BY PHIL HOOD
Russ Miller is a drummer you are hearing all the time and may not know it. In addition to playing on Grammy-winning recordings that have sold a collective 26 million copies, he is first call on a dozen or more soundtracks every year, from hit movies like “Arrival” and “Joy,” to miniseries and TV episodes. A lot of his time during the past decade and a half has also been devoted to developing more than 75 products for companies such as Yamaha, Vic Firth, Zildjian, Remo, Meinl, Pro Logix, Cympad, DW, SKB, and most importantly today, Mapex. When it comes to drums Miller is a rare item: a top-flight player who has thought deeply about every mechanical aspect of the instrument he plays and also has had a chance to impact the future design of that instrument.
As the lead artist on the Concept Hybrid drum project, Miller is responsible for many design innovations coming out of Mapex’ Black Panther Design Lab. The company has cooked up a series of innovations in drums and hardware that challenge accepted notions of most of the past century. The innovations include a magnetic tom mounting system called MAATS; sizing and placement of reinforcing rings; bearing edges that differ between drums on the same set; adjustable-angle floor tom legs; and plenty more, all with an aim of achieving a unique soundprint for each drum.
Miller is the lead artist on the Mapex design team and is a consultant to the factory in Taiwan where he also works directly with engineers and product managers. We interviewed him via email this month.
DRUM!: You’ve gotten deeply involved in the Design Lab series with Black Panther. But it is far from your first rodeo because you’ve contributed to nearly 80 products. Can you mention two or three where you had a great experience working with one of your companies?
Russ Miller: Yes, I have been involved with a lot of products over the years and am now the lead artist on the Mapex design team. Many of the products are [Russ Miller] signature products, but many are not. The ones that have my name are, of course, but a few others like the Yamaha Vintage Wood Hoops, the Yamaha YESS mounting system, the Zildjian Bent Bristle Brushes, Sakae Celestial series kits, DTX Electronics, Yamaha Motif Keyboard loops and samples, SKB I-Series cases, May Microphones blend modules, and many others don’t really signify that I worked on them. I think it’s about 75-80 products total, across about 10 or 11 companies.
The reason I like product design is the extensive time I’ve spent in recording studios, where I’m constantly discussing and working on sounds and how to achieve them. Second, my hobby has always been architectural engineering. I took about six years of it [in school]. I’m sort of the opposite of everybody else, they are engineers who made their money engineering and had a hobby of playing music. I made my money playing music and had a hobby of architecture!
Given your relationship, how many years have you been advising and testing these drums?
After Joe Hibbs brought me into Mapex in 2013, the intention was for me help change the perception of the brand. First as an artist and then to start to work on the “Sonic Flow Chart” for the brand. This is, basically, which instruments make which sounds, and helping to try to streamline it. Sometimes, brands end up with several instruments doing the same thing, because they tried to hit certain price points. But it can bog down the companies over time. For instance, Mapex was making over 55 different snare drum models! Anyway, the first thing that I did was the change of the bearing edge designs and the tom holders in 2013.
Were you always a tinkerer with your drums growing up?
I was always customizing my gear since as long as I can remember. I actually helped to build custom drums in the early ’90s while I was in college. First, at a [since closed] drum store called Drum Design in Fort Lauderdale and then for many years at Resurrection Drums in Hallandale, Florida. I ended up being the manager there and actually hiring the current owner, Jeff Lee.
One endorser described the new concept as power plus finesse. You once described it as the ability to control the sound internally at the kit, rather than with external sound attenuation devices. What is your elevator pitch for the design?
The Mapex Black Panther Design Lab is an effort that has spanned over five years. We set out to create new innovations for the design of drums. New innovations don’t come along very often in this industry—I mean, look at a 1929 Black Beauty snare, it looks pretty much the same as most drums do nowadays! We wanted to make the user experience much more personal with the Design Lab kits. Like you mentioned, you can manipulate the sound in ways you never could before, from the magnetic tom mounts to the adjustable angle floor tom legs, which dial sustain into your floor toms without any gels, tape, or rings.
There are many new features in the design lab sets. Some are revolutionary, others are ideas that have been tried but are now done or combined in new ways. When this process was starting were many of these ideas on the table?
They are all designs that I have been working on for many years. As you said, some of them are extensions or more advanced developments of principles set in place before, like the static 90-degree legs. But we added the knuckle joint on the floor tom legs to then be able to change the angles in realtime (and thus, shorten or lengthen the sustain). We just ended up implementing them all in the Design Lab. There are some small glimpses of some of these in other products. For Instance in the Sakae Celestial series drums, I did different thickness of shells for various diameters. But Design Lab, I took it much further by moving the woods around inside of the plies, so that certain woods would reside at the contact points of the head. This colors the sound the most in a drum. The inside plies are for reflections but the wood at the contact point characterizes the shell’s tone quite a bit.
Are there any parts of the Concept Hybrid system that present a learning challenge for players. Did you take to the MAATS system right away, for instance?
The MAATS [Magnetic Air Adjustment Tom Suspension] system is a totally different approach to mounting the drums. Whenever there is something so different, some people just push it away. But it creates a feel of the instrument that is impossible to get any other way. Also, the percentage of vibration loss into the hardware is 85 percent lower than anything else on the market. Most players don’t get this 100 percent but… If I have you hold the drum and tune it and then put it on the mount, you notice the difference. With MAATS, it’s barely audible. The “Concept Hybrid” principle is simply, our primary focus point for a design. It’s an opposite approach to design than most everybody takes. Almost everybody selects shells, parts, heads and puts the together to see what it will sound like. We pick the sound first… “Vintage, Controlled, Precise”. Then, we work to get that sound using the techniques we know how to work with. It might be Stewart Copeland’s snare ambiance from “Roxanne,” Buddy Rich’s snare tone from “West Side Story,” and the punch of Phil Collins snare on “In The Air Tonight.” We combine concepts together to create a new voice, that has a range of sound within that concept.
The drums sound better at mid- to low-stick-height levels. The same thing holds true in the studio—I’m not going to be louder in the final mix if I hit the drums harder. So focus on execution and precision, not projection, in those environments.
By offering a kit that does not require lots of muffling or external sound treatment, does tuning become more important?
Well, to be honest, a good percentage of drummers just don’t know how to tune the instrument. Even with all of the information out there, it still seems to be a slight mystery! Yes, it is crucial to have the drum in a reasonable tuning. Many drummers use muffling as a crutch to mask an out-of-tune drum. But in reality, muffling a drum should only shorten the sustain of a drum, not change its feel, tone, or performance. You have much more pitched center tone in the lighter dynamic ranges and projection from drums that have no muffling on them. So we really tried to alleviate the need for muffling at all with the Design Lab innovations.
The advantages of drums that sound good at different tuning frequencies and styles is obvious in the studio. Are those advantages as relevant when playing large venues?
Large venues require a learning curve, in many ways. First, you can’t fill them with sound acoustically from the kit. We are used to doing this in a small place, practice room, or small club. We feel in control of the band and of the music. In a large venue, you have to rely on the engineers to help organize the mix of the band. In acoustic environments, you need to learn to mix yourself into the ensemble, with the external level of your personally playing. So, first in a large venue, remember: We have invented microphones! It doesn’t get louder in the venue if you hit harder. If the engineer doesn’t turn it up, it ain’t gettin’ louder! So, there’s no need to play so hard. The drums sound better at mid- to low-stick-height levels. The same thing holds true in the studio—I’m not going to be louder in the final mix if I hit the drums harder. So, focus on execution and precision, not projection, in those environments.
The Aux drum on the Versatus kit can be set up as a small bass drum for a cocktail kit, or three-piece, and used as a floor tom or second bass drum or even a gong drum. How did that come about?
The Aux drum was something I have been messing around with for several years. It has developed a bit over time. When I was with Yamaha, I had Japan make me a 20″ x 14″ single-headed drum. I mounted a Subkick inside of it. I used this to death on movie sessions. A lot of the “big drums” you hear in movie trailers have that drum in it. I would mount it as a gong floor tom. Then, when I went to Mapex in 2013, I had Joe Hibbs make me another Mapex version but this time added the tom head on the opposite side. This gave it the ability to have more tone and sustain, so we made it an 18″ x 12″. I put the Subkick inside of it again and used it on a lot of movies.
Now I was setting it up with the kit, so we mounted it as a gong bass drum. While messing around on a session one day, I put a pedal on it because it had the bass drum hoop on one side. So, we have sort of created this instrument that was “3-in-1,” like you said. When we started Design Lab, I brought it to Taiwan and said, “If somebody was going to spend some money on an auxiliary style drum, this one made the most sense—it can be three different instruments for you in different circumstances.” So, Taiwan agreed and we made this “Aux Drum” idea.