Looking for the perfect drum miking is like online dating - you spend your entire day trolling through your options before coming up blank. Or worse, you find the perfect answer and think something better is inevitable with a little more tinkering - only to fuck it all up and end up with zilch. Drum miking is the number two cause of aneurisms for recording engineers worldwide (second only to rappers with aspirations of the big time) and the process has created studio legends and made drummers sound better than they are (myself included in the latter group).
Working on my very first volume of live drum breaks, Lunch Breaks, over the last few months, I called on seven different snare drums, three different drum kits (with interchanging parts) and an arsenal of microphones, heads, cheap analog tape recorders and cymbals that went in and out of my studio on a weekly basis at one point. I recorded in parts of my basement I forgot existed and even set up shop in the boiler room to see if I could get the drums to sound like the boiler room looks (which was a fail). Google searches lasted till page 15 to find info on the recording of the classic breaks I replayed (info beyond James Brown, Motown and Stax Records is non-existent) and recording up to 24 takes to emulate the exact feel of the original was normal.
This painstaking process proved one thing to me: Recording drums is an art – and there’s no right or wrong way to approach art. Sometimes the answer is so deceptively simple and can be found with such little (and cheap) gear, that the thought of buying $3,000 ribbon mikes, building drum isolation booths and copping Neve consoles seems like a nostalgic way to unnecessarily squander your cash. These budgetary and space limitations helped me improve behind both the drum set and the mixing board. There's nothing wrong with using the shittiest available gear and the most fucked up rooms if you can find a way to give it appeal, and many of my all-time favorite drum recordings were done under these same conditions. Therefore, it’s only right that I tip my hat to six special drum sounds that inspired Lunch Breaks and my approach to both the playing and recording of the drum set.
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*Albums and trademark sounds only. To cite individual songs would require a Top 100 list.
6. Motown's Studio A.
Song Selection: Stevie Wonder — "Uptight"
The most documented of the six, Detroit’s hit machine was powered by the drumming of Benny Benjamin, Pistol Allen and Uriel Jones. But the sound of the drums was just as important as the trio’s playing. Drums were not typically miked during the time the Motown hits of the early 1960s were recorded; a distant-sounding mix-n-match bop jazz kit bleeding through the mikes meant to capture the other instruments in the room gave us the most natural, soulful and recognizable drum sound ever recorded. The fills and tom rolls on Motown records are sonic fellatio.
(Photo: Mike Smith)
5. Stax Studios.
Song Selection: Otis Redding — "Mr. Pitiful"
Drummers and engineers alike have been fortunate to have access to details about Stax house drummer, Al Jackson, Jr.’s set up and the surrounding studio (an old, out-of-use theater with a downward slope on the floor) during the Memphis-based label’s heyday in the mid-to-late 1960s. Although I pulled a page or two out of the Stax Manual, emulating the sound of Jackson’s uber-dead ride cymbal ("Booker T. & The MGs' "Booker Loo") and dusty hi-hats (Johnnie Taylor's "Watermelon Man" and Otis & Carla's "Tramp") is a tough score. Couple that with the punch of that classic 20” Rogers bass drum, fat, trademark backbeat snare and Jackson’s unbelievable taste, you have the cleanest dirty drum sound ever recorded.
4. Lou Courtney's Skate Now! LP.
Song Selection: Lou Courtney — "Psychedelic Shing-A-Ling"
A longtime favorite of producers and DJs with 45 game, Lou Courtney often goes unnoticed in the annals of early funk. A key element of the Shing-A-Ling man’s debut album and early singles was the beauty of the drum sound. The minimal miking techniques of the late ‘60s (especially in smaller budget recording studios) meant snare articulation was sometimes lost (with Clyde Stubblefield as a notable exception). Throughout the LP, an unknown drummer lays down technique through the limitations and achieves the rare balance of crispness and rawness. Check “Psychedelic Shing-A-Ling” for a taste of a big, open snare sound that retains its elegance through rudiments and added psychedelic effects. The breakdown in the middle of “I’ve Got Just The Thing” feels like you’re being chased down a hill by a boulder. The 45-only “Hey Joyce” gained fame for its disgusting drum break in the early ‘90s and was likely recorded during the same sessions as the Skate Now LP.
(Photo: Black Gem Records)
3. Van Gelder Studios.
Song Selection: Lonnie Smith — "Spinning Wheel"
While recording Lunch Breaks, I got a lot of requests for tight, muffled, crisp drums suitable for sampling and chopping with ease. “Impeach The President,” “Mardi Gras” and “God Made Me Funky” all fit the bill for that sound, the one that defined the perfect drum sample. You’ve got to give the people what they want (copyright The O’Jays and EPMD), so I obliged and put my Grandmother’s raggedy quilts in bass drums and pieces of wood and bottles of rubbing alcohol on snare drum heads. But truthfully, I find few things more vanilla than the drum recordings of the disco and classic rock records of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. Individual, close-up drum miking, toms and kick drums with no resonant heads, muffling and muting to the point of choking and gating to the point of suffocating – I hate all of it. Drums should sound like drums, and the Blue Note, Verve and CTI jazz recordings of the 1960s gave drums a feel that still captivates listeners today. The church-like high ceilings of Van Gelder studio had a natural reverb that, when coupled with panning techniques, gave classic breaks like Lonnie Smith’s “Spinning Wheel,” Lou Donaldson’s “Ode To Billie Joe” and George Benson’s “Chatanooga Choo Choo,” an open, jazzy sound with great tone and the right combination of room and articulation.
(Photo: Rudy Van Gelder)
2. The First Kool and the Gang LP.
Song Selection: Kool and the Gang — "Give It Up"
There’s good reason this is probably the all-time most sampled individual album for drums. Drummer “Funky” George Brown takes a total of seven unaccompanied bursts of syncopation, but the sound of his kit is the stuff that justifies the cost of an original copy of the album costing well into the hundreds. Unlike most classic funk records by notable groups, very little in the way of recording details are present for this smoker from ’69. An interview with Funky George in Jim Payne’s 1995 book, The Great Drummers of R&B, Funk and Soul, reveals the album was recorded in one shot on an eight track recorder, but everything else is shrouded in mystery. (A close glace at the back cover photo of the band in concert reveals an old Camco drumset, which would explain the beautiful kick drum thump.) The drums are panned hard to one side, the faint ambience of the drums in the room to the other. When played up the middle at high volume, the mid-range smack of the kicks and rim shots define what I always felt was the perfect drum sound: Muted enough to sting and stand out in a funk set, but organic enough to nod to the group’s jazz leanings at the time.
(Photo: Dusty Groove)
1. Chess Records.
Song Selection: Pigmeat Markham — "Here Comes The Judge"
Chess Records’ legacy is sometimes lost in the shuffle of Motown, Stax and TSOP. But the all-genre label in Chicago had the nastiest, dirtiest and most aggressive drum sound of all of 'em. Pushing VU meters to points of near distortion, the late ‘60s releases of Chess and its subsidiaries (Checker, Cadet and Argo) pound, power and pulsate through funk, blues and jazz releases. From the chunky jazz solos of Ramsey Lewis’ “Struttin Lightly” and “Jade East”; to the gutter blues stench of Muddy Waters’ “Screamin & Cryin” and “Rollin’ & Tumbin’ (’69)”; to the big, noisy, dirty drum fills of funk platters like Willie Tell’s “Kick Back” and Andre Williams’ “Humpin', Bumpin' and Thumping,” drums have never been given so much TLC (or possibly so little care). Session drummers Maurice White (who’d later found Earth, Wind and Fire) and Morris Jennings threw their jazz and blues chops into funk and soul, giving an all-around feel that complements the sound. But the finest example of the Chess drum sound is none other than Pigmeat Markham’s “Here Comes The Judge.” Jesus.