He describes himself as meticulous. Anyone who’s a fan of his remarkably detailed drumming with Soilwork or the Devin Townsend Project—and there are many of you—will find no surprise there. But what you might not know is how happily he courts imperfection. Could this be the secret to the metal master’s success? Turns out it’s only one of them.
Story by David Ciauro
Photos by Hannah Verbeuren
In the ’90s, as heavy metal splintered into dozens of subgenres, a need was established for players who could come into any setting, from thrash to extreme tech metal, and nail the session with power, efficiency, and authenticity. Enter Dirk Verbeuren.
The Belgian-born drummer’s pro credits were established in 1994 with Scarve, a highly advanced “new-age death metal” band that was among the first to employ a dirty/clean tandem-lead-singer lineup. From there Verbeuren parlayed his abundant skills into a busy career as a session musician, appearing on notable releases by Mortuary, Aborted, Sybreed, and the Devin Townsend Project, among others. In 2005 Dirk officially joined the Swedish melodic death metal outfit Soilwork, with which he can be heard and seen on the brand-new Live in the Heart of Helsinki audio/video package. And when he’s not on tour, he can generally be found at his own Die Crawling studio, recording drum tracks for freelance projects.
Verbeuren’s work extends beyond performance; in addition to offering private lessons as well as a series of subscription educational videos, the drummer has collaborated with Toontrack on a handful of popular metal software sample libraries. Taken together, these projects make him the very picture of the modern metal musician.
MD: You’ve managed to make yourself a viable brand. What propelled you to examine drumming as a business model?
Dirk: Declining record sales probably had something to do with it at the start. But over the years I’ve learned that the more entrepreneurial you are with your craft, the more you’ll work. I like going on tour and having the flexibility to do so, but at the same time it’s not enough for me to survive.
Technology is the other component. I have my own studio, which is a very minimal setup in a small room—just an electronic kit and a computer—but it allows me to work a lot. It also allows me to work with people that maybe don’t have budgets to record in the traditional setting of an acoustic studio.
MD: And these days geography is no longer a deal-breaker.
Dirk: Exactly. It’s really amazing. In the past few years I’ve worked with people from all over the world, which is fun because you get to enjoy discovering different musical styles. With Soilwork too—although we love jamming together, we’re spread across the globe. So in recent years we’ve been mostly emailing songs in preparation for recording. Then we’ll get together a few weeks before heading into the studio to flesh out ideas or come up with some new ideas. It’s limiting to just do email with the bands you’re a permanent member in, because nothing replaces being in the same room together.
MD: Your website, dirkverbeuren.com, is very well designed. It comes across as professional, as opposed to self-important. Do you feel that self-promotion is a difficult area to navigate in terms of standing out from the crowd without seeming obnoxious?
Dirk: I have to give a lot of credit here to my wife, Hannah. I used to think it would be cocky to have my name as a website, but she convinced me that it was important to open my mind to that side of the business. Now it’s come to the point where if you want to work, you have to make yourself into a brand and operate as a company. I’m a very meticulous person. What I put out needs to be appealing. It needs to look good and sound good, and it should reflect the professionalism that I put into every recording I do.
I record everything on an electronic kit, and although it’s easy to “cheat” with editing, for me it’s a question of honor to know I can play everything I record. I don’t play for five minutes and then spend time editing the rest until it sounds good. That would make it impossible for me to be proud of it. The website, I think, reflects the professionalism I want to project.
MD: Do your online lessons discuss the importance of knowing the business as well as you know your craft?
Dirk: Definitely. It’s important to find the balance, especially for upcoming musicians. There are still a few bands that are breaking through, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to stand out. I tell my students that they have amazing tools at their fingertips—YouTube and SoundCloud, for example—that allow you the opportunity to show the world something you did. In the early ’90s, when I started doing music professionally, these tools didn’t exist. We sent cassette tapes to fanzines in Indonesia; everything was traditional mail. You have to find the right edge between selling yourself too overtly and keeping true to yourself. This is something that can shine through with how you go about producing your videos.
MD: Let’s talk a little about the online lessons you’re offering through your website. Describe some of the content that’s available and how it works.
Dirk: People can subscribe for a year. You get two videos each month with PDFs, as well as access to my private Facebook page, which is just for my students, where they can comment on the lessons, make suggestions, ask questions, etc. I cover everything from technique and exercises to working with e-drums—learning how to set them up, recording with them, and using the software. I also cover how to write sheet music and charts, and I offer advice on the business side: marketing, self-promotion, professionalism, etc. It covers a broad spectrum.
MD: Can you give an example of how one of your videos covers that span of content?
Dirk: For example, if a video is about recording, I remind my students that we’re human—we’re not perfect. Sometimes little mistakes can make for the perfect take when it comes to recording. There’s no point in trying to get everything perfect, because it will sound stale. If that’s what you’re going for, you might as well just program the drums. Getting the students to understand this is something that really matters to me. There are so many productions right now that are so polished that kids growing up listening to these records think drums aren’t dynamic. Kids need to remember that the production value doesn’t necessarily represent what you actually sound like when you’re playing drums.
Also, if you don’t want to get screwed over in this business and want to make smart decisions in your career, you have to be well versed in all aspects of the music business. With Soilwork, I’m very involved in the business end of the band. I know how a tour works, what a tour manager does, what a booking agent does, and how to deal with those people. Truth is, if you’re not aware of how these things work, you’ll get thrown around. You can’t rely on being lucky enough to fall into the hands of the right people that will treat you well. It’s not just about being a drummer anymore; you need to really get involved in everything else. That takes a lot of personal initiative, which is not something everybody has.
MD: How did you get started on the drums?
Dirk: I started out basically playing along to records and jamming with friends. But when I finished high school I told my parents that I wasn’t really interested in anything other than music. So they sent me to a school in the northeast of France called Music Academy International, which is similar to Musicians Institute. I studied nonstop for a year and a half, learning all different genres and styles.
Education has been a huge part of making me who I am as a drummer. Before this experience, I had only been playing for a few years, and I already felt stuck as a drummer. Studying with people from different backgrounds opened me up to unfamiliar styles and techniques.
MD: What’s your main teaching point in terms of improving players’ technique?
Dirk: One of the biggest things to understand is that it’s going to take a lot of time to master certain things. Some recurring questions I get are “How can I get my double bass faster?” and “How do I master blast beats?” When I started, it was the early years of blast beats, and the bpms were slower. It seemed fast at that time, but now drummers are playing so fast, it’s almost ridiculous.
You can’t just wake up one morning and play like Derek Roddy or George Kollias. That takes an immense amount of time, work, patience, perseverance, and talent. “Patience, practice, perseverance” is a mantra that I use to help me through frustrating periods. When I was studying jazz, some of that stuff took me a lot of time just to master the basics, and it was very frustrating at times. But it paid off, because now I incorporate what I learned into my playing to spice it up and make it sound different. You have to be prepared to practice daily and accept the fact that at times you may not see much progress at all. That’s just how it is.
MD: You obviously have a lot of experience now with e-drums. Were you already familiar with them before you began working with Toontrack?
Dirk: Before I started working with Toontrack I had never played electronic drums in my life, so it was a big adjustment. It feels very different, and you have to get all the parameters set where the drums respond in a manner that represents how you play on an acoustic kit. I spent a lot of time getting my settings right. Since I only play e-drums in my studio, when I go on the road with Soilwork on my acoustic kit, I get shell-shocked. [laughs] My body isn’t used to [playing so hard], and two songs into the set my fingers are cramping up and my shoulders are hurting. I tend to have that issue. I do get a little bit lazy behind the e-drums, because I don’t have to attack the drums in the same way I do my acoustic kit.
MD: How much of an impact has the Toontrack software had on your career?
Dirk: It’s definitely been a huge blessing. I haven’t had the chance to live in a place where I could easily set up acoustic drums, let alone have a studio. I also don’t know anything about different microphones and compressors, etc. The Toontrack software is real easy to use and sounds great from the get-go. It’s allowed me to make a living off of drumming; without it, I wouldn’t be doing a bunch of the sessions I’m doing. I’m very happy I spent the time to learn it. It’s amazing software.
MD: When you complete a track, do you EQ it at all, or do you send raw files?
Dirk: I send everyone raw files, just the same as it would be if it were done on acoustic drums. I make sure everything is good as far as the velocities go, because that’s one of the hardest things to get right when playing e-drums. I always talk with the artist about who’s producing it to find out if they’re familiar with e-drum recordings, and I try to find out any particulars the producer would want from me. Sometimes I’ll add some EQ, but usually it’s a raw file.
MD: How long does it typically take you to track a song once you receive it?
Dirk: Of course it depends on the style of music. Some songs are a lot more work than others, but it can be anywhere from a couple hours to an afternoon or evening. The next day I’ll go through it and make sure all the velocities are okay, and I’ll remove any double triggers or pollution that comes naturally with e-drums. Over time I’ve developed a good sensibility for connecting with the groove of the song. Some people send me programmed drum tracks and want very specific things, while other people send me raw drum tracks or just guitar and tell me to play whatever I want. It varies, but I think it’s helped me grow as a drummer.
MD: You’ve also done some touring work as a hired gun. You played some shows with the Norwegian black metal band Satyricon on pretty short notice. That seems like a difficult task to pull off. How did you prepare?
Dirk: Yeah, that was very interesting. It was very short notice, and also very specific, because [vocalist/multi-instrumentalist] Satyr wanted the drum parts to be very close to how Frost plays. Luckily I’m familiar with the band. I’ve listened to them for a long time, and I know how Frost sounds. He has his own style, and I tried to emulate it.
I had two days from when I got the call to when I had to leave to go join them for the shows. I basically played drums for two days straight, studying the parts as much as I could. And I made sheet music for each song. That was the only way I could have done it, with all the cues and little changes between live versions and studio versions. It was something like sixteen songs, some of which are seven or eight minutes long. It would have been impossible for me to do those shows without having charts. This is another big thing I put in my drum lessons. I learned how to write charts while at music school, and it’s something I work on with my students. Knowing how to write charts can be the difference between getting a gig and not getting a gig.
MD: What information do you include on your charts?
Dirk: I do an outline of the song’s structure on the left side of the page, and on the right side I’ll write out any beats, cues, or stuff that’s important for me to remember. I try to keep them as clear and condensed as possible, because I don’t want to be reading a book on stage. I try to find a balance that works.
MD: What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
Dirk: Soilwork is recording a new album now. We just got a new management deal that we’re real happy about. It’s going to be good for us moving ahead, and we want to come out big with the next record. There was a good response to our last album, The Living Infinite, so it’s time to step up our profile. This lineup has been together for a number of years now, we get along very well, and we’re all on the same page creatively. We also have a new live DVD out, which we shot at a show in Helsinki with an extra-long set list.
Then there’s Tronos, which is a project that’s been in the works for a while. It was started by [Napalm Death bass player] Shane Embury and producer Russ Russell. They sent me some songs and asked me to play drums on them, and they were stoked with what I played. They also invited a bunch of other people to play on it, like bassists Billy Gould [Faith No More] and Troy Sanders [Mastodon]. It’s not at all grindcore. It’s very dark, atmospheric music, but it’s one of those projects that takes time to get off the ground because of everyone’s schedules.
MD: Your approach to doing fill-in dates and how you go about managing your session work must lead to getting referrals.
Dirk: Yes. For example, all the guys in Satyricon have tons of other projects going on, and as soon as I got home, I got a gig with a band that’s related to one of the guys. I’m also working on a project with one of the guys in Satyricon that’s just getting underway.
When you’re prepared and things go well, the result is often more gigs and opportunities.
Drums: Tama Starclassic Maple in silver snow racing-stripe finish (in Sweden; uses Starclassic Performer Bubinga/Birch in the U.S.)
A. 5.5×14 Starphonic Maple snare (for the studio; uses 4×14 Artwood live)
B. 14×16 floor tom
C. 8×10 tom
D. 9×12 tom
E. 12×14 floor tom
F. 18×22 bass drum
1. 8″ Classics Low Bell
2. 14″ Mb20 Heavy Soundwave hi-hats
3. 14″ Generation X Trash Hat (used as China)
4. 12″ Mb20 Rock splash
5. 17″ Heavy crash
6. 19″ Heavy crash
7. 10″ Mb20 Rock splash
8. 20″ Heavy crash
9. 14″ Byzance Dark hi-hats
10. 22″ Mb20 Heavy Bell ride
11. 18″ Classics Custom Extreme Metal China
Heads: Evans, including G2 Coated snare and tom batters (in the studio; uses Hybrid and EC2 SST models live) and GMAD bass drum batter
Hardware: Tama, including Speed Cobra Midnight Special double pedal
Sticks: Tama Dirk Verbeuren Signaturemodel
Accessories: dB Groove shoes, Tama gloves, Alien Ears in-ear monitors
Die Crawling Studio Setup
Roland V-Drums TD-10, Rain Ion computer, Steinberg Cubase/Nuendo DAW, Toontrack Superior Drummer 2 software with Toontrack EZX expansion packs