Dominic Howard: Ghost In The Machine
Photo: Ross Halfin
Performing on a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, multimillion-selling art rockers Muse debuted material from their latest album, The 2nd Law. A doom filled, apocalyptic depiction of a global culture devouring itself faster than Gene Hoglan’s double pedal, the album is also a state-of-the-art tutorial on the modern man/machine interface, an ultra-slick production where it’s often impossible to know where the “man” begins and the “machine” ends.
A Three-Pronged Plug
Muse – drummer Dominick Howard, bassist Christopher Wolstenholme, and guitarist/vocalist Matthew Bellamy – performed note-perfect renditions of “Panic Station” and “Madness” on SNL, Howard incorporating Roland pads (triggering Ableton software) with his slamming drumming. Howard’s drumming style, both in performance and in the studio, is all fat and no flash, though earlier Muse recordings (such as Absolution, Black Holes And Revelations, The Resistance) found him executing busy stickings more reminiscent of Neal Peart than John Bonham. The self-produced The 2nd Law is not only a perfect example of the new Muse mindset – the result of a band where everyone is as familiar with Pro Tools recording software as guitar, bass, and drums – it also reveals what can be achieved in the trio format, recording in one of the world’s best studios, with three musicians who understand both rock pummel and programming sophistication.
“I always want to challenge myself in the studio, certainly with sound,” Howard says. “Not necessarily with just playing or technique, but in producing the albums ourselves we present ourselves with challenges, like trying to make the drums and instruments sound different to how we treated them before. So incorporating technology into the music helps us to feel we are doing something different. Incorporating new technology and instruments, software and sounds is important to us to feel like we are evolving and moving forward.”
This direction was largely spearheaded by Muse frontman Matthew Bellamy.
“Even though a lot of the songs have acoustic drums, we added additional samples of the same drums to get a bigger sound,” Bellamy elaborates. “We placed a P.A. system behind the drums, and routed the bass drum and snare drum though the P.A. Then when we recorded the room sound – the bass drum and snare drum sounded massive. Rather than it being too cymbal heavy you’re getting the boom from the bass and snare drums. That was the original intent on ’Supremacy.’ Then as a variation we ran Dom’s electronic samples through the P.A. instead of acoustic drums. So Dom was playing the close-miked drums in the room, but as his foot struck the bass drum it triggered a sampled electronic bass drum coming through the P.A. system. We got the dry acoustic sound but also this crazy, large room sound, which you think is organic, but it’s a combination of acoustic and electronic samples.”
Recorded in AIR London’s Studio One, East West Recording Studios (Los Angeles), and Shangri-la (Malibu), The 2nd Law is Muse’s second self-produced album following 2009’s The Resistance. From soaring opener “Supremacy” to hope-inspiring pounder “Follow Me” to the dubstep-drenched title track and the epic closer, The 2nd Law is a stunner, a downer, a production-centric rock epic.
Howard’s recording process for The 2nd Law took multiple directions. When recording trap set, he tracked drums and cymbals separately to better isolate the drums and treat the cymbals. Demos were created with both acoustic drums and software (in Pro Tools, and Native Instruments Massive, Battery, and Maschine), then replaced with samples, programming or live drums depending on the song.
“We deliberately set ourselves a production challenge to produce [two tracks] in a way to create almost opposite results,” Bellamy says. “’Follow Me’ was originally a regular-sounding rock track with normal instrumentation, then once we recorded it we replaced each instrument with electronic samples. We found sounds which mimicked the acoustic instruments electronically. It sounds like a rock band but it’s all synths and samples. On ’The 2nd Law Part One: Unsustainable’ we created a demo using synths and drum samples, then we replaced it all with real instruments. It’s the direct opposite of ’Follow Me.’ It was a real challenge; can real instruments even compete any more with that kind of genre?”
Did this focus on production deter from Howard’s drumming? Did he become an automaton playing simplistic grooves in service to the programming gods? Did he surrender to the ghost in the machine?
“I have never only focused on the drums,” he replies. “We’ve all always concerned ourselves with production. On the most recent albums, the sound and the compositions had a lot more layers than just three instruments. But the core of the band has always been the three-piece. What each of us play is very open, we have a good grasp of each other’s instruments. When you’re self producing you’ve got to be aware of how everything sits together, from how you’re recording instruments to how you’re arranging the songs and deciding what everyone should play. Everyone is suggesting things to everyone else in this band. Having self produced the last two albums gave us that confidence.”
A Finely Tuned Approach
Within Howard’s powerful drumming he often executes the perfect fill over a groove that aligns superbly within the music. His style is also a study in minimalism. Howard lists his favorite drummers (and their production sounds) as Dave Grohl, Ronnie Vannucci, Herb Alexander, John Bonham, and Tré Cool, all drummers whose brawny playing is paired to good taste and an overall perception of their role as part of a musical whole. It’s a team drumming approach; no egomaniacal musicians allowed.