Derek Jones is the Director of Production & Creative Services, Producer, and Chief Engineer at Megatrax Production Music and Megatrax Recording Studios in LA. His experiences with recording drums are vast and truly amazing. He has recorded world famous drummers like Vinnie Colaiuta, Gregg Bissonette, Mike Portnoy, Bernie Dresel, Gary Novak, Joe Travers, Nate Morton, Walfredo Reyes, Jr, and so on. Last year Derek produced 140 albums, among them some amazing recordings with a full orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in London.
Megatrax is the one of the largest independently owned music library in the in the world. Their music is licensed in over 60 countries on a daily basis. They are also one of the few music libraries to own and maintain their own historic, world-class recording studios in Los Angeles, CA. Here you can hear all the various music Megatrax has done: http://www.megatrax.com
Derek was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule and share some of his thoughts about drummers, drums and drum recordings.
I’m curious how everything started out and how you got into engineering. Would you mind sharing some of your background?
Well, I started out playing drums when I was 11 years old, and I just fell in love with it. Being the drumming in most of the garage bands with my friends when I was a teenager, I was the one responsible for recording since I had to have the mics to record my drums. And that is how I started playing around with recording music. It started with Tascam 4-track cassette tape recorders and a couple of cheap Teac microphones and expanded from there.
I was also lucky enough to go to a high school that had a really strong music program. Our band room was big enough to fit our entire marching band drum line, concert band orchestra and jazz band all setup simultaneously from left to right across the room in front of the conductor’s podium. And the room was designed and built from the ground up as a music performance space. The band room was the size of a school gymnasium, but it was acoustically designed and tuned using about a dozen of these huge 2 meter diameter convex sound clouds suspended from the ceiling (we had an 8 to 10 meter high ceiling in the band room), the walls were all out of parallel and we had these huge panels attached to the walls with hinges so that we could change the way sound reflected around the room. The band room floor was also tiered. The concrete floor had 1.5 meter deep by 20 cm high steps that wrapped around one half of the room and turned the room into an amphitheater type setup with the conductor standing down at the bottom and the instruments setup in an arch across the room in front of the conductor on each big step (there were 4 or 5 steps to get to the top).
It was in that band room where I really started playing with acoustics. The band director would let me bring my drumset to school and mic it up in the band room and record my drums there for demos I was doing with my friends. So I started playing around with moving microphones and moving my drums around the room. From there I started getting more interested in recording as a hobby, but playing drums professionally was always my focus at that time.
When I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, I was originally a drumset principle and my major was performance. But after 2 years at the school, I finally decided I should to study music production and recording moreso than performing. I realized that what I really loved about playing the drums was making music and I just really enjoyed being aboutto capture and shape music performances on tape and in the computer. And that is really how I got into recording.
After graduating I got a job as a sound engineer at a software company called “Dragon Systems”. We made speech recognition software called “Dragon NaturallySpeaking”. It was fun but it was very much industrial type applications of acoustics and recording, testing microphones, computers, etc for compatibility with the software. After a few years of that and I just reached a point where had to start working in a more musically creative environment. I was working as a music sound engineer, producer and drummer at night and on weekends while working at the software company, but I was getting frustrated with the more industrial and less creative aspects of working at the company. So I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music production. About six months after I moved out here I got a job at Megatrax and I’ve been here ever since. That was 16 years ago!
What do you think is most challenging when you setup live sessions with drums? There are several things that are challenging when setting up to record live drums. My biggest concern is trying to not impede the drummer’s ability to perform. I don’t like to ask drummers to move anything or make room for mics, which can sometimes make it difficult to record them. The other big challenge is to try and faithfully capture the sound of the drumset the way the drummer is playing it. I really try to listen to how the drummer sounds and how he/she plays, and determine the best way to mic the drumset based on what I’m hearing.
Do you pay extra attention for a session when recording live drums? Well, I’ve been recording drums for the past 30 years now… so I don’t really pay “extra” attention. I am always attentive to make sure nothing is clipping/distorting, and none of the mics are getting in the way of the drummer. But for me when recording I’m focused more on the music itself and how the drums fit into the song I am recording.
What do you think is the most important skills a drummer needs to have when working with you in your studio?
First and foremost, a great attitude. Second, good reading chops. About 95% of the music we record here has charts. Third, great time, and specifically I mean the ability to subdivide the beats perfectly and can really lock to a click. Fourth, being very musical. Most of the charts we use for drums are more like lead sheet type charts. So it will just say a specific style and then have time slashes… and then point out where the fills and stops and hits are supposed to be. So being able to listen in the headphones to the scratch/temp track and respond to it musically while still following the chart is essential. Maybe the bass line does a certain pattern that you start to do with your kick drum, maybe every 4 bars the guitar does an accent that you catch on the hihat as well. It’s not just about reading the charts, it’s about “reading between the lines” and being musical while still being true to what the music needs. No Denis Chambers 32nd note fills around the kit in the middle of a country pop tune, etc.
I’m curious, since you’ve been working with the best drummers around. What is the biggest difference when working with a super talented drummer like Vinnie or Greg?
Well, Vinnie is on another plane of existence all together. You can’t even compare him to anyone else. His sense of time is literally perfect. I recorded a song with him that had a random drastic tempo change in the middle of a groove, and the two tempos were completely unrelated. It was like 130bpm to 83bpm. Vinnie, without ever hearing the song before and sight-reading the chart, nailed the tempo change perfectly to the point where it looked like I had already beat detective’d his drums at the tempo change. Every track that Vinnie plays on literally looks like it has been quantized/beat detective’d perfectly to the grid in the computer. He can sight read anything, play anything and he can nail the feel and the vibe regardless of the style of music in the first take. With Vinnie there are no second takes and there is nothing he cannot play.
With other phenomenal drummers their time is also impeccable. Bissonette, Morton, Travers, Dresel, etc. All of them read phenomenally well and have an incredible sense of time. And I think that is the biggest difference between working with session musicians and bands.
While we do record some bands at Megatrax, the majority of the recording we do is for TV and Film music in all genres. We might do heavy metal and then some 60’s funk and then some classical music, but it’s all usually for use in TV shows, films, etc. Because of that we try to hire players that work in a high stress, studio environment really well. Playing to a click, playing different styles of music, being able to not only read drum charts, but being able to read lead sheets or piano charts or sometimes even a trumpet part!
The other big difference is the level of professionalism. These top guys, when they come in to our studio they are here for one purpose, to record music. They are always very focused and very efficient and they take direction EXTREMELY well. They check their egos at the door, even if they disagree with a drum part or a section or whatever, they do whatever we ask them to do because they understand we have certain specific clients and those clients may need the music this particular way. So even if it might be cooler with a different drum part, or it might be hipper to play 16th note triplets and 32nd note drum fills all over the place, it doesn’t fit the purpose of the music and how it will be used. They are also very professional in their demeanor too. They turn off their cell phones, they are fun and happy and cheerful, but they aren’t joking around or telling stories or doing things that might waste time.
How likely will you change mic setups depending on who’s playing drums?
I don’t change mic setups specifically based on who is playing, but I change setups based on the style of music we are recording and the drums the drummer is bringing that day. Some of the drummers we use can cover a wide variety of styles (like a Gary Novak or a Wally Reyes, Jr or Gregg Bissonette), and so one day we might have them coming in to play a rock project, the next time they come in they might be playing salsa or big band jazz, the next time they come in it could be classic country/western or surf rock. So when they know the style of music we are recording, they change the type of drums and the drum setup they are using. And I also change the mic setup I’m using. For example, older 50’s and 60’s classic rock usually uses a mono overhead and a mono mic out in front of the drumset and that is it. Sometimes there might be another mic over near the floor tom. But it’s very minimal. In doing that mic setup along with the drummer bringing some vintage drums and tuning them to sound vintage… it instantly sounds like the period we are trying to record. A modern R&B soul record is usually all close mics and very dry. And so on. It’s more about the style of music and the sound we are trying to achieve than the particular drummer that is here recording.
Here are some pictures of a session I did with Gregg Bissonette where he brought two different drumsets. We mic’d up both simultaneously for different sounds and as we went through the project he would decide based on the song which drumset would be best.
And here are links to the two albums we recorded during that session.
Can you hear which drum set is which?
We also did a similar setup with Gregg for these other two albums. This was also two drumsets, almost the same exact drumsets and mic setups. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of that session but here are the links to those albums.
So, would you prefer to tune the drums yourself in your studio or do most of your drummers tune their drums their own way?
I always have the drummer or their drum tech tune the drums. I try not to touch the drummer’s drums. It’s kind of an unwritten/unspoken rule! HAHAHAHA Their drums are their baby, so I don’t want to mess with them.
How much time do you usually spend to get the drums and a great drum sound in place?
Usually we spend around 30 minutes. Sometimes up to an hour max if it’s a big drumset with lots of mics.
Would you mind share your some of your favourite mic setup?
Well I have a couple “go to” starting points depending on the style of music. So I will try to list share them in relation to the style of music…
Rock – Audix D6 and an NS10 Woofer wired as a mic on Kick, SM57, Shure KSM141 and Sennheiser MD441 on snare (441 on bottom, 57 and 141 on top), Audix D2 and D4 on toms. AKG C451s on Overheads. Various room mics including Royer R121s setup in a blumlein pair about 6 to 10 feet in front of the drumset
Funk/gospel/Soul R&B – RE20 or AKG D2 or sometimes an MD421 with an NS10 Woofer on kick. Neumann KM84 on snare top with an SM57 on bottom. Toms are usually km84s or AKG C414B/ULS, Overheads are usually AKG C12s or M269s or something similar, Room mics vary a lot.
Traditional Jazz – U47 fet out front of kick, U47 or C12 as an overhead, maybe a KM84 or C451B on snare top, maybe another U47 or C12 off to the side past the floor tom (looking over the floor tom). No tom mics usually but if I do I will use either C414B/ULS or AT4047s.
Smooth Jazz – Beta 52 inside the kick with a U47fet or NS10 woofer outside, SM57 and KM84 on snare top, MD441 on bottom snare, C451 in an XY as overheads, C414B/ULS on toms. Rooms I usually use C12s or U87s spread wide and a mono U67 or M269 in front of the drumset
Country – Beta 52 in the kick with an NS10 woofer outside, Sm57 and Peluso CEMC6 on snare top with a MD441 on bottom snare, Toms are Audix D2s and D4s, Overheads are C451Bs, Room mics are wide TLM49s, U87s and C12s at different distances to the drumset.
What is your secrets to a great drum recording?
For me, a great drum recording starts with the drummer and his instrument… then the sound of the room the drums are in. I remember once when I was recording Mike Portnoy and also once when I was recording Vinnie Coliauta, before they showed up I sat down at the drumset and played a little as a sound check and had my assistant record it. It sounded ok but I was nervous about the drums not sounding great. But as soon as Mike got on his kit and Vinnie got on his kit, it sounded completely different. Later I was switching back and forth between the playlists with me playing and then them playing… it was night and day. Everyone has their own technique and way they hit the drums, which is part of their sound. So that is extremely important to getting a good drum sound. Maybe for the way one guy plays double ply heads with thick sticks is best, for another it’s coated single ply with thin sticks, for another it’s something else. So first and foremost find what works best to get a great drum sound as the drummer.
With all that being said, one little “secret” I guess you could call it, is I use a laser tape measure when setting up some of the mics. I make sure that the overheads are both the exact same distance to the snare drum and they are that same distance or a little farther apart from each other than they are from the snare. I check all the room mics the same way (same distance to the front head of the kick and to each other or a little farther apart from each other than they are from the drumset).
Also, after I have the overheads and the room mics setup I record a test recording with the drummer wacking the snare drum as hard as he/she can a couple of time. I zoom in to the sample level and look to see if the transient attack of the snare is lining up time wise left to right in each stereo pair of mics. If one side seems earlier or later I go out and move the mics to adjust for it. For every 3 samples the timing is out of alignment, you move the mics 2.54 centimeters (1 inch). As an example… If I setup the mics and recorded the overheads this way… let’s say the left overhead is 6 samples earlier than the right overhead. I would need to move either the left overhead farther out by 7 cm or I need to move the right overhead closer by 7 cm. Do the same thing with all the stereo room mics.
Also worth noting… this 3 samples = 2.54cm is for 44.1KHz or 48KHz sampling rates. If you are recording at 88.1KHz or 96KHz it’s double the number of samples, so at those higher sampling rates 6 samples = 2.54cm.
Is there any room for experimenting with sounds on your sessions? We do have time to experiment, but we take a different approach. Since we are paying the drummers hourly to be there, we don’t want to waste their time (most have other recording sessions booked after ours and gigs at night, so we don’t want to waste their time or our time) and we don’t want to eat up valuable recording time experimenting. Since we have a pretty big protools system here with 40 ins and outs and lots of mic preamps… we just setup everything we can think of, including the experimental stuff. And we record it all into every song. On some projects I might have 3 or 4 sets of stereo room mics and a few mono room mics and 4 mics on the kick and 4 mics on the snare… occasionally I’ve setup two separate pairs of overheads, and so on. I might run out and move the mics a little but the experimentation comes after the tracking when we are trying out different combinations of mics to see what kind of cool sounds we can get. Traditionally in the studio engineers would spend hours or days moving mics and swapping mics and experimenting with sounds before a single note of music was recorded. Today, with the pace that we make music and the technology we have at our disposal, it isn’t cost efficient to experiment with sounds they way they used to. Now we can just set it all up and record it. If we don’t like it we can always mute it. Before when you only had 8 or 16 or 24 channels to record to, you had to spend the time moving stuff around to find the combination that worked best and then just record that. Now that we have 768 tracks of audio at our disposal, we can just record everything and play with it later.
How many songs do you usually track drums during a day?
It varies, but usually anywhere from 10 to 24 per day. Gregg Bissonette has the record for most songs recorded in a day, with 35 (thirty-five) 2-minute songs in one full 12-hour day of recording.
Since it’s so easy to do, how often and how much do you use sampled drums? Well… it depends. It really depends on the style of music. If using samples is appropriate for the style then we will use them. If it isn’t then we won’t. But one of the things we do not do a lot, is triggering drum sounds from the live performances. Most of the time it just seems like people are triggering drum samples from the live performance because they couldn’t get a good live drum sound. Well, we have a phenomenal 700 cubic meter live room with concrete floors and wood walls and ceilings, which have all been acoustically designed and tuned. Because of that the live drums we record here usually sound perfect without even needing to add triggered samples. But again if it is style appropriate (like the new Emo Rock/Metal sound IS triggered drums) then we will do it. But we do it because it is style appropriate.
Do you use online drummers and musician services as well. What is your take about it?
Yes we are starting to look at that option. In the past we have mainly used our own studio with musicians coming in. But we are starting to ramp up production, and as we are doing more and more albums simultaneously it become increasingly difficult to schedule all of the sessions here at our studio. So we are starting to look into using online/remote recording drummers more now. In the past we have tried using online drummers occasionally and the results were usually pretty poor. The performances were always great, but the recordings themselves were just bad most of the time. I can only think of 3 or 4 drummers from the past that have been able to turn in great sounding recordings as well as great performances. And so because of that we are still a little reluctant to use online session drummers… but like I said, as we increase our production (last year we went from doing 30 albums a year to doing 140 albums) we will have to start using online session musicians more. But we will have to put a vetting process in place. One of the reasons why our clients use us instead of our competitors is because when we do something, we do it “right”. We do it exactly as it is supposed to be done. When we had to do 1950’s/1960’s Cool Jazz. We hired THE #1 Jazz session musicains in LA, we had the drummer bring his vintage kit. We studied pictures of Miles Davis making “Birth of Cool” and “Kind of Blue” to see what mics they used on drums, piano, trumpet, sax, etc and how they were placed. And we called the mic rental company and rented vintage U47s and M49s with the specific request that no mic have a manufacturing date after 1955! And when you listen to the album, it really makes all the difference. Here is a link.
If you are a film or TV show and you are looking for music from that era that sounds like it is from that era… this album hits the mark perfectly.
And we approach every album we do this way, from EDM to various ethnic world music styles. When we recently did Modern Indie Folk/Americana we did the same thing. We scoured the internet for any photos from recording sessions from those bands/producers/studios to see how they were recording the music and what they were recording with. I think when you listen to the end result it really shows. These tracks sound good enough to play on the radio. Here is a link.
And what you are hearing is 100% live. All the drums, pianos, guitars, everything. All live. Almost everything except the upright piano was recorded at our studio. No triggered samples, no virtual instruments.
So as we start to look for online session musicians this is a really BIG factor for us. It’s not just how well the person can play and read charts, it then also becomes the issue of how good is their recording environment and how good are the recordings they are sending back to us for the project we are using them for. I won’t mention names, but some of the big name drummers that we all talk about, even a couple mentioned here in this interview, have home recording setups and I can’t use them because the sound of the recordings I get from them just aren’t good enough. So we pay them to come in to our studio to record instead of using their online/home recording service. I say that just so that drummers out there realize, when doing online services it’s not JUST about the playing. At that point it becomes about the playing AND the fidelity/sound of the recording. It’s about being able to get the correct sound for the genre and era of the music. Don’t record rock drum sounds on a 1940’s style big band album. Don’t record a small jazz combo drum sound on a heavy metal record. I helped a drummer friend of mine named Donny Gruendler produce an instructional video series for Hudson Music called “Seeing Sounds” back in 2010, and this is a topic Donny went over a lot in the videos. Here is a video clip from that series for your readers to check out. The videos cover using different drums, tuning, mic selection and mic placement for different styles of music including Jazz, Funk and Rock. This clip talks about mic placement.
And by saying all of this, I’m not just talking about gear either. Some of the guys we’ve used in the past with poor results had Neve, SSL and API preamps and Vintage mics and so on and so forth… but drums are an acoustic instrument… so ACOUSTICS plays a very big role in the sound of any recorded drum. If the room the drums are in doesn’t sound good, no preamp, or mic or compressor or EQ will be able to change it from sounding bad to sounding good. As Mikael can attest to (because he is a phenomenal drummer AND makes phenomenal recordings in his studio) doing acoustic treatment and acoustic tuning of your room has a huge impact on the sound you get in the microphones.
How often do you usually produce your drummers playing and their sounds? It varies, but I am usually at least somewhat involved in the sound. It could just be letting the drummer know the style of music and the type of drum sounds we want for the session so he/she can bring the right drumset. Or sometimes I am giving suggestions as to the groove or the direction. We might be doing a rock song and I might say “can we do this more ‘Mitch Mitchell’ (Jimi Hendrix) and less ‘Chris Layton’ (Steve Ray Vaughn)”? Or I might ask to change the kick pattern a little bit because I might be hearing something in the pre-records that the drummer might not be hearing as well in the headphones. But most of the time we hire the drummer based on the style of music we are doing. When we decided to do a Latin album and a Latin rock album we called Walfredo Reyes Jr. When we decided to do Hard Rock and heavy metal we called Joe Travers and Mike Portnoy. When we decide to do big band jazz we might call Bernie Dresel. And so on… That is a big part of getting the sound right. Every drummer can play every style to some degree. But knowing what you are best at and really focusing on getting work in those styles are a new drummers best chances for getting more work. There is nothing worse than getting a call to play drums, you show up and it is all burning bebop, but you are mainly a funk and pop drummer. Sure you can “do” bebop. But it’s not going to sound as authentic as a guy who plays it day and night all the time. Conversely the bebop guy probably isn’t going to be able to play funk and pop as authentically either. So while I do give suggestions and give direction… the biggest part of producing is hiring the right person from the beginning.
How detailed and specific can you go when producing someones playing without getting into ones integrity and let the drummers just do their own thing?
Well I think I alluded to this earlier. Because we are mainly making music for TV and film, not for artists or bands. The music is always going to be paired with picture. And in doing so you have to humble yourself to the end result. The best drummers that we work with are there to help the composer and producer realize their goal for this project. It’s not about the drummer. It’s not about the drummer “sounding” like him/herself. It’s not about the drummer imposing THEIR sound onto the music. It’s about making music that will eventually fit perfectly under picture (in TV shows, films, commercials, etc). So if I do start to get very specific all of the drummers I work with never have a problem with that. On one project I did with Joe Travers the composers wanted him to play the drums EXACTLY like the programmed drums. And so he took his chart and he wrote out every groove exactly, ever fill, every hit, verbatim how the midi drums did it. He never complained, never copped an attitude. He was a complete professional about it… and he absolutely NAILED it. And these were not easy parts, it was cinematic heavy metal music for use in trailers so there was rock band with orchestral strings, brass and percussion. It was very cinematic and heavy metal at the same time. And once he took a few minutes to write out the specific parts he played it perfectly from the moment I hit record.
Finally, what is your best advice for drummers who wants to work more in studios/recording themselves, or who just wants to improve their sound and playing further to a recording environment?
Well first and foremost, practice – practice – practice. What you put in is directly proportional to your abilities. There are no shortcuts, no “fast” ways of getting there. The first thing is just practicing a ton. I remember in high school and college I was practicing playing 8 hours a day straight non-stop. You have to not only practice your ability to play… you have to practice your stamina and your ability to focus while playing. You could be the best drummer in the world but if you get frazzled and burnt out after 10 minutes and have to take a break, you are not going to do well in a professional environment.
The second thing after practicing your technique and abilities (sight reading, playing to a click, playing different styles of music fluently, rudiments with your hands AND your feet, subdividing time in your head, etc) is to practice and learn how to get DIFFERENT good drum tones that are stylistically correct. For jazz to you bury the kick beater into the head or do you feather it and let it bounce off? How do you get a solid back beat sound on the snare for pop verses funk verses hard rock? What kind of sound do you get when you tilt the snare and toms at an angle like JR Robinson and Matt Laug? What kind of sound do you get when you flatten them out more so you catch more rim shots? When is each more appropriate? What kind of cymbals sound best for each style of music? (nothing annoys me more when I have to record say big washy hard rock and the drummer has all 15” and 16” crash cymbals and a 20” ping ride! LOL) Really get into the TONE of the drums and the techniques you need to use to get these various different tones out of the drums. Also experiment with different heads and tunings to see how to get different sounds. Single play coated head tuned somewhat high? Jazz and Bebop. Double Ply head tuned low? Hard rock.
And the Third thing (if the drummer wants to be an online session musician) would be to learn at least a little bit about DIY acoustics and recording. Learn how to acoustically treat the space you are recording in. Learn some basic mic techniques and which mics (that fit within your budget) might work best for the style(s) of music you are recording, and learning how to use a DAW at least to a basic to intermediate level.
The best thing for me when using online or remote session musicians is when I get the tracks back all edited, comp’d, beat detective’d and just ready to mix.
To find out more about Derek Jones work you can visit Megatrax studios.