By creating layers of complex rhythms that complement Dream Theater’s epic arrangements, “the new guy” is ushering in a bold and exciting era for the band, its fans, and progressive rock music itself.
When the shocking news broke that Dream Theater cofounding member Mike Portnoy was no longer the drummer with the band, the progressive metal community went on high alert, as rumors spread of auditions and chat rooms went ablaze with gossip about the group’s future. At first the Dream Theater camp went into media lockdown. Behind closed doors, however, privately held auditions were being filmed for a three-part, reality-TV-style documentary called The Spirit Carries On, which would tell the tale of the seven world-class drummers chosen to audition over the course of three days at SIR studios in New York City. The release of the video was timed to coincide with the introduction of the band’s new drummer and the announcement of the appropriately titled new recording, A Dramatic Turn of Events.
The handpicked list of progressive and metal drumming elite chosen to audition included Mike Mangini, Marco Minnemann, Virgil Donati, Thomas Lang, Derek Roddy, Aquiles Priester, and Peter Wildoer. It was obvious from the videos that many of these monster players could cover the gig. The deciding factor was who would be the best fit, both musically and personally. After careful deliberation and intense dissection of the video performances, it was a unanimous Dream Theater decision that the right person to fill this prestigious, much-scrutinized role was former Steve Vai drummer and Berklee instructor Mike Mangini. It was clear from Mangini’s reaction to the news that this was the greatest
Eleven years after leaving the Vai gig and a posh lifestyle in Los Angeles in order to move back to Boston to begin a teaching career and start a family, Mangini is finally enjoying the fruits of his labor. Mike has effectively had the golden torch of prog metal drumming passed directly to him, and on the new DT release he takes full artistic advantage, injecting the highly evolved technique of the new breed of super-drummers into the complex odd-meter structures that the progressive genre is noted for. By employing his own Rhythm Knowledge method and advanced four-way independence, he has been able to orchestrate rhythmically dense drum parts in a musical context, elevating an already adventurous band approach further than most observers imagined possible.
In Hungary, after personally witnessing the final concert of the group’s first European tour with Mangini at the helm, this observer could clearly feel that the fans were ecstatic about Dream Theater’s decision on the keeper of the throne. Mangini’s solo was focused, dense, powerful, and unnoticeably played to a click (to keep within time constraints). Despite the wickedly demanding material, Mike’s completely in-sync contributions to the song arrangements were nothing short of commanding—and the drummer put on a real show visually to boot, stabbing ambidextrously at his sky-high Chinas and egging on his mates with metal grimaces and sly grins.
His playful stage manner aside, Mangini is taking his new role in DT extremely seriously, and he’s clearly aware that he’s filling some big shoes, replacing Modern Drummer Hall of Famer Mike Portnoy. There had been much speculation about how—and if—Dream Theater would carry on without Portnoy. But all of these questions seem to have been answered convincingly by the fans’ positive reaction to the new music and to Mangini’s riveting performances on tour. For Mike and for Dream Theater alike, it has truly been a dramatic turn of events.
MD: How does it feel to be back on the road after eleven years, touring in a high-profile band?
Mike: For many reasons, it’s much sweeter this time around. I truly appreciate every little thing. It feels amazing because my eyes are a little more open this time and I’m smelling all the roses.
MD: Your decision to leave Steve Vai and move back to Boston was a bold move. You stepped out of a high-profile gig with the possibility of never returning as a big-stage performer.
Mike: It was all about faith and economics. Including Dream Theater, I have had forty-five auditions or competitions in my career, and I’ve won all of them. I believe this has happened because I have a system that works and because I pick things that I really want to do. I’ve always had a strong belief in doing what feels right at the time.
My drive to start a family was primary when I left Steve Vai. Once I had made that decision, the economics stepped in when I discovered that I could double my income by teaching and doing clinics. This was wonderful for several years. I had my family, my house, and a great job, but I was starting to feel the urge to be in a band again. My wife even noticed and encouraged me to look for a band to start working with.
MD: Has your time teaching at Berklee helped sharpen your skills for touring and recording with Dream Theater?
Mike: Absolutely. It was as much the students as it was the environment and my fellow faculty. I was always inspired when I would listen to other faculty members perform. And the students—who I had an incredible bond with—helped me to grow as a player by sharing new ideas and turning me on to a lot of drummers that I would have otherwise never heard of.
Teaching has always made me a better player because I’m forced to keep on the cutting edge of what’s happening in the drumming world. But working at the school as a full-time faculty member was starting to consume way more time than I was comfortable with. And my old sports injuries were not helping matters.
MD: What types of injuries?
Mike: My right knee was destroyed from three decades of sports injuries. I finally found out why my upper leg was dying. I literally could not hold my leg up and began to have trouble walking. That’s when I went to see a doctor and had surgery on my knee. I’m fully recovered now, and my leg is stronger than ever.
MD: Let’s talk about how the new Dream Theater album was recorded. Did they send you a finished demo and ask you to emulate the drum tracks?
Mike: First off, after they informed me that I had the gig, nothing happened for several months. We just talked and really got to know each other. I still had my full-time job at Berklee and outside work, and I was busy keeping up with that. [Guitarist] John Petrucci sent me a demo that wasn’t supposed to be on the new record. I listened to his drum machine part and learned it first, and then I began to alter it the way I wanted to. And that’s actually how he ended up sending all the rest of the new material. But I didn’t have time to really dig into all the tunes. The songs were complex and epic. So I spent most of my time transcribing the tunes away from the kit, and with the time I had left I practiced the material on the kit. Once I began learning the new material on the kit, I was able to orchestrate a combination of his drum machine parts and ideas that I wanted to play.
In the middle of all this, because I couldn’t tell anyone about the gig, I had to move the equivalent of three full drumkits up and down three flights of stairs by myself. And when I opened the boxes of drums, which have thick copper staples, I dislocated a bone in my wrist. I couldn’t play for eight days after that. So I listened to the music and worked with my feet the best I could.
MD: How did you approach learning older DT material for the first tour?
Mike: By watching the band’s DVDs and learning the material from the videos. By playing along with the DVDs I got a great feel for how to best approach the catalog, and then I altered my kit to accommodate the material. What that did was allow me time to change my setup so that when I came out of the studio to go on tour, I didn’t have to readjust my touring rig.
MD: What was the recording experience like when you finally got to the studio?
Mike: When I got to the studio, John said, “Just go ahead and play, and let’s see what happens.” The first song we recorded was “On the Backs of Angels,” and he liked what I played but asked me to try some different things in a couple of sections. We would reference the demo for certain parts, which was very helpful. So between his demo drums and my ideas, we were able to agree on parts that we were both happy with. I worked strictly with John to produce all the tracks.
MD: With such complex and lengthy compositions, what is your process for learning and memorizing the drum parts?
Mike: First I outline it on paper. Then I sectionalize things. Once I have the arrangement sectionalized, I can get more microscopic with understanding what I need to learn. I also listen for specific parts. What would have been evident if you’d seen my entire audition was that I clearly knew everyone’s parts. When I outline a song, it’s with everyone’s parts in mind.
For example, in the opening section of “On the Backs of Angels,” I’m playing the syncopated string-instrument parts with my feet while I’m playing Jordan Rudess’s keyboard part with one hand on the little stack and keeping the snare on the backbeat. And that was not just five minutes of practice. That took some time and was microscopic. I don’t get to that point until I look at the whole song and start to jot down ideas based on what I’m hearing. Then I start to attack the hardest thing first.
MD: Can you go into more depth about how you outline each track?
Mike: I taught a course on this at Berklee, and I call this type of outline a block form. This helps convert lengthy notated charts to the language of a physical shape and reduce it to half a page. And it’s got to be half a page so you can tape it to the rim of a drum or to a cymbal stand.
It’s basically a picture of the song in blocks. There’s a left column with numbers in order, starting with 1. Next to the first number would be the first phrase of the song with a specific number of bars, time signature changes, etc. Then you would go to number 2 and chart it out the same way, so you can start to see the similarities within each section and memorize the song in blocks, or sections. I can see arrangements of some of the new songs in my mind while I’m speaking right now, because I wrote them in block form and then added the music notation. And then I can get microscopic from there and expand the format by writing detailed musical notation of a very specific and complex part. Then I’ll go back to the block form to memorize the entire arrangement. It helps me to actually see the structure of the song in my head.
MD: What was the most challenging aspect of this new recording?
Mike: It was maintaining the velocity of my playing with my legs and feet. I had not fully recovered from my knee surgery, and every bass drum hit was maximum velocity, with the beater buried into the head. I’d never played that way in the studio, and I was just doing it to test the drums. Then John said, “You’ve got to hit it like that when we record.” Even though the song tempos are not extremely fast, it was very difficult to maintain that intensity for every song throughout the entire recording.
MD: How do you develop your oddmeter grooves and make them musical within such complex arrangements?
Mike: My thought process is totally about picking the main frequencies that best fit the music and then catching the key phrase points while keeping a consistent meter. My favorite drum machine parts from the demos were the ones that hit the key phrase points in the music. Most of my embellishments to the demo drums were to catch more of these key points.
For example, on the track “Outcry,” my snare is hitting every seventh beat, while I’m playing in two different time signatures with my hands and feet. Frequency-wise, the cymbals are following Jordan’s keys, while the bass drum is following the bass and guitar and the snare drum is dividing the beat. Within all this, something has to keep a consistent meter, and it has to be frequency-based. That’s why I have so many drums and cymbals, so I can choose the correct frequency to match the pitch and timbre of the other instruments.
MD: How and when did you decide that this type of advanced drumming would be your calling card?
Mike: I believe that our musicality is a gift. We showed up on earth, and we were each given a gift. The other side is developing the skill, which leaves it open for anybody to make the decision to sacrifice and learn how to do this, if they have the calling. Not everyone has the calling to do what I do. It’s unfair for people who don’t understand this type of drumming to say negative things about what guys like me or Marco Minnemann or Virgil Donati do, because they really don’t understand the whole concept. The thing that makes this type of drumming limitless is the musicality of what you can create.
I was trained as an orchestral drummer, so I’m going to play Dream Theater songs differently from someone who has a totally different musical background. I think that every musician should follow their calling and be the best at whatever that calling may be.
MD: How do you feel about your playing with Dream Theater so far?
Mike: I feel so much better than I imagined I would feel. My whole joy with this band has to do with a completion in my life—to finally work with a band that appreciates what I do and why I do it. The fans that have come to the shows so far have accepted me so graciously and have made me feel like I’ve been in the Dream Theater family for years. I really needed that.
One of the most important things that the audition documentary did for the fans was to let them see that I really did want to be in this band and that I took the Dream Theater music very seriously. Every show gets better because I’m now focusing on the microscopic. We only had one full run through of the entire two-hour set before we played our first show. All the rest of our time was spent working on the new gear for the tour. But it really is a whole different world for the band with me on stage. I’m not a showman. My job is to support the music and shift the focus from the drummer to the rest of the band. I am as enamored with their playing as the fans are, so I’m enjoying watching them and giving them the support they need to shine on stage.
MD: A big difference in the new music is that the band sounds more refined. It’s quite an accomplishment for you to fit right in after having stepped into a band that has such a long and strong history. That says a lot about your musicianship and professionalism.
Mike: I believe that when you make a decision for the right reasons, usually the right things happen. We all have to decide if we’re going after a gig for all the right reasons. Do I really want the gig because I love the music, or do I want it because there might be more money to be made? I wanted to be in Dream Theater because I love the music and I love the players in the band.
MD: You have some of the fastest hands in the business. How did you develop your technique?
Mike: I developed my speed and strength by practicing patterns such as paradiddles and odd single-stroke groupings between the two farthest instruments on the drumkit, from left to right. This develops the muscle groups of the entire body. Developing accuracy and power with such distance makes it easier—and strengthens the accuracy and power—from short distances, which is where we do the majority of our playing on the kit.
The bulk of my speed comes from the wrist and the top and bottom of the forearm, which is also an extension of my back and shoulder muscles. The source of the power comes from the flexing of the larger muscle groups. It’s the same technique as the Bruce Lee punch. If you study the Bruce Lee punch, you’ll see his entire body flex before he throws a punch. This produces the extra strength and velocity to knock someone over from an inch away.
MD: How do the fingers come into play in your hand technique?
Mike: My finger control comes mainly from the thumb muscle. The fingers are mainly used to simply hold the stick in place. I may use them occasionally for more subtle, jazzy-type playing. But most of my stick technique, power, and speed are derived from the larger muscle groups.
MD: You developed a system years ago for counting and learning endless patterns with any limb, called Rhythm Knowledge. Explain how this system has helped you in learning and creating your drum parts for Dream Theater.
Mike: My Rhythm Knowledge system consists of techniques in behavioral change. It’s a mechanical approach based on how we function as human beings. I’ve broken down the behavioral change into a few simple categories: pattern recognition, body management, and mind management.
Pattern recognition, using the binary system, breaks down every possible rhythm into either an odd or an even pattern. The human brain is not hardwired to understand polyrhythms. That’s why progressive music is not very popular. You have to earn the privilege of understanding and appreciating odd rhythms, if you’re interested. The human brain does not immediately understand odd rhythms, which makes people uncomfortable. How can anyone enjoy or appreciate oddmeter music when they don’t understand what it is? Rhythm Knowledge targets the odd patterns because they are the most difficult to learn and understand.
I target the prime numbers because after two, all prime numbers are odd. My system develops pattern recognition between one and nineteen. My “not quite doubled” system explains how to easily understand these patterns. If people can recognize the prime-number patterns, then their brain can digest what they’re listening to, and they’ll have a better chance of enjoying it and playing it. What bothers me about this subject is that the bulk of the world, which doesn’t understand this music or drumming style, considers this type of playing unmusical. Again, the main reason for that is simply because people have not developed their listening skills to understand and enjoy music based on odd rhythms. It’s an advanced art form that one has to really study to appreciate.
MD: Can you give some playing examples from the new DT recording that exemplify how the Rhythm Knowledge system has helped you create more interesting drum parts?
Mike: In the second half of the instrumental section of the song “Outcry,” I use both left- and right-handed combinations within different time signatures, simultaneously. These ideas are all based on making the rhythm as musical as possible; it’s not so much about the technique involved. In this particular section, there are multiple time changes. There are forty-nine 8th notes in the section, which are repeated four times and can be interpreted in many ways. The band is subdividing most of them into groups of two and three. On the first and third passages, I play all the two- and three-note groupings and also change ride sources so the listener can follow the groupings. On the second and fourth passages, one ride source plays all the time changes while my other three limbs play in a different time signature. During the second section, my feet are filling the gaps and designating a larger time signature to create a groove. The very last time, I’m hitting the snare every seventh 8th note, because there are forty-nine notes in the pattern and seven divides evenly into forty-nine.
We also move into a 7/8 section following this passage. So by setting up the final section by accenting every seventh note, I’m preparing the listener for the upcoming 7/8 section. The musical purpose is to create interesting grooves and let people experience how these time changes sound within a totally different rhythmic feel. This makes it fun for the listener who understands the rhythmic concepts that are created through these advanced subdivisions.
Technically, it’s my Rhythm Knowledge approach that allows me to easily find various combinations that work in a musical context. It’s executing these complex lefty-righty combinations that’s difficult. But if it can enhance the musical experience, it’s worth the pain to create it. Rhythm Knowledge has helped me every step of the way in my experience with Dream Theater—the audition, learning the songs, the recording sessions, our live performances, and every aspect of my behavior within the band.
Because Rhythm Knowledge is based on developing the senses and understanding how your mind and body work, I was able to use my eyes to pick up on the hand and body motion of the band members during my audition, which helped me learn where they were feeling the beat when we jammed. My ears also picked up on the patterns they played, and I was able to subdivide the groupings in my head based on pattern recognition. On the gigs, I hear my voice in my head, along with a click, whether it’s physical or internal. I hear the patterns in layers in my mind and base my timing off them. That’s how I stay accurate with my time, whether I’m listening from an external source or in my head. These are the greatest assets that I’ve developed from my Rhythm Knowledge method of learning.
SHARING THE GIFT
MD: How would you explain how you were able to reach this career pinnacle now, at age forty-eight?
Mike: I have chosen a belief system that has helped me understand what I’ll leave behind once I’m gone from this planet. What my belief system dictates is that I will be answering for the choices I’ve made in my life. I want to know that I tried to do something special with the gifts and opportunities I was given. There’s a direct correlation between the gift of being chosen to carry the rhythmic torch for progressive music with Dream Theater and my desire to share the gifts that I’ve been given to create new rhythmic concepts and express my art to the best of my abilities. At forty-eight years old, this sums up my entire career and my musical purpose in life.
JOHN PETRUCCI on Mike Mangini
Dream Theater’s guitarist gives Mangini high points for preparedness and professionalism.
MD: What was it about Mike Mangini’s audition that convinced you that he was the right drummer for the band?
John: Mike’s audition could be used as a model for what any musician should do when they audition for a band. He did everything right. We already knew Mike was an amazing drummer based on his track record with Steve Vai and our previous experiences with him. He came into the audition very personable, friendly, and calm, and totally prepared.
The first thing we did was run through three of our songs—and he played them perfectly. We didn’t warm up or practice, we just jumped right into the music. We could have easily played a gig that night with him. He learned our music the way it was recorded, which was really comforting to us because we had never played with another drummer. We liked the fact that this wasn’t just another gig to him, that it was something he would really be proud to be a part of, and that he would handle the catalog respectfully, for Mike Portnoy and for our fans.
Mike really felt like one of us from the beginning. I feel that if he had grown up in my neighborhood, we would have been good friends. He’s an East Coast guy, a Berklee guy, and married with kids, and he’s all about practicing and perfecting his craft.
MD: What was it like working with Mike for the first time in the studio?
John: After the audition, we were confident that we had made the right choice, and we were basing the upcoming studio experience off the amazing stories that James [LaBrie, singer] told us about working with Mike in the studio on his solo recording. Mike totally proved that to be true. He had all the songs charted out. He played through them from beginning to end, which I wasn’t expecting at all. He was very open to direction and ideas. But he also had multiple ideas of his own, ready to try as alternatives to the demo versions, and they were all amazing.
But the most impressive thing that he did was catch all the nuances of the other instruments, which made for a more interesting drum performance and a more interesting recording. He came in and played to our demo tracks, and then we went back in and rerecorded our tracks to his drum parts. He hit really hard too, which made the drums sound really full and punchy on the recording.
Like me, Mike is a perfectionist, so we see eye to eye on getting all the notes to be as “on” as humanly possible. He nailed it!
MD: What does Mike Mangini bring to Dream Theater that differs from what Mike Portnoy brought to the band?
John: To be fair to Mike Mangini, it’s too early to make comparisons. I’ve been playing and writing music with Mike Portnoy forever. It was very comfortable for us to be creative, and we’ve always shared a wonderful chemistry. My experiences with Mike Mangini are so new that there hasn’t been time to really develop that type of relationship. But I believe that in time we’ll be able to answer those questions.
I predict that it’s going to be wonderful. I know that Mike’s hungry to dive into new territory with the band, since the new music was essentially written without him. I know that he writes and he’s got a creative mind. When we jam, he picks things up immediately, and he has great ideas. So I have the feeling that the creative juices will flow easily between us.
THE BIG RIG: MIKE’S SETUP
MD: There’s been plenty of talk about your massive Dream Theater drumkit. Have you made any changes based on the outcome of the first tour?
Mike: The most recent additions to my kit are the Pearl Tru-Trac electronic pads to trigger percussion sounds. This keeps me from having to carry a load of percussion to cover all the parts from the previous DT catalog. I’m also changing my tom batter heads. I’m getting away from the Remo Pinstripe and changing to Remo clear black-dot heads. With all the mics on the live kit, it’s hard to EQ the Pinstripe the way I intend for them to sound. The black-dot heads naturally remove the 400–500 Hz frequencies that I want eliminated and increase the frequency and attack I want to hear. I’m also changing to clear black dots on my 26″ and 18″ bass drums. And I’m going back to Remo Clear Powerstroke 3s on my 22″ bass drums.
MD: So the drum and cymbal choices that you originally made when designing the kit have worked well so far?
Mike: Yes, amazingly well. I worked very hard at designing what I was going to hit, and where I was going to hit it, based on learning all of Mike Portnoy’s drum parts, along with creating my parts for the new record. I’ve designed the perfect kit to get the best from both worlds.
Drums: Pearl Reference Pure series
5 1/2×14 snare
6×10 mini snare
10″ ePro electronic bass drum
16×26 bass drum
18×22 bass drum
16×18 bass drum
16×16 floor tom
16×18 floor tom
16×20 gong drum
10″ ePro pad mounted on 10″ Rhythm Traveler shell
12×6 aluminum Cannon tom
15×6 aluminum Cannon tom
18×6 aluminum Cannon tom
21×6 aluminum Cannon tom
19″ Rezo crash
20″ A Custom China
17″ K Thin Dark crash
17″ K Custom Fast crash
16″ K EFX crash
19″ Z3 China
18″ A Custom Medium crash
18″ Oriental China Trash on top of 14″ Trashformer
20″ Earth ride (discontinued, now 20″ A Custom)
14″ A Custom hi-hats (remote)
13″ ZBT hi-hats (X-hat)
8″ K splash
10″ Oriental Trash splash
13″ Oriental China Trash on top of 10″ Trashformer
8″ ZHT China splash
12″ Oriental China Trash on top of 10″ Trashformer
6″ Zil-Bel on top of tambourine
13″ K/Z hi-hats (remote)
13″ New Beat hi-hats (X-hat)
20″ A Custom ride (now 20″ Z3 Rock ride)
14″ Oriental China Trash on top of 14″ Trashformer
20″ Oriental China Trash on top of 20″ Crash of Doom
Sticks: Zildjian Mike Mangini Signature model (63 grams)
Heads: Remo, including Coated Controlled Sound bottom dot on snares, clear black dot tom and gong drum batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, Clear Powerstroke 3 on 22″ bass drums, and clear black dot on 18″ and 26″ bass drums
Hardware: Pearl, including custom ICON rack, single Demon Drive pedal on 22″ bass drums, righty Eliminator belt-drive pedal for 18″ bass drum and ePro pad, lefty Eliminator belt-drive pedal for 26″ bass drum and ePro pad, and two RH-2000 cable hi-hats Percussion: Pearl tambourine, wind chimes, and ePro Tru-Trac pads with percussion sounds triggered from the r.e.d.box; Vater black and glow-in-the-dark skull-shaped Slick Nut cymbal fasteners
Mics: Shure, including Beta 98A on rack toms, Beta 27 on floor toms, SM57 on main snare, Beta 52A on bass drums, KSM137 on cymbals, and KSM32 overheads
Note: Identifying letters and numbers were intentionally left off Mangini’s setup photo to allow for a clearer view of the kit. Specific questions about Mike’s gear can be addressed to MD’s It’s Questionable department by clicking on the Contact link at moderndrummer.com.