MM: The thing is that they were not just “open-handed,” but just “open,” period. You’re open to so many more hundreds of thousands of expressions just because your hands aren't crossed up. Younger people starting open-handed now are going to always feel natural with it, whereas I would still feel at home playing with a conventional grip and my hands crossed over.
MF: Your set configuration lends to multidirectional playing. Was that something that you developed on your own?
MM: I developed the way that my kit is set up on my own, influenced by others and by playing in marching bands. But look, I set my drum setup in its first version of what you see now before I could play it. In other words, setting it up forced me to learn how to do it.
MF: Now the Pearl Masters MHX that you played on the new Dream Theater record…can you walk us through the setup and how you used it on the new album?
MM: The kit can be looked at by breaking it down into bass drums, snares, tomtoms, metals and then electronics—the ePro. Firstly, my two primary, 22” kick drums are played in such a way where if I make a note that is a couple of decibels softer than the others it doesn't cut through. So live or in the studio I have to whack these things at the same volume. Now coming up I was a competitive classical and jazz player all through high school. I need dynamics in my music. I need to be able to have a vast amount of dynamics or I don't feel like I'm doing justice to the music. I cannot have those dynamics with two 22” kicks, so I incorporated a 26” kick drum and an 18“ kick drum, one to my left, one to my right. They both have different qualities, with big John Bonham air movement on the 26”, or with a rapper program style with the 18”.
With the snare drums, I have used two for a very long time because functionally I am paid to play music that requires a backbeat. I love a cracking snare drum, however it doesn't move music for me sometimes. So my main snare drum has
gone between a 6-½” and a 5”, and now it's just going to stay at a deeper snare because I need that depth to move stomachs. So my mini-snare is used to complement it, either for a backbeat with an electronic type of sound or for some ghost notes. With a mushier, thicker snare drum some ghost notes get lost.
Since joining Extreme in 1994, I set up my tom-toms in an apex even though I did not record my three songs for Waiting for the Punchline with them, and even though I did not do my first tour with Extreme with my apex setup because I was working on it. I had to practice. The reason I did it was to follow Nuno Bettencourt spoton, note for note. Or as much as you can. When I only have one octave and he's dealing with multiple octaves, clearly I
“IS IT JUST NATURAL TALENT? AND THE ANSWER IS ABSOLUTELY NOT. ”
have to approximate, right? But that's the purpose of it.
So I use the toms to follow everybody. If there's a giant thud that's needed in a song and I use my floor tom, one floor tom with a gong bass drum, clearly I'm going to get a huge stomach, earthshattering kaboom out of that.
Moving on to the cymbals, it's hi-hats, rides, effects cymbals, and crashes. My ride is utilized when there are key signature changes. In other words, I will switch from righty to lefty when there's a key signature change, because when you listen to the album in stereo you'll understand.
I shift sides with the hi-hat. The problem that one would find doing this is that you have to be as proficient a lefty player as you are a right. In order to be a true lefty player if you're a righty player, it takes a decade at least, for anybody. But just so you know, since I can do it, I do it when
there are time signature changes.
Also, the texture cymbal that I use, meaning the choice of splash versus an Oriental stack versus the giant china type versus a crash versus a ride bell, has to do with timbre. So the keyboard timbre really is the decisive factor for me, because when you hear the Dream Theater album as a stereo image you're going to hear noises, but it's like a sound. The sound is a lot of times a combination of me using the right effects cymbal with the patch Jordan Rudess chose or vice-versa. And now the electronics come into play, meaning when I say the electronics I mean I have a r.e.d.box, because of the ePro...
MF: The module, the r.e.d.box module.
MM: The module, and I use the Tru-Trac pads that you can put on any shell. I have four hand pads and I have two-foot pads, so six pads total, four hands, two feet, that people hear.
The ePro equipment could not be more vital to me for accessing any percussion sound I could imagine without having to set up all the acoustic percussion. The kits do not have to be individually loaded either. Just the turn of a dial, or press of a pedal can change the sounds being triggered.
MF: Jumping back to snare drums, your Pearl signature 10-inch snare is birch and your Zildjian signature sticks are lacquered birch. So clearly you have an affinity for birch. Can you explain that a bit?
MM: An affinity for birch in my drum kit is totally the truth. The reason is because there are multiple surfaces and environments that a drum kit fits on. For example, some of the better studios have hardwood floors, but the hardwood floors are on concrete slabs. That's the worst possible thing for a drum kit.
My point is that the floors are a decisive factor and I notice that birch always had a particular clarity and consistency, no matter what floor it was on. A maple kit can be the single, best-sounding drum set that you or I have ever heard, but it depends on the setting it goes on.