Darren King is the best drummer in the world. You'd be hard pressed to not give him props for being something unique in a world that many music fans sadly glaze over. Drumming is the back-bone of a lot of music; certainly Mutemath's. The sound of this New Orleans rock band is largely characterised by the percussion-work of Mr King, who has surprisingly, and rather spontaneously, has made available the sound of his drumming in the form of a new sample pack, titled Darren King Drums, released by I WANT THAT SOUND. Naturally, I went about seeking an interview, and here we are.
Hi Darren. A thousand thanks for doing this interview with me. How did this drum pack come about?
Dustin Burnett, co-founder of I WANT THAT SOUND, messaged me on Twitter. That was it. I learned about his company through that. It took a while for our schedules to line up, but when they did, I went out to Nashville for a few days, and that was the first time I met him in person. We'd talked on the phone a lot prior to that. It was a lot of fun working together. We recorded some of the drumming to tape and some digitally, in a Nashville studio owned by Paul Moak, called SmokeStack Studios.
It was an easy experience, though some things like file management and editing can be monotonous. But I only had to do a week's worth of work at a leisurely pace, as far as mixing and editing goes. Dustin and Paul did most of the grunt work.
A lot of things I do, like running the drums through an amp, or bouncing them to a 2-track and distorting them through a tape machine, or running them through a pre-amp, isn't revolutionary. My sound also has to do with how I hit the drums, and how I muffle it, what heads I use, etc. I only use the top heads on toms. These are things you develop over the years as a drummer that wants to develop his own style.
What would you say some other factors that can contribute to good drum sound?
There's your room, drum heads, how old the heads are, the velocity you hit with, how you muffle the kit, where the mics are, the model of mics, as well as the processing you use. I do try to adhere to the principle of committing to make the drums sound good before recording. That way, you can continue to be inspired by what's already there, as you keep writing.
If I understand correctly both of Mutemath's latest albums were recorded in regular houses, not expensive studios. Can you tell me about the kind of drum rooms you like, considering that you don't seem to be seeking studio spaces to record in?
My favorite drum room is the one I currently have. It's only 8 foot by 8 foot. My studio is in the basement of a 500 square-foot print shop. We just built a room with dry walls. I might put up blankets to deaden the sound even further, but it's just a small, tight room, and it's my favorite drum sound. It doesn't have a lot of reverb or echo.
The natural decay in a small room is really short. Doesn't that take away from the color of the drum hits?
Not at all. I go for that kind of sound. When there's not a lot of reverb, it's easier for you to distort things afterwards to make it punchy and articulate.
What about the Odd Soul drums? They sound very colorful.
Those drums were recorded in a medium-sized kitchen, though the mics are pretty amped up. We were going for a John Bonham-kind of thing, with natural reverb. But if I had to record my drums for the rest of my life in either a small place with no reverb or a big place with lots of reverb, I'd pick the small place. Though in the drum pack you have options of both sounds, be it dry snare hits, or the sound of the room mics.
For me, it's all about distortion. Every good drum sound has a little bit of distortion in it. Back in the day, it came from tape saturation. Nowadays, it can be from a plugin. But the main thing is that you put in the time and effort. I love the story of one of the engineers who recorded the Beatles. He worked under George Martin, and he's told the story of how Martin walks into the control room, hears the drum sound and goes "Boooooring". So the engineer got nervous, and started running the mics through different pieces of gear until they found a good sound. That encourages me, because it shows that people worked hard even back then. They weren't just sitting around, relying on gear, or allowing it to sound good by accident.
What have been some of the most unconventional things that you've done to further process drums after recording?
When I was playing in a band called Earthsuit, we used to run the kick through a bass amp, which was great. Just the other day, I bought a Synar. It was made in the 70s, and it's UFO looking thing. I bought it from a synth store in Austin, during SXSW. They've modified it to allow you to run your audio through it. It's a mean-sounding synth that's responsible for the "pew pew" sound effect heard on some of Donna Summer's records. It does great low bass sounds too. Another thing that comes to mind is sidechaining. People like to use sidehcain compression a lot, but you can use it with a gate too. If you have a nice noise sound, like white noise, or the sound of the ocean, or someone talking, you can gate it, and sidechain it to your snare. That way, the gate will open with your snare, and you can adjust attack and decay settings.
My favorite drum sound we ever got was on one of the last songs on the "Armistice" album, called "Burden". The beat that comes in is my favorite one on our albums. We got it by recording in a medium sized room, closed mics, with SM57's, and then we ran the drums into a 2-track tape machine. That was it.
You're quite an aggressive drummer. I guess that plays a part of the sound as well, right?
I play quieter in the studio than when when I'm on stage. It pays to let the vibe of the room, mics, distortion to feed into how it sounds, rather than striking the drums too hard. I look back at some of the nasty-sounding James Brown records, and they're not playing hard at all. They're playing way softer than Dave Grohl, but it still sounds amazing, because the drums are treated well, and recorded to tape.
Our new record, which we're just finishing up, isn't about as much testosterone as previous records. It has a lot of synths, and lyrics about love. The sounds cater to that. We still have a few more songs to go though, until the album is done. I think we've made our best record though.
What are your thoughts on vintage drum kits from the 60s and 70s versus newer ones made today?
Old drums just look cooler, haha. They have a better style. In the 50, 60s and 70s, style was often given precedence over functionality. Though with drums, the functionality is fairly obvious: you hit it, and it makes a sound. But regardless, the look of older drums appeal to me, and that's why I play them, because of aesthetic quality. It has less to do with sound, though I know that the age of the wood affects things. You can't go wrong with an old school Rogers. Before they were bought up by CBS in 1966 of course.
When making your sample pack, were you conscious of what the gear chain was?
We ran a few things through amps, as well as a Teac tape machine. I use plugins consistently, and one of them is NI Transient Master. I use that all the time.
You've mentioned that you run your drum sounds through amps. What are you looking for when doing that?
Spring reverb and distortion. We've done that on every Mutemath album at some point. We'll always have an amp mic. Usually it's on the snare. The bread and butter of my drum sound is a condenser mic in between my right knee and the bass drum, near the beater side of the kick, pointing at the snare. I'll get a pretty even blend of kick, snare and hat through that, which is helpful.
What are your hopes for this sample pack? Is it something you'd use for your own work?
I totally use them. One of the loops is on the new Mutemath album, and a lot of the one-shots are used to accentuate our sounds. My hopes for the pack have already been exceeded. Right after we released it, I used to get the messages days from people who use them. They've already been used in commercials. One producer even paid me a session fee for using the loops, even though he'd already bought me the pack, just because of how helpful they were to him, haha. That was amazing. So I'm hoping to do another one with THAT SOUND.