A Drummer’s Guide to the Recording Studio: Part I PREPARATION

T Bruce Wittet's Drummer's Guide to Recording Session


A Drummer’s Guide to the Recording Studio, The T Bruce Wittet take, Part I

T Bruce Wittet's cheapo Coronet drums on pro recording session

A tease of what's to come in part II

This page from my recording diary details how I prepared for a real-deal recording session and made it through, flying colors, with minimal resources.

Time to put my money where my mouth is. As you recall I’ve been trumpeting the 1960s cheapo Coronet-by-Pearl drums. Visitors to this website have questioned my sanity in suggesting that $50 thrift store drums can compete with pro drums. I stand by my words and hereby put them to test—to a trial by fire—in a pro recording studio where they would take real heat. This is no home/project studio. See those mics in the pics? One of them, a Lawson 47-MP, cost 72  times what I paid for the drums.

In case you haven’t read my treatise on these cheapo drums, the badge you see in the photos, with the golden crown and the embossed Coronet, refers to one of many “stencil brands” marketed by Pearl in America during the Kennedy era. It had vanished by the time Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, replaced by the more professional Pearl President series. It seems that my Coronet drum kit, with its resin Phenolic as opposed to Asian softwood shell incorporated the best of both worlds: robust tone and low cost. I’m wondering how many other budget kits are out there—I mean with Phenolic shells. With their cost-saving minimal hardware, they shake, vibrate, and resonate freely. They’re a little flimsy and not for the road, but, as you will see, they sure worked great on a pro recording session.

So come with me. I’m going to lead you through the preparation stages to the conclusion of the date. I hope by sharing another page from my recording diary you’ll gain perspective and valuable tips on recording drums and getting a good sound.

The Pearl/Coronet Moment of Truth

The phone rang. I recognized the voice from years back. It was an album project. I’d be overdubbing drums. Slow tempos—apparently that was one reason I got the call. The artist, who was also producing, desired folky, organic drumset and percussion. He gave me the choice of playing percussion live or adding it afterwards (I chose live). He was specific on this next one: the bass drum must be double-headed, no hole in the front. He wanted a doom sound that would gel with the indigenous instruments, as well as the electric ones, and would sound good through (expensive) distant mics—that is, microphones not glued to each drum. I’d worked with this guy 15 years ago. In the elapsed time he’d learned loads about his preferences. A lot of music had gone under the bridge, some of it written in a Spanish Moroccan prison. His request for folkloric musical components had the ring of truth.

I like really low, organic toms and bass drum,” Gerry Griffin reminded me, as if I didn’t remember. That last album, Hourglass, was produced by eminent NJ/NYC engineer Jeffrey Lesser. At the time, I’d used an open-front Camco 22” kick that sounded gorgeous. How would a 20” budget 1960s Coronet/Pearl, closed-front, hold up? I had a hunch the cheapo kit would be fine or I wouldn’t have brought it to the session. You think I’m pulling your chain when I review gear, either here or back in my magazine days?

When I say I was “overdubbing” on the current album, I mean that I’d be cutting drum tracks alone in a room, to seemingly complete songs featuring bass (electric & acoustic), guitar (electric & acoustic), mandolin, dulcimer, harmonica (as opposed to blues harp), and scratch vocals. The latter were so good I thought they were keepers but Griffin wished to redo them. When you own a proper studio, you can do these things at your own pace. Mine would be rushed: I had two days to do the whole record.

Again I repeat the necessity of fat, bulging drum tones—sort of 1970s in vibe by without the duct tape, Kleenex, and related muffling. You need to hear Gerry Griffin’s voice but once, and then for maybe ten seconds, to realize that anything less than aggressive drums will wither and die. You know those urban stomp pedals that take the bass down an octave and blow home speakers? Gerry’s voice does that, unaffected and live-off-the-floor…to subwoofers!

Recording to a Click Track?

I’d be listening to those mixes through headphones and playing along. As I’d be playing, the tape would roll, as they say. Since I’d be monitoring those mixes at a fair volume, and since the modus featured no close, only distant, miking, I’d be wearing “closed” headphones—ones from which no sound could escape, or bleed, into the overhead mics.

Try it sometime: play your drums for a moment, then slip on a pair of Dollar Store enclosed phones, and get a feeling for how your drums might sound in the studio.

The original tracks were cut to a click. I would have the option of hearing the original click in addition to the existing tracks or to play simply to the other instruments with no clicking evident. I chose not to hear the metronomic ticking. With respect to the tracks I’d be hearing in the phones, the quality was high. I could trust that if they wandered from the click, it would be for musical reasons and would be within acceptable limits. I mean, that’s what you do when you play with musicians live, right?

A click track on a live session can be a good thing, especially when the date is artist produced (sometimes the very words make me shudder, not in the current case), and the guitarist is windmilling away on acoustic and singing up a storm for the purposes of creating a vibe or a feel. Then his parts are erased and he redoes them in a future session.

In such an instance, the way I see it, if the artist rushes, I ought to rush, too, meanwhile attempting to keep my hands on the reins. If it gets crazy, I tend to tap two drumsticks together early in the take as a signal to the control room to abort the recording process and begin a new take. My reasoning is this: If I’m confident we’re not scoring a keeper track, why blow a whole lot of energy playing through the entire song when I know it’s going to be redone. Hopefully the producer will spot this and call a halt. If he doesn’t and things are getting crazy, I take it upon myself. I don’t want to be rushing away, accompanying a rushing artist who is going to redo his tracks later—to a rushed drum part. That’s sort of chasing the dragon, pardon the street analogy.

No such worries on the current Griffin session. The tracks were solid as a rock. At least two of them had BBC III written all over them, just as well since Gerry and partner Heather Houston would be touring this album in the UK and northern Europe, where they’d received bountiful CD reviews—so much so that the original album I did with them, Hourglass, was being re-released. With all that in mind, I felt a great responsibility to be good.

Treat me like you did the night before….”

Was it Paul McCartney who sang that line? As an aside, you ever notice that few people cover Beatles tunes? Royalties are, perhaps, an issue but it may be that the definitive tracks are already public record. A notable exception is Al Jarreau’s rendition of “She’s Leaving Home”, heard on the stellar album All Fly Home. You want to hear great drumming by one of Al’s greatest drummers? I digress.

By “the night before”, the eve of the session, I’d received 11 out of 13 tracks in MP3 form. These are the tracks I’d be playing to at the session. I listened and made notes; then listened again.

Something always looms large when you first hear an artist and shapes your thinking. In this instance, as I say, the voice was huge. But I knew this in advance. What really struck me was the tempos. They were slow. Really slow. How slow? Between the 8-bar tacet intro (tacet means to shut up and not play) and the point at which the drums enter, I could have gone out and made an omelet. Tempos ranged from 35bpm to 76bpm. Think Celtic dirges. Think “Married Man’s a Fool” by Ry Cooder with Jim Keltner on drums—which would have been a rousing call to the dance floor compared to the current ponderous, hurting tunes. On one, maybe two of the tracks, I’d have to play as sparse as Terry Domingue on Merle Haggard’s version of “If I Could Fly”, a stunning folk performance all round. In others, it’d be, to quote Gerry’s usual citation, “play like Keltner on ‘Memphis in the Meantime’ and don’t be afraid to incorporate toms and percussion into the groove’”.

Everything’s Timing

I realized from a past life that if I’m going to play a fill and the tempo is slow, the fill has got to be right-on. The longer the fill, the greater the chance of error—and the greater the consequence of error. A lumpy drum fill is a like a speed bump you didn’t see in a shopping center parkling lot at midnight.

Drummers, I’m told, don’t like slow tempos. If this applies to you, to get a taste for them, I recommend playing along to songs, as opposed to metronomes. That’s how I prepared for this session. I set up the Coronets (aside from feeling compelled to provide you with evidence of their merits, the drums seemed right for this music) and played along to the MP3s Griffin had sent via email. This was extremely helpful.

Often it’s impossible but if advance copies of tracks are available, even in the roughest form, do what you can to obtain them. I certainly enjoy getting them. When I play through them, and sometimes once is all it takes, I begin to detect “blind spots” in my technique—places where my routine fills end up way ahead of the track. Don’t worry: all drummers rush when they fill into a chorus; similarly they drag the tempo when they return to the verse and quiet down. Listen to the old Phil Ramone-produced refrains—you know, those long fades where the drummer fills left and right—they’re exciting, if not solid as a rock.

That brings up another important point: dynamics. By phone, the artist requested I employ as many alternate striking implements as I could: brushes, rods plastic/wood/bamboo, mallets, and so forth. In Gerry’s words, “I want your sound to spread a little. On a few tunes you’ll find sticks necessary but on others I need the attack disguised a little. Swishes on brushes could be great, as well as sticks, but whatever the case I’d prefer no heavy, pingy rides.”

Remember that your press rolls are not going to work if you’re playing plastic strand brushes or bamboo rods. You’ll have to create such effects by other means, say dragging the striker along the surface of a drum, or across the lathe grooves of a cymbal, or, perhaps, grabbing mallets (quietly during a take; you don’t want to hear sticks tumbling to the floor!). If you are playing sticks, remember that when recording your press rolls are under the microscope. You’ve got to banish any trace of your alternating sticking: L R L R. When recording, such pulses become obvious and may blow a take. Drummers, I feel, take press rolls for granted; some drummers never learn them. I’m always fooling around with them, trying to play them quieter and quieter. I read in Modern Drummer that Louie Bellson could play one smoothly and barely audible! Note that your hands may tremble when playing a buzz roll at pp, creating the effect of a lumpy single-stroke roll, all the more reason to practice at home to improve your “bottom line”.

Cheating: creating your own “punch points”

A sizzle cymbal, gently wafted with a brush or a hand, creates a press roll effect and works nicely, if used sparely, in those quiet lulls between sections. In the silence, the sizzle of a couple of copper rivets against a paper-thin 17” ancient Turkish K can be music to anybody’s ears.

You might well consider the following. Let say there’s a count of four, during which your drums are tacet. You break the quiet on beat 1 by striking quietly a sizzle and letting it sustain. Fine and good. I suggest that maybe you quell the sizzle sustain immediately following beat 4, leaving a “hole” on beat 4—dead air, which you can use later as a punch point.

A punch point is a place you can resume playing your drums if you blow a fill leading to the new section (not that I ever do such a thing…) and the producer stops tape/hard disk rolling. If you can easily punch-in the drums at some little pause, it means that you don’t have to redo your part from the beginning of the song, simply due to a uneven fill.

It’s just a thought. You don’t want to be leaving holes or the song will begin to resemble a stop sign in the Ozarks but keep this old army trick in mind. Incidentally, another word regarding hand tremor. I find that if I’m in unfamiliar company, as is oft the case in the studio, my hands will shake a little, at least for the first hour or so until I relax. I mentioned this to mentor Dave Mattacks. He told me, bless him, that he’d been there and suggested the following.

If your hands tremble a little, such that when you grasp a cymbal to squelch sustain the cymbal shakes a little and cuts-off unevenly, instead of grabbing the cymbal, place the fleshy, soft part of your fingers or palm very lightly against the portion of the cymbal nearest the bell and drag it towards the edge of the cymbal, gently increasing the pressure. It’s another means of getting to the same place and less ragged then simply grabbing the cymbal haphazardly-at least in the studio. I dunno, maybe it’s cheating. So is turning off the snares when sound checking your first tom. If the engineer doesn’t hear the snares rattling in sympathy, he/she is not going to call you to task on snare buzz, is he/she? Odds are, when the band begins playing, or even when you play the entire drum kit, nobody will notice the snare buzz they detect when soloing that first tom! Is it cheating or simply getting on with the music; I leave it to you.

Back to creating punch points. I’m well aware of cross fading and other tricks available with Audition (my own software) or Pro Tools, such that punching drums is a cinch. It’s not so easy with analog, however, and it often involves a “Johnny Too Bad” (check the lyrics) skill, whereby the engineer surgically removes, or cuts, the analog tape.

And in this digital world, you’ll still find yourself cutting to 2” open-reel analog because it sounds better, after which your tracks will be dumped to digital where editing is done. If you’re recording with minimal mics, it’s a little harder to edit digitally due to the overring, cymbal rivet sustain etc. Good engineers can do it but sometimes it’s a problem.

And if you have to get it right on analog, know that 2” open-reel tape costs, maybe, $450 a reel. At 30 IPS it will store 15 or 20 minutes of music. Time is, quite literally, money. Now you know where that expression came from! There’s always more pressure with analog, even if it’s going to be dumped to digital. At least, for me there’s always more pressure. For guys recording every day it may not be an issue; I’m not, however. I’m lucky to be recording again in real studios, begging the question, which I thought were dead and gone. The nerves are always there; maybe it’s not a bad thing.

For the record, as it were, I cannot hear a lot of difference between good quality digital recording (in the current instance a Radar Nyquist VS unit) and an analog Studer A800. Other drummers can hear fly shit, pardon my lapse. To me, the mix is the more critical factor in how the drums are rendered relative to the music, especially when recording to digital using good mics sent through tube preamps (and if I’m playing in a balanced manner out there on the floor). I’m offering that heads-up to you since it’s part of the recording drummer’s job description and may, someday, sneak up and bite you.

Which drums should I bring to the recording studio? What do you mean by “preparing the drums”?

I don’t think about drum or cymbal choices until I’ve heard the music. If I haven’t heard the music in advance, I bring generic gear and a few wacky options. I do make assumptions, however. In this instance, I figured that I’d want thinner, more immediately responding crashes and rides to jive with the ambient tone coming off the drums.

The tempo unfailingly gives me ideas about drum choice and tuning. If I’m playing at 40 bpm and going for a Steve Jordan clanging, high-pitched snare rimshot (ie not his fat, Al Green Hi Recorders Memphis sound, with a nod to ?uestlove on a latter day Al Green album, brilliant), it may spike up like oil from a well. How about a geyser? Belching at a dinner with the Queen?

I check out the instrumentation. Here’s an example from the current session. During my pre-game listening sessions, on one track I noted the plectrum dulcimer and an African thumb piano/kalimba panned left and right in my headphones. So I thought about how I could best complement that curious (and effective) pairing. I was thinking, Hmmm, gentler attack on the former (ie dulcimer), more brittle attack on the other; fair sustain on one and minimal sustain on the other…what can I bring to the table, to the mix?

There’s no right answer. Or as Paul Brady sang, “the answer is nobody knows”. The mere fact that you are thinking in such terms lifts you beyond the bounds of mere drummer to the ranks of musicians, a good thing.

So what did I employ on that track, without giving away Part II of this series, the part where I arrive at the studio? Okay, here’s what happened. Gerry Griffin describes this tune, “War”, was the “ugliest song I’ve ever written. It’s what I call ‘faux-crap’”. Attitude. The folkloric and urban vibes mingle and bubble in the melting pot.

I ended up cutting the track using the Coronets tuned as low as they’d go. I mean, not rippling-low but low enough to minimize attack when I hit the drums softly. The thumb piano was looped (in fact, it wasn’t looped but played in real time but it sounded as if it was looped) and was predominate in the mix. Each pluck and tap of the metal prongs of the kalimba cuth like a razor. There was so much attack coming at me, so much existing articulation of the essential rhythmic perks, I felt I needed to inject authority by means of the toms and bass drum, rather than slamming closed hats or a rimshot snare. I used a semi-soft beater, a 1950s misshapen bargain bin purchase, and shook the drum such that the chipped foam (see below description and photos) came away from the front kick head to enhance sustain. I played with a 2-feel with the bass drum on 2, thus creating a slightly surdo/samba pulse as opposed to vaudeville 2-step. This helped to provide a “home” for the quirky, angular kalimba “loop”, while contributing an old-country folkloric vibe. A snare backbeat on 2 and 4 would have been too urban. I used an appliqué atop the snare to lower the pitch (more on this later) and played with orchestral style wire brushes to minimize attack and enable me to weave an 8th-note pattern without flamming with the loop. The lower pitch of the snare, and the diminished attack from brushes, kept me away from the register and domain of the kalimba yet enabled me to “dance” with it.

Listen so that you may hear what drums to bring, how to tune ‘em

I’ve extolled the virtues of listening and guarding the pulse as a means of dealing with performance anxiety. Listening is doubly important in the studio. The point—really the only point if you want to be in demand for creative projects—is that if you listen carefully to the music, you will hear suggestions regarding tuning, heads, cymbals, snare sounds, etc.

Listening is part inherent, providing your ears are working to-spec, and part learned. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pointed out, say in the Al Jarreau album cited above, All Fly Home, the beautiful bongo part in “Brite ‘N’ Sunny Babe” (Paulhino Da Costa) and how it enters on the second verse, or maybe bridge, and gets an already edgy tune really percolating. If you haven’t heard Da Costa and Joe Correro play, you’re missing a lesson in musical collaboration in the name of dignifying music. I must review this album. I will do so. It’s out. Maybe you should listen to this album as prep for entering the recording studio. Joe Correro is an amazing drummer who enhances the rhythm section, nudges the vocals along, and unerringly hits on the elusive groove. You can see the guy as a youth on youtube but they don’t get his name right, I’m sure of it. I’ll confirm when I’m dead certain. I mean, I know it’s him because I’ve listened to him so much. And, yes, he is a drummer who greatly influenced me in my studio work.

I’m as guilty as the next drummer for wearing blinders. I’d try for a Steve Jordan clanging rimshot in a soft ballad and feel aggrieved if the engineer eventually ducked me in the mix. The irony is that Steve Jordan has more than that one X-Pensive Winos snare rimshot sound, as reported previously. Check him out with John Mater. Ditto with Dave Mattacks. I’d try and cop his sound with XTC and he’d turn around and do a Richard Thompson “Hand of Kindness” (pardon my chronological screw up). One trick ponies don’t last long in the studio. Jim Keltner is the prime example of a musician who can go any which way but it’d take me an afternoon to get into his many sounds and I’ve already made too many left turns. You get it, though, don’t you? You will always come out in your drumming; you don’t have to slave over some ideal, optimum snare drum sound. They’ll know it’s you by the way you play the music, not just the drums.

I’ve learned to depart from script, abandon my agenda and to serve the music and client before fulfilling your creative mandate. Creativity will come out if I take care of the first two on the list. If I truly let the music guide me I may find myself doing a 180-degree flip flop (is that redundant?) and embracing some new sound. Tree branches, however, are right out.

Jim Keltner is always harping, “Do what Bruce Wittet would do, not what I do, or what ssome favorite drummer does. All that’s been done already!”.

He’s got a point. But I reserve the right to steal from him from time to time!

Speaking of snare drums again, I’m not keen on horsetrading gear for the reason that I can find musical uses for the most aberrant, rattle traps that as a youth I’d have disposed of in a moment. My closet is thus brimming full of snare drums, rows of them, and cymbals, which stand in rows vertically. There must be a few hundred; I’ve never counted. If you own but one drum, that’s cool. You can tweak bottom and top heads in a moment with a chromed device known as a drum key. I bring this up because I’m surprised that I’m constantly meeting drummers who don’t walk around with a drum key jingling in their pockets. A half-turn clockwise on the oft-ignored snare side head can change the snap, texture, and mood of an ensemble in a moment. One drum is all that’s required. That spoken, I like to hang onto snare drums and use them all, even my high school Rogers 15×8” orchestral snare that badly needs snare bed alteration and rattles—perfect!

It’s the same with toms and bass drums. If I can afford to, I hold onto them if they’re at all decent. A final note on the minimal hardware on certain drums: it’s not always a bad thing to own a minimal 6-lug snare drum (the standard being 8 to 10 lugs/tuning rods).

Maybe these 1960s Coronet-by-Pearl budget drums sound as good as they do (1) due to the pristine Phenolic shell, and (2) due to the cost-cutting measure of mounting less lugs per drums. The 20” bass drum features an astounding 6-lugs; today, you’d be hard pressed to find a 20” bass drum with less than 8 lugs/tension rods. It may be that the reduction of metal hardware touching the shell increases the shell resonance and contributes to the enormous tone and substantial sustain I get from these drums—and that was so evident in the studio.

Drummers and toilet tissue

I must note the following: all of my vintage drums have been prepped for studio work in the same way. I’ve taken each tension casing/lug off the shell and stuffed it full of cotton balls, tissue, or toilet paper. The lugs on old drums contain springs, ordinarily not a problem at your basic legion gig. But in the studio, microphones pick up strange, singing overtones caused by the springs rattling within the lugs, the walls of which become resonant chambers. Stuffing those lugs with soft material eliminates spurious overtones.

I did not do this with the Coronet kit—stuff each lug with toilet paper (I hear you, “coals to Newcastle!”). For one thing, when I heard that I’d be miked distantly, meaning there would be no individual mics on snare, bass, and toms, I reckoned any singing springs might be inaudible—perhaps a lazy man’s rationale for avoiding removing lug screws that had corroded, turned from gray to white, and, perhaps, had seized up in the time elapsed since their birth in Japan circa 1967. I mean, who wants to risk removing a lug and strip threads that haven’t been used in forty-some years, thus rendering the drum unusable?

I’m happy to say that extraneous singing from lugs was not a problem on this session.

Head choice for the recording studio

Snare drum first

I’ll be honest. I’m not apt to swap snare drum heads a lot. I’m happy as a clam with what seems to be the optimum head for each drum. Occasionally I’ll mount a calf head on an old snare drum—for that dark, grainy tone as much as for the feel under my sticks or brushes, not to mention the retro vibe. Every little bit helps!

On snare drums I tend to go with anything but Remo Ambassadors and Evans G1s, especially when recording. I know, there’s a a whole world of drummers out there who can claim I’m all wet—an idiot for avoiding the perfect batter head. Truth is, I find single-ply heads, with the possible exception occasionally of Diplomats, too “hard” and “boingy” on snare drums. I want my stick to sink-in a little and not send vibrations up my arm, especially when I play near the center or deal in rimshots. For that reason, I’m apt to employ a Remo Renaissance Emperor, regular or marching version, or Evans G2; my pal Larry, a great drummer from DC, has been pitching Aquarian to me and, guess what? He’s been spot-on each time he’s recommended one. Maybe Roy Burns will send me a couple to review. They’ve worked thus far, single ply versions with the newer white coating, on a snare drum (a picky Tama Simon Phillips model), on a 10” tom, which now sustains for days (desirable in my books) and on a 14×14 floor tom…on any 14×14 floor tom!

Even though I may use one of three or four heads on my studio drums, remember that each offers its own palette of tones (I remember using this phrase when writing a Taye Drums catalog a few years ago) and that the head is, for me, the “friendly” element; also that which levels the playing field, to mix metaphors once again. Trust me, a Satoyama snare drum gives rise to a completely unique set of overtones, as does a Yamaha Birch of the same dimension—yet both carry Remo Renaissance Emperor batters. Or G2s. Sometimes J1s. And, come to think of it, now it’s been Evans G-Plus. Don’t get stuck in a rut.

Drum muting, pitch-drop applique

Applique cut from old head

I carry what I call appliqués in 13” and 14” diameters (for 13” and 14” snare batters). I tension the drum to where I feel it “wants” to be and, if there’s need to detune, I place one of these atop the head and, presto, the pitch goes down close to an octave: guaranteed an interval of a fifth! I take an old head, one that’s not pitted and will rest flat, and cut away the metal counterhoop, transforming a 14” head into a 13.5 disk. That’s it! Try it. On some appliqués, the muffling is too pronounced and the pitch drop effect is lost in the thick, as it were. In that case, I’ll cut holes until the thing resembles a pumpkin. It works.

Bass drum heads batters & otherwise

The bass drum batter is not only business—the drum you tend to attack with force—but touchy-feely. I like a bass drum head to “give” a little, even if I tension the head tightly. This has as much to do with the film, Mylar or otherwise, employed by the manufacturer and the way in which it is seated into the counterhoop as with the tension of the head relative to the front/audience/resonant head. In addition, the feel changes when, say, a blanket is curled up and placed against the batter, as opposed to the circumference “pre-muffling” strips built into each company’s generic bass drum batter. This is something you want to experiment with before a session.

For this recording, I required a kick batter that would sustain unfettered before it’d reached full blossom, not aborted untimely after the beater attack. As is my habit, I prepared for this at home.

I’d already pretty much settled on a batter head: an opaque, coated Evans EQ2. I didn’t really choose the head. When the Salvation Army drums came to me, I simply reached my arm into my closet and the first 20” head I touched was the Evans EQ2. When I replaced the centuries worn Coronet head, the drum sounded so good I stuck with it. The head still sounded great to my ears when the call came for the recording session so I let it be: why fix it if it ain’t broken? I figured my time would be best spent on the front, or resonant, head. Since I was already getting plenty of attack, focused bottom end, and moderate sustain from the batter, I figured the front would be absolutely crucial, especially given it would not be close-miked (if things went to plan, as they did).

I’ve reported in these pages that I’m not terribly fond of those 5” holes, front ports, in bass drum heads. To me, most of them make bass drums sounded choked. Most but not all of them.

During prep for this session, I had the good fortune of talking to Brent, the engineer. He confirmed that the artist indeed preferred distant miking, even with the bass drum, if it were possible. The rationale was to get a bass drum sound that didn’t emerge from the mix in the Nashville manner—that optimum, sucker punch followed by blossoming lower mid-frequencies. Rather, the bass drum could retain some of the classic 1940s big band roundness of tone and, on some tracks, might seem to emerge from no particular point and with no particular punch; it could be “puffy”.

To be honest, I’ve rarely recorded with a double-headed, no-hole kick—maybe ten or fifteen times. I am not of Jim Keltner’s stature and can ill afford to claim allegiance to one or the other sound at the expense of some producer’s heart-set preference for a generic, fist-in-the-chest kick tone. But I’ve researched the classic two-headed bass drum tone on my own time, and even in my sleep, and have gotten great results whenever I trot it out. I’ll share with you what I did on the current session.

Occasionally you’ll find engineers who claim that double-headed bass drums are less than mic friendly. This is easy to understand. To get an idea, I suggest you have a friend play your bass drum, double-headed/no-hole-in-front, while you place your ear a four feet (1 meter) distant. Imagine how the mic is going to “comprehend” and cope with the overtones. This second-guessing takes experience, yes, but it also takes a wee bit of common sense. I mean, if, from the appointed distance you’re hearing all clatter and dissonance, what do you think the mic is going to be sending to tape/Pro Tools? Exactly!

Bass drum muffling: chunks of chipped foam

Bag of chipped foam, Coronet bass drum open & ready

Here’s what I did, and what I’ve done in past. It’s an old 1940s Davie Tough trick involving the placement of newspaper or chipped foam inside the bass drum. If it’s newspaper, I tear it vertically into 2” strips, long ones top to bottom, curl them up, and pitch them into the drum. They rustle like leaves in autumn, not to worry. I fill the drum 1/3 of the way. In the alternative, I’ll use chipped foam. I cut up a foam panel taken from an old couch into 4×4” chunks until I’ve covered the bottom quarter of the bass drum. Other drummers are amazed when they hear this: they figure that the foam will leap up and never return to the optimum resting place. I suggest you try it; you’ll see that the foam (or newspaper) does return to its starting place and that this means is effective.

Chipped foam, excellent muffling for 2-headed bass drums

Chipped foam inside Coronet bass drum

Each time you strike the drum, the newspaper or the soft foam chips dislodge then settle, thus gating the sustain naturally. It’s organic and it costs zip, unless the chipped foam comes from somebody’s new couch.

The night before the session, I removed the front head from the Coronet bass drum and brought out my plastic bag chock full of soft foam chunks—talk about a Freudian drummer! After dumping the required load, I replaced the front/resonant head. It sounded good, very good, irrespective of beater choice: DW plastic/wood, Pearl 4-sided plastic/wood, fluffy lambswool, felt, etc.

Chipped foam inside T Bruce Wittet's Coronet kick

Foam nestled together/ensemble/conjunto/kissin' cousins

For toms, I liked the sound I was getting with the existing batters and, after attempts at alternatives, remounted them, aligning the logo on the head with the logo on the shell. This way, I always know the positioning of head to drum.

Sorry, no cartage within sight

Be prepared: it’s a good motto, especially were I live. There is no such thing as cartage in my home town, nor is there for hundreds of miles. Truth be told, it’s getting rare in most major urban areas, even Los Angeles, New York, and Londong. It’s no longer a freelance session world. It’s gone back to self-contained bands, lugging their drums from the parking lot to the venue (hopefully not up the fire escape—I know that one!).

No cartage means that you bring everything you need—and might possibly need—restricted by the limitations of your vehicle, in my case (pardon the pun) a 2002 Ford Taurus. My wife, Cyndi, owns a shiny VW New Beetle but won’t permit me to scar the interior with drums.

You must bring along extra sticks, mallets, brushes (which have a tendency to fly apart mid-song, showering the vicinity with angel hair metal strands), bass drum beaters (from really soft to really hard—lambswood to felt to wood to plastic) heads (both as alternatives in terms of tone and replacements), and stray parts (bass drum straps, wing nuts, cymbal rivets, etc).

I enjoy this. There was a time not so long ago when I imagined I’d never do a session again, such was the effect of home studios and the recession. So when the phone began ringing again, I was delighted and more than eager to cart my collection to any studio! You simply cannot chintz on gear.

Your most important extras, musically speaking, are front bass drum heads, snare drums, and cymbals. Beware of the possibilities lying in wait. For example, my Pro-Cussion “Charlie Watts flat ride”, an 18” bell-less Italian-made B8 alloy cymbal exudes chill in my basement, what with the low, drywall ceiling. But in a proper studio, in this instance one with a high, Alps chalet wood paneled sloped ceiling, it gains warmth and clarity.

You’ve heard the expression “there’s no going back”. Well, when you’re two hours from home and in the middle of a take (ie, tape or hard disk is rolling), and your snare sounds okay but not half as good as that old Ludwig COB 400 sitting at home, you can’t jump into the car and get it from home or storage. Consequently, I’ve converted an old, towering fiber case, a cylinder intended to accommodate, say, a 14” snare drum and 12” tom (separated by a fiber disk) into a snare drum depot. I can fit anywhere from 3 to 5 snare drum here, depending on shell depth. Sounds obvious but a 5-drum case saves you 5 trips from your automobile.

What I brought to the recording studio: drums, cymbals, sticks, brushes, mallets, striking implements, accessories

I figure there are many people, who, like me, enjoy reading drummers’ setups and the logic behind their respective choices of drums, heads, cymbals, sticks, and accessories. So here we go with my list, as complete as possible. the details of drums, drum kits, cymbals, heads, and so forth, used on sessions. Where applicable, I’ll rationalize my choice.

Bass Drum (s)

A 20×14” Coronet/Pearl with rare Phenolic shell: with no hole, it sounds “big” with both heads intact/no hole in front. Furthermore, it requires minimal muffling. The night before I filled the interior with a shallow layer of chipped foam to take away a little sustain. I brought along a couple of Evans EQ pads and a DW bass drum muffling pillow, plus an extra front head with hole and a couple of extra batters.

18×14” DW prototype X-shell. It always goes to tape perfectly, at least when fitted with two heads, no hole, and, as John Good advised me, with a 2” sheet of Auralex acoustic foam resting on the bottom of the shell: damn! As it turned out, I didn’t require it.


A Coronet 12×8”, affixed to a 1960s Japanese-made copy of an American Rogers Swivo-Matic tom mount. For this music, I reasoned, any sympathetic resonance, bass drum-vs-small tom, would be “good resonance”. At one time in past, at the height of the close-miking/separation craze, I insisted on mounting small toms on stands, which precluded them from humming away when I struck the bass drum.

A Coronet 14×14” floor tom on legs fitted with new soft rubber feet. In addition, I brought, and always bring, three 4×4” carpet remnants for use under each leg. These work to isolate legs from floor and prevent transmission of vibrations from tom to floor—or in other words, they isolate the tom and prevent “grounding” or choking of tom resonance.

An LP Gio Compact conga, 13” I believe…jeez, I ought to know the dimensions, in a previous life I wrote the press release introducing the damn thing.

Remo 12” Roto Tom (left in auto trunk in case I required a rimshot timbale tone: I did not)

Snare drums

Many, a few of which remained in my car trunk.

For one, a 14×6.5” Yamaha JR Robinson signature (with copper “nails” inserted vertically in wood shell); the drum, probably discontinued now that JR has gone over to DW, delivers a little extra “sizzle”, probably due to the copper nails interacting with shell and snare wires; hard to say. I like it, whatever it is!

A Yamaha Steve Jordan 13×6.5” drum, built in the tradition of the old WFL drums that expired in the late 1950s.

A 14×4.5″ birch shell drum I made at Sakae Rhythm in Osaka on exactly 9/11 under supervision of Yamaha staff, on assignment by Modern Drummer. Actually, I made this particular “piccolo” snare  much later than the original 9/11 snare drum (measuring 14.6.6″) from a shard of the birch shell left over from the original tall wood shell cylinder. I retained the “left over” and, upon discovering it would yield a snare drum shell somewhat akin to the 1953 Leedy/Ludwig I once owned, fitted it recently with round George Way (predecessor of Camco>DW) lugs. It sounds good and is marred only by a generic strainer and butt end, which failed/stripped out within minutes of the first use, a rare occurrence for me. No matter, I made do by tying-off  the strings holding snare wire units to the strainer plate (ie lever side) and butt plate, respectively, point at which the screws were to have held the strings/wires in place. The knot in the strings, at both sides of the shells, serves the purpose.

A 14×6.6” Hagiwara Satoyama oak ply-shell snare drum in piano black translucent finish. I didn’t end up using this drum for some reason. Different strokes.

A 14×5” Pearl Reference series snare drum, which although as thick-walled as a ship’s funnel, is amazingly sensitive and “classical” in character. I didn’t use it, either.

A 14×5” Ludwig Standard model brass shell snare drum from the 1920s. I used it on one take; I don’t know if it was a keeper take but quite possibly it was since time limitations precluded numerous takes. This drummer is a crossover drum twixt ancient and contemporary drums and, while limited in terms of snare wire drop (the snare wires never completely exit the bottom head of the drum; if you strike firmly, the snares rattle almost as audibly as if you’d turned the strainer into the “on” position). It’s a beautifully ambiguous-toned drum, meaning it performs non-linear wonders, possibly due to an extremely light shell fitted with feather-weight hardware and little else excessive.

A couple of others, such as a 12×7” Yamaha oak, which I didn’t end up using. Another was a Camco; and a Tama; and my faithful Satoyama, and  ….


I bring many, many cymbals to sessions. I’d say, without exaggeration that 25 would be the minimum. Maybe it sounds like a lot but when you figure on three sets of hats in various dimensions and weights, that’s nine cymbals right there. Five or six rides later….well, do the math. I may be Freudian in my excesses but it all seems to work out nicely and, indeed, the engineers/producers seem to appreciate the difference between a modern-day Sabian AAX Explosion crash and a 70-year-old Turkish-made K Zildjian stamped Made in Constantinople. Both are great cymbals; one, I knew, would work better than the other on this session. Quick and fast were attributes I needed in my cymbals, not necessarily bright and loud. Remember, this was a distant miking session: I needed manageable cymbals I could easily balance with the drums, thus delivering a “pre-mixed” drum kit. Incidentally, at the risk of defiling cymbals and irking collectors, I’ve drilled both for split-end rivets (copper or brass), which I can remove at will, provided I remember to bring along a pair of needle nose pliers: these are emphatically not brass office paper fasteners!

20” K Zildjian “Bill Stewart” ride, first series, fitted with rivets. Used this on several tracks.

20” K Zildjian Proto “Wallace Roney/Tony Williams” ride, fitted with rivets.

18” K Zildjian vintage K Zildjian, 70-year-old marching cymbal, used as ride, riveted

20” K Zildjian Constantinople Flat Ride, riveted

23” Sabian “Nort Hargrove Flat Ride” prototype, a bell-less ride with flat “plateau” on top, riveted

Misc. others

14” vintage K Zildjian Constantinople marching-weight cymbal atop a

14” Paiste 1970s 2002 rippled-edge Sound Edged hi-hat bottom

13” A. Zildjian “made in Canada” (stamped with first series K), thin top vs a

13” Sabian AAX heavy hi-hat bottom.

12” vintage A Zildjian top, thin, atop a

12” 1970s cut-down-to 12” Paiste 2002 bottom.

17” vintage K Zildjian Made in Constantinople thin crash, riveted, shiny/brilliant finish

18” Sabian HH, first series, thin crash, rivetetd

20” K Zildjian Constantinople thin-low prototype, riveted

20” cheap 1960s Japanese-made cymbal, hammered partially by hand, unknown alloy.

Bass drum pedal primary: Pearl Eliminator, red camb, various beaters.

Yamaha Flying Dragon Direct Drive, first series.

Camco original vintage pedal 1960s.

Beaters: cork, lambswool, soft felt, medium felt, hard felt, Premier reversible felt/leather over cork, plain cork, cherry wood, maple, Rogers Black Jack, DW reversible, Pearl 4-sided reversible, various nameless beaters.

Various sticks, brushes, rods, bangers. Verisonic aluminum drumsticks and brushes.

Go-to sticks are Regal Tip 9A and Regal Tip 5B-W-Nylon E-series white/clear tip

Can of Jig-A-Loo lubricant, especially useful in freeing Ludwig snare strainers

Can of DW40, duh.

Joe Cusatis multi-key, vintage Ludwig multi-key, various drum keys and Allen keys.

Felts, various sizes and thicknesses; old Pearl round leather cymbal washers to place atop felts; modern made-to-order by Tommy K round leather washers, smaller than above, to place atop cymbal felts (when I need to reduce wash/sustain, my first step is often to crank down the cymbal washer vs the felts rather than affix duct tape).

Extra rivets, copper and brass Spaenaur split-end; Zildjian aluminum; vintage brass.

Spare strings and tape to hold snare strands; duct tape; Target turquoise book binding tape; theatrical tape.

In Part II I’ll get into a few nuts and bolts: I arrived at the session, I set up, I played. If you’ve rarely or never recorded, you want to check out Part II. It’s a real life recording studio date and what I did; maybe it will help you some way in future.