Mike Mangini: Wired Science

mike mangini

In the now infamous YouTube videos of Dream Theater’s drummer auditions of 2010, a posse of percussion princes came to conquer, ready and able to prove that they and only they were the rightful heirs to departing drum leviathan Mike Portnoy’s throne. They were progressive metal’s best: Mike Mangini (Extreme, Annihilator, Steve Vai), Marco Minnemann (Necrophagist, Joe Satriani, Steven Wilson), Thomas Lang (Stork), Aquiles Priester (Hangar, Angra), Virgil Donati (Planet X), Derek Roddy (Nile, Hate Eternal, Today Is the Day), and Peter Wildoer (Darkane, Pestilence).

As legend has it, a furious battle ensued, and when the dust had settled, one man, sticks in hand, emerged to grab the crown. His name was Mike Mangini. Bloody but unbowed, this particular superdrummer knew this was truly the Big Time, and was more than up for the challenge. Indeed, he’d been preparing himself for it all his life.

“I felt the same pressure as always,” he says matter-of-factly. “I know how to prepare for an audition; I’ve done it for decades, preparing for the environment and prepping the material. And going up against friends made it that much more fun. I have tremendous respect for the drummers I auditioned with – it just made me dig in.”

Of course, the digging in required this veteran of countless eclectic sessions to assess how much he’d have to adapt his drumming to fit the sound and form of Dream Theater. It’s an issue that the former associate professor at Berklee College Of Music addresses in somewhat scholarly terms.

“There are two components to my perspective on fitting in: my pattern recognition, and the way that I have developed certain cognitive connections in my brain. We as music lovers have a choice to wire ourselves to be able to comprehend what we’re listening to. I wired myself by listening to music that my brothers and sisters played; my brain got accustomed to listening to different key signatures and different modes and different emotions, with progressive music of all kinds.”

The hard science of musicianship is a source of endless fascination for Mangini. And he suggests that most anyone can wire themselves to play the complex polyrhythms of progressive rock bands like Dream Theater – anyone motivated to do so, that is. These are ideas he’s published in two books about his drumming techniques titled Rhythm Knowledge.

“If musicians don’t start to study the brain,” he says, “then they’re just going to be artists that think certain things with no proof at all as to what they’re talking about – as opposed to human beings who want to learn more about being human beings.”

Warming to the subject, Mangini cites an MIT paper which proved that no human beings are born with an inherent understanding of polyrhythms, and that the comprehension of compound rhythms requires wiring into the brain via study and practice, practice, practice.

“Before playing with Dream Theater,” he says, “I had previously wired not only those areas of the brain necessary to comprehend what I’m listening to, but because I comprehend what I’m listening to, I can then make a musical choice: I like it or I don’t like it. No one’s going to be able to make an objective choice if their brains don’t allow them to comprehend it and if the feeling inside them is one of discord and discomfort, simply because they really don’t know what they’re listening to.”

mike mangini

Applying The Dream

Mike Mangini is famed for his formidable array of chops, notably for the almost perfect symmetry of his arms and legs in complex polyrhythmic patterns. He’s also reknowned for setting five World’s Fastest Drummer (WFD) records, evidence of which was shown on the Discovery Channel’s Time Warp program in which he displayed his awesome skills for high-speed cameras.

Mangini is also at great pains to portray his role in music as something above and beyond that of a mere technician. Yet he acknowledges that an ability to apply substantial technique is crucial to his musicianship. “I’m not a technical guy,” he says. “I’m a kid who loves The Beatles, who loves Buddy Rich and Zeppelin and Sabbath. I like Christina Aguilera! But I also love progressive music, and I love the idea of playing it knowing what I’m doing.”

Wiring himself for the job of recording Dream Theater’s eponymous new album wasn’t difficult for Mangini, because their music was not just something that he comprehended. He liked it, too. “With pattern recognition, I could understand Dream Theater’s music pretty easily, but that I liked it on a musical level made me feel not only that I liked it when I heard it but that I could fit in,” he says.

Dream Theater’s melodic landscapes are usually created within the time signatures created by guitarist John Petrucci and keyboardist Jordan Rudess, and, according to Mangini, “You can’t help but sing a melody over it. And I would not have trained myself to play it at all if at some point I didn’t enjoy it. When you put together the two worlds of comprehension and enjoyment, it’s gotta work.”

You can hear Mangini’s sheer joy on the album’s “Surrender To Reason,” whose introduction explodes with odd-timed percussive bursts played in what must have been difficult side-vs.-side coordination moves. “Check out the first three drum fills that open ’Surrender,’” he says. “The first is a 15 tuplet on the snare drum, before I do a triplet for the second fill. Note that I did this not by being a scientist and calculating, ’Gee, I think I’ll play a fifteenth-note tuplet just because I can.’ I played an odd amount of notes because it gave me a certain feeling.”

He did the same thing with the third fill, a devilish 29-against-5 polyrhythm that he swears came bubbling out of pure feeling and musicality. “In fact, the first fill I played instead of the 29-against-5 polyrhythm was a more even set of triplets. Now, to me, sometimes sixteenth-note triplets are too square and studied, and it’s because most of us don’t practice to go beyond that to experience this other world. But [Dream Theater singer] James LaBrie got out of his seat like a banshee, pointing at me, and said, ’No, Mike, the other one you played, that was gold!’ I’m like, Really? So I looked at my drums and I calculated and said, ’Oh, wow, it was two notes on every drum on the kit, plus five on the kick drums. So it was 12 times 2, plus 5 = 29.”

Despite Mangini’s hardwired facility for executing the most hair-raisingly intricate rhythmic patterns, there were tracks on the album that raised his personal bar even higher. On the epic ’Illumination Theory’ there are a couple of spots where Mangini uses limb pairs against one another, such as his left foot playing a china-stack sound that his hands would normally hit, and throughout one section the left side of his body is playing in 3/16 while the right side is playing multiple time signatures, following Jordan Rudess.

“In ’Enemy Inside,’ I had to reach so far from one side of my kit to the other, hitting the effects cymbals as I’m following the guys melodically, that the entire trunk of my body had to turn from left to right in less than so many thousands of a second, and while I was doing that I had to whack the bass drums. I’m sorry, but I’m not a robot!”

Even the band’s simpler, more overtly pop songs such as “The Bigger Picture” required Mangini to create as much air and space as possible while still strutting his technical stuff. You hear him play parts that closely resemble the melodies and riffs from the other musicians – and note that his bandmates asked Mangini to play more, in order to create a unique drum part for each song. Throughout the album, the production is a minefield of sonic surprises, such as the stereo nature of the kit actually changing with the sharps and flats in the charts.

“I’m following the key signatures of the music, I’m changing cymbals based on key signatures, my tom toms are following the unison runs exactly,” he explains. “If Jordan Rudess goes up the keyboard then I go up the drums; if John Petrucci goes down his guitar in sets of triplets or threes, I go down my drums in triplets or threes.”

He would also like to point out the substantial time he took playing simple parts for perhaps just two minutes without missing any hits off the grid. That’s a tough job for any drummer, a difficulty aggravated by the microscopic exactitudes of modern recording technology.

“My challenge was keeping the velocities extremely high – if I hit one hit light in the middle of a run, it got lost. And to me it wasn’t light, because I could hear it perfectly fine. But with the recording software we use today, if it’s just a couple of dBs shy, it’s no good.”

He laughs.

“I often question why I do what I do, because it is so pressure-filled, but there's something about stepping it up in front of everyone and seeing smiles after I nail a part. It feels like scoring a hockey goal did when I was young!”

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Mangini's Kit

Drums Pearl (Reference Pure/Masterworks custom blend in Galaxy Grey)
1 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2 16" x 16" Bass Drum
3 18" x 16" Bass Drum
4 14" x 6.5" Main Snare
5 10" x 6.2" Utility Snare
6 6" x 6.5" Tom
7 8" x 7" Tom
8 10" x 8" Tom
9 12" x 9" Tom
10 14" x 9" Tom
11 16" x 16" Floor Tom
12 18" x 16" Floor Tom
13 20" x 14" Gong Drum
14 Cannon Toms (L-R): 6" x 12", 6" x 15", 6" x 18", 6" x 21" (aluminum shells)

Cymbals ZIldjian
A 21" Z3 China
B 18" Oriental China Trash (top)/14" Trashformer (bottom)
C 20" A Custom Ping Ride
D 19" Rezo Crash
E 17" A Custom Crash
F 14" A Custom Hi-Hat (x-hats)
G 13" New Beat Hi-Hat
H 8" K Splash
I 9" Oriental Trash Splash
J 13" Oriental China Trash (top)/10" Splashformer (bottom)
K 12" Oriental China Trash (top)/ 10" Splashformer (bottom)
L 8" ZHT China Splash
M 13" K/Z Hi-Hat (remote)
N 13" ZBT Hi-Hat (x-hats)
O 20" Z3 Medium Heavy Ride
P 16" A Custom Crash
Q 16" K EFX Crash
R 18" A Rezo Crash
S 14" Oriental China Trash (top)/14" Trashformer (bottom)
T 20" Oriental China Trash (top)/20" Crash Of Doom (bottom)
U 19" Z3 China
V 26" Gong

Electronics Pearl
W 10" x 4" ePro Live pads mounted in Rhythm Traveler shells
X Pearl r.e.d.box module

Percussion Pearl
Y Tambourine
Z Wind Chimes

Mike Mangini also uses Pearl hardware, Zildjian sticks, Remo heads, and Vater cymbal fasteners.

Back To The Roots — And Back Out Again

Mangini grew up in a big Italian family in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Massachusetts. His was a musical clan whose paternal grandfather was a sax player who also worked in a watch factory. His mother played piano and sight-read, and most of his aunts, uncles, and cousins played a musical instrument.

“My family on both sides really knows how to party,” he says with a chuckle, “and we had a lot of weddings, with 300 to 500 people. By the time I was five I was performing once or twice a year – and I had already been performing since the age of four, when my brothers and sisters would make me play for the neighbors.”

Mangini learned early on that the realities of the music business required him to grasp as much as possible about not just drumming technique but aspects of music theory and composition. His tough-love fifth-grade drum teacher made real sure of that.

“He forced me to play mallets, and I would’ve rather had a ball-peen hammer whack my elbows twice a day than to study mallets,” Mangini howls. “He got in my face and said, ’Listen to me, kid; if you don’t learn how to write melodies, you won’t get publishing. You’ll just be back there on the drums, humming out stuff, looking like a fool, and you’re gonna wonder why everyone else is making money and you don’t get any writing credit. You may think you wrote a song because you wrote a drum part, but a drum part is not copyrightable info.’”

Mangini got the message, embarking on a study of various mallet instruments, including glockenspiel. “I learned my key signatures and how to navigate on a keyboard instrument. Even though I’m not a pianist, alone with an iPad or keyboard or bass or other melodic instrument I can record my ideas so that I can communicate the ideas I have. And if I have to do it on the spot – come up with a riff ¬¬– I can and I do.”

Mangini’s career as a professional drummer commenced the day he quit Waltham’s Bentley University after a semester and a half, spending the next year playing in a cover band. He didn’t go back to music full-time until he quit his job as a software engineer on the Patriot missile system for Raytheon, a position he held for five years. Establishing his own drum teaching business in 1989 while playing in an original band and doing cover-band gigs, he’d begun to develop the spectacular multilimb-coordination skills he’d go on to showcase in bands like Annihilator and Extreme and with Steve Vai.

Mangini’s wide-ranging set of playing chops reflected the stylistically varied drummers he’d grown up admiring. “The drummers that influenced me up until I was an adult – What am I saying? I’m still not an adult, and I’m 50! – till I was about 20: Ringo, Bobby Colomby, Danny Seraphine, Buddy Rich, John Bonham, Neal Peart, and Terry Bozzio. Those drummers’ musical expressions struck me so hard that I learned every song from their catalogs.”

Still influencing him today is most any drummer who, as he puts it, does anything remotely personal. “It could be a conga player, a jazz player, a player with a large drum set, a speed drummer with even velocities and no dynamics, a drummer with all dynamics. When I hear somebody that really plays with quality, meaning that the things that they choose to play are unique to the song, that’s my kind of drummer.”


Peaks And Valleys And In Betweens

“My playing technique goes in cycles,” says Mangini, “and when it plateaus, it doesn’t really plateau. It’s only the perception of a plateau, meaning that it’s increasing in such small increments that you can’t tell. And practicing is so boring, so tedious, so awful to dredge through, because you want to see a result and you don’t see it.”

But practice you must, he says, or else … “Proton decay is real. If you’re not getting better, then you’re getting worse. You’re not staying the same. You’re either progressing or you’re regressing, and there’s no in-between.” Mangini has modified his own practice routine over the years, in part because decades of meniscus tears and frays from playing sports led to a double meniscoptomy in 2009. The surgery forced him to go back to basics practice wise, and that included slowing the hell down – but not too much.

“I’ve been practicing extra slowly since I auditioned for Dream Theater, and so my velocities are stronger and my hits are cleaner,” he says. “It’s a balance, though. To play at a faster rate uses different muscle groups and techniques, so essentially it’s not the same as practicing slowly. You have to do both.”

Mangini believes that the practicing he did before he hit 21 formed the foundation for the chops he has today, so that when he digs in to practice, he can achieve his goals fairly quickly. “I incorporate the spirit, mind, and body,” he says. “The first thing I address is one of feeling – my spirit and my purpose. I ask myself, Do I want to get better today or do I want to just have fun? Once I decide that, yes, I want to improve today, then I isolate what it is I want to improve on, choose a series of exercises, and repeat them throughout a phase of specifically worked-out environments, stickings, and rhythmic landscapes.”

He also finds it beneficial to practice the music at half-speed or lower tempos; interestingly, his use of a metronome for practice comes after he is sure that he can physically do what he wants to do. “You can’t iron the wrinkles out of a shirt if you don’t have the shirt,” he says. “So I want to make the shirt first: I want my limbs and my brain to work such that I can physically do what it is that I need to do. Once I have wired it in, a metronome comes in when I want to perfect it, when I want to experience what it’s like to play it at an even velocity or even timing.”

mike mangini

Mike's Mechanics

Onstage and in the studio, Mangini’s massive custom Pearl drum kit is one and the same (“for muscle memory purposes,” he says), though he does most of his practicing on a small Pearl ePro kit, primarily working on the connections between his voice, mind, hands, and feet. “That’s my primary function when I’m trying to improve my hitting velocity, my accuracy, and my musicality as well.”

Mangini’s equipment is currently undergoing a reconfiguration for both live and recording work. His 26" and 18" bass drums have been replaced with Pearl ePro two-track pads, for the wide variety of sounds they offer, and because they take up less room. In his home studio he’s using ePro tom toms with the two-track pads; he’s ordered ePro bass drum pads for all his kits, so that the bass drum pedals can attach to a hoop and the bass drum itself is a stand-alone unit that won’t vibrate as much if it’s attached to the rack.

And for the first time since his Speed King pedal days in 1975, Mangini has switched to hard felt beaters on his two 22" kicks, twisting his Pearl quad beater to the hard felt side because, he claims, he’s hitting the drum harder these days and pushing more air through the drum. As for that crucial “slap” effect, he’s going with recording software DSPs to get that sound for him.

A potential downside with felt beaters is that there’s less of a dynamic change once you hit a certain decibel level, and when Mangini kicks his 22" bass drums, there are no dynamics. He has a system in place to address that situation in a typical recording session or live performance.

“I’m not allowed dynamics, because my hits will not go through the gates,” he says. “Now, I am a classically trained musician, and I’m sorry but the music isn’t fulfilling unless it has dynamics in it. So the way I kept the dynamics was by having multiple kick drum sounds; having the 18" allows me to play very softly, but it also allows me to get a lot of boom; with the 26" I’m getting a lot more air blasting through.”

To further expand his kick drum arsenal’s sonic variety, Mangini has replaced his two outer kick drums with ePro kick drum pads, where with just the turn of a dial he can get any bass drum sound he wants; he also uses these for foot percussion effects, further freeing up space by eliminating extra pedals.

We Are Family

To hear him tell it, Mangini has had approximately one million thrillingly heart-warming – and brain-fulfilling – experiences in his musical life, and, better yet, he’s just getting started. He wants you all to know that he’s very, very thankful.

“I can’t help but smile with gratitude to all those people who have allowed me to have the opportunity to learn more and work more. I have had support from family and friends, just enough to keep me fighting. And that includes the Dream Theater camp. I’m looking around me thinking, ’These guys want me to be as good as I can.’

“And I think about the moment that I meet my maker. You know, ’I have given you talent. What have you done with it?’ I want to show up having done something.”