HOW TO: BANG-ON RETRO DRUMS
Tired of drums sounding big, wide and boring. Turn back the clock with us as we re-create drum sounds from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
Tutorial: Michael Carpenter
The diversity of our auditory preferences always amazes me. Sometimes we want to hear the highest of high-fidelity sounds. Hairs standing on end, ‘voice of the gods’ sort of stuff. So sonically pure that our brains immediately start humming in tune with the sensation of ‘good sound’. Then there’ll be other times, when we hear a sound that is ‘effective’, but hardly what you would call hi-fi. It just sounds cool.
Often we hear old records and intuitively pick up on the ‘retro’ vibe. A big part of that is the way sounds were coloured — whether on purpose or not — by the recording process. Yet artists are often really thinking about drum sounds when they come into my studio requesting a retro approach. So let’s get retrospective and see if we can deconstruct, reconstruct and bring out the colour of drum sounds from bygone eras.
We’ve become so used to big, glossy contemporary drum production, that we tend to define ‘retro’ drums as being the antithesis to that; unpolished, or raw. Certainly, compared to the massaged, layered and controlled techniques of state-of-the-art modern records, this would be true. But when people come into the studio asking for a vintage approach, what they’re really asking for is something beyond simply lo-fi; they’re looking for character. It’s the same with photography. The first thing we do after snapping an image on our phones is apply a filter to it. The quality of the original image is usually good enough in itself, but a filter ‘colours’ that moment. Whether we fade it a tad, or add a vignette, it says something about us.
In a musical sense, the artist or producer is asserting a sense of personality on their production, because it says something more definitive about their creation than just a ‘nice’ sound.
As much as we’d all like to just fast forward to the bit where I tell you how to get that magical Mick Fleetwood sound. For us to approach this effectively we need some basic info on how the originals were recorded and what we’re listening for.
As a producer who is also a drummer, I’ve been a long-time student of drum sounds and record production. I’ve found that the more I know about the original approaches, the more authentic my results are when emulating them in a contemporary setting. It’s beyond the scope of this article to give you a complete history of Western Pop recording techniques, but I will break it down into a few very general time frames and fill in a few gaps about the general recording approaches for each era.
STEP 1: THE RIGHT KIT
The most important parts of achieving any of these drum sounds are right at the source. The drum kit needs to be setup and tuned for the style, and the player needs to understand the concept of playing to the mics. For anyone trying to get in the ballpark for the first time, it’s worth spending time looking at images on the web of drummers (and their kits) of the era you’re interested in.
For sounds up to the late ’60s, it was at most a simple four-piece kit, usually with two full heads on the bass drum and almost no dampening, except some felt strips. The snares were almost always five-inches deep, and there were usually only two large crash/ride cymbals that weren’t hit very hard. If you’re using a kit with a big fat deep snare, a bass drum with a big pillow on it, five toms and six cymbals, you’re making your job a lot more difficult. And if your drummer is a basher, smashing out quarter notes on the hi-hats, with a weak snare backbeat and a zillion drum fills, you’re going to struggle to get an authentic Motown sound.
The point is that appropriateness will yield plenty of sonic options from any mic combination you use. And don’t be scared of how odd your drums might sound in the room. We have a bunch of drums that we keep tuned a particular way (including a kid’s toy kit) because we know under a certain combination of mics, they’ll sound a particular shade of incredible.
Throughout this article, there are some specific modifications to both the kit and to the drummer’s approach that will guide you towards the right combinations of approaches. Still, your best asset will always be your ears. Learn to listen through those old records for your best chance of figuring out why they’ve become so iconic.
THE EARLY ROCK ’N’ ROLL ERA
Key listening tracks:
My Baby Left Me – Elvis Presley
Lucille – Little Richard
Shake – Sam Cooke
Twist & Shout – The Beatles
It’s good to listen to the stereo version of Twist & Shout first, because one channel is actually the close mics, and the other channel is just the vocal spill. Only then listen to the mono version, and you’ll hear how much excitement is coming from the sound of the spill into the vocal mics.
The first stop in our way-back machine is just prior to 1960. Looking around the studio at that time, the first thing you would have noticed is that all the musicians were in the live room. No one was lounging in the control room with a DI’d guitar or MIDI keyboard. The complete ensemble was picked up live off the studio floor, balanced in the control room and printed to tape (usually single track, rarely two- or three-track multitrack) as one performance — no overdubs. There may have been only one mic on the whole kit, possibly two.
A big contributor to the drum sound on big band, jazz, and early rock ’n’ roll records, was spill. A lot of what you’re hearing is the band bleeding into each other’s mics, particularly into the vocalist’s.
Of course, there were no headphones at this point, so players were balancing their performances purely by the sound in the recording space. Crucially, the drummer had to learn to play to what the microphones were hearing — all of them, not just those over the drums. Whether that meant playing quietly, putting a wallet on the snare, or not hitting the crash cymbals. It was a case of deferring to the engineer’s instruction, which the good musicians quickly adapted to. The engineer would say something to the effect of, ‘if you play too hard, and hit the ride cymbal in the chorus, you’ll ruin the whole mix.’ Critical point number one: play to the mics.
The next thing to remember, is that because of spill, room sound was inescapable in these early recordings. Mics were pointed in all sorts of directions around these reasonably large rooms. So drums were bleeding into the piano mics at the other end of the room, the upright bass mic, the vocalist, the string and horn sections. I’ve read accounts from engineers at the time where they didn’t use the mic that was on the drums because the drums were loud enough in every other mic when balancing down to mono.
Finally, it’s important to take into account the quality of the recording equipment at the time. It’s sometimes difficult to get contemporary recordists to comprehend that, once upon a time, recording engineers had very little equipment. And what they had wasn’t always particularly versatile.
In the ’50s, they were dealing with lovely new Neumanns (regularly the valve varieties), reasonably recent ribbon mics (15-20 years in use), and the introduction of dynamic mics. But the consoles were often purpose-built four or eight channel valve consoles, with either no EQ, or very simple bass and treble controls. More advanced EQ functions, like a sweepable mid frequency, were outboard pieces that were patched in when needed, and there were only a few modified radio-style compressors used to keep volume levels in check going to tape. Engineers were also at the mercy of all of the analogue tape process’s artefacts; alignment issues, tape hiss, as well as overloading the tape machine’s circuitry and the tape itself.
The expectation was that the sounds would be right in the room, then the mics would pick the sound up and send it through the console as transparently as all those highly-coloured components would allow. The hope was that at the end of the day, playback off the tape would resemble something close to the event. In a nutshell, nothing near the fidelity of a contemporary recording system.
HOW TO GET THAT LATE ’50s SOUND:
Apart from making sure we use the absolute right kit, see sidebar Step 1: The Right Kit, some techniques to get close to this sound would include:
Don’t use many mics on the drums themselves, perhaps only one over the whole kit.
Remember, at this early stage of drum recording, no one considered the drums as individual elements — kick, snare, toms, etc. One mic was placed in a central position to pick up the sound of the whole kit. Ribbon mics were great for this, as the weight from the bottom end of the kit was emphasised, and the duller top end helped tame the cymbals. Listen for a mic position that gives you a balance of the whole kit.
Then scatter a number of mics of different varieties around the room, pointed in different directions; away from the kit at a distance, into a corner, aimed at the glass on your window, or pointing down at the floor. Imagine there’s an ensemble coming into your room, and you’re putting one mic up for each instrument. You may use a ribbon mic for where the horns would be. A condenser for the rear of the upright piano. Maybe a dynamic where the singer would be.
The idea here is to simulate spill — open mics around the room picking up the sound of the room, but not in a ‘drum-conscious’ way. So experiment with these and see which ones give you the greatest sense of ‘drums in a room’.
Get the drummer to play at the volume he’d need to play if he had a live singer in the room with no foldback. Tell him to back off on the fills and the cymbals, and make it all about the groove.
When listening back to the various mics, only listen in mono, perhaps putting a high-pass filter at 100Hz and a low pass at 8-10kHz on every mic. Don’t be scared to submix all the tracks to a mono auxiliary and treat the sound with light compression or even a saturation/distortion type plug in. Balance all the mics up until you get a sound that can be described as ‘character-filled’.
EARLY ’60s INITIAL DAYS OF MULTITRACK
Key listening tracks:
My Generation – The Who
Uptight – Stevie Wonder
I Want To Hold Your Hand – The Beatles
Mr Tambourine Man – The Byrds
Heatwave – Martha and The Vandelles
The ’60s ushered in some pretty significant changes. Though Les Paul and others experimented with sound-on-sound recording in the early ’50s (essentially, playing one mono tape into a mixer, and recording another part at the same time to another mono machine), true overdubbing facilities only started to appear on three-track machines in the very late ’50s. The initial benefit was that orchestras could be overdubbed. Tracking sessions soon involved having the ensemble balanced onto one track while the singer, also performing live, was recorded to a second track. The orchestra would then be overdubbed onto the third track — a massive change at the time. As the first four-track machines started to hit in the early ’60s, this practice remained intact. Ensembles, including singers, still performed live in one space, and occasionally the additional tracks were used for ‘sweetening’ — adding horns, strings or backing vocals. The pre-’60s practice of self-balancing remained.
The first major change ushered in by the rock ’n’ roll era was that singers could monitor themselves through ‘monitor speakers’ to compete with the louder guitar amps that had also popped up. Drummers started to play harder and used more cymbals to mirror the live experience, prompting engineers to begin looking at new ways to convey this live experience to tape. Basically, everyone got louder.
This manifested in some small but important changes. Large diaphragm condenser mics were replaced as the main ‘drum kit’ mic with either a ribbon mic to tame the cymbals, or a dynamic mic to protect the more fragile/expensive mics from flailing drum sticks. A kick drum mic became compulsory too. Though in this early stage the front head was still on the drum, and engineers, concerned with the amount of air pumped out of this bigger drum, placed the mic no closer than a metre from the head.
In the control room, things changed as well. The valve consoles had to be upgraded to handle the four-track recorder functionality. In many situations, a compressor was placed between the bussed output of the console and the tape machine, to protect the tape from overloading. It meant the live tracks were submixed down to one channel, sent through a compressor and then to one track of the tape, embedding those sounds and balance into the mix forever. So a lot of time was taken to get the balances and interaction between the elements and the compressor right before they hit tape.
HOW TO GET THAT EARLY ’60s SOUND
Let the drums ring; take out or reduce the dampening in the kick drum, and use a full head on the front of the drum. Tune the drums up a bit higher than you’d expect, particularly the toms. Open up the hi-hats a bit more.
Play a bit harder.
Use two dynamic mics for the kit — one out the front of the kick and one at cymbal height pointing towards the centre of the kit, so that the cymbals are pointing at the side of the mic. Move your cymbal setup around so you only have a crash and a ride.
With this setup, you are again listening for drum kit coverage. By this point, engineers were looking for a little more ‘focus’ out of the mics, hence the addition of a dedicated kick mic. With these two mics, you’re getting a better representation of the close quality of the drums.
Place another mic or two — condensers or ribbons — a few metres back from the kit, and point them in the opposite direction.
With these mics, you’re strictly imitating the sound of open vocal mics. Pointed away from the drum kit, they’ll pick up drum spill and ambience. By themselves they should sound unfocused and ambient. Mixed in with the above close mics, you get that authentic crunch.
Do the high/low-pass trick mentioned above. Submix all the channels into a single auxiliary through a compressor with a moderate attack, release and threshold so the kit glues together rather than pumps. Readjust the balance once you hear the effects of the compressor, as this process will (and should) change your balance.
MID ’60s TO EARLY ’70s IT’S ALL ABOUT COVERAGE
Key listening tracks:
Respect – Aretha Franklin
Honky Tonk Women – The Rolling Stones
Hello Goodbye – The Beatles
California Dreaming – The Mamas & the Papas
As pop music was taking over the world in the mid ’60s, there were also massive changes in recording technology. For one, by the end of the decade, stereo pipped mono for pop’s preferred format. As pop records and productions grew in creativity, so did the compulsion to innovate.
Producers started to use the extra room on four-track machines for more content. As they discovered reduction mixes (bouncing down a mix of four tracks to another four-track machine to free up more tracks for overdubbing) there became more demand for a clearer focus on the drums. Also, vocalists didn’t necessarily track live with the ensemble anymore, which reduced or almost completely eradicated the ambience and spill which had been such a big part of a record’s sound up to that point.
Combined with slightly more detailed EQ on consoles, more input channels and routing options, different compressor choices (the earliest 1176 incarnations arrived around this point, as well as The Beatles’ heavy use of Fairchild compression), and advances in tape formulations and machines, records just started to sound better. They became much more tonally focused, with a greater sense of the close mics rather than the ambience of single-track ensemble recording. Later, eight-track recording unshackled the engineers, often resulting in a whole tape track set aside for drums!
Engineers still shied away from moving the mics as close as we do today — there were all sorts of concerns about overloading mics and consoles by getting too close to the drums. But they did start adding additional mics. Initially it was to represent the kit more faithfully, but became more creative as the decade rolled on. For example, engineers started to put mics somewhere in the vicinity of the toms. Often underneath the rack tom, and another somewhere vaguely over the floor tom. If they felt they weren’t getting the presence of the snare, they’d put a mic underneath the snare and add treble to increase the snap of the drum as it headed into its submix, before compression and prior to hitting tape.
Engineers blatantly broke the previous generation’s rules of miking up, and just put mics in key places, leading to plenty of experimentation with positioning. Remember, there was possibly a condenser on the overhead and snare bottom, but in every other position a standard dynamic mic was typically used.
As things developed, there were inevitably questions about drum setups and parts. Engineers were always looking for ways to get the maximum sound with the smallest amount of mics, which meant positioning became critical. Engineers experimented with pointing mics at the fulcrum of the kit between the snare and the kick drum, or at the side of the snare underneath the hi-hat, or indeed, a single mic on the floor pointing vaguely at the kick drum and bottom of the snare, often requiring the rack tom and all cymbals be removed.
Drummers were starting to control their drums a lot more — taking the front head off the bass drum and putting a pillow or blanket against the single head for a more focused sound. Placing a wallet or something heavy on the snare to reduce the ringing of the drum. In the latter part of the ’60s they even muffled the drums with tea towels or rags to totally control the sound.
In this vital and influential era, it was all about experimenting with both the drums and the techniques used to capture them. Yet undeniably, focus was in, and ambience was most definitely out.
HOW TO GET THAT MID TO LATE ’60s DRUM SOUND:
Start using more mics closer to the kit, but not as close as you would for a contemporary kit. Think more about ‘coverage’ of the drum sounds. Possibly start with a kick mic (dynamic, right in the drum) a snare bottom mic quite close to the bottom snares (a dynamic or pencil condenser) and a condenser as an overhead. Place dynamic mics underneath the rack tom by about 30cm, and above the floor tom by about the same distance and pointed more towards the snare.
Take off the front head of the bass drum and deaden the sound. Drop the tuning of the snare a little more, but deaden the snare with a wallet or a folded up cloth. Tighten up the snares underneath, and possibly use masking tape (don’t use gaffer tape, it’ll tear the bottom head) on them to make the sound of the drum resonance free, with a short sharp snap to it. Tune the toms a little deeper, with maximum resonance. Use smaller, more ‘standard’ cymbal sizes.
Get your drummer to play at a moderate to quiet volume, laying off on the cymbals. For that Motown/Stax sound, don’t be scared to remove all toms and crash/ride cymbals, and just focus on the groove, using only one or two mics in unusual places to capture the whole kit.
Avoid ambience mics completely, and focus more on the closer mics, even keeping the overhead mic moderately low in the overall mix.
Submix all tracks to a mono auxiliary. Insert a compressor plug-in with a faster attack and release, and higher ratio. Adjust the release so the kick drum is pumping against the cymbals. Rebalance the close mics so the kick and snare are upfront and clear and a little crunchy. Add an EQ after the compressor to accentuate the low bottom end, and possibly highlight the high mids (around 4-6kHz) while low pass filtering around 10kHz. Don’t be scared to experiment with saturation/distortion plug-ins. Distortion and overdriving equipment was par for the course at this point, and is a key part of the sound of this era.
THE ’70s & BEYOND 24 TRACKS & TOTAL CONTROL
Key listening tracks:
Rhiannon – Fleetwood Mac
Hotel California – The Eagles
Young Americans – David Bowie
Jive Talking – The Bee Gees
Close To You – The Carpenters
By the time we hit the ’70s, very quickly 16-track, then 24-track became the norm. Recording as an ensemble was no longer needed, as each instrument had its own tracks. The drums were spread out over four to six tracks, allowing for more control in the mixing process. Compressing to tape became less critical. Studios that were once big, open recording spaces started to be partitioned off for a more controlled sound, allowing for increased creative options at mix time. Valve consoles were replaced with transistor-based versions, with greater EQ and routing flexibility, allowing the drums to be sculpted tonally. Drums were made tonally dead, with bottom heads starting to be taken off toms and mics put inside the drums, or gated heavily for greater separation. Drummers devised all kinds of ways to muffle, mute and control every ambience and resonance from the kit, including copious amounts of gaffer tape, or pieces of felt that flopped up as the drum was struck and rested back on the head. Drums were tuned deeper for a fatter tone. Small diaphragm condensers became the norm for overheads and hi hats, and producers were looking for a more hi-fi approach to drum recording. It was all about a controlled, focused, deep, percussive tone that screamed ‘high quality’. Ambience was generally a thing of the past.
HOW TO GET THAT ’70s CLASSIC ROCK SOUND
The deader you can tune and mute your drums, the better. Use much smaller cymbals for punctuation rather than explosive accents. Even put some light tape on the ride cymbal to make it a nice dry percussive hit without much wash. Don’t be scared to extend the hi-hat stand to its maximum height and drop the height of the snare to get as much separation as possible — or even move the hi-hat a bit further away from the snare. It may be less comfortable for the drummer, but will make the snare sound purer, and make it easier to work with.
Think massive drum kits — four or more toms were the rule rather than the exception. It wasn’t unusual to see four mics close to the cymbals, submixed to a stereo pair; a mic on each tom, submixed to a stereo pair; plus a kick and snare track, sometimes with two mics on each submixed.
It’s all about the close mics.
Once again, tell your drummer to play to the mics, which often means playing a bit quieter than normal. There are stories of legendary studio drummers who rarely played loudly, instead focusing on consistency of drum hits. Any sort of rimshots on the snare should be avoided — it’s all about consistent hits in the centre of the head. The whole effect is a drier, completely focused and controllable tone at all times.
When mixing the sounds, it’s all about clarity. Gate the snare and mute the silences on the toms. Sculpt the sounds of the kick and snare. Add high mids to the toms for extra definition. High-pass filter the cymbals and hi-hats aggressively, and keep them reasonably low in the mix. Insert a compressor on the kick and snare, and place one on a drum submix too, but with a low ratio and moderate attack/release. You’re just using it to tighten up things rather than change the tone.
Occasionally you’ll want to give contemporary-sounding kits or loops a retro overhaul. Here are a few simple tips to unsterilise your sounds and make them a bit more fun. When dealing with a kit’s individual tracks, start by submixing them into a stereo or preferably mono submix and treating the drums as one instrument.
One of the first, most simple tools is EQ. A lot of vintage gear was relatively lo-fi in comparison to today’s tools, so a few basic EQ tweaks can overhaul sounds completely. High- and low-pass filtering immediately reduces the fidelity. Finding the right gnarly frequency in the midrange, with a fairly wide Q, can give your tracks a certain ‘honk’ synonymous with vintage tone. Experiment and play around, keeping in mind that a lot of these sounds weren’t hi-fi to start with.
Next, apply compression. There were so many different levels of compression happening throughout the process. Preamps being pushed beyond their design. Compressors inserted into busses pre-tape. Tape compression itself was a big factor too, often squishing off the transients as records were tracked further into the red. So it’s worth experimenting with lots of different ratios and attack/release times, as well as both compression and limiting. For the earlier stuff, you’ll be looking at lower ratios, and longer attack and release times — you could use presets in your compressors similar to those you would use on a master bus.
For a mid ’60s flavour, set much more aggressive attack and release times to pump the cymbals. This works a treat, especially in combination with a reasonably aggressive limiter to squish the transients. You’ll hear a dramatic change to the sound of your tracks, but that’s the idea.
For late ’60s and ’70s, return to more transparent compression to glue the tracks together. Lower ratios and moderate-fast attack and release settings will tighten things up without squishing the sound too much. A little limiting to flatten out the transients will be handy too.
Last but not least is distortion. Everything from tape saturation, to overdriving compressors, to vinyl plug-ins, to distortion pedals. There’s a lot of distortion on these pre-’70s records, everything was being pushed too hard — mics, consoles and tape machines. If you listen to Motown records, for example, they’re sublimely overdriven. Having a blend control can be handy to dial in just the right amount of grit. But don’t be shy about it. This can be crucial for getting your grooves sounding spot on.
Of course, there are always exceptions to every genre. In the early ’60s, Phil Spector took to drum recording with a ’50s approach. In the ’70s, drummers like John Bonham and Roger Taylor tuned their kits to sound like Big Band drummers of the ’40s and ’50s. Nevertheless this should give you a general guideline to the way engineers captured the drums over a critical period in pop history.
Essentially, when approaching retro drums, you have to break down your own preconceived ideas of how drums should be played and recorded. Once you do that, you can get really creative with the way your drum sounds present in your records. It may just be the thing that separates you from everyone else.