Friday, April 19, 2013

A Tale of Two Snare Drums

Ian Morris, RIU cover 1988 - Read Chris Bourke's interview here.

By the late Ian Morris. Original here, along with other great pieces of advice from Ian like Top recording studio tips, and How to make a great cup of tea.

"I've always believed the two most important things on your classic pop record are the vocal and the snare drum. The vocal connects to your brain and the snare to your butt. The snare has always been a primal force in popular music, from the echoed slap of early rock 'n' roll records, Ringo's compressed kit and John Bonham's ambient boom, through to the gated monster drums of the 1980s and the 808 machine clicks and pfutzes of modern hip hop.

I'm proud to be the creator of arguably the two most identifiable snare sounds in New Zealand recorded music: those on Hello Sailor's "Gutter Black" (1977) and Tex Pistol's "The Game of Love" (1987).

Hello Sailor came to Auckland's Stebbing Recording Studios in 1977 with a bunch of brilliant self-penned songs from which Dave McArtney's "Gutter Black" was chosen as the first single. Stebbing's main recording room is a vast, dead area, in my opinion wholly unsuited to recording... well, anything really. The Stebbings themselves will tell you it was designed by some acoustic wunderkind in Germany to exacting specifications, and perhaps it does sound great to German acoustic wunderkinder, but to normal people - orchestras, opera singers, jazz players and rockers - it's a bass-heavy, lifeless, ambience-free zone. The only way to record an ensemble was to screen every player off as much as possible: any sound from the drum kit leaking into the piano microphones cast a dark, muddy pall across the sound of the whole recording.

Anyways, here I was in 1977, chief engineer at Stebbings, and David Bowie's album Low had just been released. On that album Dennis Davis's snare drum had been treated with the newly-invented Eventide Harmonizer. The Harmonizer dropped the pitch of the drum and fed the signal back into itself, resulting in the famous falling cascade sound. It would be several months before a Harmonizer made its way to li'l ol' New Zealand, but the sound had me enthralled. (Incidentally, Stebbings - of course! - imported the first Harmonizer. They immediately - of course! - took it to pieces and replaced some of the components to improve it. They're like that.)

I had no Harmonizer, but I did have an MXR phaser. This little blue box regularly oscillated the pitch of the sound, and when that processed signal was mixed with the original signal a strange, warbly effect was produced.

Deciding to take advantage of the huge dead German air space on the other side of the control room glass, I fed Ricky Ball's snare drum signal out of a massive Altec Lansing speaker (normally used for playback monitoring) and re-recorded the sound via a microphone at the far end of the studio. Suddenly der grosse Zimmer sparkled! The explosive boom that came back from the microphone was monstrous. I fed that through the MXR phaser - set to "stun", of course - and recorded it to tape at a super-excessive level that had me hiding the fragile, freaking-out VU meters whenever a Stebbing entered the control room. Then, on every second snare beat, we overdubbed handclaps, also printed to tape at a super-excessive level that compressed and distorted so much you can hear hear clapping bass player Lisle Kinney chewing gum in the quiet bits.

It wasn't the Low sound, but by God it was a big noise!

By the mid 1980s technology had made such huge snare sounds not only possible, but more or less mandatory. Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight" and Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" set the tone for the rifle-shot snare sounds that appeared on most hit records made throughout the decade. Unfortunately, that technology could also get in the way of many otherwise fine albums from "serious" artists. I have a John Prine album made in the mid 1980s. It features Prine's trademark exquisitely observed lyrics, high-strung guitar and plaintive voice, but it's got that damned gun-shot snare all the way through it, rendering the whole thing unlistenable.

The whole big snare drum sound came about - I believe - due to the almost complete absence of good rhythmic feel that tends to happen when you use a drum machine. Listen to an old James Brown track, or Gaucho and Aja from Steely Dan. The snare sounds, in isolation, are pitiful, but the songs swing like a bastard. The secret is the drop - the exact moment when the drummer lays stick to snare skin. A fraction of a millisecond either way radically affects the groove of the song.

A drum machine, in contrast, plays metronomically correctly, mathematically, beat after mechanical beat. After all the overdubs are done there is still that nagging doubt that the song just doesn't groove, baby. What to do? Stick a big echo on the snare. It may not improve the groove, but it can take our minds off the problem. (For examples of diabolical grooves from this era check out the Thompson Twins' "Hold Me Now", or anything by Duran Duran. The Durans had a real drummer of course, but by that stage real drummers were forced to sound like drum machines.)

When I came to record "The Game of Love" as Tex Pistol in 1987 I wanted a big snare sound but I didn't want to go down the typical 1980s small-arms-fire, electronic, gated reverb route. No, I wanted something BIGGER. At the time I was working on some soundtracks for Ford, and on an American reference tape was a great sound effect, a kind of engine-revving, doppler-shifting noise that suggested unlimited power and total global domination. 

My company just taken delivery of a new Fairlight sampler, the big series III model that had a massive 16MB of memory and a vast 20MB hard drive - surely more power than anyone could ever conceivably need in a lifetime. It was cooled by 11 fans and cost as much as a house - really. It was about 100,000 New Zealand dollars. I don't need to tell you that these days there's more technology inside a Furbie.

I set to work on the Fairlight, sampling the sound effect, splicing the attack from a real snare drum onto the front and fading out the tail. Strangely enough the end product wasn't a million miles away from that Low Harmonized sound, with its falling, pitch shifting modulation. Result: iconic sound and a number 1 record!

Although these days I usually go for a more natural approach to recording drum sounds, there are times when bigger IS better."

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