Dave Huff

Dave Huff had to feel proud during the 1984 Grammy Awards show. He was the drummer in a Christian rock group called White Heart that was nominated for an award. Never mind the fact that the group didn’t win, or that the self-titled debut album for which it was nominated only sold 60,000 copies. (The fact is, White Heart considers that a pretty high sales figure by a debut group in Christian music.) Who’d have thought that an unknown group could have gotten even a Grammy nomination, much less an award? The band had never even toured as a group until the release of the album. In essence, the nomination alone (in the category of Best Vocal Performance by a New Vocal Duo or Group in Gospel Music) had brought the band much of what it had wanted from the outset—respect—and not just from the Christian radio market (in which two cuts from White Heart had reached numbers two and three on the chart), but respect from the entire music industry.

Huff was attending college in Los Angeles when the White Heart album was recorded, commuting back and forth to Nashville for the sessions. The project had started out as a late-night demo tape by a group of Nashville studio players. Individually, they had toured and/or recorded with the cream of Christian music artists before recording that first album. But most of the members had also done a lot of secular studio work and, in doing so, had discovered that Christian rock was usually inferior to secular rock in production and technical quality. They wanted to raise the standard for their music, and perhaps set a new one.

On White Heart, contemporary R&B rhythms and melodies plus heavy metal guitar lines were evidence that the group had absorbed the music of Toto, Foreigner, and Lee Ritenour with almost religious zeal. The follow-up album, Vital Signs, was even more contemporary, with Huff contributing greatly to the production through his experimentation with acoustic and electronic equipment.

Then, lead guitarist Dan Huff (Dave’s brother) left the group to pursue a career as an L.A. studio musician. Dave stayed with White Heart long enough to finish a third album, but left shortly before the album’s release to pursue his own studio career. Dave was interviewed by Modern Drummer about three weeks after leaving White Heart. He talked about his career with White Heart, his experience as a Nashville studio player, and his hopes and dreams for the future.

LR: How would you evaluate the part of your career you spent with White Heart?

DH: I feel great about it. The group is definitely setting trends, especially on the third album. The first album was experimental. It turned out to be accepted real well. The second one was different, I think, from what any critic would have expected.

The strong point of the group was that everybody had a different career besides White Heart—like doing jingles or writing for publishing companies. So whenever we came together, we all brought input from our other work.

LR: What are your plans now that you’ve left White Heart?

DH: I’m going to be doing a tour with Michael W. Smith and Kathy Troccoli. Michael used to write songs and play keyboards for Amy Grant. I did some demo work in Nashville recently with Alan Gorrie, the bass player formerly with the Average White Band. We hit it off just great. Alan just did a solo album that my brother played on, so I’m hoping to get to tour with him.

LR: Is he doing Christian music now?

DH: No, it’s secular.

LR: How do you feel about working with a secular artist when your reputation is primarily in Christian music?

DH: My Christian beliefs always come first, but I just want to be the best musician I can be. I have no problems working in the secular world. If I did, then I wouldn’t be fulfilling my own Christian duty.

LR: Do you ever feel that being known for your beliefs might keep some players from wanting to work with you, because they’re afraid you might preach to them?

DH: My brother and I were raised to believe that you don’t go out and try to preach something down someone’s throat. We believe in actions before words. That’s what people tend to look at. There’s an awful lot of hype out there anyway.

LR: Your dad, Ronn Huff, is a very successful composer and arranger in the Christian music field. Tell me a little about his career.

DH: Dad was a church music director for a long time. When I was in the third grade, he moved to Nashville and started to write. He had offers to move to Los Angeles and do secular work for Dionne Warwick, and to do orchestrating for albums and TV, but he didn’t want to raise a family in L.A. Dad did some string arranging for the second and third White Heart albums. He’s moving more into classical music now.

LR: Considering your dad’s background, I would think you probably have had a lot of formal training.

DH: No, I was never formally trained, and I didn’t even play in the school marching band. I learned in my basement by listening to records. I took lessons a couple of times, but each time I never took them for more than a week. In one lesson, the guy was trying to tell me how to hold my sticks the traditional way, and my middle finger would not stay on the left stick no matter how hard I tried. Today, I tell kids who are learning to play drums just to learn the way that feels the most comfortable.

LR: Did you ever learn to read music?

DH: I’m a self-taught reader. I used to go into my dad’s filing cabinets in the basement take out some of the percussion charts, and try to follow along—reading them as I played the tape Dad had of his arrangement. I would just force my eyes and ears to see and hear things together.

I had a lot of help from Kenny Malone. He was actually the guy who got me interested in drumming. He used to play sessions for my dad all the time, and he would set up a chair in the drum booth, get a set of headphones for me, and let me sit in there with him.

Kenny would talk to me between takes and point out things on the charts. I’ll never forget that, because I was in the ninth grade and had just started playing drums. Kenny was an incredible player, but I don’t think he ever got the recognition that he deserved. He was based in jazz, and jazz obviously doesn’t get enough credit.

LR: Did you really get much session work in Nashville where you had to read charts?

DH: Not that much, but I used to ask for them just for the experience. My goal had always been to be a session player in L.A., and I knew most session players in L.A. had to be able to read.

LR: How well do you think Nashville drummers measure up to the competition elsewhere?

DH: Nashville’s got a lot of good drummers. Everybody tends to think of Nashville as country & western music, and it is behind in pop music, but it’s progressing real fast. A good example is Larrie Londin. He’s considered a country drummer, but he played on Steve Perry’s solo album. I’m anything but a country drummer. I’ve played on few, if any, country sessions.

LR: How would you evaluate Nashville studios for recording drums?

DH: There are some great ones.

LR: I talked to a former Nashville drummer who told me that, when he started recording here, it seemed like drums were just something that got in an engineer’s way.

DH: I used to get some of the strangest looks from people in Nashville, because for a long time my drum sound just didn’t fit in here. They used to say, “You get the most unique sound,” but they’d say unique kind of funny so that I’d get the hint.

Style-wise, I fit in better on the West Coast, because I’m a rock ‘n’ roll and R&B drummer. One weekend, I went out to L.A. and recorded with a fabulous engineer. He had recorded a bunch of drummers who are like my idols. I didn’t even have time to tune my drums when I got there. I just unpacked them and set them up. We started working on miking my kick, and pretty soon the engineer came out of the control room and just looked at me. I was beginning to get nervous. He asked me what I had done to my kick. I told him nothing, and then he said that was one of the best kick sounds he had ever heard.

LR: How do you get your kick sound?

DH: I used a white-coated head on the batter side. On the other side, it varies. Sometimes I cut a hole on the front just big enough to stick in a mic’. For muffling, I use a packing blanket that I bought from a packing company. It’s so thick that I cut it in half and just use half of it.

I’m currently endorsing the DW 5000 pedal, made by Drum Workshop. It’s a real heavy-duty, chain-driven pedal, and I just love it. I shave one side of the beater flat, so more of its surface hits the head. I can get a meatier sound that way.

LR: When you were talking about how well your sound is suited to the L.A. recording scene, I got the impression that L.A. is very special to you.

DH: I went to college at a small Christian school in L.A. for a year, and that’s where I did most of my learning as a player. Actually, I was studying sociology. I never studied music in college, because I had so much of it in the studio. What they were teaching in the music curriculum wasn’t something I was interested in.

Every Monday night, I used to go to a club and hear a band that included a friend of mine named Alex Acuna—who’s a great drummer and percussionist—and a bass player named Abraham Laboriel. They were probably two of the biggest influences on me in L.A. I also went to the same club to hear Jeff Porcaro. After I watched Jeff, I would be inspired to go home and practice. I kept my drums in one of the school music rooms. Nobody knew it, but inside the cases I kept my stereo. So after I drove home from hearing Jeff, I’d set up my drums and stereo, and practice until about 5:30 A.M.

I moved back to Nashville about the time White Heart was getting started. I’d done a couple of sessions in L.A., but I knew I needed to go back to Nashville to get more experience before I could move to L.A. for good.

LR: Judging from what you’ve told me about your style and the drummers who influenced you, I get the impression that you really like a tight, bright drum sound.

DH: I’ve always liked that sound, so with music coming around to the tight snare sound, it’s coming around to a sound I feel comfortable with. For certain things, I liked the big fat sound, but it didn’t suit my playing.

Remo makes a PTS pretuned snare drum that I use sometimes when people ask for a real tight sound. All you have to do is snap the head on the drum. You can buy the heads in three tunings: bright, medium, and soft. I buy the bright one. The drum is very inexpensive and very light. Actually, it’s sold for kids’ sets.

LR: What kinds of heads do you prefer?

DH: On snares, I usually use white-coated Ambassadors, but on my metal snare, I use a Black Dot. On the tom-toms, I use clear Emperors on the top and white-coated Ambassadors on the bottom, because I hit very hard. The Emperor seems to last longer, but it also suits my sound.

LR: Do you have a problem with heads breaking?

DH: Not a lot. I don’t change the kick batter more than about once every year or so. When playing live, I change the other heads every five or six shows, and for sessions, I change them about every other session. This is true especially for the snare drum.

LR: How many snare drums do you use?

DH: About five or six, for different sounds. The drum I use live, and also in the studio, the most often is a 5 1/2 X 14 metal drum made by Pearl. I also have a 5 1/2 X 14 brass Ludwig snare drum, which is very suitable for rock ‘n’ roll—very bright and loud. I have a deep wooden one that I use for ballads, because wood is a warmer kind of sound and isn’t so harsh. And one of my snare drums has a contact mic’ hooked up to the batter head. I run that through my Simmons brain.

LR: Don’t rock drummers usually lean more towards deep snare drums?

DH: In heavy metal, that’s still the case, but for the most part, a lot of people are going back to the tight snare drum sound, like Yes and the Police.

LR: Can’t a deep snare drum be tuned for that kind of sound?

DH: Yes, but to me, each drum’s got a certain range where it sounds good, and once you go past that, it starts sounding choked.

LR: How compatible is your sound with the taste of the engineers you work with in the studios?

DH: I used to tune for engineers. Now, I don’t do that. They hire me for my sound and my playing, and I tune my drums to where they’re suitable for my playing. That’s not cocky. I just have confidence in myself now.

LR: Do you have a particular approach to tuning?

DH: Nothing I can explain. On the snare drum, I keep the bottom head a little tighter, and on the tom-toms, I keep the bottom ones a little looser.

LR: How much difference is there in the setup of your acoustic equipment on stage and in the studio?

DH: I use the same set live and in the studio. It’s a set of wooden, natural-finish Pearl drums. They’re maple, and I think they have a very melodic tone. I have a 22 x 16 kick, and my toms are 10″, 12″, 13″, and 16″. I had some RotoToms for a while, but because I hit so hard, all I could hear from them was attack. I’ve heard them sound great live, but they don’t work for me.

All my cymbals are Zildjian. There’s a 20″ China Boy, which is extremely loud, a 20″ Rock ride, two 18″ crashes (I think one is medium and one is medium-thin), and one 16″ medium crash.

I also have two sets of 14″ hi-hats— Rocks and Quick Beats. For live work, I have an extra hi-hat adaptor that fits on a stand that I place right about where a ride cymbal would go. I use that hi-hat like a ride, so I can have enough room to hit the snare harder with my left hand.

I have memory locks on all my hardware except my cymbal stands, because I never set my cymbals up the same way twice. I grew up setting up my drums around engineers, and after they would mike my drums, then I’d set up my cymbals.

LR: I know you are using some electronic equipment too. What kind of overall setup do you use on stage?

DH: I have a different setup than most people. I set up a regular acoustic set in the middle with the drum machine right behind me. For White Heart, I would program about three total songs on the drum machine, so that all I had to do was find the tune and the tempo and punch in the song.

Over to the left, I have a set of Simmons electronic drums, with three tom-toms set up about chest-high and the snare drum in the middle. I’ll play those standing up, just to do fills over whatever I’ve programmed on the drum machine. It gives me freedom to move around. With Michael Smith, I also have a set of timbales that I set up over to the right of my acoustic set.

LR: Do you do very much percussion work?

DH: I grew up playing other percussion instruments, but as my career became more defined, I decided to stick to one area. Moneywise, I find it better to stay just with drums. That’s expensive enough.

LR: Do you think playing other percussion instruments—congas or timbales for instance—can affect the way a drummer approaches the trap set?

DH: I’m sure it does. Alex Acuna, who’s a world-renowned percussionist, also plays drums, and I think it affects his playing because he plays drums a different way.

LR: Being a drummer who uses electronic equipment so much, you seem to be very interested in acoustic sounds. How do you feel about the effect electronics has had on drumming in general?

DH: The acoustic set will never be replaced. The advent of electronic percussion made me nervous at first—but only because I couldn’t afford to buy any of the stuff. I had to learn to use it just by watching, and then wait until I was able to buy it.

I try to use electronic drums to enhance the acoustic set. There’s a jingle company here in Nashville for whom I do a lot of work just programming the drum machine. After I program the song, perhaps I’ll erase the electronic snare and play back over the track with my PTS snare. That gives sort of a human feel and a bit more energy to the sound. Or maybe I’ll play regular hi-hat and snare, and let everything else be the drum machine. On the last White Heart album, I experimented with using the normal kick and snare with the Simmons tom-toms on some songs, while on others, I used the normal tom-toms and kick with the Simmons snare.

LR: What’s it like being a professional musician and having an older brother who’s already a successful session player in L.A.? Are you two competitive?

DH: Dan’s a phenomenal guitar player, and we’re real close. He’s a year and a half older than me, and he moved to L.A. about two years ago. It was a good time for me, because it allowed me time to mature and find my own identity as a musician. Dan had already established himself. I plan to move out to L. A., but I’m not sure when. That’s been a dream that Dan and I have had: to be studio players together in L.A.