Sitting with Val Garay in his office at his studio, Record One, it is easy to see why artists enjoy working with him. He’s easygoing and warm. Even with all the hubbub and demands of the studio, he still puts his total concentration into this interview about drums and drummers.
Having engineered and/or produced such classic albums as Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like A Wheel, Prisoner In Disguise, Hasten Down The Wind, Simple Dreams, Living In The U.S.A., Mad Love, and Get Closer, James Taylor’s J.T. and Flag, Jackson Browne’s The Pretender, Kim Carnes’ Mistaken Identity (from which came the Grammy Award-winning “Bette Davis Eyes”), and the Motels’ All Four One and Little Robbers, Val has worked with an extensive amount of musicians. Drummers on his projects include Ed Greene, Russ Kunkel, Jeff Porcaro, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, Chuck Blackwell, Ringo Starr (on projects with Richard Perry), Charlie Watts, Craig Krampf, Chester Thompson, Hal Blaine, Nigel Olsson, John Guerin, Rick Marotta, and Andrew Gold, who drummed on some of Val’s tracks. Since drums are the crux of all records, in Val’s estimation, it is no surprise that he has definite ideas about the instrument and what he needs from a drummer.
RF: What do you require of a drummer in the studio?
VG: Primarily that the drummer hit the drums hard. It’s very important that drummers attack the drums. And time—I’m a fanatic for time. Some people who make records don’t realize it, but the layman is very accurate in terms of feeling time. There’s a clock that’s built into everybody, and if the time starts to get strange or differs from the front to the back of the song, people feel it. I work on getting drummers to play at the same speed at the end of the track as they had at the beginning. Craig Krampf is real good at that now, although he wasn’t when he first started working with me. I just sent him home with a metronome and told him to figure out where 1 comes once you play a fill through a bar. That’s the big mistake that drummers make. That’s the way they lose it. They usually don’t have any trouble playing straight time, but when they go to do a fill, that’s where the time starts to fall apart. If you play a fill with a metronome and you don’t end up on the click, you understand what’s happening. Craig worked at it real hard and got real good at it. He can play with a drum machine better than just about anybody I know.
RF: How do you feel about drum machines?
VG: I love them for a lot of reasons. One reason is because they are something new—new toys, new technology. You get bored doing the same thing over and over. Also, they open up a whole new world. I don’t think drum machines eliminate drummers, though. My favorite combination is a drummer playing with a drum machine. The drum machine plays, say, a cabasa and a tom-tom fill, and the drummer plays the kick, the snare, and the hi-hat against it. Or the drum machine plays just the kick and the snare, and the drummer plays the hi-hat figure, the tom fills, and the cymbals, which is a great combination. It’s funny how people are afraid of new technology sometimes. Craig Krampf once made an interesting comment about it. He said that, when they first came out, he was afraid of them, because he was worried that they might threaten what he does for a living. He said, “I figured out that I had to learn to work with them, not against them.” It’s true because there is a mentality that a drummer has. A keyboard player like Steve Goldstein, who works with me on almost everything, can program drum parts real well, but as a keyboard player, there is a certain mentality that he misses sometimes. A drummer is usually the only person who would have it.
RF: You’re not one of those producers who programs them himself?
VG: No, I let drummers play drums. I don’t expect them to do my job, and I won’t do theirs. To me, that’s what the role of a strong producer is—finding what people’s strong points are and using them.
RF: Some people feel that non-drummers present more options, because they don’t have the drummer’s mentality and aren’t confined by preconceived drum ideas.
VG: But I don’t work with drummers who are confined. I work with drummers who come up with something new every time they do something. To me, that’s the ticket. Not only do you get the layman’s concept—because that’s what I am since I don’t play drums every day—but you also get something new.
RF: How do you feel about the Simmons?
VG: I use them all the time. I like them, too.
RF: You don’t feel they may be overused on studio products?
VG: No. I’m sure that they could be overused, but when we use effects, we try not to use them as “effected” effects. When I get a drum sound with a Simmons drumset, I try to make them sound like real tom toms, just stronger, which to me is their advantage.
RF: The SDS5 was analog, and Simmons supposedly wasn’t really going for real tom-tom sounds.
VG: They weren’t at all, but I got the real sound. I got in there with a screwdriver and started tweaking until we got a sound we liked. Craig didn’t even have a set of Simmons drums. The studio bought them when we were doing the last Motels album. The brain was in the control room, and we tuned them while someone else hit them. Craig bought them from me when the album was finished and started using them all the time.
RF: How do you get your very unique drum sound?
VG: That’s a very complex question. It always starts with the drummer hitting them. If you have a real strong drummer who hits the drums real hard, then you can make them sound like they’ve been hit. If the drummer doesn’t hit them real hard, I don’t give a damn what you do; they’re never going to sound like they’ve been hit. One of the things that is very interesting about the records I’ve made is that the drums are a feature, in the sense that they really light up speakers because their sound is that awesome, “you’ve been hit” kind of sound. I’ve been very fortunate to work with drummers who create that kind of sound. It’s not magic on my part. It starts with that, period.
RF: But you choose those drummers to work with you.
VG: Now I do. In the early days, I didn’t. In those days, I worked with a producer who requisitioned whomever he wanted. I was just fortunate that Peter Asher and I had the same taste in just about everything. Getting a drum sound is different in every instance, though. Drum sounds are suited to an artist, to a tune, and to a specific situation.
RF: Can you give me some examples?
VG: Sure. Craig Krampf, playing drums on the Motels record. How do I get a drum sound? On all the acoustic drums, I use Telefunken tube microphones, which I find to be more effective than just about anything on the market now. The only exception is a mic’ that AKG started manufacturing called The Tube, which is a replica of the old Telefunkens with the C-12 capsule. I bought one right away, and they sound very close. Those are used on most of the drumsets. On snare drums and hi-hats it varies, depending on the kind of track. If I want a real bright, clicky cross stick, a Sony C-500 works. It is that old gold-foil capsule microphone they made. For a more rock ‘n’ roll sound, you can use a Shure 55 or 56. For a tubby snare drum, I use a Neumann KM84 or something similar. On kick drums, I always use a Sennheiser 421.
RF: How much of the drummer’s opinion do you take into account in getting his or her sound, as well as ideas for the playing of the tune?
VG: In relation to getting a drummer’s sound, most of those I have worked with in my career like the sounds I get on their drums, so there’s very little question in that area. Nobody’s ever come in and said to me, “The kick drum doesn’t sound very good,” or “The snare sounds tinny.” When it comes to ideas in terms of playing, I listen to everything. Anything they want to tell me, show me, diagram, or play, I’ll listen to. I think that, if you don’t check out all the options, you’re only cheating yourself. If I didn’t want their input and ideas, I wouldn’t have hired them to start with.
RF: You could use a machine.
VG: Right, and I have. The Motels’ “Suddenly Last Summer” was a drum machine, for instance, but even on records where I use a machine, I’ll still have a drummer playing with it, because it gives it that little bit of human element. The only thing I didn’t like about the Human League records was that they were totally nonhuman, which was a complete contradiction of their name.
RF: Have there been any difficult times getting a drum sound?
VG: [Laughs] I have spent three days getting a drum sound. It’s not really that it was a problem. It’s just that you’re chasing something. You’re chasing that thing in your mind that says, “This can be phenomenal, and this is what it sounds like.” You start trying to assemble in reality what your mind has assembled in the abstract. Sometimes it takes only two or three hours to do that, and sometimes it takes days. The most I’ve spent was three days. The track we were working on at that time was one of Linda Ronstadt’s songs on the first album I did with her, Heart Like A Wheel. The song was “You’re No Good,” and I think that the reason was because we were trying to find a drum sound that really fit and we were trying to decide how to cut that track. I must say that Peter was very patient, because we hadn’t really worked together before that.
RF: Do you recall the drummer on that track?
VG: There were about four. We did it about four different ways in that three-day period and ended up doing it with Andrew Gold playing drums. At that time Andrew wasn’t a drummer, but he played drums and we did it with just drums, guitar, and bass. Andrew overdubbed everything else on the track.
RF: What about initially conceptualizing something that you eventually realize is wrong?
VG: I have definitely done that. Usually you start about noon. By eight or nine that night, when you’re still pounding away at this track, and you haven’t gotten it so everybody is sitting around kind of depressed, you listen and suddenly realize that you may have taken a left turn when you should have taken a right in terms of the concept of this track. I’ll say, “I think everybody should go home, and we’ll start again tomorrow.” Then you come back with a fresh approach and a fresh attitude. In my experience, it has usually worked out for the better. We spent five days cut ting one song with Kim Carnes on Mistaken Identity, and the song never made the record. It’s kind of an in joke with those people. The song was called “Here Comes The Bad One Again.” We spent four or five days, and never got it. The song wasn’t right. You go through a lot of emotional changes: “Does the bass sound right? Do the drums sound right? Is the keyboard part right?”
RF: I know it’s hard just to think in terms of drums when you’re used to looking at the overall picture, but . . . .
VG: No, it’s easy for me to do, because the basis of all records is the drums. I build them all around the drums. Drums are it. The first thing I do is get a drum sound I like and add each piece as I go along. Next is the bass because those two go together, and then whatever we’re in the mood for.
RF: Do you deal with a lot of drum overdubs?
VG: No. My records are made 99.9% totally live. There are very few overdubs, if any. There are little vocal fixes once in a while, but virtually live solos, background singers—everything. I’d rather make records that way. It’s a little more difficult, but the end result is usually worth it.
RF: Can you think of any particular tracks that you favor, drum-wise?
VG: I did a track with James Taylor on his album JT, and the song was called “Whenever I See Your Smiling Face.” That was one of my favorite drum sounds. It was just one of those things where all the combinations were correct. I loved the drum sound we got on “Bette Davis Eyes,” and I thought the drum sound we got on “Only The Lonely” was very unique.
RF: Was there anything you did differently to obtain that drum sound?
VG: Yes, but I don’t remember what it was at this point. It’s like somebody asking you how you wore your hair three years ago. You remember you wore it differently, but you’re not sure how. It’s very aesthetic at that point. If I listen to it, I can hear what it sounds like. I got a great drum sound on one of Linda’s albums called Simple Dreams on a track called “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me.” It was the first time anyone had ever used those electronic drums called Syndrums. The guy who designed them happened to bring a set over for Rick Marotta to use. That was a great sounding drum track. I did a song with Bob Gaudio on a Four Seasons record called “December ’63, Oh What A Night,” which had a very interesting drum sound. Another record on that same album called “Who Loves You” had a very unique drum sound on it. “Suddenly Last Summer” on the Motels album was a very interesting drum sound, which was a combination of drum machine and drummer.
RF: Are there any other tracks that you might recall that were interesting to record?
VG: I recorded some tracks with Peter Asher where we wanted a very light drum sound, so we nailed the bass drum pedal to the floor on the drum riser and had the pedal hitting a cardboard tape box. We had the drummer play a different size cardboard box for a snare drum. You can use effects to make just about anything sound like a drumset. Once you understand what a drumset sounds like, you can go into deep space on certain things and take things to a whole other place. We were looking for a very soft kind of drum sound, and when we used a real drumset, we couldn’t get it.
RF: Do you remember the track?
VG: I believe it was on one of James’s records, although I don’t remember which track. Russ Kunkel plays percussion as well as he plays drums and is unbelievably great on congas. Sometimes we would put up different setups where, at the end of the song, he would turn around in his stool and play congas. We had to have them all set up, and then shut off so the mic’s from the drums didn’t leak into the congas and vice versa. At the end of the song, he would also have a shaker, so we had to have another special little mic’ for that. There were some complicated setups, because basically a lot of those records were done live, too. We did some pretty bizarre things with Andrew Gold in the period of time I was working with him, because he was a real drum fanatic and Beatle freak. We tried just about every conceivable concept of making drums sound like anything but drums.
RF: Can you deal with the nontechnical drummer?
VG: Sure. I’m not a technical person.
RF: A lot of drummers you’ve worked with are studio players.
VG: Now, but they weren’t when they started. Krampf was in a group called the Robbs. Jeff is still in a group. They became studio players because they’re great, and once you’re great and people recognize that, they want you to play on their records. It’s not, “I’m going to be a studio drummer.” It’s the drummers sitting in clubs in the Valley—which is where I met Jim Keltner when he was playing with Delaney & Bonnie—who beat their brains out for years, and from that, suddenly, everybody recognizes their talent and wants to use them. I don’t look at studio drummers as hatchet men you bring in to mow down the people who couldn’t cut it. Those drum mers played every dive and paid their dues; they learned their craft, and they’re good at it. I don’t mind using them.
RF: How necessary is reading for you?
VG: Not terribly.
RF: And yet, you’re so into the perfection of a track.
VG: Perfection in the sense that it should feel the same from beginning to end. Mis takes are often better than planned pieces. I’ve made a lot of records with mistakes in them that we kept because they were great. They weren’t planned as part of the arrangement.
RF: How open are you to new drummers in your camp?
VG: Very. I found a drummer named David Plashant not too long ago when I was still working with the Motels. They needed a drummer to go on the road, because Brian had decided at that point to play percussion, which he is phenomenal at doing. We auditioned about 20 drummers, and the next to the last guy who came in was a knockout. We used him on the road, and then I used him to play drums on Dolly Parton’s album. If I hear somebody I enjoy or I like, I’ll use that person.
RF: What does someone growing up in the Midwest have to . . . .
VG: The same thing everybody else did. You go out and play in every bar. If you manage to work your way to New York or L.A., or somewhere, you’ll be heard. If you stay in the Midwest, you can almost forget it.
RF: What are some of the things you feel a young drummer should be concentrating on?
VG: Sound and time. When I say time, I don’t just mean how many beats to the bar. I also mean feel. There are a lot of different ways to interpret that. It’s difficult to explain other than to say that some drummers play on the backside of the beat, some drummers play on the front side, and some play right on top of it. I like all types, but I really like the ones who do it the best.