In the Studio
Part 2: The Deep, Fat “Thud”
by Donny Gruendler
There’s been a trend in recent years of drummers going for deep, dark, heavily muffled tones, whether in indie rock or mainstream pop. Steve Jordan did much to revive this fatter, thuddier sound—which originally appeared on albums made in the 1970s by the Eagles, P-Funk, Fleetwood Mac, Al Green, and others—during his tenure as drummer and producer for singer-songwriter John Mayer. (Check out the track “Vultures” on Continuum and “War of My Life” on Battle Studies for examples of Jordan’s modernized approach.)
In this article we’re going to take a look at how to attain these deeper, darker tones with your own kit.
A low and punchy bass drum sound is best achieved by employing a double-headed, shallow 14×22 kick, which was the standard size in the ’70s. (An elongated 16×22 or 18×22 drum will work, but you’ll lose some of the punch associated with the shallower 14″ depth.)
Just as in last month’s all-purpose setup, try a 2-ply clear batter (Remo Emperor) or a single-ply head that has a built-in muffling ring (Powerstroke 3), along with a single-ply resonant with a hole cut in it for easy mic placement. Use a dense pillow or thick packing blanket to muffle the drum, and go for a uniform medium tension on both heads. Unlike last month’s microphone placement, where we had the capsule pointed directly at the beater impact point, this time we’ll place a dynamic mic between the beater impact point and the shell. This position places equal emphasis on the attack and the round tone of the shell.
To capture additional low end, place a subwoofer-style mic close to the outer resonant head, and blend it alongside the internal mic until you get the right amount of “boom.” (I often mix the subwoofer slightly louder than the internal mic when going for this type of tone.)
Use a small felt beater and let it bounce off the head after each stroke. This technique, when combined with the muffling, tuning, and mic placement discussed here, will provide a punchy sound while retaining the low fundamental tone produced by the drumheads and the shell.
The snare is the most distinctive voice in this type of ’70s drum sound, due to its low, rich, and throaty tone. I suggest you use a 14″ wood drum in any standard depth (5″, 5.5″, 6.5″, 7″, or 8″). The depth of the drum isn’t paramount, as the tone is more an amalgamation of the low fundamental pitch of the batter head and the microphone.
Start with a single-ply coated batter head and place a muffling ring on top. Next, loosen each tension rod until the head feels very slack. The batter shouldn’t be holding much tension; it should feel papery. While hitting the drum in the center of the head, adjust the snare wires until they stop rattling extraneously. If the muffling ring jumps off the head, secure it to the rim—not to the drumhead—at various points with gaffer’s tape. (If you tape the ring directly to the drumhead, you could lose the low tones that you need for this type of sound.) If the drum rings for too long, try adding Moongels or Gel Clings.
To capture the attack of the stick hitting the slack head, point a dynamic mic and a condenser mic directly at the impact point. The dynamic model will pick up the body and fundamental tone, and the condenser will pick up the high frequencies and the “snap.” Keep the mics in phase with one another by taping them together at the body, and place them at a fairly flat angle. If they’re angled steeply, more rattle and rumble will enter your mix, which probably won’t sound very good.
It’s likely that you’ll be lacking clarity from the snare, so try placing a small-diaphragm condenser mic on the bottom of the drum. Since it’s a condenser (we used a dynamic for last month’s all-purpose drum sound), the bottom mic will pick up the high-end buzz of the wires very clearly. Point the mic capsule toward the snares at a 70-degree angle, and remember to invert the phase in your DAW or mixing console, or use a custom cable that has the wires inverted. Mix in a small amount of this bottom mic until you get a nice blend of low fundamental, stick impact, and sizzle.
Rimshots won’t sound very good when you use a slack snare tuning. Instead, try playing with the butt end of the stick, striking the drumhead in the center. This approach requires a bit more accuracy than a standard rimshot, but it can sound much stronger, especially when you add EQ and compression.
The low, punchy tom tone associated with this type of sound is the quickest to implement on a gig or session. It’s best achieved by employing double-headed, shallow-depth drums. The standard sizes of the day were either an 8×12 or a 9×13 rack tom and a 16×16 floor tom. Coated twin-ply batters and clear single-ply bottoms work best. Loosen each tension rod so that the head feels somewhat slack. This will produce the attack-laden thud we’re after.
There are two muffling options to consider, and each achieves slightly different results. For a more subdued tone with less attack, cover each tom batter with a thin linen napkin (aka tea towel). Ringo Starr used this technique during many recording sessions with the Beatles. As with the snare, you’ll want to aim for the center of the tom heads in order to produce the lowest, fattest tone.
For increased attack, forgo the towels and apply multiple Moongels or one large Gel Cling to the batter heads. Place them .5″ to 1″ in from the rim. The amount of muffling required will vary depending on your room characteristics and the size of the drum itself. You can also try muffling rings, like RemOs, or you can tape a folded tissue to the head. Use whatever muffling technique works best to make your toms sound as punchy as possible.
To capture the toms, place a dynamic mic on each drum, with the capsule pointed directly toward the impact point.
Many drummers, including Steve Jordan, complement these dark, thuddy drum tones with larger, washier 16″ or 17″ hi-hats. Although some manufacturers are making hi-hats in those sizes, you can combine two crash cymbals of the same size. (If they have different weights, use the heavier crash on the bottom.) Larger hi-hats will get you closer to the dark, papery hi-hat tones that were often used in the ’70s. For a true retro sound, don’t use a separate hi-hat mic.
Keep on Experimenting
Playing the drums isn’t just about technique. It’s also about tone, touch, and sound. In addition to your usual practice routine, I suggest that you experiment with tuning and mic placement in order to discover all the sounds your kit is capable of producing. This will help tremendously when it comes time to create music that requires a specific personality, vibe, and aesthetic.
Here’s an audio demonstration of the various drum sounds discussed in this article.
Donny Gruendler is vice president of curricular development at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California. He has performed with DJ Logic, Rick Holmstrom, John Medeski, and Rhett Frazier Inc. For more info, visit donnygruendler.com.