How do you get the best snare drum sounds live or in the studio? Ask the expert: Dave Mattacks.
That’s what I did. For years privately. Selfishly. So that I could quickly attain the right snare sound for the right track and score more studio gigs.
Time to share Dave Mattacks’ snare wisdom. He’s recorded drums on as many albums as just about anybody out there—hundreds, at very least. And on each, there’s this signature sound. It’s in his approach more than in any drum or shell material. When DM slaps a backbeat it’s a complex 2 and 4 we’re hearing. There’s this leading edge, a defined attack that’s followed by an astonishing array of overtones and sometimes good decay (others it’s clipped off). It’s not just a whack, that’s for certain. As DM is want to put it casually, as he did to me decades ago (frustrating me even further in my attempts to cop his snare sound), it’s down to how you tune ‘em and how you hit ‘em.
Easy for him to say!
Would that it were that simple! We’re going to look at DM and his snare drum modus. Consider this part II, or an appendix, to our recording diary recounting of the making of the movie soundtrack Death Wish II, wherein DM and Jimmy Page, alone in the studio, created the bed tracks that underscored the story of one man’s search for rough justice and revenge. With DM and Page’s preliminaries done, session musicians were invited to overdub (bass, keys, strings, vocals, etc). The thread that ran through it was Dave’s enormous, sometimes Bonham-like rimshot snare backbeat.
The Mattacks-Bonham connection
It’s only natural that we submit DM to the gold standard of backbeats, John Bonham, to whom I paid tribute twice over the years in Modern Drummer cover stories. In the hundreds of hours of research I conducted for those articles on the late Led Zeppelin drummer, the name Dave Mattacks came to the fore frequently. One example would be my interview with Robert Plant. As it turns out, DM and Bonham were friends and mutual admirers. There is also the fact that DM was one of the very few whose powerful, cutting backbeat came within sniffing distance of Bonham’s.
So that you will understand better, especially if you’re new to recording, I’ll try to set the scene. I do this gladly and with considerable credibility given that, in a very literal sense, DM was my mentor. In some instances, before a critical studio date, my savior. Be clear about this: I am not in the same league. I have never, ever done a track as clean, leaning backwards, and powerful as, say, “Uninhabited Man”, which DM cut with Richard Thompson (we’ll get to that in future). If this were a concert, I’d have a all-access pass, for sure; DM, however, would be the act I’d be viewing from side-stage.
Incidentally, you ought to note that while your experience with Dave Mattacks may be his recordings, rest assured he gets the same sounds live without trickery—without triggering or specific digital delay settings etc. First time he sat in my basement studio and laid stick to head, it was that sound, the one I’d heard on all those albums. Funny me saying it that way. This was precisely how DM put it when describing his visit to the Bonham basement with juke box and all; and John Bonham sitting down on a wee Ludwig kit the company had assembled for his then pre-adolescent song Jason. “It was that sound,” recalled Dave, “the same one he got out of that large Zeppelin kit”.
And as we know now, John Bonham was the same. Both musicians stand in the face of the ridiculous assertion that you can make a cardboard box sound like a drum in the studio. I don’t think so.
It’s more the opposite in my experience!
Why all this rim talk?
(Note to Canadians & those in the northern States: this has nothing to do with the Tim Horton’s donut shop initiative roll-up-the-rim wherein instant prizes may lie in wait under the lip of your paper coffee cup).
I need to explain that drummers of my generation learned the hard way that you really ought not play rimshot backbeats in the studio. Big snare drum sounds, following the 1960s, became a focus concurrent with the advent of multi-track. With the possibility of allocating 1 full track to snare drum (later 2 and sometimes even more!) and each tom, dick, and harry, came the possibility of boosting that one sound. In Beatles’ days it was not that simple. In a 4-track scenario (how I started out), the bass and drums might be bounced to a single track. Don’t ask about 2 and 3 track recording!
Multi-track recording was both a boon and a blush. We listen back to 1980s recordings, certain of them, with their snares of doom towering in the mix and we wince. A monster was born. But by the time we got to Oasis in the 1990s, the snare had receded considerably. Again, our theme of fashion and folly rears its head.
A tenet of recording drums that remained constant, especially for young drummers new to the studio, went something like this:
To attain a fat snare drum backbeat in the studio, it is necessary to slam the batter head dead-center, avoiding even a glancing blow to the metal rim.
I had to fight to play a rimshot backbeat when recording. I did lots of sessions, trust me, and I remember clearly the first occasion when I truly got away with it throughout a project. Took me 5 years. All I wanted to do was find a middle ground between Motown/Stax and the 1960s first-wave Brit pop (read Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker) and I knew that this required a nice pop on the rim.
Striking the rim was not allowed, not back then. The overtones posed problems to many engineers of the day. They would trot out the same response when I’d dare argue: “Bruce, listen, we can get that sound by adding compression. Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in the mix.”
Nonsense. You can’t get a rimshot sound with compression or whatever. But I should qualify my bold statement. Back in the Age of Triggering, which endured for 15 years or so (20 in Newfoundland) beginning in 1985, you could send out for a rimshot sample or analog emulation. What I would do is rip open a Radio Shack/Tandy door buzzer and wire it to the inside of the shell (I’d read this was the best method but it was touch and go) or to the edge of the drumhead (the way to go, at least when in fashion) and run it into an Aphex Impulse interface, which could shape that spike such that it’d trigger my analog Simmons V or digital units, such as the Roland R8M module. Wow, was that creative or what!
The way you get a rimshot tone to tape is by playing a rimshot live-off-the-floor. End of story.
What follows is a snapshot of what I’d go through at a typical recording session. I’ve done a zillion jingles but only, maybe, 3 major release albums. Unlike DM who has done too many to count. But I think my experience is typical, or at least was typical of what A-list drummers experienced. If you don’t have a lot of studio experience, take note. Even in the current age of enlightenment, you’ll get sold the same bill of goods as I did (pardon the bad grammar).
Behind the glass (them) and out on the floor (you)
The engineer mikes up the drums and you begin a sound check. As DM pointed out in our last article, sometimes the really experienced engineers ask you to play time or play along with other musicians on the floor—or, as was the case on the last album I did, play to a track.
I’ve read about acoustic purists who don’t wear them but I’ve never been on a session wherein I haven’t worn headphones. And you’ll see that you put them on and leave them on as the sound check begins.
You hear instructions, chatter inside the booth, and complaints. Most often, it’ll go like this.
“Can I hear a little bass drum please?” And you comply and play quarters on kick.
On to snare drum. You try and strike the snare with the same velocity/force as you intend to summon up when playing the track. Often you find yourself, at least in pop music, playing louder when music rolls; it’s pure adrenaline flowing. But for now you’re striking even quarter-notes. You’re frisky and you’re uttering your best, most consistent rimshot.
“Uh, that sounds good but, well, we’re hearing these weird overtones, this ringing. Are you hitting the rim out there? Yes? Well could you avoid it. It doesn’t sound too good in here; try hitting the center of the drum…ah, good, much better, thanks!”
It’s not always engineers to blame. Many, many drummers are guilty of hit and miss when it comes to this business. They deliver glancing blows to the snare, sometimes hitting the rim here, sometimes there. Whether it’s LED or VU, sometimes the meters are jerking into the red or barely moving from their place of rest.
Either way, the drummer may face the wrath of those behind the console. I’ve been through it, DM will tell you how he went through it—that you may not be taken by surprise when you go through it. Here’s that footnote (finally!) to the Jimmy Page session.
Dave Mattacks on his snare sound
March 16, 2012 revision and erratum: My birthday, thank you very much. Roy Haynes on March 13, Dave Mattacks on March 13. Paul Motian’s right around there, too. I miss the rapport we had over 2 nights at Birdland; and his cymbal sound. Again, on cymbal matters, visit cymbalholic. Everybodythere, from founders to forum members, is worthy of our attention and respect. With regard to DM and Bonzo, I was suprised today when Dave informed me he knew of no such insistence by John Bonham that DM/Fairport Convention be placed as support act for a certain Led Zeppelin tour. I went back and checked my notes, early 1980s, not only in my diary but among the hundreds of raw research documents: interviews with Zeps, engineers, etc. I guess I didn’t publish that portion because it didn’t segue with the draft text for the MD tribute (ie the first MD tribute, not the next one I wrote for…the MD anniversary issue. Lots of details I omitted for want of space: Bonham’s double bass drum set up, for example. Crazy details about his snares, tuning, etc etc). Back to the clarification re DM/Bonham, one night whilst napping pre-gig early ’80s I received the rarest of rare phone calls, awakening me and jarring me like a bolt of something. The Zep camp was a closed shop. I never expected to hear the voice of Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin manager, pledging asistance and relating the story of Bonham and his respect for Dave Mattacks and his request re the Zep tour support act position. It was a theme reiterated by the likes of Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and others when I spoke to them circa 1995 when researching Bonham tribute #2 for MD.
I started playing rimshots on the backbeat in the mid-1960s, first out of survival but also because I liked the way it sounded. Of course, that led me quickly to understand the enormous difference between cast hoops and triple-flanged.
From the seventies onward, 9 out of 10 engineers in the studios were cool with me hitting rimshots. Once in a while, though, they’d ask me, what are you doing out there with the snare? And I’d explain that I was hitting the rim and the head simultaneously and they’d go, Oh no, don’t do that!
I’d go, well if you really want me to do it, I’ll do it. But it became second nature for me. I found that as we went from 4-tracks to 8 to 16 to 24, they became more adept at handling it. Their objection was that when a drummer hit the rim and the middle of the head, as opposed to strictly the head alone, you got more transients—these were objectionable. It seems to me, and maybe Glyn Johns would say I’m talking out of my ass, that the gear got better dealing with those transients. My perception was that the gear, in fact, was plenty good enough to deal with these back in the day! When it went to 16-track, the individual tracks were wide and ought to accommodate all those overtones and transients but I think drummers had grown accustomed to avoiding them by avoiding hitting the rim. For a lot of them, it was something you really didn’t do, the rimshot; you struck the center of the head alone. I could be wrong but I believe Ringo played some rimshots, for example, but that a lot of his stuff, particularly later was center-head without the rim.
Ed: I mention “In My Life”, the early Beatles’ track, on which Ringo, quite obviously is hitting rimshots—and really audacious sound, especially in a gentle ballad.
True but I’ve talked to Geoff Emerick (Beatles engineer) and there was a lot of the other, too, especially when Geoff began miking underneath the snare as well as over top. It doesn’t really matter, though, because it’s a prominent example of the 2 approaches. I simply liked the sound I got from the head and the rim.
Ed: Harkening back to the late 1970s, when I met DM, I was frustrated in studios. In the UK (where he lived before moving to Boston in 2000) Dave would get away with rimshots in the studio, whereas across the water, I’d be stuck invariably playing dead center of the snare. Dave, it turns out, had a secret weapon in this regard. It goes back to his greatest drumming influence, a UK jazz drummer…
Oh yeah, Kenny Clare! You can see a clip on youtube where his snare drum is rippling. Kenny would tighten the batter head and then detune the lugs closest to him, to where he hit the rimshot—it was to get that fatter sound and less of the abrasive rimshot. Kenny had such a unique sound, from his snare to his toms to his bass drum, which was amazing.
What I did was a version of what Kenny did. Instead of detuning the closest two lugs, I did it in increments. My version is a graduated sequence where the top 2 lugs, maybe 4, are tight, and then the others decrease gradually. The bottom two lugs in the rimshot area are the loosest—not rippling out like Kenny’s but they’re loose enough that they take the edge off the rimshot sound. It’s the harsher overtones that disappear, giving the rimshot a fatter, less abrasive tone. It’s not so much the tone, actually, but its main purpose is to drop the pitch, and thus increase the depth of the rimshot sound at point of impact.
I found that if you did that and used a bit of muffling to take the edge off, you’d get away with doing rimshots with your backbeats. Incidentally, as you know, when I muffle the snare, if I use tape, it’s masking tape and not gaffer tape or thick duct tape. Masking tape is a gentler way of attenuating the unwanted overtones whereas duct tape is like putting a wallet on the snare drum!
Its like the difference between using an entire piece of Moon Gel rather than what I tend to do: just use one-third of a piece.
There are two other things. One is the rim you’re hitting. I’ve never liked cast hoops; I find they give a boxy rimshot sound. I use the usual triple-flanged rims, unless sometimes it’s the Yamaha die-cast aluminum rims; mostly, though, it’s the triple-flanged, stamped rims in brass and sometimes steel. I also get good sounds from the old strip metal hoops on 1930s snare drums, the ones with no flange—the so-called “stick chopper” hoops.
Another thing is that for years, back long before the Jimmy Page sessions, I’ve been striking my backbeats with the butt end of the stick. It’s not a matter of whacking the drum harder and trying to make it sound monstrous. In fact, I’m just hitting it firmly and, when the music dictates, consistently…and then getting the stick off the head to allow the drum to open up.
There are so many other variables, such as relative head tension and snare tension. If I keep the snares a little loose, they can cover up a multitude of sins in terms of chops! But actually I can articulate well on loose snares and when I say “loose”, I mean just enough to relax their hold on the bottom head and allow the backbeat to “spread” a little. If you tighten the snares too much, they will choke the drum and actually raise the pitch of a loose bottom head. There again, I’ll often keep the snare-side head a little tighter at opposite sides, meaning the 2 lugs adjacent to the snare strainer and the 2 lugs at the butt end. This allows the snares to lie snugly in a sort of trough. They don’t tend to chatter as much that way but, in addition, it gives me a little more latitude in tensioning. I find with a deeper bed I can loosen the wires slightly and gradually and retain the snare sound unlike when I play a drum with a shallow snare bed. I’m not keen on drums with extremely shallow snare beds.
I’m generalizing, of course, because I own a lot of snare drums and they’re all used as appropriate to the music, to the track. I’m not saying that, say, my Yamaha brass shell snare drum (ed: custom with 8 lugs as opposed to the usual 10)is always played in a certain genre. I might use it on a Susan Tedeski or maybe a Mary Chapin Carpenter track, or even one of Debra Cowan’s (DM produced & played on), which is considerably more subdued. And I’ve even used cast rims from time to time: on the XTC album Nonesuch, for example. It’s a matter of having all these drums at your disposal for various situations, true, and I don’t keep them to look at them behind glass. It’s important to get to know the capabilities, the overtones, the timbres of the various drums when fitted with this head or that head and tuned this way or that.
For the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve tried to understand the natural characteristics of individual snare drums. And I’ve spent time selecting snare wires and tuning that further these characteristics. For example, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put a double-ply dead sounding head on a piccolo snare drum if you’re looking for a lot of crack and ring. That’s an obvious example. Or you could take it the other way. If you want a big fatback siound you’re not going to put a J1 (ed: etched Evans head, analogous to Remo Diplomat) on a 14×6.5” snare drum.
All rules are meant to be broken, that spoken. These are general rules; the more you learn the rules the more you learn how to break them.
This isn’t the last word from Dave Mattacks.There’s more on the way.
This time I’ll back up my interviews immediately, fool such as I. Man, you want to see DM play his snare cross-stick fashion (think Nashville country but different…). He’ll do a Bonham/Purdie/Porcaro/Vega half-time shuffle with cross-stick. You ask, “How does that come about? That’s nuts: he won’t be able to play the ghost notes, what with his left hand wrapped around the drumstick and woodblocking on the rim!” Ahh, but DM’s half-time shuffle is whole; it is complete; with the strong notes against the rim and the ghost notes on the snare as Purdie intended. How? He executes the ghost notes with the finger tips of his left hand. It’s a story in itself and it’s damn hard, especially when laying down a track as difficult as the title track off Joan Armatrading’s album The Shouting Stage. That’s some of the slickest shit I’ve ever heard and I’ve copped it with 2 free fingers. DM is able to free up 3 of them and execute all the finger-tip-figures perfectly: running 16ths, 5-stroke rolls, the business. I’ve mentioned that bit before but it gets a lot more intricate, trust me. Ditto with the man’s brush sound, almost exclusively using (at least in jazz or bop or lighter folk/roots styles) ancient nylon strand Trixon brushes, which haven’t been made since, oh, 1964. DM cuts away the upper portion of the shaft, baring a little metal. This way he can ride on a cymbal, an otherwise finicky and, in my mind, inadvised practice. Tang, tang, tang from nylon brushes? Brilliant. “Cleanliness,” Kenny Clare advised DM, then a youth, “is next to Godliness”. A clean ride tang instead of a diffuse zzzz is a good thing. Dave kindly gave me a pair of the old Trixons, complete with the little “V” cut away. Guess he knew that had I attempted surgery I’d have done property damage. I hope you can spot the metal portion of the rubber shaft in this photo.
This isn’t the last word from Dave Mattacks. There’s much more. Not on the Jimmy Page gig, though. Truth is, a hard drive crash and lack of backup killed a portion of our last recorded conversation. I think it’s time to move on anyway. There are hundreds more to cover before we sleep. Talk to me: email firstname.lastname@example.org
Tbw publ 15 March, 2012; revised 16 March, 2012.