In The Studio Seeing Sounds

Seeing Sounds

Part 4: Classic Jazz

by Donny Gruendler

Small-group jazz drumming is synonymous with legendary players such as Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams. Although these five gentlemen had very different approaches to timekeeping, each contributed to the jazz art form and created innovative drum sounds. These include high and articulate tunings, snappy snares, and tom-like bass drums, often recorded using minimal miking techniques. In recent years the classic tones have been explored by today’s greats, like Brian Blade, Bill Stewart, Kendrick Scott, Karriem Riggins, and Billy Martin.Jazz drum sounds are quite different from what we explored in the previous installments of this series, including all-purpose pop/rock, deep and muffled ’70s tones, and funk. So if you’re looking to achieve a more traditional jazz sound, try the following suggestions.

In The Studio Seeing SoundsThe high-pitched, tom-like bass drum articulation often heard in jazz is achieved by employing a double-headed 14×18 drum. This is a common jazz size that’s made by most companies. An elongated 16×18 or 14×20 drum will work for this sound too, but you may lose some of desired tom-like qualities that are associated with a 14×18.

The traditional jazz sound employs single-ply drumheads. For this study we chose a coated batter and a black resonant head. (A coated front head works just as well.) The resonant head should be solid, meaning no mic hole. For muffling, remove the batter head and place a dense felt strip across the shell. It should be placed from 11 to 7 o’clock. Next, place the batter head and hoop over the shell and tighten the claws until you reach a floor-tom-like tension. The resonant head can be adjusted to control the amount of overtones and overall pitch of the drum. By raising the resonant head’s pitch, the drum will sound more tom-like, while lowering it will put you back into conventional bass drum territory.

Place a large dynamic microphone on the outside of the drum, with the capsule pointing between the beater impact point and the shell. A dynamic tom-type mic, such as a Sennheisher 421, works well for this application, because it places equal emphasis on the attack and tone of the drum. For more sensitivity and high-end sibilance, you can try a vocal-type condenser.

You should use a medium-size felt beater and play off the head. (Don’t bury the beater.) To soften the attack, you can try a soft wool beater, like Vater’s Vintage Bomber. Place the beater so that it strikes the center of the head to create an even, round sound. If you want additional ring and twang to the note, try positioning the beater so that it strikes above or below center.

The classic jazz snare tone is best achieved by employing a 14″-diameter wood drum in a shallow depth (usually 4″ or 5″). The depth of the drum can vary based on the style you’re going for. For a ’30s big band, Gene Krupa–type approach, many prefer a 6.5×14. For busier mid-’50s, Clifford Brown/Max Roach–type hard bop, a 3.5″- or 4″-deep drum is commonly used.

As in the last few studies, choose a coated single-ply batter and tune it up, but not tabletop tight. While playing, experiment with your stick placement. A stroke in the center of the head will produce a thick attack with drier overtones, while an off-center stroke will sound sharper and will have a lengthier ring.

You can also vary the stick angle for even more articulation options. For a softer articulation, raise the stick to a 45-degree angle. This angle is also good for playing stick shots, which is a common jazz technique where one stick is held against the drumhead and struck by the other.

The high, ringing, attack-laden tom sound heard in jazz is best achieved by employing double-headed, standard-depth drums. An 8×12 rack tom and a 14×14 floor tom were commonly used during the small-group era of the ’50s and ’60s.

Coated single-ply batters work well alongside single-ply clear or coated resonant heads. Clear bottom heads allow for more sustain, while coated ones will make the drums sound a bit darker. Both toms should be tuned high, with the batter and resonant heads set at about the same pitch. The heads shouldn’t be so tight that the drums sound choked, but the tom pitches will be much higher than they were in our previous articles.

Next, pick one batter-side lug on each tom and gently tighten it to raise the pitch slightly. Not only will this add a bit of an upward bend to the note, but it will also increase the amount of ring and stick articulation. Repeat this on the resonant head as well.

In The Studio OverheadsCYMBALS
For authentic jazz tones, use a medium-thin 20″ or thin 22″ ride cymbal. It should be dark in tone with an equal amount of wash and stick definition. For a cleaner Philly Joe Jones–type ’50s sound, a thin but bright cymbal works best, while a darker and trashier one helps achieve the smokier, grittier sound associated with drummers like Elvin Jones.

To round out our jazz drumkit sound, try medium or thin 14″ hi-hats that have a midrange tone, with the bottom cymbal being heavier than the top.

In this style the overheads are responsible for capturing the entire kit sound. Unlike in previous installments, where we used a spaced-pair setup, an X/Y configuration works best. This position involves placing both overheads approximately 5′ above the floor. From the audience side of the kit, draw an imaginary vertical line that bisects the bass drum and snare. Place both mics at this point, at a 90-degree angle, with the capsules as close together as possible without touching. Double-check that both mics are equidistant from the snare, to ensure that the snare stays in the center of the stereo image.

As in the previous installments, playing the drums is as much about touch, tone, timbre, and aesthetics as it is about licks, patterns, and grooves. Continue to focus on genre-specific sounds within your practices, gig preparations, and recording sessions. Bandmates, employers, and engineers will appreciate your effort, and the music will sound that much more appropriate for the style you’re playing.

Classic jazz drum sounds can be heard on hundreds of recordings from the ’50s and ’60s. For a taste, check out Clifford Brown and Max Roach’s self-titled release, Miles Davis’s Milestones, and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’. More contemporary examples include John Scofield’s Hand Jive (Bill Stewart) and A Go Go (Billy Martin) and Joshua Redmond’s Freedom in the Groove (Brian Blade).

Donny Gruendler is the director of performance programs at Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. He has performed with DJ Logic, Rock Holmstrom, John Medeski, and Rhett Frazier Inc. For more info, visit