It’s a warm day in April, and we’re standing on an urban street in Chicago waiting for someone to buzz us into an industrial building. A few moments later we begin to climb four flights of stairs while cursing the architect who omitted an elevator and pitying any road crew that ever had to move gear into this place.
This deliberately nondescript façade conceals Groovemaster Studios, a rising star in Chicago’s recording scene. We enter its common area and see pool and ping-pong tables, and other amenities that musicians want, like a kitchen and bar. An intense Foosball game ensues in one corner, and Disturbed’s drummer Mike Wengren emerges victorious. We’re here to talk with him and producer Johnny K (3 Doors Down, Soil, Finger Eleven) about how they got such massive drum sounds on the band’s newest CD, Ten Thousand Fists.
Just A Couple Homeboys. “We’ve known Johnny K since before we ever got signed,” Wengren says. “He struggled and built this place and his career at the same time we were struggling and building our careers together. He did some of our very first demos, which were the ones that got us a record deal in the first place. He’s kind of like the unofficial fifth member of Disturbed.”
“I got my start as a producer when the first Disturbed album started to really sell,” Johnny K adds. “I’d been producing and recording bands for years around the city, always thinking if I had a chance and a budget — and I could get the mikes that I wanted and the gear that I know sounds good — that I could compete with the big guys. And a few years later that’s happened.“
No kidding. Groovemaster is an impressive complex, and Disturbed has used virtually every inch of it — even the connecting hallways are filled with guitar speaker cabinets, miked up and covered with rugs and packing blankets for isolation. Amp heads are sensibly placed in the control room for quick and easy tone adjustments.
We walk into a room that once served as studio owner Johnny K’s private apartment, until Disturbed invaded and transformed it into a preproduction area. Here the band worked out parts for the new album. “We do a lot of pre-production stuff in there,” Wengren says. “I can work on parts at a lower volume; Johnny K can oversee and make comments and what not.”
Scanning the room, we see a portable ProTools rig, various guitar amp simulators, lots of high-end outboard gear, and a Roland TD-10 electronic drum set to experiment with drum parts. This same gear will go on tour with Disturbed so they can write and demo song ideas on the road. “It’s easier to do the cutting and pasting on ProTools for arranging issues,” Wengren points out. “I think the first two records went right to 2", and then bounced over to ProTools.” But this time the entire album was recorded straight to ProTools, though Johnny K did a couple of rough mixes that were recorded onto 1/2" analog tape. He insists sound even better for it.
Inside The Big Room. The studio complex has a couple control rooms. An 80-channel Solid State Logic G+ series mixing console dominates the main room. “When I got the new board, it was very expensive to install, and a huge project,” Johnny K sighs. “We had to cut the floor open and rewire, because the previous board [a Euphonix CS 3000] had much smaller cables and they ran through tubes. We had to build a plastic shell inside the room, and take everything out. I was in the middle of producing an album. We put the Euphonix in the other room and finished the record there.”
The large tracking room has several different sections, each with various flooring and wall treatments that offer distinct live/dead areas, as well as moveable partitions to create even smaller zones within the room. “We tried to make something cool out of the space we have,” Johnny K explains. “There are no parallel walls, a pressure zone trap in the ceiling, and cedar and stone walls.”
We arrive near the end of the drum-tracking phase, while the band is going for final vocal tracks. A smaller zone has been created in front of the control room window for vocal tracking and maintaining visual contact. Wengren’s double bass Pearl drum set sits on hardwood flooring, just in front of a cedar wall in the sonically bright end of the room. “This is actually the same kit that I’ve used on all three records so far,” Wengren says, although he admits experimenting with a selection of snare drums made by other manufacturers. “It’s an integral part of our sound. I’ve been with Pearl five or six years now. I’ve always been a Pearl guy actually, before I signed with them. My first kit was an Export kit, back in the day.”
Wengren is using the identical configuration that he takes on the road and plays in his private practice room, right down to his Sabian cymbal setup. “We tried some cymbals that I would ordinarily use in a studio session that just didn’t work with Mike,” Johnny K says. “When he hits them, they flail around, it doesn’t sound good. He hits the cymbals a lot harder than most drummers. So we ended up using his live cymbals, which are heavy and have a nice sound. They might not sound good with somebody else hitting them but they just work with him.”
After a few minutes listening to two old friends trade comments, we begin to suspect that Wengren and Johnny K might have had different opinions about drum sounds while recording Ten Thousand Fists. “That can be a struggle sometimes,” Wengren admits. “I prefer less over-ring, and Johnny prefers more natural sounds. Obviously, he’s here for a reason — we’re using him because we trust his opinion, so at the end of the day we respect what he says.”
“We’re looking for a certain kind of sustain and ring of the toms,” Johnny K chimes in. “I had a certain idea of where I was going with Disturbed. You listen to the music and you know what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to achieve. I know Mike, as an artist, wants to seek out and improve his sound. Every step of the way is a part of that.”
Even though Wengren had already finished his drum tracks when we arrived, his kit is still completely miked, just in case they need to redo a drum part. “There are a couple of drum parts in some of the newer songs that we’re still questioning,” he explains. “So we just decided to track the drums, then lay the guitars down. If there’s something we need to change we can just go back and do it.”
Clearly, Disturbed has elevated the entire recording process to a science. Wengren admits that his band is picky about nailing down arrangements before setting foot in the recording studio. “We pretty much spent the last year and half in our guitar player’s basement,” he says. “We’ve got a portable ProTools rig and V-Drum kit down there as well. We wrote all the songs, and reworked the songs, and reworked the songs, until we were happy with them.
“When we got to the point where we felt we were ready to track, we hooked up with Johnny K and adjusted the songs with his point of view, as an outsider. Typically, pre-production for a song would last a couple of hours. Tried a couple of things — ’Okay, maybe we can improve them by doing this, blah, blah, blah, okay sounds cool. Let’s go track it’ — and then we came in and laid it down.”
By our count, Wengren’s six-piece kit is surrounded by 26 microphones, including a Shure SM-57 on the snare, a Sennheiser 421 on the floor tom, and Audio Technica ATM 25s on the mounted toms. “Those mikes are almost interchangeable — the ATMs and the 421s,” says Johnny K. “It’s almost the same mike. I switch them out.”
We also spot AKG 451 and AKG 414URLS microphones positioned underneath the toms. “We use a pretty good amount of those,” Johnny K continues. “I don’t know how necessary it is, but I just got in the habit of doing it. I like the little extra low-end it gives. Since I own the studio, I pretty much bought what’s worked for me in other studios.”
Outboard Gear. Groovemaster’s large control room could comfortably hold a dozen people, with endless racks of Class A equipment that would make any sound engineer’s mouth water. There’s a Studer Analog tape recorder that Johnny K referred to as his ridiculously expensive “boat anchor,” since 2" analog tape wasn’t available. Next to that was his ProTools rig and a couple of Mac computers.
The producer likes to have plenty of reverb on hand for drum sounds, and gravitates toward a Lexicon PCM70 and 300L, Yamaha SPX 900, and Dynacord DRP 20. Not being a noise gate freak, he only delicately applied compression to Wengren’s drum sound — adding some on the bass drum and room mikes while leaving the snare untouched.
“I love board compression,” he says. “I sometimes run the drums through a stereo compressor and blend that in, blend the whole drum set again, and have a more compressed version along with the uncompressed version. I like doing it in the mix, that way you can decide in the end how much dynamics you need in the drums.
“I don’t use the compression to even out the drums, it’s more about the sound the compression adds. We have had to even some things out before. Sometimes we just do it with the faders. You know, if we want to hear something louder, go old-school, make it louder. Sometimes the compressor’s the best way because it has a sound, a snap to it. I think it’s about how the compressor affects the attack and the body of the toms or kick or snare.”
Earlier we had spotted a ddrum trigger on the bass drum and wondered if some of Wengren’s sounds had been replaced with samples during the sessions. “We haven’t used that trigger at all in the studio,” Wengren insists. “We rehearsed here for the Dimebag Darrell benefit we did at the Aragon. We were in the middle of tracking and couldn’t break down and go somewhere else to rehearse. So that was for my live set up — I actually trigger for my in-ear monitors.”
As far as Johnny K is concerned, the practice of replacing drum sounds is as antiquated as acetate. “Some of the sounds might get enhancement in the mix, and mixers a lot of times will add something to that, but I don’t think I’ve ever had my drums replaced,” he says. “I think some mixers use a little too much of their trademark samples. But trends do change. Any band throughout the history of the music business that attaches themselves too closely to what’s going on at the time also seems to go out when the times change.
“I think the fact that the first Disturbed record has hung around is a tribute to keeping the drums natural. Not forcing the sound to fit any specific trend and letting the band sound like a band increases your likelihood of having a record that’s going to stand the test of time.”
Moral Of The Story. It’s important to have great recording gear, and you have to know how to use it. But as Johnny K points out: “You’ve got to know when not to use the gear. Don’t get fancy. It’s really not that difficult. Just get the drums to sound good. We found out — with all the equipment in the world — it was really about picking the right heads and tuning them the right way.”