Purposeful Haze: Re-Create ’60s Drum Sounds

The 1960s were a golden era for music. Pop, soul, and rock were selling records like never before. For drummers, things started out rather subdued. But by the end of the decade there were hits with the aggressive pulse of the ’70s that was to come. Unlike disco, funk, and hard rock, early 1960s drummers took more of a back seat in the band and the song. If this type drum sound is appropriate for one of your future projects, the following outline of drum and recording gear from the era should help you get your groove on. There are also three examples of gear and recording setups covering a few of the prominent styles of the time.

Technology

The ’60s started as a monophonic listening era, with some attempts at stereo creeping in later. In the studio, many recordings were done completely live, or with only a few overdubs. While today’s digital audio workstations (DAWs) offer the luxury of almost unlimited track counts, multitrack recorders had only been available since 1955. In the early ’60s, these recorders were expensive, and often limited to four tracks. Punch-in recording was difficult, if it worked at all. Consequently, most recordings were played from start to finish.

Many studios made their own gear, contributing to the individual sound and reputation of a facility. Recording consoles were in their infancy. Referred to as “mixing desks” in Europe, some of the first models were literally modified office desks that had electronics added to the top. (see Fig. 1 below) A typical channel strip was rudimentary by today’s standards. A common set of controls would have included: volume level, pan (usually a three-position switch of Left, Center, or Right), Bass EQ, and Treble EQ. If a studio had a mono or stereo deck only, it meant the band recorded “live” and the mixing was done in real-time. What people heard in the control-room speakers (usually Altec 604s or Urei 813s) was pretty much going to be the finished song.

Drum Sounds Of The 60s

Fig. 1 A 610 Console. Before mass-produced audio equipment was widely available, Bill Putnam was building hardware for live and studio recording. (Photo Courtesy of Universal Audio, Inc.)

The realm of microphones was further advanced. Ribbon microphones remained in use, especially in the early ’60s. Popular ribbon models were the STC (today Coles) 4038 and the giant pill-shaped RCA 77 models (and their numerous revisions). At the time, Altec, American, BBC, and Shure used the phrase “ribbon mike,” while Electro-Voice and RCA chose the term “velocity mike,” but we’re talking the same animal.

For large-diaphragm condensers, the premier brand was Neumann, with the U 47 being its flagship vocal mike. (Originally, Neumann mikes imported to the U.S. were sold under the Telefunken name by the Gotham Company. But they are essentially the same product). Many U 47s were used for The Beatles’ recordings because of their sound and pick-up patterns. In omnidirectional, or figure-of-eight mode, John and Paul could sing while the U 47 also picked up ambience from Ringo’s drums. Legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin called it “his favorite microphone.” Like the Coles 4038, the Neumann U 47 is still revered today. In fact, if you had a pristine vintage model you could probably put a kid through college if you sold it!

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Dynamic microphones were not as developed as they would be in later years. From a bass drum perspective the AKG D 12 was the go-to mike. In addition to tolerating high sound-pressure levels, the D 12 had a special “Bass Chamber” inside its case. The Bass Chamber physically emphasizes the lower frequencies in the 60–120Hz range. (I’ll bet most of your full-time recording engineer buddies don’t know that one). It also picked up low frequencies down to 40Hz. Most other dynamic mikes were whatever the studio had on hand or were preferred by the engineers. Electro-Voice 635 and AKG D19c were used often, as well.

Philosophy Of The Player

With so much discussion of drum equipment, recording technology, and engineering styles, it’s easy to overlook a very important contributor to 1960s drum sounds. I’m talking about the philosophy of the individual drummer. Having played many shows without the benefit of a P.A. sound system, a 1960s drummer could not play as loud as he pleased. Aside from keeping time, most drummers focused on self-mixing their kit volume versus the rest of the band.

Musicians were expected to know the songs inside and out and be able to perform flawlessly. Sometimes, studio musicians were brought in with little notice and no sheet music. They learned the song by playing it once or twice, and that was it. A similar analogy would be someone auditioning for a Broadway dance troupe. People who quickly learn and execute the program usually get the job. Headphone monitor systems were uncommon or rarely used. People played live in the room together.

Drum Equipment

Understanding the equipment of the era can help explain why some recordings turned out the way they did. From a gear-lust perspective, the ’60s was a relatively boring decade. Since most players were reserved by today’s hitting standards, there was little demand for enhanced hardware stability. The flat three-on-the-floor-leg stand was the norm.

Most drummers played wood-tip sticks, but synthetic nylon tips had been on the market since 1958. Different inventors had tried alternate tips, but most shattered or failed to stay attached. Joe Calato Sr., of the Regal Tip Company got it right, creating a nylon tip that was durable, shatter resistant, and produced a pleasing sound.

Cymbals in the ’60s were essentially Zildjian in the U.S. In Europe, Swiss-made Paiste competed with Zildjian. Special cymbals such as splashes and ride cymbals with rivets were also available.

If you do not have access to vintage cymbals, suitable offerings can be found from contemporary manufacturers. For example, Zildjian A, Paiste 2002, Sabian AA, or Bosphorus Traditional series would be acceptable candidates. As with any era, some drummers refused to clean their cymbals. Dirt, grime, and grease from handling builds up on the surface, altering the resonance. For that kind of sound consider Bosphorus Master Vintage, Bosphorus Antique, or Zildjian K’s.

Most drummers played single-ply or coated white drumheads. Believe it or not, there were some actual calfskin heads still floating around. Like multitrack recorders, synthetic heads had only been available since the mid-1950s. Chick Evans perfected his namesake company’s first synthetic drumhead in 1956. Around the same time Remo had been experimenting with Mylar, a polyester film made by DuPont. Used during World War II as a heat-resistant film for reconnaissance flights, Mylar interested Remo Belli. He experimented with the material until the Weatherking heads were ready for consumption. To this day, both companies claim to be the first inventor the synthetic head. As far as getting ’60s sounds you can’t go wrong with Remo Coated Ambassadors, Remo Vintage A’s or Evans G1 Coated heads all around.

When it came to the actual drums, famous brands included Ludwig, Slingerland, and Gretsch. In 1966, Pearl introduced its first professional drum kit under the Pearl name, the Pearl President, making it the first Japanese drum company to gain market share in the West. But Ludwig probably had the biggest surge, thanks to a young drummer from Liverpool, England. The Beatles’ February 1964 performance on The Ed Sullivan Show raised awareness about pop music, drumming, and Ludwig, in particular. According to most sources, orders came in so fast and furious that Ludwig was straining to ship 2,500 sets per month. That was a big deal. Most of the kits were the classic 3-piece, featuring a bass drum, floor tom, and one rack tom. A snare, typically chrome, was often included.

Other than the metal snare, drums were made of wood. Note, I didn’t say what kind of wood. This was not a time when drummers were as material-obsessed as we are today. In fact, the insides of many ’60s shells were coated in white sealer paint, making it difficult for any visual identification of species. A colleague suggested, “If you want a ’60s drum sound get any piece-of-crap drum, the cheaper the better. Make sure it’s round and has a good bearing edge, though. Tune it as best you can, and you’ll be in the ballpark of 90 percent of the recordings on the radio.” Another engineer put it more succinctly: “People just didn’t care. As long as the drum had a nice tone people didn’t obsess about those things.”

PART 2: Recording Setups

British Invasion

The term “British Invasion” was coined by music journalists to refer to the large number of rock and pop performers from the United Kingdom who became popular in the United States during ’60s. No discussion of the British Invasion would be complete without Ringo Starr. Fortunately, The Beatles’ work at Abbey Road Studios was very well documented. If you have the interest, I recommend Recording The Beatles by Kevin Ryan and Brian Kehew (Curvebender Publishing). A 540-page tome (weighing more than 10 lbs.), the book covers gear, applications, and locations with more than 500 photos and illustrations. There are two kinds of Ringo setups I want to cover: early decade and later.

Drum Sounds Of The 60s

Fig. 2 The RS127 Box is the authorized reproduction of the EMI/Abbey Road modular EQ. Like plugins in DAWs, these modules plugged in to the EMI REDD desk when EQ was required.

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Mike Setup

On early Beatles hits, for example, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the configuration was limited to two microphones: an overhead and a bass drum mike. Still in production, we used a Coles STC 4038 (formerly the STC 4038) in the overhead position. Start by aiming between the snare and kick. For the kick mike, an STC 4033 ribbon was an early option, but using a fragile ribbon near a kick drum, however softly played, didn’t last long. Soon, the AKG D20 took over. Those can still be found, but often command a premium on the used market. For our example, we chose its descendent, the AKD D112, for kick mike placement.

Place the AKG close to the front head, within 2”–3”. There is a secret “third mike” in this setup. It’s a room mike set in the distance. I suggest a tape measure. Measure the distance from the overhead to the snare/kick. Now, place the room mike any multiple of 3’ from that. For example, if the overhead is 3’ above the kick/snare, place the room mike 9’, 12’, or 18’ from the snare. It won’t be a perfect alignment, but this will reduce phase cancellation. Assuming you don’t have a long-body Neumann U 47, use any quality large-diaphragm condenser in omni and you’ll be fine.

Drum Sounds Of The 60s

Fig. 3 The RS127 Rack is similar to the 127 Box, but without the transformer-induced harmonics found in the smaller version.

Mix-Down Techniques

Mix-down is relatively simple as you only have two mikes. Blend them, with more focus on the overhead mike. After you get a nice balance with these two mikes start to bring the room mike up. Resist the urge to add too much room mike, as this should be providing bleed, not full support.

If you want to go the extra distance, mix these with no EQ, or use only the Abbey Road Plugins Brilliance Pack (FIGS. 2–4) Next, using a real tape machine, or something like the Universal Audio Studer A800 Multichannel Tape Recorder (FIG. 5), bounce the entire mix to one track. (The Beatles used different models, but this plugin will work). Set the tape speed to 7.5” per second, and the tape type to 250. Next, process the same track with the same settings a second time. (You heard me — do it twice.) Now you have the bounced-down sound the engineers would have had during mix time. If things go well, you should notice a loss of snare definition. Ringo often did snare overdubs at this point because the bouncing obscured the snare. Have the drummer replay the part, and feather it beneath the mix, keeping it about 12dB below the main feel. The idea is to get just a little more snare.

Drum Sounds Of The 60s

Fig. 4 The RS135 (aka the 8k box) will boost 8kHz up to 10dB. This was very useful for bringing back top end from ribbon mikes or lost from track bouncing.

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There is a second Ringo sound I want to cover. If you’ve heard “Come Together,” the opening song from The Beatles’ Abbey Road album, you’ll know what I mean. Use the same setup as before, but this time put dish towels over the toms and snare. (FIG. 6) Take the front head off the bass drum and add a blanket or pillows. You can add a snare mike to the two-mike setup as well. Now, according to engineer Ken Scott, “The towels dampened the drums. Then you put the Fairchild across them, and that boosted whatever ring was left.” He’s referring to a Fairchild 660 or 670 tube limiter. Originals go for more than $50,000 on eBay, if you can find them and have that kind of scratch laying around. However, the UAD platform has a very good emulation of the same exact limiter. Remember to add the Studer plugin twice, then add the Fairchild for mix-down. (FIG. 7) And make sure to listen to those tom rolls after the chorus of “Come Together” for reference.

Drum Sounds Of The 60s

Fig. 5 The Studer A800 for the UAD-2 does a great job emulating tape saturation.

Motown

Motown was a Detroit-based record label founded by Berry Gordy Jr. on April 14, 1960. The name comes from a mash-up of “motor” and “town,” which referred to the home of the Big Three U.S. automakers. It’s difficult for a reader in 2011 to comprehend, but music used to be very segregated. Blues, jazz, and some roots music were all considered the domain of “people of color.” Motown was the vanguard of racial integration within the context of popular music. By blending a soul sound with pop sensibilities, Motown and its subsidiaries sold records, gained radio play (kudos to courageous disc jockeys like Porkey Chedwick, who gave artists like Bo Diddley, Smokey Robinson, and Little Anthony their first airplay), and filled theaters with fans.

Drum Sounds Of The 60s

Fig. 6 On late-decade Beatles recordings, towels were placed over Ringo’s drums to dampen overtones.

Mike Setup

Despite being beat-driven, Motown songs did not mix the drums as high as today’s dance music. For setup, we’re looking for a more focused drum sound. According to Motown engineer Bob Ohlsson, “It was common to pack bass drums with newspapers and to put a wallet on the snare drum to kill sympathetic ringing. Lug springs were often damped with matchbook covers. Snare mikes weren’t added until the mid-’60s. Before that it was just overhead and kick.” We’re also reminded that recording consoles had only four to twelve inputs. Typically, the whole band played in the room and the vocals were cut live. Get the best mono sound you can with a setup like early Ringo. The rest will be done at mix-down.

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Fig. 7 The Fairchild 660/670 tube limiter was extensively used on drums, especially on The Beatles’ Abbey Road album. This version runs on the UAD platform.

Mix-Down Techniques

It goes without saying that the use of a real tape deck or a tape-simulation plugin will be required. But there are also two options for drums at this point. First, some hits had a tambourine sound that augmented the snare. For authenticity, feed the snare track out to a speaker, preferably a small guitar amp. Set the amp on its back, with the speaker facing up. Also, make sure to use a reamp box or reverse a direct box to get the balanced feed down to the line level the amp expects to see at input. Put a tambourine on the grill of the amp and mike it. Each snare hit should shake the tambourine, plus the latency from the digital conversions will add just enough delay to make it sound human. A second mix-down element is the use of reverb and or slap-back echo. I would definitely look into room reverbs and look for a small, less-reflective room. Put the entire drum kit through it. Make sure that there is not too much high end. A trick for resolving that problem is add an EQ just after the reverb and gently roll off the highs. Now is also a good time to consider a slap-back echo, especially if the song has a consistent time signature. Having the right thwack-back of the snare can add to the groove considerably. And you’ll get better results if you used Olhsson’s wallet-on-the-snare trick.

Rock And Psychedelic

I would wager that most musicians point to The Who’s Keith Moon as the leading man for ’60s rock drumming. (I, for one, used to get chastised by guitarists for leaving them for “a trip down Keith Moon Street.”) But, if you’re reading this, you know that rock’s first superstar drummer was Cream’s Ginger Baker. Allmusic.com calls Baker “the most influential percussionist of the 1960s.” Further noting “there were other drummers who were well-known to the public before him, including The Beatles’ Ringo Starr …. but they were famous primarily for the groups in which they played.”

Baker made his name as a drummer’s drummer, a musician’s musician. He had the perfect stage to showcase his chops when he teamed with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce for the short-lived but seminal Cream. Baker was also known for borrowing Louie Bellson’s double kick drum setup. Other great performances were captured by The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s drummer, Mitch Mitchell, and in the ride cymbal work of The Doors’ drummer, John Densmore. And, of course, a young man named John Bohnam was just starting to let the world know his name. (For more on Bonzo’s sound, see my article on re-creating ’70s drum sounds in the October 2010 issue of DRUM!).

Drum Sounds Of The 60s

Fig. 8 The Chameleon Labs TS-1 mk II is a small-condenser tube microphone that adds a distinct character to recordings. The right placement will avoid cymbal harshness and add thickness to the drums’ tone.

Mike Setup

By the end of the decade, flagship studios had mixing consoles that permitted at least 12 inputs. But don’t let that distract from the idea that we are still in a mono culture. Have the drummer set up as normal. Try to have any of the heads mentioned in the earlier section and use just a little dampening. Mike the kick with an AKG D112 or similar model. Feel free to move the mike back from the front head. Even Ringo started hitting harder at this stage (to the detriment of several Abbey Road kick mikes).

The top of the snare can be a dynamic. It might not be authentic, but I suggest a cheat by adding a mike on the bottom of the snare, for safety. (Make sure to check the phase with the top mike.) Try a small-diaphragm condenser as the overhead. You don’t need an expensive one. A Rode M3 is fine. A juicier option would the be Chameleon Labs TS-1 Mk II, a tube-driven, and very “colored” mike. (FIG. 8) The trick here will be to get it high enough off the kit to pick everything up and not be overpowered by cymbals. Tip: Many times recording engineers focus on overhead mikes from a left-to-right (meaning hi-hat-to-ride) axis. For this recording, you’re going to need to focus on the front-to-back just as much. You might want to try test runs with the mike pointed down at the drummer’s skull. Then, start to creep forward until you get the right amount of blend. I haven’t mentioned mike preamps until now, but if you have access to a Rupert Neve Designs, AMS Neve, Great River, or similar, those would do nicely on these tracks. Try to get a good blend in the room. Remember, engineers of the day did not rely on compression the way we do today.

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Drum Sounds Of The 60s

Fig. 9 The McDSP 4020 Retro EQ provides more control and covers more sonic ground than a single EQ-emulation plugin.

Mix-down Techniques

See above about tape simulation. This time, only process the kit once (vs. the multibounce early Beatles). We’ll assume these recordings were mixed live to one track and that said track was no longer rebounced. In addition to tape, try to use era-appropriate plugins for the drum mix. The Pultec-style Tube EQ or the McDSP 4020 Retro EQ come to mind. (FIG. 9) Feel free to roll off high end and boost some mids to enhance the snare pop.

Depending on the material, some reverb might be in order. Start with a room-type simulation and start small. If you have a nice wood or drum room, that is a good place. If the room you recorded in was very dead, start by only feeding the overhead mike to the reverb send. If the direct snare and kick tracks sound like they are too prominent, feed all the mikes through the reverb. Don’t forget to insert an equalizer after the reverb to smooth out any harshness. If the room does not work well with the song, try a plate reverb on the snare only. The UAD EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverberator Plugin is killer for this application. (FIG. 10) If required, place a compressor across the drum bus. An opto-type can be smooth but unobtrusive. Have it only grab peaks, with the gain reduction rarely kicking in. We’re going for vibe as much as dynamic control.

Drum Sounds Of The 60s

Fig. 10 The UAD EMT 140 Classic Plate Reverb can give your tracks the same reverb that was used on countless hits of the ‘60s — and beyond.

Tips, Tricks, And Suggestions

Studio musicians were professionals. Many wore suits to the studio, especially early in the decade. In all seriousness, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask if your drummer would come to the session in a suit and tie. Why? Most people would have a hard time hitting too hard or getting sweaty in their Sunday best. Plus, it couldn’t hurt with mood setting. Another suggestion would be to have the player move down a stick weight, just to reinforce the difference in striking velocity.

Another trick to reduce player volume is to get rid of headphones. Make the band play in the room live. If that can’t be done the following trick could also work: Make sure the kick mike is facing the head directly. Behind the mike, facing the kit, put two monitor speakers aimed at the drummer. A cardioid-patterned kick mike should not pick up much from these speakers. Use a tape measure to make sure both speakers are equidistant from the overhead mike. When feeding the monitor mix for the drummer, turn the entire mix to mono (your console or DAW will have this feature) and reverse the polarity to one of the speakers. This can be done by using the phase-flip button on your console, a feature inside your DAW, or wiring an adapter cable that inverts the polarity of the feed signal to one of the speakers. If the speakers are equidistant from the overhead, their out-of-phase mono signal should cancel out when it gets to that mike. The drummer will still be able to hear the mix because his ears are not a single diaphragm. You can also lower the level of playback to keep the drummer from playing too loud.

It has been noted that Ringo Starr often redubbed snare tracks and Motown augmented snares with tambourines. If rerecording these is not an option, take advantage of today’s tools such as Slate Digital’s TRIGGER. This topic has been covered in the pages of this magazine so I won’t repeat it.

Many of these hit records were mono. However, today’s studios are stereo. Make sure you mix with your speakers set to mono, or with only one speaker powered (and all output routed to said speaker).

Another era-appropriate mix suggestion deals with panning. Try limiting yourself to one of three options: left, center, or right. For example, many Beatles songs had the drums in one channel and the vocals in another. The Mamas And The Pappas’ “California Dreaming” is perhaps the most famous of this hardpan technique.

Speaking of mixing, this would be a great time to get a very lo-fi single speaker or an old television for mix checking. Imagine being in the car on a road trip. You should hear the vocals, the snare/tambourine, and hints of the cymbals. You probably won’t hear the kick on this speaker other than a harmonic if the kick hits when the bass guitar plays. As a kid, I used to think drummers didn’t even have kick drums on records.

Finally, in addition to getting the performers in the mindset of the era, the engineer needs to do that, as well. The work style was very different. Songs were mixed on the spot. They didn’t have a lot of gear, they didn’t have a lot of tracks, and they didn’t have much time. This was an era of commitment in recording. From the artists to the producers to the engineers, decisions were made on the spot. In today’s digital world of unlimited tracks, unlimited undos, and, for those working in home studios, unlimited time, learning to work so decisively might be the best tip I can offer.

Conclusion

Any decade covers a wide array of styles. I’ve tried to cover some major areas to get you started on your quest for authentic sounds. As with any period, drum tones of the 1960s were a result of artistic preferences. But unlike later years, the role of gear was less about abundance of choice and more about limited resources. With the success of lo-fi and indie bands, perhaps some of these techniques will be just the thing to take your next project to the top of the (download) charts.