The prog-drumming vet may have recently scored a sweet new corporate gig, but he hasn’t stopped making music by any means—in fact, he’s cleverly put the two aspects of his life together, in the process making his career troubles disappear.
Imagine earning the right to be called a successful touring and recording drummer, known for your work with Tears for Fears, Spock’s Beard, Big Big Train, Genesis, and Mike Keneally, and being told you can’t, and won’t, take the stage to perform for an elaborate rhythmic-based acrobatic production to be seen by audiences all over the world.
Imagine an occupation in which making yourself scarce is a job requirement and, in fact, for over 1,400 performances, you’ll be relegated to a sound booth, out of sight, while the action unfolds on—and above—the stage.
Drummer and multi-instrumentalist Nick D’Virgilio doesn’t have to suspend disbelief: he lived it. Despite securing the assistant musical director position for Cirque du Soleil’s Totem production, D’Virgilio was effectively the drumming (and perhaps theatrical) community’s longest running magic act: musician as invisible man.
After his five-year “absence,” D’Virgilio bolted to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to take a full-time job with Sweetwater Sound, the largest online music instrument retailer in the country, working as the company’s in-house drummer for its onsite studios. Upon settling into his position, D’Virgilio revisited demos of music he’d been working on for years, inspired by his experiences behind some of the world’s most iconic acts. Although unfinished, these tracks found their way to Sweetwater recording engineer/producer Mark Hornsby, who urged Nick to finish his musical project.
Then it dawned on them: Nick’s songs could be recorded at Sweetwater Studios as a solo album and showcase the state-of-the-art facilities as well as the many drum brands the MI behemoth services. Not long after, what emerged was a fourteen-track concept record, Invisible, co-produced by D’Virgilio and partially inspired by Nick’s Cirque seclusion.
Tracks on Invisible range from the symphonic power rocker “Overcome” and the driving metal-dub of “Mercy” to an electronic/psychedelic update of the Berry Gordy–produced Tamla classic “Money (That’s What I Want),” the mid-tempo ballad “Where’s the Passion?,” a funky gem in 5/4 titled “In My Bones,” and the R&B/disco-esque “I’m Gone.”
“The vendors are a major reason I was able to make the record I did,” says D’Virgilio. “Since I do product-review videos now, I couldn’t endorse one company while promoting another company’s gear. That meant I was endorsing all brands. It’s like Disneyland for drums, here, man. It’s insane.”
MD: Invisible seems to resonate more than your first solo studio record, Karma, from 2001. Maybe it has something to do with having matured twenty years?
Nick: With Karma I was younger and way greener as a writer. I thought my drumming was up to snuff, but I hadn’t written as much as I had played drums, comparatively speaking. I wish I could have done more solo recordings earlier in my career, but I have more of a grasp of what I can do as a writer now.
MD: That’s one side of the equation. How have you grown as a drummer since Karma?
Nick: Listen, I’ve been playing drums since I was four years old, and I spent a lot of time listening to music and learning all kinds of different styles. By the time I did Karma I’d been in a few different bands, and Spock’s Beard was going on and I did Tears for Fears and the Genesis record [1997’s Calling All Stations]. I learned how to sculpt a drum track. It was always about pocket and groove to me, more than anything else. As a player I got the most work as a professional by being able to sit back and lock into the beat and keep good time, and I think that rubbed off on the music and in the studio.
MD: How did you get the Tears for Fears gig?
Nick: All the big gigs that happened early in my career were a result of having met Kevin Gilbert [Sheryl Crow, Toy Matinee]. Kevin passed away at a very young age, in 1996. He and Sheryl Crow were boyfriend/girlfriend back in those times, and he was one of the main songwriters of the Tuesday Night Music Club, which became the title of her first big record. I was a fan of his. I met him randomly at a local ski resort, outside Los Angeles. We started talking and he called me six months later to play at a progressive-rock festival in Los Angeles, Progfest. He wanted to play the Genesis record The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway for its twentieth anniversary.
MD: The band was called Giraffe.
Nick: Exactly. Kevin remembered that I talked about Phil Collins and Genesis. He also had a record out called Thud, and he asked me to join his band. I went from being a local L.A. drummer, just hustling, trying to take any gig I could get—cover bands and weddings, lots of networking—to being in a group of people playing bigger gigs. That led me to Brian MacLeod, who played on the Sheryl Crow records and was one of the songwriters. Brian played drums on the Tears for Fears record Raoul and the Kings of Spain , and when it came time to tour, he wanted to stay home and work on his band, Kaviar. He recommended me to [Tears for Fears’] Roland Orzabal.
While I was on the road with Tears for Fears, Kevin called me, telling me Phil Collins quit Genesis and they might be auditioning drummers. I found [Genesis manager] Tony Smith’s Hit and Run Music in London, and I invited him to the Tears for Fears show that night, thinking it would be a great audition. I gave him a Spock’s Beard CD, but I didn’t hear back for months. Then one Sunday morning I got a call from Nick Davis, Genesis’s producer and main engineer, and he asked me to send him more material, which I did. Then they flew me to England to audition.
MD: How familiar were you with the songs that would appear on Calling All Stations?
Nick: I didn’t know any of them. I had these wild fantasies that I would go there and we were going to jam on old Genesis tunes. I went to their studio, The Farm [in Surrey], and they had demos of the songs, with programmed drums, and I just listened to them a couple of times and played them, with some direction from the guys. A month later they called me back and said they wanted me to do it for real.
MD: When the guys gave you direction, did they reference anything Phil had played in earlier recordings?
Nick: I don’t think they said, “Don’t play like Phil.” I think that sort of style comes out in my playing naturally. Between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, Genesis was all I played to. I knew every song that they ever made with Phil on drums. Top to bottom. I knew Brand X stuff [Collins’ fusion side band], what he did with Brian Eno…. As a kid, Phil Collins was my favorite drummer and Genesis was my favorite band. To do an audition for them was surreal to me.
MD: Let’s get back to Invisible. Did you feel overlooked at some point in your life, for any reason?
Nick: I got a job with Cirque du Soleil, playing on a show called Totem. I did that gig for almost five years. My wife and I and our two kids, who were ten and twelve at the time, moved to Montreal. It wasn’t until we got to the States that they told me I would be playing in a drum booth, behind the stage. No one was going to see me. I’ve seen a lot of Cirque shows in my day, and while the band is not the focal point—it’s all about the acrobats—you still see the musicians. Well, with our show, you see musicians; you just don’t see the drummer. [laughs]
Nick: They were worried about volume. They told me, “You have to be in a booth and watch the show on a computer screen, and it will all be synched.” At the beginning it was a sour taste in my mouth. But it brought up that word invisible: nobody can see me back here. Actually, it really turned out to be a great thing. I did perform onstage in a limited manner, but I became assistant bandleader and then conducted shows a couple of times a week.
MD: How did this lead to Sweetwater?
Nick: The reason I left Cirque was that there were some corporate cutbacks in the company. The schooling option, the benefit for families who were traveling, went away. After five years and so many shows, it was time for a change. I was planning on moving back home to Los Angeles when one of my best friends, the engineer, mixer, and producer of Invisible, Mark Hornsby, had been coming back and forth to Sweetwater, doing Pro Tools master classes. He started a relationship with owner Chuck Surack, who brought Mark on as the studio manager. It was Mark’s idea to build an in-house production team, so when people come to record, everything would be built-in. I’m talking mastering engineers to bass, drums, guitar, artwork, photography for packaging…. Mark came up with the idea that we get all of the drum vendors that we do business with at Sweetwater to come onboard for this project.
MD: Mark helped make the introduction for you at Sweetwater?
Nick: When Mark found out Cirque was finishing, he went to bat for me and got me a job here. Bringing me in was to help expand the drum business. Sweetwater later brought in Randy Pratt, who was a drum and percussion buyer. Randy passed away in 2015.
MD: How does Spock’s Beard figure into any of this?
Nick: The Spock’s Beard reunion [2018’s Noise Floor] came out of doing one of our master classes here. We get artists of all kinds in here for three or four days for educational purposes, so people can learn how these artists record in the studio and get their sound.
MD: What are these studios like?
Nick: There are three rooms. We have this huge campus, so the studios, the conference rooms, our theater, and the musical pavilion out back, were designed by a guy named Russ Berger, a very famous studio designer out of Dallas.
MD: Did the gear guide your playing?
Nick: For sure. As you probably are aware, as a session drummer, if you go into the studio to record for somebody, you don’t always play the brand you’re endorsing. For Invisible, I use a different kit for every song. Then there were a couple of songs where I made hodgepodge kits. “Snake Oil Salesman” has a piece of gear from every brand that participated: Sonor, Tama, Pearl, DW, Gretsch, Mapex, Ludwig, a Yamaha kick drum, and a Trick titanium snare drum. Plus, various cymbal brands like Zildjian, Paiste, Sabian, and Evans, Remo, and Aquarian heads. We used DPA microphones. It sounds amazing.
MD: “Mercy” is a powerful track. How does it fit into the Invisible storyline?
Nick: I’ll take a step back and say the main character feels alone, as though he could die tomorrow and no one would care. Then over the course of the record, he realizes he’s not alone in feeling alone. By the time we get to “Mercy,” he gets on a subway train and stares out the window, which looks like a movie screen. He relives his life, envisioning it in the window. He has this feeling that something is out there for him. Eventually he has a near-death experience and finds that he does have a purpose. He’s here for a reason.
MD: Did you ever have a near-death experience?
Nick: I’ve never had one, but the more I thought about this subject, the more I drew on my own experiences in life. I’m a person of faith. It made my belief in the unseen and great unknown even stronger.
by Will Romano
Even in a world where everything everyone does seems to be documented in minute detail, the recording of Nick D’Virgilio’s Invisible stands out for the extremely comprehensive analysis applied to it by its makers. D’Virgilio played an entirely different drum rig for each of the album’s songs, and in a series of videos for Sweetwater, he revealed all the gear and recording equipment used in the process.
D’Virgilio also created a video for each tune, playing through the grooves and detailing even more of the compositional and technical minutiae. Furthermore, a documentary of the making of the album was shot at Sweetwater Studios in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Abbey Road in London, England. Not even the mics deployed to record D’Virgilio’s drums were left out of the information orgy, as a tour of the DPA microphone factory in Denmark was produced as well.
Modern Drummer is doing its part to add to the scrupulous reportage by interviewing co-producer/engineer Mark Hornsby about the studio techniques the Sweetwater team used to bring Invisible out into the light.
MD: As Nick changed drumkits for each song, what were some of the engineering challenges to ensuring that the sonic personalities of the different rigs were fully documented?
Mark: The first thing was deciding what microphones to use. One of the benefits of recording at Sweetwater Studios is that we have an incredible selection of microphones to choose from. It’s fairly common to choose dark or bright microphones to shape the source material of what you’re recording, such as using darker microphones on bright overhead cymbals, but we didn’t want to do that.
Aside from choosing the right kits, cymbals, sticks, and heads that served the songs musically, we wanted full transparency in capturing the nuances of each setup. We turned to DPA, which makes some of the most transparent mics in the business. They handle high SPLs, and they sound the same on axis as they do off axis—which is a big deal for recording drums. Once we had those things figured out, we used the same microphones, the same mic placement, and the same Rupert Neve Designs Shelford preamps for every kit on the album.
MD: What were the specific mics and mic positions used for all of the drum tracks?
Mark: We used the following DPA models for these positions:
• Inside kick: 2011A
• Outside kick: 4011
• Top of snare: 2011F
• Bottom of snare: 2011
• All toms: 4099D
• Left and right overheads: 4011C
• Center overhead: 4015
• Left- and right-side main room: 4006
• Left- and right-side isolation booth: 4041
MD: How long did it typically take to mike, audition, and begin recording for each set changeover?
Mark: It didn’t take long at all. We’re very used to working in Sweetwater’s Studio A, as we track live there quite often. The first song or two probably took the most time, because we had to figure what we were going to do. But once we had our formula, going from song to song was pretty seamless. The most time was spent checking drum tunings and how they fit into each song.
MD: Was any additional processing used during recording, and how did those techniques affect the relative transparency of the source sounds?
Mark: In general, the drums were recorded pretty flat, with us only cutting 350 Hz where needed. We also used a handful of Universal Audio 1176s for compression on the kick, snare, and room mics.
MD: Were any adjustments made to allow for Nick’s attack and approach to different songs?
Mark: Honestly, nothing that we recall. We’ve been working on albums together for more than twenty years. There are probably a lot of subtle things we do subconsciously when going from track to track, but nothing major comes to mind.
MD: Any cool recording tips to share?
Mark: The edges on the drums these days are perfect, and when heads are tuned up, sometimes the drums sustain for a long time. This can be great or too much, depending on what you’re going for, so we used cotton to dampen the toms where needed. You take good-ol’ cotton balls, spread them out a bit—almost the size of your open hand—and drop them inside the drums. The cotton trick makes it so you can adjust the length of the sustain without taking away any of the attack or tone. More cotton means less sustain, and less cotton means more sustain. It’s mainly only needed on the floor toms. Smaller drums don’t usually need it. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and it keeps us from having to put tape or other products on the batter heads, which can potentially alter the sound of the drum.
MD: Was there a basic approach to audio processing during the mixes?
Mark: Again, we were going for transparency and to preserve the natural sounds of the drums we were recording. We used the Massenburg DesignWorks Parametric EQ for some subtractive EQ in the lower midrange frequencies. Some compression—mostly the 1176s—was added to the kick, snare, and toms. If there was any mix “trick,” so to speak, it was that we added pretty drastic low-end to the tracks recorded in the isolation booth with the DPA 4041 mics. We really wanted to bring out the bottom end of the mics, and those tracks play a big role in the larger-than-life drum sounds you hear on some of the more rocking tracks on the album.
MD: How did you choose to pan the drums?
Mark: The drum panning you hear on the album is from the traditional drummer’s perspective [panned from the standpoint of the player sitting on the drums, rather than how the audience would hear them], which is simply our preference when recording a studio album. Additionally, the overheads were positioned in a left-center-right approach, and they are panned that way on the album.
MD: Is there anything else that stands out about the Invisible sessions?
Mark: This project was a massive undertaking, but we’re really glad we were able to do it in a way that didn’t distract from the music. It also allows us the opportunity to educate others about recording drums.