In The Studio

Seeing Sounds

Part 3: Funk

by Donny Gruendler

Funk drumming is synonymous with masters like James Brown’s Clyde Stubblefield, Tower of Power’s David Garibaldi, P-Funk’s Tiki Fulwood, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith. Although these four gentlemen have very different approaches to timekeeping, each has contributed to the funk art form in a unique way and created classic drum tracks. Their sounds are diverse, including everything from midrange tunings to ultra-muffled, pillowy tones and stadium-rock hybrids.

Definitive funk sounds like those, which we’re exploring this month, are built from the concepts we discussed in the previous two articles (June and July 2013 issues), so be sure to reference the earlier installments as you go along. I’ll present key differences and tonal modifications that will allow you to play and record most styles of funk.

The midrange, punchy articulation often used in funk is achieved by employing a double-headed 20″-diameter drum that’s 14″ or 16″ in depth. This is a standard size offered by most companies. An elongated 18×20 drum will work for this sound too, but you’ll lose some of the articulation associated with a shallower depth.

In The Studio 1The desired sound is best achieved using a 1- or 2-ply clear batter head and a single-ply resonant with a hole cut for easy microphone placement. Use a uniform medium tension and gently muffle each head by rolling two towels into a tube shape and placing them where the head meets the shell. Use gaffer’s tape to secure the towels to the shell. (You can also use similar commercial dampening devices, such as Remo’s Weckl muffling system and DW’s muffling pillow.)

In The Studio 2Next, place the mic inside the drum, with the capsule pointing at the beater impact point on the head. A dynamic tom-type mic, such as a Sennheisher 421, works well because it places equal emphasis on the attack and the tone of the drum. Place the mic just past the middle of the shell (closer to the resonant head) to produce a round attack with even sustain. Moving the mic closer to the batter head will achieve more attack and a thinly focused thump.

Finally, apply a second dynamic microphone outside the resonant head’s porthole, and blend it with the internal kick mic in your recording software. Unlike the previous article’s subwoofer mic, this secondary dynamic mic will capture some lower-mid frequencies while retaining a decent amount of punch.In The Studio 3

You should also use a medium-size felt beater and play off the head (don’t bury the beater). This combination will retain some attack while allowing the low fundamental tone of the 20″ drum to shine through.

Due to its presence in most funk mixes, the snare’s voice is the most important tone within this study. A standard crisp and cracking sound is achieved by employing a 14″ metal drum in a shallow depth (3.5″, 4″, or 5″). The depth of the drum can vary based on style. For an old-school ’60s James Brown–type track, many prefer a classic 5×14. For a busier linear-type song, a 3.5″- or 4″-deep piccolo could be a good choice.

Using a single-ply coated batter head, tighten each tension rod so that the head feels somewhat tight. The batter shouldn’t be tabletop tight, but it shouldn’t feel like a pillow either. Turn the snares off and make sure the lugs are in tune with each another. Next, bring up the tension of the snare-side head. This will add focus to your rimshots and articulation to your ghost notes.

While playing, experiment with your stick placement. A center-stroke rimshot will produce a full attack and even sound, while an off-center rimshot will achieve a crisper attack with a lengthy overtone. Should you want a warmer sound, avoid rimshots and play in the center of the head.

In The Studio 4To capture the snare drum’s attack and high-pitched crack, replace the midrange dynamic microphone with a single condenser, pointing directly at the stick impact point. This type of mic will focus on the upper frequencies, which lends itself perfectly to the funk style of drumming.

In this instance, place a secondary large-diaphragm condenser mic on the bottom of the snare. It will pick up the high-end sizzle of the snares and the ghost notes. Point the capsule toward the snare wires at a 70-degree angle.

The low, rich, attack-laden articulation often used in funk is achieved by employing double-headed, shallow-depth toms. Standard tom sizes in the ’60s meant either an 8×12 or 9×13 rack tom and a 16×16 floor tom. In the ’70s, many drummers moved to smaller drums, such as an 8×10 or 8×12 rack tom and a 14×14 floor tom. For this study we’ll focus on the latter two sizes.

In The Studio 5Single-ply coated or clear batter heads work well alongside single-ply clear resonants. Each tom should be tuned to a medium tension, with both heads set at the same pitch. Once the heads are in tune, pick one batter-side lug on each drum and loosen it slightly. Not only will this add a downward bend to the note, but it will also increase the amount of stick articulation. Detune one lug on the bottom head of the floor tom as well. This will help the pitch bend become more pronounced and will make the drum feel bigger and more grounded.

To capture the tom tones, place a dynamic microphone so that the capsule is pointed directly at the impact point on the head. As with last month’s examples, the greater the incline of the mic body and the more off-center you aim the mic toward the rim, the more low-end frequencies and overtones will enter your mix.

To complete the sound of the kit, use condenser mics as overheads. I prefer to place them in a spaced pair, which is accomplished by standing behind your snare drum and extending your arms outward to form an inverted triangle. This is the starting point for your overhead placement (equidistant from the snare in terms of both height and length). Both mics should then be raised another 12″ to 16″. The additional height will capture an accurate picture of the entire kit, rather than focusing on the cymbals and snare.

In The Studio 7To round out your funk sound, use medium-weight 13″ or thin 14″ hi-hats. They should be bright in tone, with the bottom cymbal heavier than the top. To capture their voice, place a small-diaphragm condenser mic so that its capsule is facing away from the snare. This will keep the mic from picking up too much bleed from the snare, and it will allow the woody attack of the drumstick striking the top cymbal to be clearly audible within the track.

In order to achieve more contemporary hybrid funk tones, you can combine the techniques in this article with what we discussed in the previous installments. For example, if you were to utilize the pillowy bass drum and dead snare sound from part two alongside the tom, overhead, and hi-hat tones discussed here, you would have a convincing mid-’70s P-Funk vibe.

By employing the all-purpose pop-rock bass drum and snare timbres from part one, you can imitate achieve a Chad Smith funk-rock hybrid.

Remember that playing the drums is not just about technique, chops, and showmanship. It’s also about touch, tone, timbre, and aesthetics. It’s my hope that you will continue to focus on tuning, and on mic placement, during your practice sessions, gig preparations, and recording dates. Until next time!

For recorded examples of the classic funk sounds discussed in this article, check out James Brown’s “Sex Machine” and Tower of Power’s “Soul Vaccination” and “Don’t Change Horses (in the Middle of a Stream).” The hybrid examples can be best heard on Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Power of Equality” and “Funky Monks.”

Donny Gruendler is vice president of curricular development at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California. He has performed with DJ Logic, Rick Holmstrom, John Medeski, and Rhett Frazier Inc. For more info, visit