BY GARRETT HAINES
The 1970s were a rich era for rock, disco, funk, country, and just about any other style that relied on a solid backbeat. But the types of drums and recording gear available had a huge impact on the recordings of the time. To get era-appropriate 70s drum sound, it’s important to know more about the elements that contributed to a golden age in music history.
From a listening standpoint, the ’70s witnessed the big shift to stereo. At the consumer level, FM radio started to take off. Many cars came equipped with stereo 8-track tape players, and home all-in-one units featuring a turntable, AM/FM receiver, and tape player became smaller and more affordable. And while AM radio (by virtue of its design) and most television broadcasts remained in mono, stereo audio was a selling point for manufacturers – and consumers ate it up. Worth mentioning was quadraphonic sound, a precursor to today’s surround formats, but the format was ahead of its time and never took off.
Understanding the equipment of the era can help explain why some recordings turned out the way they did. Certain cymbals and drums were either not available or not in favor.
Drumhead makers must have been in tears during the 1970s. Why? Because single-headed toms were the rage. In fact, many kits did not come with bottom lug hardware. Like any fad, it just “happened.” There was no formal declaration of “war against resonant heads,” but lots of people point to Hal Blaine’s performance backing Nancy Sinatra on The Ed Sullivan Show in the late 1960s. Blaine, one of the most recorded drummers, took the stage with a large kit that featured single-headed tom toms. A longtime Ludwig endorser, Blaine sent a letter to the company suggesting they market the format, and the rest, as they say, is history. Soon Ludwig released a kit called the Octa-Plus, featuring single-headed “melodic toms.” Slingerland and others followed suit with single-headed “concert toms.” Regardless of the name, the direct attack and fast decay of these drums are a crucial element of the ’70s sound.
Toms were not the only drums that were different by contemporary standards. Bass drums were shallower, with the average kick being 22″ x 14″. Snare drums were often metal, either chrome or brass (à la the Ludwig Black Beauty), with the occasional acrylic model. If a snare was wood, it was still probably covered in chrome (I don’t know why; I just report the news). Big kits were another sign of the ’70s. I remember getting up early on Saturday mornings to watch the Bay City Rollers’ TV program because Derek Longmuir played a different massive Ludwig kit for each song. And of course, who could forget the fortress of drums surrounding Peter Criss of Kiss? It was also common to see Remo Rototoms or Tama Octobans added to kits. In addition to Ludwig and Slingerland, other makers of this era included Rogers, Premier, Pearl, Tama, Yamaha, Sonor, and Gretsch.
Stands improved in stability, moving from the 1960’s flat three-on-the-floor to a sturdier A-frame leg (FIG. 1). But it wasn’t until late in the decade that Tama introduced the double-braced Titan lines that are still in use today.
Cymbals in the ’70s were essentially Zildjian and Paiste, though Paiste was more common in Europe. Brilliant cymbals were available from Zildjian, but they were an expensive, special-order item (we would have to wait until the Sabian split for these to become more affordable and commonly available). To achieve ’70s cymbal sounds from today’s offerings, regular A Zildjian (not A Custom), Paiste 2002, or Sabian AA lines would be suitable candidates. Some drummers refused to clean their cymbals (a constant regardless of era). In that case, using vintage cymbals or K Zildjians might be the ticket.
Most drummers played single-ply or coated white or clear drumheads. The silver dot was also popular. As the name implies, it’s a clear head with a big silver or black reinforcement dot glued in the middle (FIG. 2). The dot served to reinforce the head at the expense of reducing resonance. Evans struck gold with an invention it termed the Hydraulic Head, which featured two plies of drumhead film with a thin layer of oil between the plies. The result was a head that reduced resonance and emphasized a drum’s lower overtones. These naturally muffled heads took off instantly. According to Evans, Hydraulic heads were more than half its production. Big head makers were Remo and Evans, with Ludwig also in the mix. Of course, head type didn’t matter much in the studio once you realize what the engineers did to get sounds.
Sticks were sticks. Nylon tips were available in the 1970s but the tips never stayed on – that’s since changed, but for authenticity’s sake, stick with wood-tipped models. Bass drum beaters were hard felt or wood. Kick drum pedals were notoriously noisy, as many metal parts rubbed together. A lot of players favored the Ludwig Speed King, which featured a longboard pedal (not split) connected to the cam and beater assembly by a metal strip. Other brands used leather straps, which stretched and often broke at the most inopportune times (it’s easy to see why chain and nylon strap connectors are so popular today). Brush and mallet usage hasn’t changed, but stick alternatives like contemporary bundled dowel rods (i.e., Pro-Mark Hot Rods) were rare or nonexistent.
RECORDING SETUPS – THE ’70s AESTHETICS
Trying to pigeonhole an entire decade into one aesthetic style is an oversimplification, but many songs on the radio in the 1970s were dry, separated, and crisp. For sake of brevity I’ve divided ’70s sounds into two types: the classic ’70s sound (dry), and the alternative ’70s sound (open).
THE “CLASSIC ’70s SOUND”
Strive for a focused attack with quick decay. For our example, we’re showcasing Don Mervis’ Slingerland Jupiter Outfit No. 90N. This kit has six concert tom toms, ranging from 10″ to 16″ in diameter, an 18″ floor tom, and a 22″ x 14″ bass drum. The snare is a 14″ x 6.5″ chrome model.
If the bass drum’s front head covers more than 50 percent of the surface, remove it. Next, stuff a pillow, packing blanket, or foam inside, making sure the material’s edge rests against the batter head. If you suspect you have too much material in the bass drum, you’re probably okay. Using an Electro Voice RE-20 (or vintage AKG D12), insert the mike 3/4 of the way into the kick, about 3″ off center from where the beater hits (FIG. 3). You may want to angle the mike to point it slightly away from the snare. Some snare bleed is inevitable given how far the mike is into the drum, but any mike positioning changes that still capture the kick are welcome. Use this as the starting point and adjust to taste. Placing the mike this close to the batter will emphasize the attack, but the proximity will also pick up any pedal noise. Be sure to lubricate the pedal to avoid that “squeaky floor” sound (unless you’re trying to faithfully re-create John Bonham’s part on Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You”).
The snare can be tuned open or choked, because the muffling tends to negate the choice anyway. Before mikes can be placed, the snare needs to be ’70s-a-fied. A common trick was to place a wallet on the head. Other engineers used a towel. Older snare drums often had an internal damper that pressed a felt disc against the batter head (I’m not a fan of these as they tend to rattle, distort the head surface, and don’t do a very good job damping). Once the snare head is deadened, mike the top with a Shure SM57. Put the mike about 1″ inside the rim, and aim it toward the center of the drum. Adjust to find the sweet spot, but remember one rule that holds regardless of era: Small changes in snare drum mike position yield massive differences in the final sound.
The snare’s bottom head was almost always miked to give extra crispness. I’ve had success with both small-diaphragm condensers and dynamic mikes. For this demo session, we’re using an era-appropriate AKG D1000E, a dynamic with a bass roll-off filter (FIG. 4). We’ll roll off the bass (as we don’t need more kick drum bleed) and aim this mike at the snares but away from the kick drum. Once we have the sound we want from this mike, we’ll wrap the bottom of the snare in a thick packing blanket, to help attenuate outside sounds (FIG. 5).
For the mounted toms, we want separation, so we’ll use a ’70s honored tradition of placing Sennheiser 421s inside the drum from the bottom (FIG. 6). This lets us capture the thud of the drum, keeps the mike from getting hit by sticks, and provides a degree of isolation. As for tuning the toms, go ahead and get a nice even sound, then we’re going to muffle the heads. It was not unusual to use feminine napkins on tom heads. After all, they’re cotton, can be cut to size, and come with an adhesive strip to hold them in place. But duct tape and tissues also work well.
Overhead mikes can be spaced or XY, and should be lower than we hang them today. We’re using the venerable Shure SM81 small-diaphragm condensers to balance the highs of the cymbals without getting harsh. The mikes are in an XY position to help ensure mono compatibility. Shure makes an amazing mike holder called the A27M, which provides rock-solid stability (no drooping mikes during the session) and repeatability (FIG. 7). A hi-hat mike is optional, but our XY setup aims one mike directly at the hats, so we’re confident we will get a crisp hat sound. If you have an extra SM81 or small condenser mike, you can add it to the hi-hats. Point the mike down at the top cymbal (never perpendicular to the stand – the air plosives will give your mike problems). Aiming at the middle of the hats will pick up thud from the stand, and the edge of the hats can get too washy, so start at the center and position from there.
As I write this I’m remastering the Rock ’N’ Roll Enforcers album by The Silencers (Precision/CBS). Recorded in 1979 and mixed by Bob Clearmountain, the drum sound is very representative of the period: from rock to funk to disco, the bass guitar and kick drum often play at the same time. If you were to go into the source tracks and solo the components, the kick would sound thin in the lows, being mostly attack. The bass guitar often lacks definition, but has a more rounded bottom. The magic happens when the tracks are played together. They combine to give the impression of a full-sounding kick and a punchier bass guitar. The only time the illusion is broken is during a drum fill. Without the bass player, the kick resembles a pulse-like “thud” or “bop.” Again, this sound is a combination of the shallower shell, the mike placement, and equalization that reduces low lows in the mix.
For the toms, an era-appropriate console such as the Trident A Range would be a great choice (you can hear the A Range on records by David Bowie, Lou Reed, Queen, et al.) (FIG. 8). For the toms, engage the low pass at 15k, the high pass at 25 or 50Hz, and then use one of the four bands to boost the fundamental attack of each tom by a small amount, say 1—2dB.
It was common to make liberal use of tom panning. Pan the highest tom full to the right and continue until the lowest tom is panned hard left (most engineers used to mix drums from the audience’s perspective). This will yield what producer Mitch Easter calls, “the 40′-wide drum kit.” But it is authentic.
For the snare sound we want to feature the resonant head. The first matter of business is making sure the top and bottom heads are in phase. This is best done with your ears. Listen to both tracks together. Then, reverse the polarity of the bottom head. Out of phase sounds hollow and almost like a guitar-pedal effect. In phase sounds solid and firm. If neither sounds right, the two mikes are probably in-between phase with one another. The fastest solution is to line up top and bottom snare tracks in your digital editor. Zoom in on a transient for top and bottom snare tracks (FIG. 9). One of the head’s transients will probably come before the other (often it is the top, but not always). Slide the later track to the left (forward in time) so both hits align. It may only be a few samples, so zoom far into the waveform (FIG. 10).
When mixing the snare tracks start with the top head at an initial volume then bring up the snare side. You’re aiming for a “pift” sound. Be careful not to overdo it. Also, if the snares buzz or decay too long, add a noise gate to the bottom-head track. Adjust the gate’s close time to allow the snare to “explode” for an instant before clamping down. Voilà: instant ’70s snare.
To bring the whole kit together, feed all drum tracks into a drum bus. On the drum bus insert a stereo set of compressors. Universal Audio makes the VCA VU compressor/limiter, which is the spitting image of the dbx 160 (FIG. 11). One of the best VCA compressors ever made (probably because they didn’t cut corners on the input parts), the dbx 160 is probably on 70 percent of the hits of the day. I suggest a ratio of 1.5:2 – nothing too severe. Set the threshold to only catch the loudest moments, and you should have a firm, tight sound.
THE “ALTERNATE 70s SOUND”
Not all ’70s artists and engineers subscribed to the separation/dead drum aesthetic. The standout from this camp was Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, who, according to legend, disdained the close-miked techniques. And unlike the mainstream, Bonham kept resonant heads in place and eschewed excessive muffling.
To set up in this style, make sure there is no muffling inside the kick drum. (Halleluja!) Note: there is no need to use a huge kick. Record what the drummer is used to playing. We purchased a 26″ maple kit at Treelady Studios, but after three years, it never made one recording. Why? Because the majority of today’s drummers play a 22″ kick. Beater response changes significantly as the drum diameter becomes larger. Consequently, no 22″-player could handle the switch to a 26″ kick drum, especially under the pressure of a running studio clock. Tune the batter and resonant heads to a mid- to low-mid tension. Tune toms and snare to the lowest fundamental that provides a round note without resulting in a slack or a floppy sound. In contrast to the dry approach, limit muffling on the tom and snare heads (I’m talking a 1cm x 2cm Moongel on the edge – at most).
For this example, we’ll use Sean McDonald’s Ludwig Vistalite set (and its 22″ kick). Since there is no hole in the front bass head, we’ll need to mike outside. Normally, miking the front head gives more “boom” and less “thwap.” To address this, we’ll use two mikes. First, a large-diaphragm condenser, a Neumann U47 FET (FIG. 14), will capture the low bass sound. Second, a vintage Electro Voice 666, which is the forefather of the EV RE 20. The 666 will pick up the force and attack of the drum. At mix down we’ll blend the attack of the EV with the roundness of the Neumann. But we have to consider the matter of phase: Sound will hit each mike’s diaphragm at different times.
You can align the phase through mike positioning. The old-school engineer method: Put the two mikes in front of a speaker. Feed the speaker a 1kHz test tone. Flip one mike’s channel to be 180 degrees out of phase with the other mike. Move one mike until you hear the most cancelation. Tape the mikes together, or set them on a small piece of plywood and mark the positions. Use that setup in front of the kick (make sure to set the polarity back to normal). Another solution is to wait until mix down and use a plug in like the UAD Little Labs IBP tool on one of the mikes (FIG. 15). Either way, you must check that the two mikes are not fighting.
Mike the top snare head with an SM57. For overheads, try to use large-diaphragm condensers in a spaced pair. One of the best ways to ensure phase with a spaced pair is to use a string or tape measure to make sure that the left and right mikes are the same distance from the snare. I prefer choosing a spot where the snare and kick meet, because the overheads will also pick up some kick. Finally, grab one or two mikes for distant room mikes. According to most documentation, some of Bonham’s largest sounds came from a pair of small Beyer M160 ribbon mikes (FIG. 16) placed down the hall or in a stairwell. Here is your chance to get creative.
The “Big Bonham Sound” comes from the following recipe: the performance of a master player, correctly tuned drums, well-placed microphones, creative use of appropriate outboard (or plug-in gear), and tasteful mixing.
One contribution to the big sound was the beefy transformers used in the consoles. Few people know that the guys in Led Zeppelin were in love with a console made by Helios. For this reason, I suggest putting a UAD Helios plug-in on every drum channel – even if you put the settings to zero (make sure to enable the IN button) (FIG. 17). Even without the EQ, the Helios adds a musical thickness to the tracks. For the overall drum bus, I recommend an Empirical Labs FATSO (or the UAD version) (FIG. 13).
Get a good mix without the room mikes. It may be a good idea to keep the room mikes on a separate bus from the drum bus. Put a compressor on the room-mike bus and crush the living daylights out of them. Many people know this trick – it’s been written about to death in recording magazines for years. But one nuance people may not know is parallel compression will give better results. There are a couple of ways to do this. The easy way is to use a compressor that has a blend control (this is simply a wet/dry knob that blends the compressed with the uncompressed sound). The PSP Vintage Warmer 2 has a “mix” control that will do exactly this (FIG. 18). If your compressor of choice does not offer this feature, you will need to add a send off of the room mike bus (to another bus). We’ll call this the “crush bus.” It will have the fully compressed room sound. You’ll need to blend the dry room-mike bus with the crush bus to get the correct balance, but the results will be worth it.
OTHER TIPS AND TRICKS
Most of the secret techniques of the time dealt with augmenting the snare bottom, snare attack, or adding claps or tambourine to the drum tracks. Honestly, the best way to add any of these extra sounds is to use a modern drum replacer. By processing a copy of source tracks, any drum element can be replaced by prerecorded samples ranging from the same drum set to another drummer’s kit to special-effect sounds. Using a replacer also ensures that the added sounds land exactly where the existing performances are. Our favorite application for these kinds of tasks is Trigger, by Slate Digital. Trigger has some of the best source tracking, including ghost notes, and various velocities (and its uses are not limited to ’70s-era drum projects) (FIG. 19).
Drum sounds of the 1970s were a result of artistic preferences, the type of drum gear on the market, and the recording techniques of the day. Of course, all of these are secondary to a great performance by a great player. If your next project calls for this style, I hope one of these options gives you what you need.
The author would like to thank Don Mervis(stonemansionrestaurant.com) and Sean McDonald (facebook.com/SeanMcDonaldS ofaKingMusicServices) for sharing their vintage kits for this article. Garrett Haines owns Treelady Studios in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He can be reached email@example.com.