals also has a profound effect on the player's style since he must contain his playing. It must be said that if the music leaves holes for the drums to play in (eg Offbeats) it's possible to have a much broader, stronger sound. The miking techniques Bonham employed were also unorthodox. Some early recordings saw him wearing a single microphone around his neck — necklace style — to mike the drums he was playing.

The ever-identifiable Moon

These days though, it is not really necessary to go to the lengths of hiring a castle to record in (although U2 recently took over Dublin's Slaine Castle in search of a truly huge drum sound on The Unforgettable Fire) to create all that ambient space around the drums. You can also run your already recorded drum track out to speakers in an empty studio or hall and pick them up with a distance mike. You then add this to your original. Carmine Appice used yet another method: he had a whole studio (albeit a small one) to himself and his drums while recording Do Ya Think I'm Sexy? Rod Stewart's other musicians were strutting their stuff in a studio next door, and this also gave the engineer much better control over the ambient sound. (Carmine too has been known to record with just a very sparse drum set).

I mentioned mike placement earlier and nowadays it's common to have extra microphones set high a good way away from the set. Steve Lillywhite has been known to use up to five ambient mikes for Big Country's Mark Brzezicki which he records on their own track. These ambient tracks will be brought in and out daring the mix to create the drum sound which has been described as if they were at the bottom of a drain. For his part Mark B tends to change his feels around so that the bass drum will (say) take the off-beat while the small tom will become a 'ride' instrument. He maintains too that there are no rules when recording drums.

So far I've talked of microphones placed high and away from the set, but Glyn Johns pioneered putting a microphone low down and behind the player. He too wanted to add ambience and found his own way to simulate that 'live' sound.

It's interesting to note that with the onset of the new technology of delay lines and such, some of the wonderful drum sounds we hear at gigs aren't live at all. Max Weinberg who drums with Springsteen, and has an omnipresent snare sound, simply uses the drum to pinpoint the beat, and trigger various pieces of high tech electronic equipment. This is why his admittedly wonderful snare sound lacks dynamics.

Bonham with toms for a change

In the dim and distant past if you wished to add snares to an already recorded drum you had to suspend an Auratone speaker over the drum and play back just the snare drum through it. This rattled the snares and they were picked up by a mike placed strategically below the drum. Nowadays though we can simply trigger Simmons, or Linn Drum, or Digi-drum direct from tape to achieve this. You can also indulge in a little honest plagiarism by borrowing a sound from a record you like and inserting it into a 'chip' or some sort of digital delay. The AMS is perfect for this and you can extricate that sound, any time you like.

Trevor Horn is a great one for sampling things to achieve unique sounds. JJ his assistant was dispatched on a mission to sample interesting sounds via a Sony PCM recorder. This digitally coded info would then be fed into Fairlight to be manipulated, then onto disc to be stored and used at will. (I understand that one of J J's best samples was made inside an oil tanker while the hull was hit with a hammer.) Trevor Horn uses just about every piece of delay equipment to achieve his ends and this of course allows him to leave all his drum sound options open.

Sly Dunbar, who is surely the most famous of the Reggae drummers, (unless you count Stewart Copeland), modestly attributes his sound to himself. However he does allow that his equipment has something to do with it! He sets his cymbals horizontally and uses a Duraline head on his snare drum. His set by the way is an old Ludwig Vistalite (see through plastic) job, which has an inherently 'boingy', Reggae-like sound anyway. Speaking of Stewart Copeland, which we invariably do, he tends to favour maximum compression for his drum sound — even if the engineer doesn't agree. He's also capable of replacing a whole drum track once the rest of the overdubs are completed.

In the mid fifties, DJ Fontana, Elvis' drummer, played the drum part to Don't Be Cruel on a leather guitar case. Gary Glitter carried on this tradition, and more recently Adam Ant did it all again using drum cases on Antmusic. They also used towels and blankets over the heads to achieve a sound which enabled them to use a large tom as a ride instrument. Of course in this particular instance, the less ambient the sound is, the better it works. (A boomy tom would simply cancel out all the other instruments.) Prince has on record what sounds like a pretty normal, acoustic/synthesised drum sound. However once he gets on to the stage it's a different kettle of drum. A lot of sequencing of percussion goes on and the drummer seems to whack drums sporadically when the mood takes him.

We've actually spanned thirty years with this article already but haven't actually mentioned the sounds of the early Sixties Rockers. In those days if you asked really nicely they'd give you a bass drum mike but invariably you would end up with a single mike over the set. It was seldom possible to be miked up on a gig in those days and as the bass players and guitarists got bigger Vox amps, it became imperative for the drummers to play louder. An ordinary snare beat wouldn't do, it had to be a rim shot and a metal snare drum would be much more cutting than a wooden one. Likewise, you'd never get any volume from your bass drum with a lambswool beater and you could hit it harder if you lifted your heel up. So by the time all these drummers got into a recording studio they were already playing loudly and forcefully. This factor alone contributed to the Sixties drum sounds. Comparatively they had it easy, if they'd been recording in the Fifties they wouldn't have had any mikes. The engineer relied on them leaking into the piano/vocal mike, yet still got a good sound!

As Mark Brzezicki says so succinctly: "there are no rules when recording drums."

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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Sep 1985

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman



Feature by Bob Henrit

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