The $300 Drum Sound
One concept I came up with about mid-way through the project was the $300 drum sound.
The producer had talked about how he liked the simple and present drum sound of old Al Green and Ann Peebles records. We love everything about the records produced by Willie Mitchell.
The drum sound on those records was in sharp contrast to the then current studio drum sound “du jour”—a super high fidelity drum sound recorded very precisely using a certain combination of dynamic and condenser mics.
I decided to use only Shure SM57s on the entire kit. 57s for the snare, kick, hi-hat AND overheads and, if there were tom-toms, well it was—you guess it—more SM57s.
Hence the name: “The $300 Drum Sound”—about the cost of all those 57s at that time. I think I used every one in Larrabee’s mic locker and then some.
I used the $300 Drum Sound on just one song called “Sara Smile”. Daryl wrote and sang this one for the love of his life, Sandy Allen. “Sara Smile” was the third and last-chance single for that album.
A truly magical recording, although we didn’t realize it at the time, it was recorded in a couple of takes with Daryl’s live lead vocal used in the final mix with tje exception of punching in and replacing the first “Sara” at the top of the first chorus.
We liked the “glamour” of the strings and the soulfulness of the vocal and harmonies but wanted the percussive edginess of a loud, dry kit and the overdubbed percussion bits to balance it out—keeping it classy but not too slick and polished sounding.
The drums are mixed incredibly loud on that song and the whole time during the mix, we were concerned that they we were crazy to make them so loud. As luck would have it, even a “screwed up” and loud drum mix couldn’t keep that song from being a wonderful hit record.
No Expense Spared For The $300 Drum Sound
Drummer Ed Green had his drums set up under a sound deadening, umbrella-like canopy that hung down from the ceiling in Larrabee’s Studio A.
This approximately six by six foot pyramid-shaped “roof” had an interior tiled with burlap-covered panels of fiberglass and was hung by wires about seven feet above the floor—just enough the get drum overhead mics under it and placed over the kit.
Underneath the canopy, the Green’s drums were surrounded by chest high wooden gobos that featured horizontal slots that trapped mostly sound in the middle frequencies using a maze of internal, freely hanging fiberglass slats.
The purpose of this sonically controlled area was to emphasize the low frequencies, control the cymbal brightness and prevent the drums’ sound from leaking very much out into the room. The musicians loved the drums in this area because, unlike using a drum booth (which were starting to become popular in other studios at the time), they didn’t feel separated from the drummer.
You can hear the drums in the rest of the room but they are greatly subdued in volume. At that time, most of the drummers were recorded at Larrabee under this canopy.
Under these conditions, the acoustic sound of Ed’s kit was very dry with very little room ambiance. I used no room mics—they were not yet used much in those days, and besides, we had to conserve tracks. The whole album was recorded using a 16-track, 2-inch analog tape recorder.
The SM57s, with their built-in compressed mid-range sound, enhanced the drum sound already made acoustically in that space. The studio’s Spectrasonics console had limited EQ—only high and low frequency—and there were few compressors available. I don’t remember using any EQ or compression.
The drums ended up sounding super dry with no room tone and very tonal and compressed. Overall there is not a lot of super high or low frequencies in the sound—perfect for what we wanted. The drums were loud, thick and super warm but not too bright, brash or boomy. They worked in the mix in a more organic way.
After the album came out and “Sara Smile” was playing all the time on the radio, the producer started getting letters from engineers and producers all over the world asking how did we get that drum sound. What mics did we use?
If only they knew…
Barry Rudolph is a veteran L.A.-based recording engineer as well as a noted writer on recording topics. Be sure to visit his website