This Interview Has No Title
By: Daniel Levitin

Personal Interview (Circa 1998)

Daniel Levitin: How do you and Ted get your drum sounds?

AVH: Well, the first thing is to get the drums to sound the way I want them from where I'm sitting. They have to sound right before you put up mics, a lot of people don't realize that. It's also important to bring the drums to the recording studio a good 12 hours before the session, and to make sure the temperature and humidity in the recording room don't change between load-in and recording. This way the drums can get acclimated to the studio environment, and they're more likely to hold their tuning.

I think a drum should resonate freely, not be taped up or damped; and it should have both of its heads on. If you discover a ring in the drum while you're recording, that means either that it wasn't tuned properly or the heads aren't right; I don't think you should go in with duct tape and tissue paper to reduce the ring.

DL: How do you tune the drums? Do you tune them to resonate with the key of the song you're doing?

AVH: No. Buddy Rich used to say you don't tune the drum, you tension the drum. A shell resonates at a specific tone and each drum is different - it depends on what wood it's made out of, how many ply it you tighten the head the drum sings; if you go beyond that it sounds like a piece of popcorn, if you go below, it sounds like a thud. Once you find the sweet spot, that's it, that's where you want to be. Sometimes you hit a resonant frequency, it causes a sympathetic ring in the other drums, and if that happens, you can usually tune the drum just a little higher or lower and still be in the sweet spot. This only counts of course if the mics are far away enough from the head. So no, I don't tune to the song.

DL: What about miking?

AVH: In the early 70s, bands like Led Zeppelin and Cream - Bonham and Baker - wouldn't let anybody near the drum kit with a mic - I know this cause I've talked to them. They always had to be recorded from a distance and then the drummer would accommodate. But then a funny thing happened and engineers wanted to be able to pan things and isolate them. Of course, if you put a mic a 1/4" from a drum head you're not going to get a drum sound, you're going to get a plastic, small "poof." So they developed these ambience boxes, but they don't sound anything like a real room to me, even the best of them. The distance of the mics, the phasing, all these things aren't properly represented in the box. The close miking makes things simple for in-house engineers - it didn't really matter who the drummer or the band was.

On "Van Halen I" [engineer] Don Landee asked me to take the front heads off the kick drums and I said "what's the matter with you, the drums are supposed to have two heads!" But he knew a lot more about recording than I did, so I accommodated him and his style of working at that point.

I kept hammering Don and I said, drums make sound omni-directionally, and I understand it's difficult to capture, but you gotta put the mics back a little bit. Of course when you do that you get a problem with phase cancellation and you have to work on it, and the drummer has a responsibility to keep the levels right between the cymbals and the kick and the other drums. The point of close miking was to expedite the recording process, and I guess some people don't think drums are as important as drummers do. It's funny because the drums are the only acoustic instrument on our records - you change the drums and it changes the whole sound of the record. So now we record the drums from a distance.

Now on the toms and kick we typically use Sennheisers 421s up close, and a shotgun for the snare. And then room mics, of course. On the kick there's a mic inside, one on the front head, and one about 5 feet away. We don't use all the mics in the mixes. We don't layer the songs, we all play together on the rhythm tracks - it's always a crap shoot - so it's better to have some of these extra mics on tape.

DL: How does the band approach arranging?

AVH: What makes the four of us different than most bands is that the rhythm section is not the bass and the drums, it is the guitar and the drums. I play with the guitar, and with what Ed is doing rhythmically - if you notice on all the records, it is really the drums and guitar that create the turbulence, the movement. Mike [Anthony, bassist] just carries the bottom, down there, providing the subsonic qualities. Because Ed's guitar is very fat, and what Ed plays is very intricate, there's a lot of stuff to play off of. Sometimes I accent with, sometimes against it. The rhythm that Ed does in two beats I may stretch out to two measures.

And interestingly enough, he's also very rhythmically attuned - you know, he used to be a drummer and I used to be a guitarist until we switched. The way he fits in is as a third percussive element. everything's more intertwined, in a Bach fugue kind of way.

Interview 1998 Daniel Levitin