Studio Setup Log: Dialing In Jeff Gretz Of Zao
Not everyone has had studio experience. Even fewer people have had the opportunity to see how the table is set before a record is made. So we enlisted engineer Dave Hidek to document the process of dialing in perfect drum sounds prior to the first takes for an album that is due for release in the near future.
And it wasn't just any album. Founded in 1993, Zao has been credited by some as the first popular metalcore band. As huge and sonically overwhelming as ever, the material for the band's newest album could be described as if Soundgarden and Jesus Lizard collaborated on a record produced by Ridley Scott. At the helm of the rhythm section is Jeff Gretz (Emanuel And The Fear, From Autumn To Ashes, Austrian Death Machine), who has smashed and bashed with Zao for the past ten years.
Hidek, who coproduced the album with Zao guitarist Scott Mellinger, photographed and catalogued his session at Treelady Studios in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The following photos and notes provide insight into attaining the big, brooding drum sounds that laid the foundation for the record.
Step 1: Choosing The Drums
We knew from the outset that the kit would be a combination of Treelady Studios' backline and Gretz's collection. Traveling from New York by train, the drummer was limited to what he could carry: one snare, a kick pedal, sticks, and some cymbals. The studio's hardware, bass drum, and toms would fill out the setup (Fig. 1).
Most professional drummers record one to three songs in a day. We were scheduled to track 19 songs in two and a half days, so we didn't have the luxury of spending two of them getting sounds. In building Gretz's sound, we needed to start by picking the right bass drum. We compared three kicks that we thought could work: a 22" x 14" Ludwig maple with a Remo Coated Ambassador batter, a 22" Slingerland hybrid shell with a Remo Powerstroke 3 Clear batter, and a 22" Yamaha birch with an Evans EMAD 2 Clear batter.
We ruled out the birch shell, as its midrange was a bit too present. Both the Ludwig and the Slingerland were more balanced, but the Slingerland lacked the depth we wanted (coincidentally, it was also the most shallow of the candidates). The Ludwig still needed a bit more slap, so we swapped the EMAD 2 onto the Ludwig and knew it was the right combination immediately (Fig. 2).￼￼
Gretz's 14" x 5" maple Ludwig snare initially seemed like a good choice, so we began looking for two toms to round out the kit. My go-to toms are the 12" and 16" Ludwigs that match the bass drum, however, when Jeff played them, they just didn't sound like Zao. They were too shallow, too open, too jazzy. We swapped the 12" and 16" Ludwigs with a seldom-used 13" x 9" Ludwig maple mounted tom and 16" x 14" birch Yamaha floor tom, and right away we knew we were in the ballpark. The Remo Coated Ambassadors that were already on the shells didn't provide quite enough tone due to how hard Gretz was hitting, so we installed Coated Emperors and were in business (Fig. 3).
Moving to cymbals, we started with 14" A Zildjian hats, 18" and 19" AAX Sabian Stage crashes, a 20" Zildjian A Custom Ping ride, and an 18" Sabian Paragon China cymbal that was missing a solid 4" chunk of bronze — we'll get to that later. The Zildjian A's proved to be a bit harsh, and we wanted Gretz to be able to smash his hi-hats without crowding the midrange of the guitars, so we switched to some old Zildjian New Beats, which were dark and grimy, and stayed perfectly out of the way (Fig. 4).
Gretz's Sabian crashes wowed us from the get go — they were rich and full without all the tonal resonance that we're used to from larger crash and ride cymbals. We felt like we could crank them in the mix without it becoming washy or unfocused. We were skeptical of the ping ride, but it also proved to get out of the way after the initial attack: the “ping” was clear without digging into our brains while wearing headphones, and the decay was articulate, again, without being too resonant (Fig. 5).
The China was something special. Being broken made it decay almost immediately after being struck, so it provided all of the trash without the weird tones that typically come out of Chinas (Fig. 6).
At this point, the kit sounded good, but it wasn't mean or menacing enough. We felt like the snare didn't have the depth to make backbeats slam and sound heavy. We switched out Gretz's 14" x 5" maple snare for a 14" x 6.5" steel Ludwig Supraphonic with an Evans Genera HD Dry head. Everything fell into place as Gretz tuned it down from where we'd normally tune a snare. The kick and snare were now equally meaty and powerful. We used two dynamic mikes on the batter head — a modified Shure SM 57 and a Beyerdynamic M201 — for even more beef (Fig. 7).
Step 2: Choosing Preamps & Microphones
Our philosophy for this session was to steer clear of the sample replaced sound that has more or less dominated metal and rock for the last decade. We wanted some really aggressive, huge, roomy sounds that hit you in the chest, but they had to come honestly — created by the engineer and drummer working together to make something amazing. We didn't want a sample that was recorded by a different engineer and a different drummer in a different studio five years ago and has already appeared on thousands of records. To reduce the bass drum from bleeding into the room microphones, we made a tent for the drum's close mikes using mobile baffles, a moving blanket, and some tape (Fig 8). Connecting the microphones to their preamps always gets a little crazy, but engineers are used to this type of mental workout (Fig. 9). API 212 preamps did a lot of the heavy lifting on this session due to their fast response and forward midrange presence (Fig. 10). We wouldn't dream of making a rock record without them.
In addition to the popular M-502 Pro preamp, Spectra Sonics loaned us two prototype preamps for the session (Fig. 11). Known for their vast headroom and one of the fastest analog limiters available, the Spectra Sonics preamps were integral because of their resistance to being overloaded from snare and cymbal transients.
Big drum sounds come from the room, assuming the drums and drummer are where they need to be. So, after placing our close mikes, we spent a lot of time getting the two pairs of overhead microphones and an additional six room mikes placed to provide dif- ferent depth perspectives. A single microphone setup isn't necessarily right for every song, and given that we were tracking 19 tunes, we set up quite a few mikes that could function in several combinations. For instance, for a big, wide-open track, we could use the AKG D112 on the kick with a little Shure SM57 on the snare, some Neumann KM 184 overheads, and then a lot of Neumann U 87 room mikes. Conversely, on a more intense shredder jam, we could use an Audix D6 on the kick with a lot of snare mike, and Gefells as overheads (closer to the drums). When you're crunched for time, this type of setup ensures there are lots of options available after the fact, when time is less of a concern.
Two of the room microphone choices were a Coles 4038 ribbon mike and a Neumann U 87 — the ribbon has a softer high frequency response, taming the often-harsh high frequencies that radiate from cymbals. The Neumann is a full-range, hi-fidelity condenser microphone for instances where more splash and articulation are required of the cymbals (Fig. 12).
We placed a room mike behind Gretz's head, to capture the image he heard. For this we chose the Holophone H2-Pro (affectionately called the ostrich for appearance reasons). This unit contains eight elements, and is more commonly used in sound for picture and location recordings (Fig. 13).
Another room mike option was the pressure zone microphone (often referred to as a boundary or PZM mike). We placed this on the floor a few feet from the snare and heavily compressed it for an intense, pumping ambient sound. Placing it on the floor allows it to pick up the drums more so than cymbals (Fig. 14).
It's common to apply large amounts of compression to room microphones in rock production. However, not all compressors are suited for this task. We chose the Vintage Audio MSL, which has a special "aggressive" VCA detection mode (Fig. 15). Handmade in Idaho by Revive Audio, the MSL costs a fraction of some of the other compressors typically used in this application.
We checked playback using two pairs of speakers: KRK V8s and Yamaha NS-10s (Fig. 16). The KRKs have extended bass response and are capable of loud playback before distorting. On the other hand, the Yamaha NS-10s are known for a revealing mid-range and forward high end. If cymbals got harsher than we preferred, the NS-10s let us know immediately.
Once the drums were set up and tuned, and microphones placed, we were ready to track some monstrous drums. Mellinger and Gretz collaborate on writing the drum parts, but they live in different cities, so they can't rehearse. For the songs that Gretz was less familiar with, his process for learning the tune consisted of listening to the demo on his iPod while writing out a chart. If he hadn't already put his own spin on it beforehand, he'll try out a few ideas then proceed to knock out the track in two to four takes while Mellinger provides feedback.
From start to finish, getting the right drum sound involves hundreds of super-detailed choices, all in the name of achieving something that moves the listener. When you take the time to get things right, the performance is captured in a way that reaches out to the audience — they will know what they hear is real and can grasp the intent of the musician. That human element is what makes our favorite records from the latter half of the twentieth century so personal and special.