Darren King, the drummer from Mutemath, has collaborated with a sample company called That Sound to create his own sample pack. As a recent owner of these samples, I decided to reach out to the company for an interview about their work. Some weeks later, I got to chat with Paul Mabury, a co-founder of the That Sound alongside Dustin Burnett.
Hi Paul. As a start, can you tell me about how you got into music?
I grew up as the son of a preacher, in church, playing music with friends. My dad was a musician as well, being the music director of a big band. I started playing piano at the age of five, but around eleven I got into drums. My dad was speaking at a camp, and I was trying to find a way to kill time. So I walked into the hall where the drum kit was and there was no-one there, so I started to play. Unbeknownst to me, the owner of the drum kit was in the back of the room and was listening. So he asked my dad “How long has your son been playing drums? “, and my dad said, “My son doesn’t play drums “, and drum owner said “Well, he does now. You should get him a kit “. So that got me started.
At twenty one, I decided that I wanted to pursue music as a career, and attended the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. After a year of studying, the gig scene exploded for me, and I was playing each night of the week. But I couldn’t do both gigs and my studies, so I spoke with one of my lecturers, called Frank Gibson Jr, and he said, “Most musicians here want to play as a career, so you should go play. You can study for the rest of your life afterwards “. So I’ve been doing that ever since, and it’s been over twenty years.
Yes. It goes back about five years. I didn’t much like drum samples, and couldn’t find anything I wanted to use. One of my beefs was that they were too clinical-sounding. I could hear that the creators of those packs had mic’d the kit very precisely and hit the drums in a sterile way, so as to capture a “perfect” sound. It was hard for me to find a useful sound in that. I explained that to Dustin, and suggested that we make some drum samples that we could actually use. He had hired me in the past and told me that he’d already been collecting samples of our work and was using them on everything he was doing. So that’s how it started, and I’m very grateful to Dustin, because without him getting the company off the ground, I’d still be just talking about a potentially good idea.
It’s going really well for us now. Amateurs uses our sample, and people at the top of the game use them too. What I hear more than anything is, “I use it everyday “, and we’re really grateful for that.
Is there a clear division of labor between you and Dustin when it comes to making sample packs?
We have very clear roles, though they continue to develop since we’re a start-up company. Even our wives do a lot for the company.
Dustin and I will track the drumming, and one of us will edit the files. Dustin’s the engineer, who understands the science of what’s going on, and I’m a session drummer who has experience with playing the instrument itself. With Darren King’s pack, Dustin manned the tracking, and I worked on the loops to make sure that they were edited properly and didn’t cause any clicks or pops when looping. So in this kind of way, we multi-task until the job’s done.
Our samples come out of our own workflow, since we’re always working on new material. We did a pack earlier this year with Nir Zidkyahu and Jeff Juliano, which will be coming out later this year. They both worked on John Mayer’s first album “Room For Squares“.
What do you think are the reasons for That Sound’s success in an overcrowded industry of sample pack companies?
I think there’s a few reasons why it’s going well for us: our product is better than a lot of our competition. There’s been a lot of deliberate thought by us to release sounds we actually use. If we don’t use them, we don’t release them. Sample libraries can be like quicksand, where the folders are overflowing with too much to choose from. Most musicians that I know don’t have long attention spans for sorting through stuff like that. We look for specific sounds, and want to choose from 20 snare drums, not 100. Clearly labeled samples help with that, which we strive to do.
Social media is important to us too, and we’re present on that. I post videos to Instagram of me playing drums in the studio, where I talk about the samples I’m going to make with them.
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As someone who’s been working with drums for a long time, what have you found are the most common mistakes people make when recording and micing drums?
That’s a good question. I think one of the things that happen, even in places like Nashville with it’s top-tier professionals, is a lack of focus. I did a session a few weeks ago, where I was drumming for three days. During that whole time, I could hear how something was wrong with the left overhead mic, but I told myself it was just a headphone issue, since monitoring can sometimes be questionable in even the best studios. You might hear some static or noise on one side of the stereo field, or your headphones might pick up a radio station signal. So I said to the engineer “There’s some noise in my headphones “, and he responded, “Yeah we hear that to, I think it is just noise in the cue… “. So we recorded the drums to tape, and the engineer is like, “Don’t worry we’ll get rid of the noise later “. But of course, that turned out to be impossible because it was actually a part of the recording that went to tape. But at that point, so much time has passed that the engineer is like “Ah sorry man…but let’s continue. Time’s ticking “. So a lack of focus is an issue. There might be a bunch of people in the studio hanging out, but the engineer has to stay focused and pick up on all the right things.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that people who have just started engineering can over-complicate things. A lot of people would think Mutemath spend a lot of money on fancy gear, when the reality is that 80% of Darren King’s sound is in how he plays. You could point any mic at him, and he’ll still sound like himself. I think young drummers and engineers make the mistake of wanting the gear to make them sound good. You should be able to take your headphones off and listen to the the drum kit to see if it sounds good. It doesn’t sound good in the room, no microphone or pre-amp will help; all you’re doing at that point is amplifying a problem. When we track for That Sound, I want to make the drums sound great before they get to the microphone.
One of the things that easily occurs in recording sessions is that people rely on the dogma of their field. To what extent have you found today’s engineering dogma to be reliable when it comes to recording drums?
I think the dogma that occurs when I’m recording drums in Nashville is super helpful. If I find something I like, I want to stick to it. I like that things get predictable, because you’re spending a lot of money when tracking, and you only have so much time to capture your musical ideas. So dogma actually becomes one of the most useful elements when recording. I know that most of my sessions will have an SM57 on the snare drum, with maybe another mic next to it for some sizzle. But you always expect a certain range of mics on the kick and snare. When all the expected techniques are being used, it relaxes everyone, and creates the right mood for someone to say, “Why don’t we try switching this mic, or trying such and such? “. Those things usually happen because everything else is already in place. Having said all that, I do think that someone like Darren King got his sound because he was going after something with his band, and they weren’t worried about what anyone else was doing.
For me, I know that one of the things that has gotten me hired over the years is the way I manage to tune my snare to sound very flat. I’ll tune the bottom head super tight, to make it feel like a wall. Then I’ll tune the top head low, and will take the two lugs that are closest to me and undo them all the way until they’re totally loose. That’ll give you a fat, dead “splat”. Depending on the wires in the snare, you can get a short or long tail after striking it. If I want a tight Bille Jean-esque sound, I’ll tune it super tight. If I want a One Republic-type sound, with a long tail, I’ll loosen the snare.
Here’s a little insight: when I’m tracking a song, the producer might say, “I’d really like to hear some ghost notes in this groove “. If the snares is really loose, it’s better for me to play the groove clean, and then tighten the snare up afterwards and overdub the ghost notes. If you play ghost notes on a snare that’s loose and rattley, most often it won’t sound good. So having experience helps you know what to do in that kind of situation.
But isn’t it hard to time the ghost notes with the original snare hit?
You learn how to do that with experience. Here in Nashville, some studios still track to tape. In those situations, you have to make sure that you’re careful. But when tracking in Pro Tools, I use the technology in front of me. If I need to overdub something, or punch in to record just a bar, I’ll do that. It’s about the music at the end of the day, and not recording “perfect” takes that you can feel overly proud of. Making sure that the recording is right for the music is more important.
Have you had times where you deviated from dogma to use unconventional recording techniques?
I did that a bunch recently. I was tracking some records, and used some That Sound samples. I’d make a beat in Pro Tools, using samples, and then play to that, and add in some of the overheads and room mic sounds to make it feel human, and then join it all together. So instead of tracking drums first and making the samples fit to that, I do the opposite by locking samples in, and then play the drum kit to make everything feel more alive. I do that more for pop music though; I wouldn’t do that for an Americana song.
Making music is meant to be fun. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that the studio is meant to be fun and there are no rules. When you meet people who tell you that things have to be done a certain way, they’re probably not very high up in the game. The longer I do this, the less I know, and the more I feel creative to try new things.
Can you talk a bit more about snare tuning. What determines your tuning?
If you want to get a Red Hot Chilli Peppers ring or a Tom Petty back-beat, you can’t use low tuning, as the snare needs to have a certain ring to it which only comes from being tuned high. I was drumming fills on a session yesterday for 1950s-type rock and roll music, which needed high tuning, or it wouldn’t have worked. But most of my sessions are for pop songs, which have fat choruses where you’re playing to a bunch of programming. For that kind of music, low tuning works better. I’ve found that a dead drum sound works best, when the snares sound like hand claps. If you stick that with different samples, it sounds great.
(Above: Paul Mabury)
Let’s talk about That Sound’s latest pack. How did the Darren King collaboration come about? Did your reach out to him?
Yes, we reached out to him. We’d initially been building the company around my drumming and session work, but later decided that we wanted to incorporate other personalities. The main reason we approached him was that we thought he had a unique, throwback sound, which aligns with what we love. So we asked him if he was interested, and he said he was. It was a simple process: he came to Nashville and we tracked it. We’re now in conversations with other music makers, both drummers and producers in the hope of dreaming up other great sample pack to release. But we’re treading with caution in that regard, as we’re a boutique company and only want to release samples that we totally dig.
Darren’s pack turned out great. A few days after we released it, we were watching the NBA All-Star Weekend, and the music used for a clothing company commercial was all Darren’s loops (laughs).
Darren has a very distinct sound of cracking snares and fat kicks. Can you tell me about the process used to capture that?
Darren relies a lot on saturated sounds. He gets the drums to sound great by recording the deadest drums possible. So the bottom heads of his toms are taken off, and the front head of the kick too. He puts a ton of gaffer tape on everything, enough to make it sound like you’re hitting a phone book. The older the drum heads, the better. He uses a room that’s as dead as possible, to get a tight, thumpy sound, and a lot of their sound comes from using SM57’s. That’s the most of it. Mutemath use gear to make it sound right afterwards, be it analog tape saturation or saturation through plugins. Also, a lot of their sound is just a few mics going through the machine of an old movie projector.
Really? A movie projector?
Yeah, you can see it in the promo video on our website. There are a few mics running through there. The sound is fed through the input, without using any of the tape, just to color the sound. Projectors can act as a great compressors too. It’s not unique to Mutemath by any means. Here in Nashville, many studios have movie projectors for that reason.
I’m aware that Mutemath run their drums through tape machines a lot too. In my interview with Yoad Nevo, I learnt that he uses them to smear transient. How do you think something like that is helpful for drum sounds?
Smearing transients is one of the beauties of using analog gear. It’s like a big sonic hug that glues things together. It creates an impression of the sound, instead of giving you the exact sound. In the case of digital recordings, ones and zeros can get a little harsh. So the very thing that some people criticize about tape is what you actually use it for. For example, analog hiss used to be an unavoidable part of listening to music back in the day. The cleanest music off all time has been made in the last twenty years because of the digital revolution, but when you’re recording to tape, the default sound is a pretty loud hiss, before you’ve even played anything. So it makes things feel glued together.
Darren has mentioned in past interviews that he plays a ’68 Rogers kit. What are your thoughts on older, vintage kits versus new ones that are made today?
I like old kits. The wood is more settled, and the bearing edges were made in a way I like. I’m not a fan of how they’re made today. It’s as if they’ve gotten too good at it, and insist on isolating the kit pieces from one another. When you hit a snare, the toms are meant to ring too, and when you hit the kick, the snare is meant to rattle because they’re all connected to each other. When I play the new kits that are made today, everything is so isolated with their “state-of-the-art” snare drum and isolated rack toms. I don’t like how it sounds. I think the way that bearing edges that were made in the 60s and 70s were better.
What would you say is distinct about Rogers‘ sound?
The Japanese got incredible at making drums in the 70s, which is why Yamaha were able to make a name for themselves at that time. They created the drums that Steve Gadd was famous for playing. He played the ones that had clear heads with duct tape all over to give them a dead sound. They were also run through a Neve console to get a warm sound, and they had round bearing edges too.
I think the vintage Rogers kit in the 60s played a part in shaping the Yamaha sound of the 70s. If you look at the 60s Rogers, they sound tubby and warm, but when you strike the tom lightly, the tone is so even. They’re not abrasive or harsh, which I like.
Is it true that drum kits sound a little different in the studio than on stage?
Yes it is. When you’re in the studio, you lose a few inches of sound. An 18-inch crash cymbal is going to sound like a 16-inch, and a 22-inch is going to sound like a 20-inch. So I rarely use anything smaller than a 20-inch crash or ride. I’ll use a 12-inch rack tom, and a 16-inch floor tom. We’re about to release a 1985 pack that has tons of toms.
What do you think is the most essential skill to have as a drummer?
The most innovative drummers that I know of are the ones who have a good grasp on music history. That’s what allows you to get the right sound. If a producer says to me “Let’s go for a 1950’s rock-and-roll sound “, I know how to tune a drum kit to get that. If they said, ”Let’s do a pop song “, I can make the drums sound like that. Having an awareness of the music that was made in the past is one of your greatest assets. You should know how records sound through-out the ages, and do research on how they were made. That’s what gives you an edge. When you listen to a Bruno Mars record, a lot of people have no idea that one part of the song is completely based off something Michael Jackson did, and another part of the track is based of The Police, and the other part is a Quincy Jones production imitation. If you can listen to a song and hear that it was ripped off from Earth, Wind & Fire, or some other artist, it’s a sign that you’re understanding music history, and that’s going to dictate the choices you make when you’re in the studio.
Wrapping up, is there anything you want to mention regarding the future of That Sound?
We have a 1985 pack coming out soon. I’m working on a hip-hop pack too, which is fun, and Nir Zidkyahu and Jeff Juliano are coming out with a pack as well. So keep an eye out for all that!