Flaming Lips Drum Sounds?

Posted by on Dec 20, 2013 in Studio Secrets |

There were so many factors that went into the drum sounds on the Flaming Lips records I was lucky enough to be a part of, and there’s no single answer as to ‘how’ they happened. But, I’ll do my best to describe the process I went through while creating the drum sounds from ‘Transmissions from the Satellite Heart’ way back when as a start.

First, it was a process of trial and error from the very beginning. Without exaggeration, on the first day of recording, Wayne Coyne came into the studio and handed me their previous record; ‘Priest Driven Ambulance’. His only instruction was to call him when I got drum sounds that were better than the drum sounds for ‘Take Meta Mars’ on that album.

I got to the task at hand, and started working with the existing recording rooms at Studio 7. This curious place was a throwback from the 70’s and had so much dampening and sound absorption everywhere, that no matter what I tried, I couldn’t get anything resembling the fatness of the drums on Take Meta Mars. I don’t know if the ‘Hawaiian Tiki Hut’ theme that the studio was sporting had anything do with it, but I had to think of something else. This was the first full-length record I was producing on my own (previously I had worked as an engineer on Mercury Rev and as a producer/engineer for a single song with Spiritualized called ‘Medication’), and I felt that my entire career as a record producer rested on getting drums sounds that one of my rock gods; Wayne Coyne approved of.

Since I assisted on many of the Priest Driven Ambulance sessions, I was lucky enough to be there for the recording of the Take Meta Mars drums. My job on that particular day was to clear out the storage room that had tons of broken mic stands, a few ancient TEAC mixers, cables, old speakers, and whatever other recording-related junk that no one knew what to do with.

The room was relatively square, with cement floors and cement walls, with no windows and a single door. What did this add up to? ‘ In my ‘textbook’ eyes; a recording nightmare. Since the room was so reflective and so square, there would be no way to deaden any of the infinite reflections that would, in my eyes, plague any drum sound we tried to get from this room. But, I went ahead, cleaned out the room, and proceeded to place the drums in the direct center of the room. The room, by the way, was about 12 feet x 12 feet, which felt much smaller when a drum kit was in the middle of it.

This is where I picked up one of the techniques that I carried with me from that day on: The Flaming Lips were huge fans of ‘When the Levee Breaks’ by Led Zeppelin (and they are Led Zeppelin fans, in general, as well fans of many other bands which I’ll probably list sometime other than now), and knew that they used room mics to capture the drum sounds. Yes, the room was a stairwell, and one of the ‘room’ mics was positioned a few floors above the drum kit, but the bulk of the sound was from that extremely compressed room mic in a very metallic and cement ‘room’.

So, this was the idea for the ‘Take Meta Mars’ drums, which would include close mics, but would rely on a few room mics set off from the drum kit, in very carefully planned out places.

Fast-forward back to ‘Transmissions from the Satellite Heart’ and the first day of recording with the Flaming Lips at Studio 7 in Oklahoma City…

So, with Priest Driven Ambulance in hand and the knowledge from those sessions, I continued searching for the ‘perfect’ room at Studio 7. After all of the rooms failed miserably, and I began to wonder if it were really me, and not the rooms themselves, Mike, who was my assistant engineer for the sessions, wandered into the studio’s storage room.

It wasn’t too full, it had the exact kind of randomness you’d expect from a recording studio storage room, and we proceeded to empty it out. The floor was cement as were two of the walls. The room itself measured about 18 feet wide by about 30 feet long. This, was a BIG room compared to the closet-sized room we used for the Take Meta Mars drums.

But the sound! ‘ The sound of this room was stunning!

We moved the drums into this room and started to experiment with the position of the drums. We first put them in the center, but there was too much reverb. We then moved the drums to a position of about 6 feet away from the one cement wall, with the rest of the 30 foot room behind the drummer.

We were definitely on to something!

My choice of mics wasn’t anything spectacular. I was completely biased towards some specific mics for specific drums, and I also was on an AKC 414 kick as well. This mic just seemed too versatile, and although it can have some odd characteristic from the high-mids on up to 20K, there’s no mistaking it could handle anything that was thrown at it. Steven Drozd is the hardest-hitting drummer I have ever recorded, and we needed mics that could handle his iron fists.

So, the kick drum got a D112, the snare; an SM57, and the rest of the mics…AKG 414’s for toms, room and ambient mics. I used a 414 about six feet in front of the kick drum, a pair of 414’s above the drums as overheads, and another 414 as a room mic (a mic I rarely used). There was no hi hat mic and no bottom snare mic (ooh I rarely like those except for using as triggers). If I were to mic those, I would surely have used a 414, though.

After the drum kit was moved and moved and moved again, I raced into the Control Room to hear what we had. Without question, we were onto something. I had Steven play the drum part for Take Meta Mars over and over and over and over again, and was amazed at his patience. With some more adjustments, 2 movable gobos placed about 6 feet behind the drum kit to dampen that long room, we were definitely onto something; I know Wayne said that we had to ‘beat’ the sounds on Priest Driven Ambulance, and at the moment, I felt that I had only matched them, but this was definitely a start in the right direction.

One of the things I had a difficult time matching was this subtle reverb-y sound that the Priest drums had. I tried compression, I tried tape saturation, I tried splitting channels and adding more mics, but none of them worked. As a last report, I reached for the Yamaha SPX900 Digital Reverb sitting in a VERY skimpy rack of effects. I decided to try running the mic that was in front of the kick drum through a reverb program in the SPX900.

But, for some reason, no matter what I did, I couldn’t actually ‘hear’ the effect of the reverb, so I kept turning up the input into the unit until it was WAY too hot. The reason I wasn’t hearing any reverb effect was because the SPX900 was on ‘bypass’, and I just massively overloaded the input without realizing it. But, what I heard through the channel return as a result of this was one of the sweetest sounds I had ever heard; it was the most giant drum sound I thought I had ever heard.

I wish I could take credit for it, I wish I could say that it was an experiment that occurred due to my out-of-the-box forward thinking, but, it was nothing more than an extremely lucky and fortunate accident. And this is the accident that became the Flaming Lips drum sound for the rest of that record.

So, after about 2 days, 14 hour each day, working only on drum sounds, I called up Wayne Coyne to have him come by the studio. I had my two very different drum sounds; the best one I could get using everything we had set up over the past two days, with mic placed within millimeters of the ‘sweetest spot’ we could find (yes, Mike very patiently would sit next to Steven’s booming drums with each microphone and move it in small amounts this way, and then that way, and then that way, and then a little back the other way for hours on end), and…the SPX900 drum sound, which really consisted of a single unaffected by anything other than the ‘initial’ program on the SPX900.

Wayne sat down at the console and I readied the 24-track machine, syncing it up as best I could with the reference song. I figured, if nothing else, that we would have a solid place to start, regardless of what his opinion was. So, I let the song roll, and watched for his ‘deep thought’ look that is one of the most distinct looks I have ever seen.

Did he just subtly nod his head ‘yes’ while he was listening or did I just imagine it? Is that a smile cracking across his face or a frown, or nothing? The suspense was killing me, so I engaged the secret weapon. Wayne’s face instantly lit up and turned to me with a knowing smile, shaking his head and said only this; ‘Alright.’

Since Wayne (rightfully so) needs to feel as though he had his hand and his touch on as much as possible, he examined the setup we were using, compared the drums to ‘When the Levee Breaks’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and thought. He decided that we needed to dampen the sound just a bit, so we tried adding more movable gobos at different places in our drum room, but with no luck.

We then found a 4 foot by 8 foot sheet of corrugated cardboard and rigged it with a piece of rope in each corner to the ceiling. We placed it so it was directly above the drum kit. We also made the ropes adjustable so we could move it closer or further from the drums, and even angle a corner one way or another if needed.

Now that we went from a magnifying glass, to a chemistry room microscope, to an electron microscope that could see every last detail in vivid detail, even slight changes to the sound seemed to make all the difference in the world. And this 4×8 sheet of plastic corrugated cardboard was no different. It not only dampened the drums just a bit, but it gave an added ‘whoosh’ to the snare drum.

And there it was; the drum sound that would change my life forever, and one that I, to this day, have not grown tired of revisiting. People have often debated the types of microphones, the number of each microphone, what effects might have been applied to each individual drum sound or the drum kit as a whole, the type of room we were in, how hard we hit the tape, what kind of tape we used, and so on.

But the simple answer is this: If you listen to the fattest drum sounds on ‘Transmissions from the Satellite Heart’, you’ll notice that they are mostly in mono. This was for no other reason than most of the drum sounds on the record were the result of just a couple of mics, no effects, to tape compression, barely any E.Q., with the ambient mic that sat in front of the drum kit running through the SPX900. The ambient mic was literally 90% of the sound, and then the D112 on the kick and the SM57 on the snare filled it out and brought the listener closer or further away from the kit depending on what we were going for.

And this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but that’s how the fattest drum sounds generally happened.

This is also how I got the drum sounds on the record I did just after Transmissions with the Flaming Lips; a record called ‘You’d Prefer an Astronaut’ by HUM. I recorded that at a studio in Chicago that I barely had built, but had one thing in common with Studio 7 in Oklahoma City; it had a drum room, with a cement floor and 2 cement walls just like the one in Oklahoma. It had the added bonus of having a tin ceiling, which is typically a big ‘no no’ in relation to recording spaces, but it added yet another dimension to the SPX900 drum sound.

I’ll discuss the HUM sounds, including the super-fat guitars in another post, as well as more recording techniques for the Flaming Lips and other bands I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with in the studio.

Also, I’d like to mention that good drummers also not only make my job easy, but they make me look good as well. When recording a super hard-hitting drummer, the best I can ever hope for is to not lose any of the power of their sound, and to simply capture it as best I can. Both the Flaming Lips, in all the years I worked with them had the hardest-hitting drummers I’d ever worked with, as did HUM’s drummer.

Because of that, most of my work in relation to drums was already done.