interview by: Roberto Martinelli
How does Mike Portnoy, the most prolific drummer in progressive metal, get his drum sound? Ever since Awake, the bandís third album, Portnoyís drums have sounded increasingly full, rich, and tight, progressing in signature sound until he and Dream Theater guitarist John Petrucci took over the producersí role with the groupís sixth studio album, Scenes From a Memory, and continuing from there.
On the sound alone, you can tell itís Mike Portnoy. Dream Theaterís latest album, Systematic Chaos, continues in that tradition.
So how does he do it? It seems that the further you dig, the less people really know. Mike Portnoy for sure doesnít know. So we talked to famed engineer Paul Northfield (Rush, Queensryche, Porcupine Tree, Ozzy Osbourne) as well as Portnoyís drum tech, Eric Disrude, to get to the bottom of this. Weíve found that, like with quantum physics, the more you know about Portnoyís drum sound, the more you really donít.
(The following interviews were conducted for EQ Magazine, who allows us to run the entire transcription here in Maelstrom.nu)
Maelstrom: The last five Dream Theater records have listed you as co-producer. What does that role mean in your case?
Mike Portnoy (below): I see the role of a producer like that of a director of a film: someone that will oversee the entire project and make the final calls. The producer works hand-in-hand with many of the people. The engineer is a very important person; the mixer is a very important person. The engineer is like the director of photography in a film; the mixer is like the editor.
Maelstrom: After Images and Words, your drum sound changed a lot. Since the following album, Awake, your sound has very much become the Mike Portnoy sound. One of my favorite drum recordings is Metropolis 2, Scenes From a Memory. What did you do from Images and Words to Awake that effected that change?
Mike Portnoy: To backtrack a little, Scenes From a Memory was the first album that myself and John produced. That was a turning point for the band. Until Scenes From a Memory, we worked with outside producers who ultimately had the final say in the production of the record... more so than we did as band members That was a frustrating situation.
Our first album was produced by Terry Date; our second album, Images and Words, was produced by David Prater. The third album was Duane Baron, and the fourth album was Kevin Shirley. In all those cases, there was an outside person that kind of had final say on how our records turned out: that meant the shaping of the songs to the final sounds on every instrument, including the drums. It wasnít until Scenes From a Memory that my drums sounded like I wanted them to sound. Even to this day, the drum sounds on Images and Words make me cringe.
Maelstrom: I donít blame you. But what I think is funny is that objectively, the snare trigger sounds terrible...
Mike Portnoy: Oh, it makes me crazy.
Maelstrom: ...but at the same time, I love that record so much that I like the sounds, because theyíre part of that record. Then again, I can say that easily because Iím not on the record.
Mike Portnoy: A lot of people hold that album in such high regard (maybe because that was the album that broke the band through). When we recorded that album in Ď91, that kind of triggered drum sound was still in fashion. And that was right before the grunge wave came in. When that hit, [drums] became real dirty, acoustic-sounding stuff. That changed everything.
Maelstrom: What was triggered on Images and Words?
Mike Portnoy: I believe the entire kit was triggered, but I could be wrong. That was our first major label album, and David Prater was a very difficult person to work with. He was the kind of person that would lock us out of the studio and do whatever the hell he wanted.
Maelstrom: Tell us a story about that.
Mike Portnoy: Heh. We could be here all day. I made it pretty clear from the get-go that I hated those drum sounds while making the record, but he had just done a popular record with a band Firehouse, which was an early Ď90s, hair metal band. My drum sounds on Images and Words are basically the very same ones of the Firehouse album Just because that kind of sound works with pop metal music, it was completely out of place with an over-the-top, progressive metal band. But Iíd rather not get into any dirty stories. Me and Prater have bad-mouthed each other to death. But I will say that as it was our first album for a major label, we had no leverage. To this day, I love that album musically, but sonically, it makes me cringe.
Maelstrom: What can you tell us about what you did to get the drum sounds you liked on Scenes From a Memory?
Mike Portnoy: Well, that album was made on the heels of the band nearly breaking up after Falling Into Infinity, which was a corporate mess. When we made Scenes From a Memory, we took the reins into our own hands. And the drums on that record, as well as every record after that, sound like what I hear when Iím playing them.
We had two different mixers on the album. Kevin Shirley mixed half of the songs, and David Bottrill did the other half.
Maelstrom: Didnít that make things more difficult?
Mike Portnoy: Actually, David Bottrill mixed the entire album. As much as he did a great job, we didnít feel his mix was big enough. It was very authentic as far as the acoustic sounds went, but it didnít sound huge. So we had Kevin Shirley mix a bunch of the songs, as his specialty is making things sound really big.
That was the first record we did using Pro Tools. Before then, everything was done on analog tape. On Falling Into Infinity, I would do five or six different takes if each song, all the way through, and me and Kevin Shirley would listen and make notes. We ended up chopping up tape ó well, Kevin was doing all the cutting ó and there was tape all over the place. And to think back that we used to make records like that, itís crazy With Pro Tools, itís lightyears easier to cut up drum tracks and takes, and mix up different parts.
Scenes From a Memory was also the first album that we wrote in the recording studio. We moved into Bear Tracks Studios and lived there for months and months on end. Weíd write and then immediately record it when it was done. Then weíd write another song that way. Since then, weíve done every album except one that way, and that was Train of Thought. For that, we went back to the old way of writing beforehand and then entering the studio, just because we wanted to break up the creative pattern and make it a more live album.
Maelstrom: Once upon a time, you used 24" kick drums... it might have been on your Mapex set. Then, you went down to 22"s. What spurred that choice?
Mike Portnoy: As much as youíd like to hear it was a sonic decision, it really wasnít. It was mainly because I was sitting too high in order to get above the toms. As I was getting older, I was having back problems, and I wanted to lower my stool as much as possible. But thereís the showman ham in me that always wants to be seen above the drums, so I ended up going down to 22"s.
Now, I have this whole double drum kit set-up. My main kit is [two] 22"s, but the secondary kit has ranged up to a 26" and down to a 20", which is what Iím currently using.
Maelstrom: The monster kit pictured on your site... is that what you recorded with? I believe itís the ďSiameseĒ kit (below).
Mike Portnoy: The first album I recorded with the Siamese kit was Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. At the time, Tama gave me a shitload of drums to build a prototype in the studio. Thatís when I came up with the double-kit, Siamese configuration. The whole idea behind that is to be able to jump back and forth between kits from song to song... or even section to section within the song. I did Six Degrees and Train of Thought with the Siamese. For Octavarium, I had the Siamese as well as a Jon Bonham replica, acrylic kit. And the latest album was recorded with my white, Albino Monster.
Maelstrom: I assume your huge kits are so just as much because you like them as it is because thatís what your fans want to see you play.
Mike Portnoy: The kits are not for show. I use everything. A lot of times, weíll roll into a gig, and the local crew will say, ďOh, give me a break. Heís not going to fucking play all *that.* Who needs three bass drums?Ē For me, itís not about the show, itís about how I get bored really easily. If I was confined to just one small kit... I want to try different drums, cymbals, and kits. I love jumping back and forth. I love playing some of the older songs on the secondary kit, to challenge myself with different set-ups and environments.
Maelstrom: When you have those monsters set up in the recording studio, you have them all miked up at once? Or is it like, youíll mic up part of it and mic up the rest when itís time to play that part of the kit?
Mike Portnoy: Everythingís completely miked. This is especially important because we write in the studio, so when we fall into something and want to lay it down, it has to be ready to go.
Maelstrom: How do you tune your drums to get the Mike Portnoy sound?
Mike Portnoy: Itís a cop-out answer, but I trust my drum tech. How he sets my drums up the same way, every day, the way I like them, I donít know, but he does.
Maelstrom: In the past few years, Dream Theater has devoted a good portion of its albums to doing more simple, stripped-down compositions that seemed to have started with Train of Thought. Why this direction? I see it as abandoning something that made you popular in favor of doing something that someone else has already done.
Mike Portnoy: We do that because we love all kinds of music. We feel it gives us the opportunity to do whatever the hell we want. As musicians, we want to experiment with simple songs just as much as we want to experiment with complex songs. In fact, simple songs are the challenging ones for us. To write 25-minute songs with a million odd time signatures... thatís a cake walk for us. We can do that in our sleep. Writing a five-minute simple song in 4/4 is a major challenge for us.
We understand that a big part of our fanbase is into the complex stuff, but from day one, if you listen to Images and Words, we had simple songs like ďAnother DayĒ and ďSurrounded.Ē Itís about a balance. As much as we like Metallica and Pantera for the metal stuff, and Rush and Yes for the progressive stuff, we love U2 and Journey for the poppy stuff.
Maelstrom: Could you talk more about whatís so challenging about writing a short, simple song for you?
Mike Portnoy: Itís a huge challenge for us to write a song like ďForsakenĒ or ďI Walk Beside You.Ē Since we all write together, that inevitably turns into a lot of opinions and ideas, and that translates into long, complex pieces. I did a Beatles tribute a few years ago. When I analyzed arrangements like on ďEight Days a Week,Ē it was unbelievable to me that within the first three minutes, theyíve done the chorus five times. With Dream Theater, usually within the first three minutes, the vocals havenít even begun. It amazes me how bands like The Beatles, or U2, or Coldplay can write such concise songs. Weíll often analyze their arrangements to figure out how to get three choruses and a solo section in four minutes.
Maelstrom: When you write the shorter songs, how does the process work? Does John come in with riffs and basic arrangements?
Mike Portnoy: Not really. Thatís part of the problem why simple songs are difficult for us. With these other bands, maybe it is one person who brings it in, so itís easier to keep it concise. But short or long, we do our songs together. Maybe one out of twenty times itíll be one person bringing in the skeleton of a song. Sometimes we have to dumb ourselves down. Long songs are easier because there are no restrictions. The clockís off the wall, and the song will go where it goes.
Maelstrom: Thereís a theory that I like that says that true experimentation can only happen within a set of rules. That itís working within those guidelines, and trying to push them, that yields the most interesting stuff.
Mike Portnoy: Completely true.
Maelstrom: How does James [LaBrie] fit in with you in this process? Does he jam along, or does he come in after a song is completed instrumentally?
Mike Portnoy: In the early days, he was never around when we wrote the music, and it started to create a bit of resentment. On the past several albums, heís been present throughout the whole writing process, but that just means heís present to understand where the songs are coming from. Once the music is done, then myself and James and John Petrucci will start discussing melodies. Weíll each go off to write lyrics, and then weíll apply vocals, which are the last piece of the puzzle.
Maelstrom: What did you mean about there being resentment?
Mike Portnoy: From day one in this band, weíve written instrumentally, even before James was in the band. When James joined, he was in Canada while the rest of us were in New York. And we were comfortable with that arrangement. But 10, 15, 20 years into a career, and that kind of separation can cause some resentment; like, we were resentful that he wasnít around while we did all the work, and he was resentful that he wasnít around, even though it was his own doing. So after looking at it, we decided it was best if he were there with us, even if he wasnít contributing, because it helped with the camaraderie.
Very interesting, but it doesnít answer the questions we originally had. Hereís Paul Northfield to try to clear things up about how Mike Portnoy sounds like Mike Portnoy.
Maelstrom: Certainly the first thought that comes to mind when considering recording Mike Portnoy is, how on earth do you mic all that stuff up?
Paul Northfield: Itís relatively straight forward. Heís got two kits set up simultaneously. They are approached as two separate kits, so when one of them isnít being used, itís essentially switched off. The simple answer to this is, unlike in the past when weíve had to a make a lot of decisions as to gate or mute mics that get in the way, and that you have to plan for the possibility of his wanting to hit something, and you donít want to interfere... but we were using Pro Tools, and because of that we had relatively unlimited tracks (actually, the limitations are more with the console).
During the recording process, I had about 36 mics on Mike, and about 12 channels on everybody else. And the primary goal is to get down the drum tracks. For keyboards, I had a guide stereo track coming from Jordan [Rudess], as all those tracks would be replaced later (except for one case where we had a solo live off the floor that everybody loved and we kept). But for the most part, the guitars and bass would be guides.
The way they approached this record was that they wanted to write in the studio and then immediately record whatever theyíd written. Theyíre very fast at putting their ideas together. Itís an expensive way to record, but for a band like Dream Theater, itís part of who they are as musicians.
They wrote the music and we mapped it out immediately, and put on guides with click tracks straight onto computer. And we recorded 48 tracks at the same time. Everything on the drum set was miked individually (not the cymbals, though, aside from the rides and hi-hats). So there were a lot of open mics. But I had to be ready to use either kit, ad Mike would decide which one to use on the fly. One of the kits is a sort of bombastic, progressive kit with everything but the kitchen sink; and the other is a simple, Jon Bonham-style, oversized kick drum and tom set-up, which we actually only used for one song (I think itís ďDark Eternal Night.Ē Either that or ďConstant Motion.Ē) But we had to have it ready just in case.
Maelstrom: What about phasing problems with so many mics?
Paul Northfield: Phasing problems come more from when you do a huge amount of processing. With me, mic positioning and choice have a lot more to do with the sound than EQing: If I had to EQ the toms a lot to get brightness, then it would interfere with the cymbal sound. The choice of console also has a lot do with it. We use an old, Class A, Neve 8058 with a three-band EQ at Avatar studios. Itís a classic console with a classic drum room to record in. The smack from Mikeís kit comes from his playing and some compression. I pick the clearest, most top-end-heavy cymbal mics I can so I donít have to do any EQing. So things tend to blend a lot better and I donít have issues with phasing. The tuning of the kit, the room, and the player has a huge impact on how the drum sounds. (Portnoy's kit set up for the Systematic Chaos sessions, below)
Maelstrom: Please talk about what microphones you used to record.
Paul Northfield: I used Sennheiser 421s on all the toms. The octobans had SM57s or 58s inside the tubes. The advantage of the old Neve consoles is that they have a thickness and punchiness to the low end. You just stick a little upper-mids and lows to them, and thatís it. The EQs are really broad, and if you over EQ, you can easily ruin a mix. We used SM57s on the tp and bottom of the snare. We used an AKG 451 for the ride. Same for the hi-hat.
The overheads were AKG C12s. Additional ones were AKG 414s. I always put the C12s on the sides. I tend not to do the over the head of the drummer approach for cymbals. The reason for that is, although you get a nice pick-up on the snare, I donít find the cymbal sound is that great. If you mic cymbals straight overhead, they sound like big dinner plates, or little gongs, and you end up having to EQ-out all the low end. They donít have any natural top end. If you mic them totally sideways, theyíre very thin sounding, and they disappear as the cymbal rocks. I try to get an angle as close to 45 degrees as I can to the cymbals, and about four feet away from the cymbals themselves. The only cymbal I point straight down on is the ride, but thatís a totally different thing.
For kick drums, we used AKG D112s.
Maelstrom: Tell us about muffling of the bass drum. Do you leave the resonant heads on?
Paul Northfield: Yes. There was a hole, but it was small ó like 4 .
The album was done in two sessions. Eric came in, set the kit up, and we tracked for about a month. Then Mike needed the kit for the G3 tour. When that was done, we did another month of recordings. Mike never changed heads during the entire recording process, aside from a clean set of heads at the very beginning of the recording session.
Maelstrom: How far were the microphones from the toms and snare?
Paul Northfield: About two inches from the heads and two inches from the rim. For the low toms, maybe a little closer to the center, but nothing radical. With a big kit like that, itís more of a question of ďwhere can you fit it?Ē But the benefit of being in a good room ó one without any radical reflections coming off the ceiling ó is that the spill you get from one mic to another isnít offensive. Whenever we could, weíd use rack mounts for the mics. Quite a few mics had clips on the rack tom rims, to avoid a nightmare of mic stands.
But the mics and mic placement were nothing special. The special factor came from the room and the console. Iím sorry to say, but the whole process couldnít have been more ordinary.
Maelstrom: Tell us more about the console.
Paul Northfield: Aside from the Neve, we used a Pro Tools HD system with the standard converters, and we used a Big Ben clock, which makes it sound better.
Maelstrom: Did you use any plug-ins?
Paul Northfield: No.
Maelstrom: Talk about what compression you used.
Paul Northfield: Itís all on the console. I used a lot of 1176, which I quite like, on the kit. When I was mixing, I ran the mix bus through some Neve strips. I mixed on an SSL. Tracking on the Neve gives a thick, dense sound, but with bigger arrangements, you need the spaciousness and clarity you tend to get from an SSL. The old Neves tend to get very muddy.
Maelstrom: What else do you like about the Neve?
Paul Northfield: Itís got so many transformers in it, itís unbelievable. Every single strip goes through six transformers before you hit tape (or, rather, the digital converters). Hereís what those transformers do: The distortion in a transformer is what is called ďfirst order harmonic distortion.Ē This makes the distortion characteristics very sweet. Whether you use a Class A circuit (which is the 8058), or a four-band EQ Neve, which is called a Class AB circuit (like the 8068 and 8078), the transformers are what make it sound the way it does (and the purists like the Class A circuit better). And they donít make consoles with that many transformers in them anymore because it was regarded as not technically a great thing to do to the sound. It was also extremely expensive. But musically, itís very powerful and useful.
Even though I was mixing on an SSL G-Series, I used a lot of Neve channels to maintain punch and density. The G-Series is not as thick and dense; itís more spacious and airy, and not quite as gutsy... itís stronger in the mid-range. In my recording, itís a lot about balancing the fundamental natures of consoles. I could have mixed it at Avatar on a J, which is a very clear and sweet console, but for rock stuff, it doesnít have the same kind of aggressiveness in the mid-range for guitars and such, so I consciously chose the G.
Maelstrom: It seems your implementation of Pro Tools was very minimal, indeed, that you used it purely to record to and to manage your tracks
Paul Northfield: In Pro Tools, I used things like delays, which are so much more convenient. It means that most of your effects are already being worked on whilst youíre tracking your overdubs. For example, the guitar solo delays were generated in Pro Tools. I could always change them ó which is nice, as youíre not totally committed ó and you didnít have to set up tons and tons of rooting when you came to the mix. If we did a recall, we wouldnít have to go set it all up again.
But the biggest advantage to Pro Tools is the sheer amount of tracks we could have. We could always have more and more, like alternative takes. Any hard disk-based system would have worked. Iím a big Logic user. That with Apogee converters and a Symphony card would be superb. But itís not a good idea to walk into a studio and ask them to use stuff theyíre not used to, because you need support.
The basic Pro Tools HD converters are good. Apogees may be nicer, but once they get to be as good as that, there are so many other things you need to worry about. Like driving it with the Big Ben clock. The clock is very important in running a digital system, and it makes a noticeable difference on a Pro Tools rig.
Maelstrom: What does a clock do thatís so important?
Paul Northfield: The samplers that convert from analog to digital are processing information at very high speed. If the clock thatís driving the whole system fluctuates, it tends to cause a brittleness in the sound. In bad clocking, the first thing you notice is the top end is a bit harsher, and the top end seems to separate from the sound as well, and the stereo imaging isnít quite as good. When you get the clocking the best it can be, you usually feel like the recording medium starts to disappear, and youíre just there and hearing the mics coming straight off the console.
In the old Pro Tools rigs, everyone used to use a clock called the Aardsync, because it made tape sound so much better. Then people realized that clocking was *really* important, so manufacturers started bringing out very high-resolution clocks that are very, very stable.
Maelstrom: Did you do any replacing on the drums?
Paul Northfield: No replacing, but I did augment a bit on the snare drum, to give it a bit more of an explosive quality, but not heavily because of the expression in Mikeís playing. When itís a straightforward back beat, you can add a bit of sample without any trouble. In that case, I add some ambience with a 4AD program. But in the case of press rolls, you canít do that with a sampler.
Maelstrom: After all this, I havenít figured out how Mike Portnoyís drum kit sounds like Mike Portnoyís drum kit. I donít know how familiar you are with Dream Theaterís discography, but to my ear it started sounding remarkable on Awake, and really signature since Scenes From a Memory... since basically Mike and John took over production duties.
Paul Northfield: I have no idea how anybody else recorded him. But [your perception] speaks volumes about a drummerís approach to his playing. A lot of what has an impact is really fundamental. Like, what are his drum sizes and how he plays them? I guess every drummer has a part of the kit thatís his main focus. Mike plays a lot from the kick drum. It sets up how he comes into a tom fill. Intangibles like that affect how the overall sound is.
Mikeís drums arenít particularly deadened. When you have a drummer with a lot of technical ability, they donít want that. They want it sounding live, and not tuned too low. Theyíd rather have a larger drum for a lower pitch, rather than a smaller drum tuned down, because you wonít get any kick back off the head. But really, there isnít a magical answer to your question. When youíre working with someone whoís as demanding and powerful a musician as Mike is, you need to work fast and not get caught up in details. Thatís why the Pro Tools rig was so important. Each mic had its own channel, and if we didnít want a channel, it got switched off. No need to worry about phasing problems.
I didnít gate anything when I recorded, and I hardly gated at all when I mixed it. The most complicated thing was being able to handle a huge kit that was ready to roll. Had I been in a huge room and had I needed to fight with it, it would have been a nightmare because of all the processing going on. But a great room and console allow focus to be put on the person, and that avoids frustration.
Maelstrom: What made the room so great, Paul?
Paul Northfield: Thereís a lot of wood in the room. Not a lot of super hard surfaces. Itís got a wood floor, but I put carpet under the drums, that way you donít get the brittle kick back. Ambience should be more low-end if possible. Not hard or bright... stone rooms are generally not interesting to record in. Iíve been in studios that have rooms that range from very, very dead, to rooms with glass and tile, which means the ambience is going to be all cymbals. For a drum kit, neither of those is very interesting. For me, a great-sounding room is something along the lines of a gymnasium, where youíve got a bit of boom in the walls and floor ó the low-mids and upper bass areas. Stages can offer a lot of those qualities as well. Years gone by, I remember drummers would complain their kits sounded great on stage but have all the life sucked out in the studio. [Avatar Studios] does not suck the life out of your kit. Itís not a massive room, but with the kit set up, itís about 20'-30' in every direction (although we were very close to the back wall), and with a 30' ceiling.
That was a lot of great technical recording information, but nothing about how the drums are tuned to sound the way they do. Surely, Dream Theaterís drum tech would know a lot about that.
Maelstrom: Eric, Iím after how Mike Portnoy gets his drums to sound like Mike Portnoyís. Since Awake, and particularly Metropolis 2, heís had a drum sound that is very remarkable.
Eric Disrude: As far as albums, Iíve only worked with him on the last two (Octavarium and Systematic Chaos). Now, heís got two kits built into one. But the ďAĒ side, the double bass kit, has been the same sizes for years (but the shells change constantly).
Maelstrom: Iím a little skeptical. Like, he uses 22"x18" kicks, right?
Eric Disrude: Yes.
Maelstrom: Well, thatís just about what everybody uses, but not everyone gets the sound he gets out of his kick drums.
Eric Disrude: Right. That would have to go into how he plays them. Ten people hit a drum, and itíll sound different each time. Mikeís drumming is very consistent. I tune them to get the rings out, and to make sure the pitches are right, but when I hit it, compared to how he goes up and hits it... itís a completely different thing. You can alter the shell or put a different head on it, but ultimately itís the drummer and how heís hitting it. And the sound that Mike Portnoy gets is from the way Mike Portnoy plays.
Maelstrom: When you recorded Systematic Chaos, what did you use to muffle the drums, if anything?
Eric Disrude: Nothing on all the toms.
Maelstrom: Iíve looked at an older kit on Mikeís site ó the ďpurple monsterĒ (below) that you can ďplay.Ē Itís got the Moon Gel on the toms.
Eric Disrude: Right. That kit was from before I was working with him. As far as the snare, I put two pieces about an inch long of that gel. In the 22"x18" kick drums, a normal bed pillow, and in the 26"x14" kick, a moving blanket.
Maelstrom: How do you tune the heads? Same tension top and bottom?
Eric Disrude: I generally tune the bottom heads a little bit tighter. Itís hard to put into words because I go on sound. A lot of the guys use these neat tools with meters on them.
Maelstrom: I had a Drumdial and I found it didnít work very well.
Eric Disrude: Iíve tried all of them, and theyíre not quick or comfortable. On the snare, I also tighten the bottom a little more than the top. I get the top to the point where there are no flat spots in it as far as stick bounce goes. For tone, Iíll go to the bottom head to get rings out, or raise or lower the pitch. So I guess it isnít a rule to have the bottom heads tighter. On the floor toms, sometimes Iíll have the bottom heads lower, because the top would be too loose to get it the pitch he wants it at.
We did a huge layout about the latest kit for ďModern DrummerĒ a few months ago. The problem is that whatís in that mag isnít what he used for recording the album.
Maelstrom: Have you teched for other guys?
Eric Disrude: Yeah.
Maelstrom: When you first sat down at Mike Portnoyís drum kit, what did you notice that was remarkable or different about his set-up?
Eric Disrude: Sitting down at Mikeís drum set felt completely natural. He has a great sense of order. Other drummers whose kits Iíve sat down at might have elements that are in awkward places, although it works for them. With the tuning, heís really not that specific about the sound of everything. Itís more the placement. He needs it to be in an exact spot more than he needs it to sound a certain way. In four years of working with him, heís never come in and had anything to say about the sound of the drums.
The drums are on a rack system, and I use the same piece of carpet each day. Everything is cut to length, and goes in a specific spot. Things might move slightly from day to day, but Mike gets comfortable with a specific way things are placed, and heís very particular about that. Iíve worked with different drummers that have things in different places every single day, but if somethingís off in Mikeís kit, itís because I screwed up because I didnít look at it.
Maelstrom: I know Mike plays with his left stick flipped so he gets more crack out of the snare. Do you play like that?
Eric Disrude: I do in order to emulate how Mike plays, so I can set things up better.
Maelstrom: Please talk about the bass drum tunings.
Eric Disrude: Theyíre pretty loose, but they canít be too loose or there wonít be any slapback. The batter side heads are tighter than the resonant side heads.
Maelstrom: Do you find you try to get the two kicks to sound exactly the same, or are you not concerned with that?
Eric Disrude: I try to get them exactly the same. It makes me nuts when theyíre different. Itís a lot of work.
Maelstrom: Have you got any hernia problems?
Eric Disrude: No.
Maelstrom: You alright carrying all that stuff in, or do you have, like, drum tech techs?
Eric Disrude: Yeah. We have stage hands every day that do all the heavy lifting. I do as little lifting as possible.
Maelstrom: What heads do you use?
Eric Disrude: All Remo heads. Clear Emperors on the tom tops, and clear Ambassadors on the bottoms.
Maelstrom: Those are 1-ply heads. Thatís unusual. Iíve found that most metal drummers prefer 2-ply heads for all top heads. I do. I find it sounds heavier and more appropriate. The 1-ply heads have too much ring (also, they donít last as long).
Eric Disrude: Itís a lot of tuning. They can be ringy, but thatís all in the tuning. Every once in a while, weíll have to put a piece of tape on a drum live because heads vary in thickness and overtone, and there isnít time to change the head. For snare drums, he used the 12" and 14" Melody Masters, and a 14"x6.5" brass. On all of those, we used Coated Ambassadors with a black dot on the bottom side. For kicks, we used Coated Ambassadors for the resonant side with a small hole cut in it, and Powerstroke IIIs on the batter side.
Maelstrom: Was a 2-ply head on the kicks a conscious choice?
Eric Disrude: When I went to the studio, I went with a bunch of options. When I heard that Paul Northfield was engineering, I was very intimidated because two of my favorite drum sound albums were done by him ó Rush Moving Pictures and Queensyche Operation Mindcrime. Heís done so many others. I didnít know how he worked, so I went there completely prepared with a lot of stuff. He specified where he wanted the drums in the room, and specified which heads to use ó which is what we always use.
Maelstrom: It must have been stressful for you to have to re-set up the drums in the recording studio after the G3 tour to continue the album. As you know, youíre not supposed to touch the drums or mics after you set them up until youíre done.
Eric Disrude: Yes. Thatís why I took a lot of pictures. I was kind of responsible for everyone else in the band because no one was there for this except one other guy.
Maelstrom: But itís not really your problem, as so much is about the exact mic placement.
Eric Disrude: Chad, the assistant engineer, helped a lot as he took photos of all the mic placements.
Maelstrom: Thanks for your time.
Eric Disrude: Feel free to call anytime. Weíll be on tour in the West Coast soon. Come on down and see how I set up the drums.