Drums In The Key Of (Stevie) Wonder

stevie wonder

“Stevie Wonder has to be the greatest drummer of our time” –Eric Clapton

The staggering songwriting and vocal skills of the legendary Stevie Wonder have been lauded around the world for decades. His prowess as a formidable, inventive keyboardist (and pop music synthesizer pioneer) is undeniable. His virtuoso-level skills on harmonica have been documented since he was a child. Everywhere he goes, Wonder is justifiably heralded as one of America’s most valued musical treasures and one of the greatest musical minds of the late 20th/early 21st centuries, and rightly so.

News flash for those who didn’t know: Stevie Wonder also happens to be one badass drummer.

Wonder’s singular, homespun drumming style and sound can be heard on well-known tunes like “Superstition,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” as well as deep album cuts like “Maybe Your Baby,” “Black Orchid,” and “Cash In Your Face.” While his playing on the hit songs is dynamic and exciting, it is the album cuts that fully reveal the essence of Wonder’s unique approach to drum set. “Maybe Your Baby,” for instance (from Talking Book) is built on simple, slinky hi-hat timekeeping with only occasional full-on snare hits. His fills, when they come, serve the song perfectly by injecting a sense of urgency and release. On the gorgeous “Black Orchid” (from Wonder’s controversial Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants double-album), his drums sit out the entire intro and the first half of the opening verse before entering with metronomic backbeat precision; the result is some solid steady-handed funk beneath the stately keyboard parts. “Cash In Your Face,” from the excellent Hotter Than July album, is all-business funk, complete with syncopated kick drum and accented hits that form a rhythmic motif of sorts. There are acoustic drum set—driven gems like these all over Wonder’s 1971—1980 output, and virtually all of them are worth a studious listen.

“NEW YORK TIMES”

In a recent session I produced for Oakland pop/R&B artist Chase Martin, I had a chance to collaborate with a couple of guys who share my enthusiasm/fanaticism for Stevie Wonder’s drumming: Bay Area drummer (composer/producer) Kevin Carnes of the legendary trio Broun Fellinis, and recording engineer Willie Samuels of Studio Trilogy.

It all started with a song, of course. Chase Martin and his songwriting partner Jeb Havens cooked up a song called “New York Times,” which even in cabaret-style piano-and-voice demo form, sounded like an outtake from one of Wonder’s groundbreaking albums from the ’70s. I told Chase I’d like to explicitly pursue a Wonder-inspired production for the tune, with clarinet, growly bass, and a loose, vibey drum set approach. He was into it, and I knew exactly who to call for the drum gig: Carnes.

stevie wonder

1. Snare mike placement using a Neumann KM84.

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2. Snare mike close-up.

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3. Hi-hat placement using a Neumann U87.

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4. Kick drum mike placement using a Sennheiser MD441.

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5. Overhead view showing Neumann M269c's.

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The Perfect Wonder Drummer

Kevin Carnes has been on the forefront of Bay Area sonic surrealism for over 20 years now, regularly pushing the boundaries of what a drummer can do on stage and in the studio. In the late ’80s, he co-founded The Beatnigs, a proto-industrial/rap group with Michael Franti. He then cocreated the Afro-Surrealist trio Broun Fellinis with sax man David Boyce and bassist Kirk Johnson, and went on to play for everyone from P-Funk icon George Clinton to electro-industrialists Consolidated to rocker Storm Large. Having shared the stage, the studio, and uncomfortably cramped van space with Kevin, I was also aware that he is a disciplined student and admirer of Stevie Wonder’s drumming. When we were discussing the upcoming session, I asked him for some thoughts on Wonder’s style and approach, and how he was planning to prepare to channel that vibe in the studio:

“I grew up practicing to Stevie Wonder’s music, but I actually didn’t know he was often the drummer on his own stuff until I was in my twenties. One thing that strikes me about Stevie’s playing as a drummer is that it’s very relaxed – not so crisp and not so metronomic. He’s using different parts of the stick at different times, and his hi-hat parts change throughout the song. A lot of times, each chorus in a given song is played slightly differently, too. He escalates a song over a long period of time, really growing the whole piece, instead of topping out [energy-wise] early; it gives the music somewhere to go. That, and the fact that he never allows the groove to disappear while adding little embellishments and variations throughout a song really had a huge impact on me.”

When asked how he felt about multi-instrumentalist artists like Wonder and Prince and whether or not their songs would be better served by a “session pro,” Kevin’s answer was swift and sure:

“Ultimately, the great thing about Stevie is that his songs always sound exactly like they should. There’s not too much of anything, and nothing is lacking, either. I think both Stevie and Prince are great examples of playing the right thing for the song, so in that sense, they are ’session pros.’ Could another drummer play it better? Maybe. But it isn’t necessary for the song. As for me, I try to approach each recording session and gig with the goal of making an emotional connection with the listeners ... I’m definitely not trying to create the ’perfect’ drum track. If it does what it’s supposed to do, then it’s fine.”

stevie wonder

6. Kevin Carnes on the 1966 Ludwig Mod Orange kit: 22", 13", 16"; '70s Ludwig Supraphonic snare; Hi-hats: ’60s-era 14" Zildjian A; Crash: ’90s-era 17" Zildjian K Medium Thin; Crash/ride: ’60s-era 20" Zildjian A.

stevie wonder

7. The band: (L-R) Michael Blankenship, Darryl Anders, Chase Martin, Kevin Carnes.

stevie wonder

8. Gobo placement.

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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.

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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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Capturing The Magic

As I mentioned earlier, the rest of the instrumentation for “New York Times” was just as Stevie-oriented as the drums. The keyboardist, Michael Blankenship (Sheila E., Lauryn Hill, Lyrics Born), used an M-Audio Axiom Pro 61 controller, MacBook Pro, Apple Mainstage 2, and Native Instruments plug-ins (specifically, Scarbee Clavinet & Scarbee A-200 patches). Willie captured that directly out of Michael’s rig and ran it through an API preamp. With that setup, Michael was able to dial in a perfect serpentine clavinet sound as well as a classic-sounding electric piano patch; we ended up blending both voices.

Bassist Darryl Anders, known for his work on the video games Guitar Hero, Rockband, and Karaoke Revolution, was recorded direct-only through an Avalon U5 DI with the Vintech X81 preamp and DBX 165 compressor. Willie also added some Mutron phase for a “funky synth” vibe. The diverse guitarist Michael Cavaseno, who plays with P-Funk guitarist RonKat and the Latin/electro/rock group Bang Data, played a Les Paul guitar for his overdubbed parts.

Willie and Michael selected Trilogy’s Orange amp head along with a ’60s Marshall cabinet (with original Greenback speakers); Willie double-miked the Marshall with a Royer R-121 (put through the Chandler TG2 preamp) and an Audio Technica 4033 with the Manley preamp. He then “blended the two mikes to taste” to one track. Finally, for Chase’s scratch vocal, Willie chose a Neumann M269c with the Manley Preamp and a Tube-Tech CL1B compressor.

The plan from the beginning was to track the drums, bass, and keyboards together. We’ve been doing that consistently throughout the making of Chase Martin’s album. Willie and I joked about how having the musicians play live together was actually ironically inauthentic in this case, since Stevie Wonder often painstakingly overdubbed many of the tracks himself on the records we were trying to emulate.

Just before we began tracking, Kevin and I had a brief exchange about the specific drum figures he might play for the song. We decided that employing an archetypal Stevie swinging hi-hat pattern might be cool. When Kevin sat behind the drum set, he began playing around with a fresh beat that sounded somewhere between two of Stevie’s much-loved classics: “That Girl” and “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” With Michael and Darryl dialed in and Chase posted up in his vocal booth ready to sing, we began capturing takes of “New York Times.”

The first take established a groovy ’70s vibe, with Michael’s clavinet sounds front and center. We ran through a few takes, messing around a bit with dynamics and nailing the accented hits in the chorus. Thinking back to what Kevin said about how Stevie’s drumming often allows a song to grow dynamically over time, I asked Kevin if he could keep both hands on the hi-hat and withhold snare hits until later in the song. When executing that idea, he decided to bring in the snare about halfway through the first verse; a smart choice that helped propel the verse toward the catchy chorus.

We also decided to “break down” the final verse a bit, giving the lyrics additional breathing room and creating anticipation for the final round of choruses. Chase’s guide vocals sounded great on every take, and the musicians were unfazed when Chase busted out with completely rewritten verses at around take four. Soon after that little curveball we were done with the drums, bass, and keys tracking, and Michael Cavaseno popped in to record his guitar parts, which we completed quickly and smoothly.

Thanks to the exhaustive research and preparation of a passionate engineer, a team of experienced and savvy musicians, a dynamite song, and a willing, enthusiastic artist, we achieved our goal of recording a tune that would not be out of place on one of Stevie Wonder’s classic ’70s albums.

At the heart of it all, of course, was the drums ... which were played and heard in the key of Wonder, all day long.

PC Muñoz is a San Francisco based musician, producer, writer, and educator. His past productions include the Grammy-nominated album Strange Toys by composer/cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, the award-winning multi-media project “Twenty Haiku”, and the CMJ-charting album A Good Deed in a Weary World. He can be found at pcmunoz.com.