Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Whatchyoutalkinbout, Willis?

So, what's your sound? No, I don't mean what kind of music you play. I mean, what sound do you get from your drums? I ask because it seems to me that we live in an era of ever more product choices but somehow less attention is being paid to personalising the sound emitting from our instruments. We have the choice of umpteen kinds of wood, construction styles, heads, dampening and even mic'ing and EQing and yet it seems to me that – much like pop music – drummers seem to sound more and more alike as time goes on. I don't mean the notes they play – imitation, influence and homage are topics for another day – but the way we tune and the sound we draw from the drums.

I was recently party to a conversation on social media in which a fellow drummer asked “what kind of bass drum head is best for alternative/indy rock played live?” My immediate response was to throw the question back onto them: “What is your sound?” Many of the responses that followed gave recommendations for specific drum heads that the responders use or have used. And eventually, once a certain number of similar responses appeared, the asker fell into rank and decided that they would choose the most recommended head. But despite the heads recommended being, in my experience, perfectly good heads from a quality standpoint and for getting a certain kind of sound, I think both the questioner and the well-intentioned responders all sidestepped a crucial issue.

As no less than Vinnie Colaiuta says, “I thought we were making art.” That is, playing the drums is about conceiving, creating and expressing. And the most key ingredient, which informs everything from our equipment choices to the notes we play on down to the techniques we spend time shedding, is conception. What the question and many of the responses in our conversation ignored equally was conception. That is, what on earth am I trying to say with my instrument? What idea am I trying to express? What sounds do I want to bring forth into the world?

Don't get me wrong. In the process of learning and forming opinions we all seek the help of those we place trust in as authorities. These authorities may be teachers, mentors, peer groups or even social media networks. Of course, I don't know what sort of prior relationship these posters have, so I don't know to what degree the responses were based on prior knowledge of the asker's tastes. That said, it seemed to me that the questioner was simply tossing a Hail Mary and hoping someone would catch it and make their mind up for them.

That's all well and good and it may get you through the gig in one piece, but if we return to Vinnie C and other great drummers that many hold in high esteem, we see that many of them have a very clear conception of the sound they're trying to convey. And we know this because there is a certain consistency in their tuning and sound approach across a number of genres. Certainly many of the greatest players have engaged in playing chameleon on recording sessions and used sounds that fit the artist's, producer's or engineer's concept. But I think if we really examine the ranks of the great players – particularly of the past - we find that they almost all have/had a very disctinctive sound.

I grew up in the late 70s and 80s when you only need to turn around to find another drummer who tuned his drums low and fat like Steve Gadd. Having seen Steve play recently, that Gadd snare drum sound is as identifiable today as it was when his buttery smooth doubles first slipped into wide popular consciousness with the release of Paul Simon's 50 Ways. Similarly, if we consider the aforementioned Mr. Colaiuta, it takes only a few seconds for those who know his playing to recognise the combination of his popping snare drum and his deep, punchy bass drum. Going back further in time, it only takes a little bit of study to hear differences between the greats, not just based on what they played, but based on the way they tuned their drums and chose their cymbals. Whether it be Tony's distinctive ride cymbal or his CS Dot heads, Elvin's drum choir approach with his ringing 18” bass drum, Max's high tom sound that he played his melodies on or Clyde Stubblefield's snap-crackling rimshots, their choice of heads, tuning and techniques all relate back to a particular CONCEPT that they were trying to get across. Videos of John Bonham's drum tech, Jeff Ocheltree, are still making the rounds and baiting clicks on the internet 40 years after Bonham's death because many still want to understand how to get his distinctive sound.

The thing is, you could've taken Bonham out of Led Zeppelin and dropped him in another band and if you'd listened to him carefully at all, you'd know it was him the minute he laid into that big 26-inch bass drum and counterpointed it with that gunshot Ludwig 402 snare. The reason is that he had a SOUND. His sound. A sound as identifiable as a close friend's voice. And he – and indeed all the players mentioned above and more – were so clear in their conception that it rang out clearly through the sound of their instruments no matter where they were or who they played with. They had a voice that we continue to recognise many years in the future across millions of miles of space and despite perhaps never having met any of them.

Today, Dave Weckl tries to travel and tour with his own mics, EQs and mixing desk so he can be in complete control of the sound he's sending from his drums to the front of house sound system. He cares so deeply about getting his conception across that he has taken the time to put together a rig that reproduces as closely as he can the sound he wants from his drums on a night to night basis. He leaves little to chance. I don't know Dave personally, but I can only surmise that it's because he views his sound as part of him; as an expression of a very personal and unique concept that he's trying to bring to his listeners.

As drummers we often get preoccupied with the physicality of playing our instruments. And when we think about learning to play what one of our heroes has played, we focus on the rights and lefts and foots of it all. We don't always stop to think enough about SOUND. That is, how does something as simple as the relationship in pitch between the bass drum and snare drum effect the way our heroes' grooves sound? How do their cymbals effect the way their playing fits into the overall composition of the tune? These are all questions I'm sure the greats have all asked themselves in some form or another.

What lessons can we learn from these examples? When we go to create from our own experiences and from our own tastes, do we take the time to think hard and long about what sort of sound we're trying to make? Do we think about our voice?

Look, I have nothing against the person who decided to throw their bass drum head choice to the winds of popular webz opinion. If that's good enough for them, who am I to say it's wrong? Heck, it might even be part of some kind of cool concept that they're going for. Crowd-sourced drum sound anyone? Either way, my hope is that they'll put the head on and experiment with it for a bit and learn more about what they like and don't like. And hopefully that will lead them to start to question more deeply what it is they're trying to say on their drums. To ask “What do I want to sound like?”

And I have nothing against the responses, either, because I presume they come from those people having made their own discoveries about what they like and don't like and about what they want to sound like. They're merely expressing their own joy and enthusiasm at having found a sound that gets them all jazzed up and raring to play. And that's the whole point. But lost in all of it was the idea that the questioner ought to choose a sound and then pick the head that best suited that concept.

Wouldn't it be incredible if we all had drum voices as distinct as our speaking voices? Imagine being able to identify each other from just a few strokes played. Of course this is a ridiculous and impossible ideal and will likely never be realised. However, as far back as there have been drums, they've been used as communication tools. The hint is in the name “instruments”. They're a means to an end. The end being to convey an internal conception to other people across space and time, whether it be “things are cool up here on the mountain” or something more subjective and artistic in scope. So, in a way, by going down this path, we're honouring a tradition that is as old as our instrument itself. And when we think of great communicators and public speakers, we think of people who can clearly articulate even the most complex ideas. That is, they can take even a difficult or remote concept and put it to us clearly, and succinctly and often in a manner which is distinctive and unique to them. Think of Churchill's speeches, or Martin Luther King Jr.'s inimitable oratory style. Can we create such a unique and distinctive style of speaking through our drums?

Today, thanks to a bevy of top-notch designers and manufacturers – not to mention technological advances in electronics -- we have the option to personalise our sound in ways not possible in the past. But simply using different heads, cymbals or compressors from the next player isn't enough. Because that doesn't really get to the question of why we've made those choices? It doesn't really go to how we manipulate those factors to create our own sound. For that, we need a concept.

We can dig in and try to listen to the little drummer that sings from somewhere deep in our minds. If we can find that most intimate and personal of sounds and find a way to amplify it and bring it into the world, we will have accomplished one thing our heroes have done. And who doesn't want that?

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