Tech Tip:The Secret to the Bonham Drum Sound
By Ronan Chris Murphy
There is no greater truth in making records than this: "The recording is governed by the performance." This may seem obvious, but many times the implications of this are not. There are two main areas where this truth manifests itself. The first is in the emotional impact of the music and the second is in the sonic signature or sonic possibilities of a recording.
Even with the best gear in the world or fancy recording techniques, the heart and soul of a recording is the emotion and the feel of a performance, and of course the songs. When I have discussions with musicians about production and they begin to confuse production with "great drums sounds," I tell them that good production is about getting the songs and the performances to a point where the drum sound does not matter, and then getting great drum sounds. Many of the recordings that are classics in the history of rock, pop and jazz actually sound quite bad when compared to other records of the same era or many records of today. Some of these recording are marred by unintentional distortion, poor mic technique and downright awful drum sounds, but these classics still stand up on the radio next to modern multimillion dollar productions because the songs and the performances are great. A great song and a great performance will transcend any limitations of "sound quality."
In my career I have had the pleasure of working with many performers that I consider brilliant and monumental. I will often get compliments on the sound of these recordings. While I am grateful for the appreciation, I always know that with some of these performers, I could have hit record on a boom box in the middle of a room and it would have been a great recording.
Much of being a producer is like being a cheerleader and a coach at a basketball game. My job is to find ways to inspire the team and help develop strategies to reach the end goal, but ultimately it is the players on the field that are going to win or lose the game. Fancy editing or postproduction tricks can make the game look slicker on TV, but it won't change the fact that it was a dull game and our team lost. Jimi Hendrix was like Muhammad Ali at his prime: a fantastic athlete full of style and charisma. If you look at old TV footage from the 60s or 70s of Ali, with production values that pale by today's television standards, its still exciting. The same is true for Hendrix. Listen to a poorly recorded live concert and it's him! It's Hendrix with all the fire and passion that is his legacy. All the trickery and experimentation on the studio albums only gives us new insight into his vision, but the heart of records is great songs and great "left hook" performances.
I was recently mixing some back catalog material from the 70s for the band, King Crimson. The task at hand, in addition to presenting unedited versions of songs that had been previously edited to fit on vinyl, was to improve the sound quality of the previous mixes. While I was able to make mixes stand up next to more current sonic standards and give the listener a new perspective on this classic music, the real heart, soul, and validity of the records was in the energy and passion that the musicians brought to great songs. Mixing the records for the King Crimson "ProjeKcts" was another interesting example of this.
Engineer, Ken Latchney, approached the recording of the tours in a way that from night to night, the sounds on tape were very consistent, almost identical, so that when we mixed the live album we could combine performances from different nights into one cohesive album. When it came time to mix the album, some nights would sound fantastic and almost mix themselves and other nights just did not sound so good and took a lot of effort to mix. The actual sounds on tape from night to night were consistent, but the performances of the band from night to night made all the difference in the world. When the band was hot, the sound jumped out of the speakers and on an off night, all the studio tricks in the book could not make it "sound good."
"Better performances will always "sound" better, and bad performances will never sound all that good."
As a young self-taught producer, I had not fully grasped how much recordings were governed by performance. The sound quality of my recordings were inconsistent, and I could not figure out why some sessions "I" managed to get it right and other sessions "I" got it so wrong. Why did some records sound really good and others not when I was using my same bag of tricks and the same equipment in the same studio. What experience finally taught me was that on some sessions I got lucky and had great players, and other sessions I failed to recognize what I needed to draw out of the players to make a great-sounding record. I began to learn this when I was mixing a record and the drummer would say to me that he wanted the drums to sound like AC/DC or some other great rock band. Try as I might, I could not get the drums to sound like AC/DC, and finally, I realized the obvious. Beyond the differences in recording techniques, I had the wrong materials to build the house the drummer was looking for. The building blocks of the AC/DC sound are Phil Rudd hitting straight, simple, hard and right in the pocket. The records I was doing had a drummer playing much more like a jazz drummer than Phil Rudd. I was trying to build a brick house out of crystal. Crystal will make you a fine jazz chandelier, but it won't build you an AC/DC style brick house.
Many of the recording or mix techniques you use in the studio to capture the spirit and energy of one style of playing will actually work against another style of playing. If a musician or producer is going for a particular sound on a record, that sound is built on the performance.
If the performance is wrong there is nothing that will get you to where you want to go. You could never take a performance by Tommy Lee on a Motley Crue record and make it sound like Elvin Jones on a Coltrane record or visa versa. The sound of a record is governed by the performance.
Over the years I have produced a lot of rock records where the comment has inevitably come up that the "drums should sound like John Bonham." I worked on several of these albums and tried to bring to the records some of the elements I understood to be "Bonham-esque:" the deep kick drum, and the big sounding compressed room mics and in almost every case this approach did not serve the records as we hoped and we ended up going with a different approach. So I decided to set out and do some academic research. What exactly was the Bonham drum sound and what was the secret to making that drum sound work on records. The result of my research, published here for the first time … drum roll please … John Bonham plays drums on those records!
As I type this column, disc three of the Zeppelin box set is on the CD player and "Achilles Last Stand," my favorite Zep song of all time is blasting away in the background. The recording of the drums sound very different from "When The Levee Breaks," which preceeded it or "Dancing Days" which preceeded that. And everything on the disc sounds very different from my bad VHS copy of the film "The Song Remains The Same" which I taped off VH1 in 1989. Different locations, different engineers, different years, and completely different mix styles, but the interesting thing is that they all have that "Bonham drum sound." The credit for a catalog of beautiful-sounding records certainly goes to Jimmy Page's production and the great engineers that found ways to capture the power and beauty of Bonham's playing on those albums, but the credit for the Bonham drum sound ultimately goes to Bonham.
The only reason I have chosen drummers to pick on, is because they are the clearest example of how performances affect the sound, but they are certainly not the only ones. I recently did a record where the guitarist was wondering why his guitars did not sound like the guitars on a Tool or Metallica record in the mix. The answer was simple: He was playing more like Neil Young than James Hetfield.
All other factors being equal, better performances will always "sound" better, and bad performances will never sound all that good. When a drummer and bass player finally lock into a groove, the kick drum sounds better. When a singer really gets the emotion of a song, the vocals sound better. When an orchestra gets the feel of composition, the whole group sounds better. Music is ultimately about communication. Regardless of the stationary we write a letter on, its what we write and how we say it that matters. Shakespeare on a paper bag is still great literature, and leather bound pulp fiction is still just pulp fiction. But a leather-bound collection of Shakespeare, now that's something!
We'd like to thank Ronan Chris Murphy for sharing his valuable knowledge and experience. Ronan's expertise in recording and mixing drums includes work with Terry Bozzio, Victor Bisetti (Los Lobos), Gregg Bissonette (Santana, David Lee Roth), Bill Bruford (King Crimson), and Pat Mastelotto (King Crimson, Mister Mister, The Rembrandts). Check out Ronan's Home Recording Boot Camp at homerecordingbootcamp.com and keep checking your email for more recording tips and articles from Ronan Chris Murphy.