Muse’s Dominic Howard: Man Meets Machine
“We meant to focus on the groove more than we had in the past,” Howard says. “Some of the drum parts are simplified on this album but a good groove is not just about the drums, it’s how all the instruments work together and how it makes you feel. Some of the best grooves out there are the same [pattern] all the way through. We like to focus on that, so on ’Panic Station,’ for example, it seemed quite obvious what I should play there. It’s the about feeling you get, it doesn’t matter how many times you hear it you still get into it and nod your head. ’Madness’ was the same, that’s quite a simplistic approach. So overall there’s a bit more laying back on this album. My snare drums are probably striking later these days. They used to be earlier! There was that conscious decision to lay behind the click.
“Simplicity is often the hardest thing to record and to play well,” he adds. “As a drummer, when you’re playing busier parts or faster tempos you can smooth over any little wobbly spots. [laughs] Simplicity is hard to do, and traditionally it’s hard to play slow on the drums because that just exposes everything.”
The 2nd Law explores purely acoustic drumming, programmed parts, and machine-created drumming via Massive, Maschine, and Battery, sometimes all within the same song. The drums on the Queen-worthy “Madness” are entirely electronic, start to finish; “Follow Me” is “also fairly electronic,” Howard says. The song began acoustically, then every drum was replaced with samples. “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” began [as stated previously] electronically, then was replayed with acoustic instruments. Howard enjoys electronic processing and using software to sculpt the perfect programmed part.
“I am big fan of all the Native Instruments gear,” he says. “They did a series of acoustic drums samples [AbbeyRoad Vintage Drummers], they’re done very well. On the last album I used MOTU BPM, it’s similar to Maschine, kind of virtual MPC. I really like programming and working with electronics. The process of using electronics, working within the box in the computer, how you can layer the sounds, which essentially is what programming is all about, building up the layers, I really like that functionality. And I like how quickly and easy it is to try ideas out and demo sounds; that has completely changed how we write songs.”
The electronic approach has also influenced Howard’s tracking of purely acoustic drums.
“I do lots of layering of acoustic drums as well,” Howard explains. “Going back to the demo period, we work out all the songs, play all the parts live and as a band. But when it comes to actually recording the drums, I may record the kick and snare first, then layer the toms, then record and add the cymbals.
“’Panic Station’ was recorded that way, with kick and snare first, then toms overdubbed,” he continues. “You get a nice dry kick and snare sound that way, then add the toms. You can make the toms absolutely explode when doing it like that. You can’t do that if you’re just recording and playing all the drums all together. You need to be able to isolate mikes to have massive-sounding toms. And cymbals are a guitarist’s and an engineer’s nightmare. Dealing with how to record cymbals and get the drums loud enough when your cymbals are bleeding over every bloody mike in the room; it’s crazy. Overdubbing cymbals over drums is great because you can turn the drums up and turn the cymbals down. It’s weird to play it that way but you figure it out. But from a sonic point of view, I really like the results you get when layering sounds. I love a lot of overdubbing of snares as well.”
“Supremacy” kicks off The 2nd Law like, well, like Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” – an odd-metered, 6/4 melody layered over Howard’s 4/4 groove. It’s cosmic rock on the order of Styx, Yes, and Queen mixed with a Hollywood soundtrack worthy of Hans Zimmer. Pompous? You bet. Grandiose? But of course.
“’Supremacy’ is literally a 2-and-4 beat,” Howard says. “It was really about having the snare drum sit behind the click almost like it’s dragging. When we were demoing ideas at one point the guys left me alone in the studio. So I was playing around with that triplet, the Zeppelinish riff. There was a whole section at the end where I started playing a triplet over the 4/4 groove, slipping into metric modulation. But we canned it because it became a bit too technical and weird. But that riff is so syncopated, it’s obvious the beat needed to be simple and straight down the middle without being all frills and silly little touches. It just needed to be big and slamming.”
“Save Me” recalls Radiohead, whom Muse are often compared to. Opening with a flowing, dreamy 3/4 pulse, the song awakes with Howard’s driving 4/4 bass drum and rapid-fire tom interjections. Suddenly, the bass drum drops out, and it’s all Howard, pumping flams around the kit, “Ticket To Ride” style. It’s an earthy performance, but is it man or Maschine?
“The one track that is a full drum kit!” Howard laughs. “With that track we wanted it to sound different so I went for a full dead 1970s approach. I tuned the snare really low, removed the bottom heads off the toms and the front head of the kick drum as well. We put loads of gaffer’s tape on the toms just to make them dead. Absolutely dead! Then we put the mikes under and inside the toms, just to get a different sound. We did that on ’Liquid State’ and ’Animals’ as well.”
“Big Freeze” is full-on stadium rock with skyrocketing guitars, chest-thumping tom fills, and a Wembley Stadium—worthy groove. “Big Freeze” also sounds like a live drum set being played. Here, Howard recalls Stewart Copeland by way of Ronnie Vannucci.