The subject of what makes a good drum sound is debatably one of the single most discussed and opined in the history of modern pop or rock recording…
Everyone has a favorite set of recordings, and a lot of us will point to the sounds to justify our choices,….
Can everyone say “Gonzo!!! ??? Led Zeppelin’s drummer, John Bonham, has been credited by many with having created the consummate rock-god drum sound.
Howz about the drums on the Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever? Punchy, clean, snappy disco beat. Al Green recordings? Thick and thwacky.
Each drum sound works toward its rather unstated goal of delivering a primal solidity to the overlying music and melody and lyrics.
Subjectively, we could go on for days. But I think we can agree that most often the drum sound matches the style or genre it is intended to participate in — with some notable exceptions perhaps: Clem Burke’s (Blondie) drum sound on “Heart of Glass” was way more ambient that the norm for a disco single (Michael Chapman, producer), while Power Station’s bold, inorganically-triggered drum experiment resulted in a big sound unlike any other (due no doubt to engineer Jason Corsaro’s late night tweaking of Tony Thompson’s drums using anAMS DMX digital delay/sampler.)
Listen — and Learn
Music moves us — most of us — and drums provide a visceral, palpable experience.
What drum sound is your fave? Why? Is it the massive snare drum sound? Is it the snappy beat?
Is it the aggression? Or the laidback, understated thickness?
Listen with new ears to your favorite recordings, and see if you don’t find yourself commenting on the sound.
What words are you using to describe the drum sounds? What do you feel? I am continuously fascinated by drum sounds…. I tend to see the drummer playing in my mind’s eye…
Sometimes I’m refreshed to hear new records with sampled and looped sounds that provide the same emotional context, so I think it’s not always about the drummer.
It’s the process that intrigues me the most. I love being in studios — recording, listening, creating with talented musicians. And invariably, we are required to tailor the sounds to the needs of the music.
A good great drum sound can also be approached from a craftsman’s point of view,
like a carpenter building the framework to a house.
Choosing the Right Instrument Is Key
If you have a drummer, hope that he is passionate and talented. You will be working WITH him to discover the appropriate sounds. Shall the drums sound fat today? Are we tuning looser for thickness, or do we want snappy and tight? Same goes when choosing cymbals. I recall years ago, reading about how Steely Dan’s engineer (Roger Nichols) commented on the importance of choosing the appropriate instruments for the recording. Good recorded drum sounds start with the same concept, the source. No microphone or technique is going to help more than getting a great drummer to participate with you.
For example, there is no way an 18 inch bass drum is gonna sound like John Bonham!!!
Try triggering it later…or better yet, just have the drummer bring a 22 inch or 24 inch double headed bass drum!!!
The difference is staggering!!! Every mic you set up will be proud to be hearing that.
Conversely, do use a smaller kit, detuned, in a deader booth for the more intimate and soothing “Al Greenish” sound.
Use cymbals that complement the sound, meaning choose the sound of them.
Put up various cymbals, see listen which sound fits what the song needs.
Or use none — as Robert Palmer did on “Addicted to Love” and other tunes.
He removed Tony Thompson’s cymbals and toms from the setup!!! BRILLIANT!!!
We could spend a lot of time discussing mixing techniques for drum sounds.
But that is a book!!!!
The basics are such:
Great drummer, top-notch hardware, great room to record in, great microphones… and an engineer who cares.
If any of these are missing, hope it’s not the “great drummer” part!!!!!
Still, many successful combinations can be had: 1. OK drummer, hardware, great engineer. 2. Great drummer, horrific room and mics, but great engineer. 3. OK drummer, horrid hardware, passable gear, OK engineer. Are you getting my point? It’s Gotta Start with the Drummer and Engineer — or just program everything!!!!)
Michael Hutchinson is a veteran drummer and sound designer based in Los Angeles, who has worked with Billy Idol, Warrant, Chicago, Manhattan Transfer, Paco, The Zippers, as well as in the film industry and for the FOX Latin Network.