Drums In The Key Of (Stevie) Wonder

Drums And Mikes

With the right drummer on board, I began discussing the session with Willie Samuels, one of the phenomenal engineers at Studio Trilogy in San Francisco, where we were booked to record. A fellow drummer and Stevie Wonder superfan, Willie was excited to research and discuss the drum and miking scenarios for the session. Noting that older, “shallow”-sized drums would be the way to go, Willie and I agreed that his 1966 Ludwig Mod Orange kit (22" kick drum, 12" mounted tom, 16" floor tom, with an early ’70s Ludwig Supraphonic snare) would be a great choice for the session. Willie said the heads already on that kit (Coated Remo Powerstroke on the kick drum, Coated Remo Emperor heads on the toms, and Coated Remo Black Dot on the snare) were ten years old, quite lived-in, and likely very similar to the kind of heads Stevie probably played.

The cymbals were from different eras. For hi-hats, Willie supplied a pair of ’60s-era 14" Zildjian A cymbals. The top cymbal was very thin (with a few cracks); the bottom cymbal was of medium weight, with two rivets in it. Willie said those hi-hat cymbals have a “dark sound and a good thick ’whoosh’ when opened, à la Stevie.” For the crash cymbal, we used a ’90s-era 17" Zildjian K Medium Thin with a large radial crack; Willie felt the crack added a cool “trashy” feel and kept the volume down a bit. Willie selected a 20" ’60s Zildjian A crash/ride for the last cymbal. He described it as having a “nice dark sound with very musical overtones, and quiet volume.”

In his research, Willie looked for every possible video, photo, interview, and article related to Stevie Wonder’s 1970s recording sessions. He was able to pinpoint a number of aspects of those tracking sessions that helped him prepare for the session:

“I was fortunate to find a clip of Stevie recording ’Living For The City.’ There is only a quick flash of him recording drums, but from that I was able to identify the overhead, snare, and hi-hat microphones – no tom mikes on that recording. Fortunately, all of these mikes were available to us at Studio Trilogy, so I was able to re-create the mike configuration pretty well. I used a Neumann KM84 run through the Chandler TG2 preamp on the snare, another Neumann KM84 on the hi-hat pushed through the SSL9K preamp, a pair of Neumann M269cs for overheads with the Neve 1073 preamp, and, as an option, which we may or may not use in the final mix, a pair of Neumann U87s placed in nearby iso booths for ’room mikes’ put through the API 3124 preamp.”

“The one thing that continued to elude me was which microphone was used on the kick drum. My guess was that it was either an Electro-Voice RE20 or an AKG D12. I had access to an AKG D12 but the mike was having some issues; I had to abandon it. With help from the interns at Trilogy, we did a “shootout” of a ton of microphones and positions and settled on a Sennheiser MD441... but something still wasn’t right. Finally, I decided to try taking the front head off the kick drum. After doing this and placing a sandbag on top of a packing blanket in the drum, I got it!

“It also helped to tune the batter head of the drum down quite a bit. I ended up running the Sennheiser through the Vintech X81 preamp. While my preference usually tends to be tube-based microphone preamps, I opted for all Class A solid-state preamps for this session. I felt these were most likely what was in use at the studios in which Stevie was recording at that time.”

Like Kevin, Willie had noticed that the hi-hat is a crucial element in Wonder’s drumming. He kept this in mind when placing his chosen mikes around the drum set:

“I almost always opt for an X/Y, or Blumlein, pair for overhead microphone placement because I prefer the solid center image of the snare and the reduced phase issues. However, through my research I realized that spaced overheads were very much a part of the classic Stevie Wonder drum sound. I took great care to measure out the distances between the kick, snare, and two overhead mikes to maintain a solid phase relationship, and keep the two drums centered in the stereo image [a slight variation on the classic ’Stevie Sound’].

“The snare mike is placed just off the edge of the top rim. I wasn’t too picky about this as I didn’t expect to use much, if any, of that mike in the mix. Stevie’s hi-hat playing is definitely one of the most recognizable parts of his sound, and I noticed that it often sounds like the mike is placed near the edge of the hats, capturing a ’blast’ of air on his signature open hat parts.”

As far as Willie could tell, Stevie did most of his ’70s tracking at Electric Lady, The Plant, and Crystal Sound; studios with medium-to-large sized, fairly dead-sounding rooms. To prepare Studio Trilogy’s live room for a Stevie-inspired session, Willie started by laying down a few large rugs, opening the tunable baffles in the room to the “dead” side, and – taking a cue from some pictures of Wonder’s drum sessions he found online – surrounding the kit with some absorbent gobos.

After the drum set, mikes, and recording environment were set up to his liking, Willie began playing and recording the set himself, testing the sound of the drums and the room. The day before the session, he sent me a brief recording of himself playing along with “Superstition”; the sonic similarity was uncanny. Along with the recording, Willie also sent along a picture of the drum set all miked up and ready for action. Thanks to all of Willie’s advance work, we were ready for the session.

stevie wonder

9. The API, Chandler, Manley, and Vintech preamps that Samuels used on the session.

stevie wonder

10. The Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor used on the session.

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