Dominic Howard: Ghost In The Machine

dominic howard

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.

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“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.

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“That is another example of layering loads of stuff,” Howard says. “I love working that way. It’s sometimes quicker than playing live drums to layer sounds in a track. You can really control each drum and cymbal. When you break everything down and put it all together, you’ve got complete control over everything. Also, I like having completely different ambiences on the snare as to what’s on the kick drum, you can have electronic toms over an acoustic drum kit, or a really dry kick and snare and absolutely massive toms. I like mixing that all up. It makes a unique and interesting total kit sound. ’Big Freeze’ has a big hi-hat and a tambourine and loads of enormous toms all in one part, but it’s all been recorded separately.”

Dominic Howard

Howard’s Setup

Drums DW Jazz Series (custom Spiral Glitter finish)
1 22" x 20" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Collector's Series Snare (knurled black nickel over steel)
3 12" x 10" Tom
4 15" x 15" Floor Tom
5 16" x 16" Floor Tom
6 18" x 16" Floor Tom

Cymbals Zildjian
A 8" EFX
B 11" Oriental Trash Splash
C 14" K Custom Dark Hi-Hat
D 18" K Custom Dark Crash
E 22" K Custom Dark Ride
F 20" A Custom EFX / K Custom Dark EFX (prototype)
G 18" Oriental China Trash

Electronics Roland
H PD-8 Pads (triggering samples)

Percussion
I Mountain Tambourine
J RhythmTech Ribbon Crasher
K TreeWorks Classic Bar Chimes

With all this attention to sonics, what about the tempos? Did Muse grid every last drumbeat and tempo map every corner of every song?

“We did more tempo mapping on the last album, with all its tempo changes, than The 2nd Law,” he responds. “But normally in the studio we work hard on tempos, trying to find the right one. We will bump up choruses two bpm if it feels better. It’s always about what feels right. The bpm can really affect your perception of the tempo of what you play. So we do tiny little shifts within songs. And again, there were more obvious tempo shifts on the last album.”

The nearly operatic rock-to-dubstep epic “Follow Me” combines all of Howard’s approaches – electronic, acoustic, programmed, layering. It begins with tub-thumping toms under Bellamy’s gospel inspired vocal, then blasts into a demonic-sounding snare drum roll diving deep into half-time dubstep terrain, then a 4/4 stomp straight out of a techno rave.

“That’s a combination of electronic and acoustic kits, then I just played it,” Howard says. “The electronic samples we used there were remixed by Nero. They gave the samples a certain sonic quality, which we thought was great. And I created a programmed kick with a hi-hat on it to give it that metallic edge. A lot of classic snare drum sounds are created with electronic sounds. You just start with a fat snare, a handclap, and add some white noise and maybe a sample. I applied that approach to ’Panic Station’ and ’Madness.’ It’s no secret these days. Maybe tune down the snare, apply gaffer’s tape to the head, then sample that and add a bunch of claps. We used the Arp 2600 to produce white noise. Mix all that together and you’ll get a badass snare sound.”

Finding His Muse

Though Howard played drums in a grade school band, Gothic Plague, Muse was his first and probably last proper band. He admits being self-taught, but recent drum lessons with former Mars Volta drummer Dave Elitch have helped him decipher paradiddles from ratamacues. He’s also studying chart reading and linear drumming.

“I wanted to know more about R&B and gospel chops, different odd time signatures, weird stuff,” he says. “It opens doors to different ways of thinking.”

And of course, Howard always returns to one of all his all time drumming heroes, who might surprise readers, and Muse fans.

“Buddy Rich is still the best drummer in the world though, isn’t he?” Howard asks. “It’s still ridiculous when you see him in a video. He still blows your mind. He’s still so cutting edge. He was ahead of this time in the tones he got out of his drums, his technique, his proficiency. Drummers today are doing incredible stuff, but going back to Buddy Rich, what he is doing is so often equal to and above any current level you would care to examine. It does still blow my mind. On some YouTube videos, he even does a little rock and roll groove for a bar. You realize of course he can do all that as well. So I often go back to Buddy Rich. That’s what it’s all about, and that is who you need to look up to and where you need to go. It’s ridiculous, really.”

With Buddy Rich as the drummer’s goal and rock stardom as his lifestyle, what advice does Dominick Howard offer the aspiring drummer? Is it as simple as learning the rudiments and writing the perfect song?

“For us we always had play to music and be in a band,” he says, matter of factly. “Then we just stuck at it, really. Find players who you really like and resonate with. It’s hard to find people that are on the same wavelength as you. That’s important. What else? Keep open.”

Muse’s Matthew Bellamy is a rock innovator, practically a one-man band who sings like an angel, writes like a record label’s dream, and has enough generosity to include his bandmates in the production process. At the end of the day, is it all about finding your own Matthew Bellamy? And a healthy dose of luck?

“Yes, of course it is,” Howard admits, honest to a fault. “We all know what it is. It’s being at the right place at the right time with the right songs. It’s tough being a musician. But it’s an amazing journey and it can be so rewarding. So I say always ’take risks.’ We all quit college for this band. That is risky stuff. But with us it’s all we ever wanted to do. There was no other option: the band or nothing. And we have that same ambition now.

“I meet lots of great drummers who can play every style and really adapt to any situation, which are qualities I’ve always envied. I’ve played with the same band my whole life. I joined this band when I was 14 and we all stayed with it. But we’ve always challenged ourselves as musicians and pushed ourselves and had that yearning to be better musicians. I always feel the need to refine and learn to feel confident in my role as the drummer in Muse. So just enjoy it, that’s it. It’s a good job.”