Not all ’70s artists and engineers subscribed to the separation/dead drum aesthetic. The standout from this camp was Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, who, according to legend, disdained the close-miked techniques. And unlike the mainstream, Bonham kept resonant heads in place and eschewed excessive muffling.
To set up in this style, make sure there is no muffling inside the kick drum. (Halleluja!) Note: there is no need to use a huge kick. Record what the drummer is used to playing. We purchased a 26" maple kit at Treelady Studios, but after three years, it never made one recording. Why? Because the majority of today’s drummers play a 22" kick. Beater response changes significantly as the drum diameter becomes larger. Consequently, no 22"-player could handle the switch to a 26" kick drum, especially under the pressure of a running studio clock. Tune the batter and resonant heads to a mid- to low-mid tension. Tune toms and snare to the lowest fundamental that provides a round note without resulting in a slack or a floppy sound. In contrast to the dry approach, limit muffling on the tom and snare heads (I’m talking a 1cm x 2cm Moongel on the edge – at most).
For this example, we’ll use Sean McDonald’s Ludwig Vistalite set (and its 22" kick). Since there is no hole in the front bass head, we’ll need to mike outside. Normally, miking the front head gives more “boom” and less “thwap.” To address this, we’ll use two mikes. First, a large-diaphragm condenser, a Neumann U47 FET (FIG. 14), will capture the low bass sound. Second, a vintage Electro Voice 666, which is the forefather of the EV RE 20. The 666 will pick up the force and attack of the drum. At mix down we’ll blend the attack of the EV with the roundness of the Neumann. But we have to consider the matter of phase: Sound will hit each mike’s diaphragm at different times.
You can align the phase through mike positioning. The old-school engineer method: Put the two mikes in front of a speaker. Feed the speaker a 1kHz test tone. Flip one mike’s channel to be 180 degrees out of phase with the other mike. Move one mike until you hear the most cancelation. Tape the mikes together, or set them on a small piece of plywood and mark the positions. Use that setup in front of the kick (make sure to set the polarity back to normal). Another solution is to wait until mix down and use a plug in like the UAD Little Labs IBP tool on one of the mikes (FIG. 15). Either way, you must check that the two mikes are not fighting.
Mike the top snare head with an SM57. For overheads, try to use large-diaphragm condensers in a spaced pair. One of the best ways to ensure phase with a spaced pair is to use a string or tape measure to make sure that the left and right mikes are the same distance from the snare. I prefer choosing a spot where the snare and kick meet, because the overheads will also pick up some kick. Finally, grab one or two mikes for distant room mikes. According to most documentation, some of Bonham’s largest sounds came from a pair of small Beyer M160 ribbon mikes (FIG. 16) placed down the hall or in a stairwell. Here is your chance to get creative.
Fig. 17 The Helios EQ section can add low-end thickness like few solid-state devices can.
Fig. 18 The Mix Control blends dry and compressed signal for improved control.
The “Big Bonham Sound” comes from the following recipe: the performance of a master player, correctly tuned drums, well-placed microphones, creative use of appropriate outboard (or plug-in gear), and tasteful mixing.
One contribution to the big sound was the beefy transformers used in the consoles. Few people know that the guys in Led Zeppelin were in love with a console made by Helios. For this reason, I suggest putting a UAD Helios plug-in on every drum channel – even if you put the settings to zero (make sure to enable the IN button) (FIG. 17). Even without the EQ, the Helios adds a musical thickness to the tracks. For the overall drum bus, I recommend an Empirical Labs FATSO (or the UAD version) (FIG. 13).
Get a good mix without the room mikes. It may be a good idea to keep the room mikes on a separate bus from the drum bus. Put a compressor on the room-mike bus and crush the living daylights out of them. Many people know this trick – it’s been written about to death in recording magazines for years. But one nuance people may not know is parallel compression will give better results. There are a couple of ways to do this. The easy way is to use a compressor that has a blend control (this is simply a wet/dry knob that blends the compressed with the uncompressed sound). The PSP Vintage Warmer 2 has a “mix” control that will do exactly this (FIG. 18). If your compressor of choice does not offer this feature, you will need to add a send off of the room mike bus (to another bus). We’ll call this the “crush bus.” It will have the fully compressed room sound. You’ll need to blend the dry room-mike bus with the crush bus to get the correct balance, but the results will be worth it.
Fig. 19 Slate Digital’s Trigger is one of the most advanced drum-replacement applications currently available.
Most of the secret techniques of the time dealt with augmenting the snare bottom, snare attack, or adding claps or tambourine to the drum tracks. Honestly, the best way to add any of these extra sounds is to use a modern drum replacer. By processing a copy of source tracks, any drum element can be replaced by prerecorded samples ranging from the same drum set to another drummer’s kit to special-effect sounds. Using a replacer also ensures that the added sounds land exactly where the existing performances are. Our favorite application for these kinds of tasks is Trigger, by Slate Digital. Trigger has some of the best source tracking, including ghost notes, and various velocities (and its uses are not limited to ’70s-era drum projects) (FIG. 19).
Drum sounds of the 1970s were a result of artistic preferences, the type of drum gear on the market, and the recording techniques of the day. Of course, all of these are secondary to a great performance by a great player. If your next project calls for this style, I hope one of these options gives you what you need.