Dave Mattacks, the master session drummer, reveals how he worked a duo with Jimmy Page and cut the movie soundtrack Death Wish II (Charles Bronson) in 1981, not quite a year following the death of Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham.

Unbelievably detailed, this is the story of how Mattacks and Page set up & miked the drums in the center of the room with a tiny amp beside them, then recorded to click as a duo… a sort of rich man’s Black Keys.

Prepare for some deep insights into the role of the session drummer, inspired by the DM/Page scoring date, which extend to contemporary recording studio and beyond its bounds. All drummers ought to read this exclusive report.

Recording Session: Jimmy Page Death Wish II Soundtrack (Swan Song)

Studio: Le Sol (Jimmy’s studio), Berkshire, UK, August, 1981

Modus: Cues 14 second incidental music to 4 minute theme songs. Beds completed by Mattacks & Page. Other instruments overdubbed included bass, Dave Patton; vocals, Chris Farlowe; keyboards, Gordon Edwards/Dave Lawson; strings, GLC Philharmonic, etc.

Note that this session marks Jimmy Page’s first major work subsequent to the death of John Bonham, whose shadow looms large over this soundtrack. Not surprisingly, Jimmy sought a drummer who could generate a combination of huge drum sounds and delicate percussive timbres on theme material, including full songs, and incidental music snippets, thus capturing the appropriately dark, raw backdrop for this story of pillage and vengeance.

Incidentally, John Bonham and Dave Mattacks had been friends for years, in fact “mutual admirers”, as Robert Plant told me when I researched my MD John Bonham cover tributes. Although DM dismisses any obligation to play in a Bonham manner, the results speak for themselves. It may be a matter of the North Country. Bonham hailed from the Birmingham, which spawned no nonsense drummers the likes of Cozy Powell and Bev Bevan; Mattacks ‘ first steady pro gig was in Glasgow, which is where, as I mentioned to MD readers, you learn chops of all sorts.

First an explanation of film jargon. Film cues are bits of music and timbre, some only seconds long, some full out songs. Although I’ve done industrial film soundtracks, I’ve never sniffed at a major motion picture session—except for the time I was Sol Gubin’s guest at a scoring date at Fox, where an orchestra cut to click, guided by a conductor who kept an eye on the film action beamed on a giant screen.

I’ll let Dave Mattacks (known widely as DM) take up the narrative and explain how he ended up completing the basic soundtrack in solitary duet with Jimmy Page.

Part I: DM on Jimmy Page, the soundtrack, and recording drums

Jimmy and I were friends and we’d done sessions together. Recently, I heard an ancient one that’s been re-released, an album by Mike Heron from The Incredible String Band, Smiling Men With Bad Reputations. I looked at the credits for a one of the tracks: me, Dave Pegg on bass, Jimmy on guitar, and Elton John on piano. I’d forgotten about that album! We were all doing sessions back then.

Page and John Paul Jones were Fairport (Convention, the band in which DM rewrote the rules for drumming on jigs, reels, and gaunt English ballads) and the bands would come and see each other. And Jimmy and I both lived in Sussex and we’d bump into each other on the train on the way to London, which is where he asked me, ‘I’m doing this film. Would you like to play drums on it?’

Whereas clicks didn’t appear on pop sessions until the 1970s, I was familiar with them from film and I knew about reading through cues, playing live with an orchestra or band. Of course, these days things have broken down and soundtracks are often recorded piecemeal. Also, I knew about clicks and theme music by way of jingles. I mean, Jimmy had much more studio experience than me but I had a lot, too.

Gus Dudgeon (reputed engineer then producer, DM’s close friend, who died years ago suddenly) told me that way back then, when you wanted a hit record, you’d hire Bobby Graham on drums and the ‘two Jimmies’ meaning Jimmy Page and Big Jim Sullivan; those were the guys. (ed: example, the Dave Clark 5, “Bits and Pieces”). Gus engineered the John Mayall album with the Bluesbreakers, the one with Eric Clapton reading the Beano on the cover. Eric came in to the studio with this Marshall stack that was incredibly loud. The producer, Mike Vernon, came running into the room, Gus told me, and said, ‘We can’t have this, it’s too loud’ and Gus, who was engineering, responding, ‘No, it’s okay; I can make this work!’ The fact that the guitar was leaking into the drum mics and vice versa became part of the sound.

The studio for the Death Wish soundtrack, The Sol, wasn’t huge. It wasn’t really live or dead; it was between the two. The ceiling was high and the room was about the size of, say, the front to the back of your house, pretty big but not enormous, unlike, say, Olympic. The studio, had been built by Gus (Dudgeon), according to the design sensibility where it was deader up front to promote separation and in-your-face sounds. At one point, Gus had some bad tax problems and Jimmy bought the studio and he owned it when we recorded the soundtrack. I later cut “Nikita” (Elton John) there and a lot of albums.

I set up in the middle of this room. Jimmy set up a little guitar amplifier beside me initially; then at one point told me he was going to place the amp in another room. He told me, ‘I don’t want to ruin your drum sound’. I went, ‘You’re not ruining my sound; we’re working on this together’. I realized later on that he was using ambient room mics to make the drums louder and he didn’t want them to pick up the guitar; he wanted separation. He’d do a guide guitar track with me, sometimes replacing it or overdubbing numerous times…what John Paul Jones termed ‘the army’. Jimmy was using a lot of different amplifiers.

Jimmy had just gotten the Roland guitar synth and there were occasions he couldn’t reach all the pedals and controls, so he’d be overdubbing another pedal, helping him get all these bizarre sounds, which you can hear on the soundtrack. I might have done a few bits and pieces myself on keyboards.

The miking was fairly ‘regular’ and Stuart Epp was the engineer. I brought in a bass drum with the usual hole in the front of the bass drum for a mic; and there was a mic on each drum plus overheads, plus room mics. In those days I wouldn’t change the kit much,unlike today, although I’d often change snare drums and cymbals. In addition, today I’d probably do a lot of tracks with a full front bass drum head with no hole. Studio guys back then rolled up with a single drum kit and snare and a set of cymbals, and they’d read the part and be done, but I was starting to explore all these sounds, as I knew Keltner had been doing.

Bigger is not necessarily better

My drum heroes back then, particularly Kenny Clare, used smaller cymbals. I realized quickly that smaller, thinner cymbals sounded better in the studio, to my ears. Kenny, as you know, would use a paper-thin 15” crash on his left. I began to collect cymbals, in addition to drums, and began to appreciate the really, paper-thin smaller crashes and how Kenny would use them. I’d roll up to a session with cases full of snare drums and bags of cymbals; today it’s as regular as sliced bread but back then it was out of the ordinary. Thinner cymbals, especially crash cymbals, made sense to me. Overhead mics constituted a big part of the drum sound, at least according to a prevalent method I was accustomed to, and I discovered that if I played large, heavy cymbals too loudly, it would force engineers to turn the overhead mics down, mix them lower. When they did that, I’d loose much of the richness of the drum sound. I learned not only to use smaller, thinner cymbals but to watch my levels and not play as if your very life depended on it! I mean, I’d play as if my life depended on it but not in terms of banging the shit out of the drums: let the microphones do the work. When you use thinner, smaller cymbals, the volume of the cymbals is less, which enables opening up the overhead mics and,thus, making the drums sound bigger. And I found that if I played the drums firmly but didn’t play them hard,they would sound better…not as choked.

I used to think that one particular method of recording or miking was the one and that others were wrong; gradually I began to see that many approaches could work…depending on rooms, dynamics, and the nature of the music. When I began working with Glynn Johns, for example, it was different than many engineers at the time and even today. For one, whereas they’ll often ask you to play the snare, play the bass drum, and so forth, with Glynn it was different. I remember asking him, ‘Don’t you want me to play just the snare drum?’ and he’d respond, ‘No! Forget all that and just play with the others and I’ll get a sound’. The other thing I began to notice is that with Glynn, and the good engineers, they’d come out into the room and hear how your drums sounded acoustically, not attempt to do everything from the control room. They’d return to the control room and gain a natural perspective. Geoff Emerick (The Beatles,Geo Martin)would do that. I know that today this is commonplace,so much so it sounds obvious, but back then it was different. I remember early on, working with Geoff,and he’d be out in the room with me, listening, and then he’d put his hand into the bass drum and adjust the bass drum mic, maybe move it an inch or two, and then go back to the control room, and maybe return and nudge it a bit again…until he was satisfied. I’d ask, ‘Is it me? Can I tune it differently or strike it…?’ and he’d say, ‘No, you keep on doing what you do’. I’d hear a playback in the control room and, of course, it’d sound like a million bucks. He knew so much about mics and sounds and their relationship that he’d make the tiniest adjustments and know what the result would be. In some situations engineers will get assistants to move the mic while they make adjustments in the control room but I find that, although the really good ones do that sometimes, more often they’ll come right into the room and listen and then move the mics themselves. It works both ways. I’ll offer to play a little differently, strike a little differently, balance a little differently, and they’ll do the same. It’s a collaboration.

I used to hear drummers say, Hey man, this is my sound. It’s up to you to capture it, but I think those drummers are becoming few and far between. I get a lot of inquiries about how I get my ‘signature sound’. I don’t want a signature sound. I’m trying to make a sound and play in a way that works with the music. I think it’s incredibly fucking selfish to have the audacity to say, ‘This is how my drums, or guitar, sound. Deal with it!’ It’s something we do together. Drummers should be thinking, and I know Steve Gadd does this, for one, what can I do to assist in getting a sound that will complement the music?”

Editorial intrusion. I suggest to DM that drummers who are lacking in studio experience might be thinking, Oh fine, easy for him to say he doesn’t have a sound. How does that account for him getting a consistently great sound in the studio then? Like, c’mon, throw us a bone

Okay, I see what you mean. I guess,I’d say that I have no signature sound; instead, I have a signature touch. When we hear drummers we like, yes there is a sound but it’s more the result of a touch. And the touch is what we should aim for. To me, that translates into observing dynamics…playing quietly or loudly as appropriate and allowing it to happen according to the demands of the music. To me, it’s incredibly selfish to inflict a sound on music.

As for drum sounds, I remember the Jimmy Page, Death Wish session was right after I hooked up with Yamaha. I was using an early Recording Custom kit with a 20” bass drum, a 12” tom, 14” floor tom and 16” floor toms. When you asked, I was thinking that the hi-hats were 13” K Zildjians but when I look back, they were 13” A Zildjians, really thin. There was a 15” thin crash on my left and a medium-ish ride, an A Zildjian, and a 16” or 17” crash on my right and a China, definitely Wuhan. I used them before Zildjian was making their Chinese cymbals like they’re making them now.

I remember taking Jim (Keltner) to that shop, Raymond Mann…the one I showed you, which carried all those cymbals actually made in China, and leaving him there because I had to go off somewhere, and him coming out with five or six of those cymbals. I remember asking him about the distinctive China sound on the original ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ and he mentioned that everybody asked him about it. But he gave me some advice I never forgot and it was to get the thinnest China cymbal I could find, and one with the lowest pitch, and I’d be able to get closest to that sound.

That immediately set me on this quest for thin, low-pitched China cymbals. I’d already noticed that when you get the medium ones, which usually means higher-pitched, and you turn them upside down and whack them, it’s an engineer’s nightmare, and so many drummers did that back then. Instead, if you find a really thin, low cymbal and put it right side up on the stand and keep the cymbal out of the ‘path’ of the mic, and strike it a little more gently, it’s beautiful: it’s like an ahhh…a sort of a gong.

At this juncture, I realized that DM was taking this discussion as wide as I do customarily, not in my ADD manner of darting around but, rather, for the purpose of clarifying and expanding on concepts that maybe we’d discussed before and taken for granted. In other words, although we were heading away from the Jimmy Page soundtrack theme occasionally, I thought you’d find it interesting.

So pardon us taking side roads. We get to the same destination, ultimately. Let’s take DM to task on the notion of cymbal placement, given he’s mentioned the microphone path relative to the China cymbal. Perhaps out of step I mentioned to DM that a few years ago, he’d done a bit of a reversal and had begun placing the smallest crash cymbal to his right.

Yeah, I’ve become increasingly aware of where the cymbals sit with relation to the overhead microphones. If you’ve got the mega 20” crash as high up on the stand as possible, it’s something that’s going to drive the engineer nuts and blow out the overheads. But it’s not just a matter of lowering cymbals. I began noticing that the bulk of my cymbal sound came from one side of the kit; it was skewed. I began placing a larger cymbal on my left side by the hats and smaller cymbals on the right. I’m tending to use a 17” or 18” on my left and a 15” or 16” on my right…on the ride cymbal side, depending on the room. I’ve been doing a lot of work in tiny studios and I might even use a 15” thin on my left and a 13” on my right and,depending on the room and the way I strike it and the mic placement, it can sound huge…and more balanced in terms of the stereo mix.

It was definitely opposite on the Jimmy Page soundtracks, though. And it worked well, and Jimmy had me overdub multiple drum tracks, such as measures of 6/8 over 4/4 measures. He had me wondering if it’d work; later I’d listen and it’d be amazing. He had a clear vision of what he was going to layer atop; he knew exactly. It wasn’t by chance.

Jimmy didn’t use any sheet music, none. It was amazing because he’d internalized it, all of his ideas, as if it was a conductor’s score. He’d play, have me listen, and, depending on the length and complexity I’d write out a little chart, or at least jot down notes, and we’d play through cue after cue. Even some of the more difficult cues, like this one that was basically in 4/4 and on screen they’re in some car or bus chase scene and there’s frantic stuff happening; you’d think it’d been scored, written, but it wasn’t. There was room for improvisation, or at least interpretation, within the time frame for each cue.

Fix it in the mix? In Pro Tools?

The session was typical at the time: 2” tape, 24-track, and, of course, there was no Pro Tools or editing, aside from the ability to punch-in or splice tape (with a razor). There was none of that. I don’t remember any. We’d play through the cues, the two of us, and one of us might go, Hmm, I think I could do a better one and we’d do it and usually get it in the second or third take…as many as it took.”

To be continued

And when we continue, we’ll continue discussing the Death Wish session. And we’ll branch out into other details relevant to the studio experience for drummers. Life is in the details. Dave Mattacks’ attention to these explains why he continues to record, and sometimes produce, records. And why he’s in demand for concerts.

Drummers who sweat the details offer extra value—technical, stylistic, and musical—to any studio or live gig. In fact, the “studio vs live” distinction begins to blur since they feed equally off a love of the finer points.