Andy Newmark at
his drumset (1984)
This text copyright © 2006 David Stanoch/Rhythmelodic Music.
All rights reserved.
NOTE: This article features text from the February 1984 issue of MODERN DRUMMER magazine by Andy Newmark and is reprinted with permission.
Perspective on Developing Your Own Sound:
Andy Newmark Talks About His Drumset
What Tony Williams has called "The American Dance Band Drumset" has seen much change in its evolution since the invention of the bass drum pedal gave birth to the "contraption," as it was called in the early twentieth century United States. Somewhere between the early 1930's and late 1940's the traditional four-piece drumset became what is basically still the standard outfit for drumset artists worldwide due largely perhaps to the popularity of Gene Krupa and the extraordinary vocabulary forged on the instrument by Max Roach--both of whom employed that set up themselves. Since then new vistas for the make up of the instrument have been innovated by trailblazers like Louis Bellson, Walfedo de los Reyes, Hal Blaine, Billy Cobham and Bill Bruford, among others. Today the make up of a drumset has more options than ever, making it even more interesting, personal and challenging to configure.
Developing your own sound can be complicated. The type of music you play can influence your choice of drums, cymbals and even drumheads and sticks. Your touch, experience and musical taste are important factors as well. Your budget also influences the quality of instruments that you can afford but you need not have the highest priced gear available to get a good sound. I often encounter students who do not approach their choices with these concepts in mind. In preparing to gig, "What tools do I need to perform to the best of my abilities?" becomes an important question.
Back in the early 80's, I was nearing the end of my college days--a very fertile period of development for me. I was playing a lot of jazz, funk, reggae and rock. I would go from small clubs to loud bar stages or boomy concert halls and outdoor festival set-ups at the drop of a hat, playing anything from intimate acoustic music to balls-out rock 'n roll. I was also doing a lot of studio work and getting accustomed to getting a good drum sound and hearing my playing back. Providing the proper intensity for all this different music seemed to demand different things from my touch, sensitivity and even set up. I noticed I was having some difficulty with consistency on my instrument.
In February 1984, I read an article in MODERN DRUMMER magazine by session master Andy Newmark titled, Andy Talks About His Drumset. If you're not familiar with Andy (a New York native, originally influenced by Al Jackson, Tony Williams and Dino Danelli) or his work, I strongly recommend you check him out. Before I ever knew his name, or was a drummer myself, I heard his featured playing on Carly Simon's hit single, Anticipation, about a million times. Once I started getting serious about playing, I noticed his name on all kinds of records I liked. He worked with David Bowie, Roxy Music, Sting, did a lot of the jazz/funk records on the CTI label, and his work with Sly & The Family Stone on the Fresh LP is classic. Check out his playing on the track In Time, a track so funky and progressive that Miles Davis had his band listening to it over and over to soak up the vibe in his 1970's crossover period into jazz/rock fusion. Andy also did records with members of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. It was common around this time in my life to hear Andy everywhere, on popular songs like Starting Over, Woman and Watching the Wheels, from John Lennon and Yoko Ono's classic Double Fantasy LP, as Andy had been working with them at the time of John's tragic murder.
In those days Modern Drummer was still a new magazine and, to me, it was quite enlightening to "get into the head" of drummers I admired, just as I had before then reading interviews with musicians in magazines like Down Beat, Creem, or Rolling Stone. Andy's article impressed me in how articulate he was about projecting his sound. His words reflected the same conviction he showed in his playing. It was influential in refining my own sound concepts then and I share it with my students now.
Let's now revisit, thanks to the kind permission of the folks at MODERN DRUMMER, Andy Newmark in his own words, circa 1984, and I'll offer more thoughts and perspective afterwards.
Andy Talks About His Drumset
"A four-piece drumset tends to make me more groove conscious. Ninety-five percent of the time, I'm playing only hi-hat, snare and bass drum. So by not having too many other options around me, it keeps my approach more groove oriented. In fact, I've gone to sessions and been onstage with just a bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, and one little cymbal that could act as a ride and a crash combined, because to me that's what my drumming comes down to really.
I always had a problem having a second mounted tom-tom, because it never allowed me to place my ride cymbal exactly where I wanted it. I had to put my cymbal up higher and further to the right of the drum, and that's not where I like to play my ride cymbal. So by not having that tom-tom there, I actually get to have my ride cymbal in the most comfortable place for me to play it.
I also don't feel the need to play fills with lots of drums. I don't put down those who do it, but a couple of extra tom-toms tuned to various notes just don't do that much for me. I think it sounds great when other people do it, but I don't like the sound so much that I want to crowd my drumset with more toms. I like what happens to me when I play a real basic drumkit, because it alters my approach, as it would any drummer. You have to work within limitations, and when you put governors around yourself, trying to extract the most out of a little is a big challenge. Pop music is the same three or four chords over and over again, and the challenge is to find a new way to play those three or four chords and get something new out of it. It's the same idea with getting the most out of a little drumset as opposed to having lots of drums.
Also, I might add, in the studio, engineers get off on a small drumkit immensely, because it's a much more easily controlled sound. There's less spill into other microphones. It's a tighter drum sound and much easier to work with.
I play a Yamaha kit. I have a 24" bass drum for a big sound--I have a very, very heavy foot. A big part of my sound is the bass drum. I have an 8 x 12 tom-tom mounted on the bass drum, and I have a 16 x 16 floor tom. I also have a 9 x 13 tom-tom, which I will sometimes use in place of the 8 x 12, depending on what I'm doing. Generally I lean towards the 8 x 12, because I get a high note from it. If I'm only going to have two drums, I like a big difference in pitch, so I've got high and real low. I have the Recording series, and I also have the same kit in the Tour series. I have a Yamaha snare drum, which is 5 1/2 x 14. I've never been able to play snare drums deeper than the regular depth of 5 1/2". When I play live, I tune the snare drum real tight, and 99% of the time, every time I hit it, it's a rimshot, because it gives me a lot more volume and cuts through anything. With a deeper drum, I seem to lose that real sharp crack that I can get out of a 5 1/2" drum, which is a very fast response and very piercing. With a deeper drum, I tend to get a mushier sound.
I use Remo white-frosted Ambassador drumheads, top and bottom. The bass drum has a blanket inside, folded up neatly, and the front head has a hole cut out about a foot in diameter in order that microphones can be placed in front of the drum. Those Remo heads are very important to my sound. I've played on lots of strange drumkits because I rarely get to take my own. So I always take a case full of Remo heads to wherever I'm going in the world, put them on whatever drums I'm recording with, and I always sound like me. I've used those heads on anything I've ever been on, and a lot of people think they can recognize me on a record. They feel strongly that they know it's my sound when they hear it. I'm sure the heads have something to do with it. I get a very warm, thick sound from those heads and I won't play any others.
I tune my snare drum tight for a high-pitched crack. It's not tuned to any kind of note. In fact, if you hit the drum softly, it won't sound very good, but if you hit it at the volume I hit it at, it works on stage. In the studio, I tune it way down and usually put a little piece of tape or a little Kleenex or something on the side just to take some of the ring out.
With the toms, I tune both sides identically, so that if I hit the top of the drum or the bottom, it's the exact same pitch. There would be no right or wrong side to hit--they're tuned the same. I tune the floor tom to the lowest possible note before the sound starts to distort and buzz from being too loose. With the mounted tom-tom, I will look for the note that will ring the longest. I like the toms to resonate for the full life of the drum. So I find the note that will ring the longest on the high tom. That's usually not its lowest note and certainly not its highest note. It's the place where the note seems to go on for the longest amount of time. I don't put any muffling on the tom-toms. I like them to be very natural and have their own decay.
The bass drum is not tuned to anything. The head is very flat. There's no pitch at all because I have a blanket inside. So I tune it down as low as I can before the head actually starts to wrinkle, and I'll go up half a turn on each lug to take it out of that area.
I guess you can say, in the toms I look for a note that has a life to it and a ring and a decay. The bass drum and the snare drum are noteless--it's a "thump" and a "crack." I want a "thump" that hits me in my gut. Hopefully, people fall over if they walk in front of the bass drum when I hit it--their knees crack or demolecularize. The snare drum is tuned to kill many decibels of your hearing ability if you happen to come into the room without protection over your ears.
The cymbals are Zildjians. I use one 20" ride cymbal. I have a K., and I also have an A.--I switch back and forth. I use two crash cymbals: one over the little tom and one over the floor tom. Those two cymbals could be any combination of 16", 17", and 18", depending on the music I'm playing. The hi-hat cymbals are the smallest that Zildjian makes--they're 13" New Beats. All of my cymbals are high pitched. The crashes are all bright, very high ended and die away very quickly--a quick explosion and it's gone. The hi-hats are so small that I get a very high-pitched "tick." The ride cymbal is also high pitched. I like to get a "ping" that is distinct so that each beat is distinguished. I find that with a lot of cymbals, if I start riding them, they just turn into a big wash. Something else I should add is that I don't use the ride cymbal a lot because there's so much more definition in the hi-hat as far as keeping a rhythm section locked into something. The hi-hat is much more deliberate. If I do play the ride cymbal, I very rarely play in the middle or on the edge. I always play on the bell, because the bell cuts through.
For sticks I use Regal 5A wooden tip because I think that wood is more natural than nylon. When I 'm playing the snare drum, I play with the back end of the stick, because it makes it fatter and bigger. I feel I'm getting more of the meat of the stick into the drum, and if you ever watch me play, you'll see that I'm often flipping the sticks; it's become a completely involuntary action now. I use the proper end of the stick on the hi-hat, but when I go back to the cymbal, I usually use the back end of the stick because I get more volume out of the bell using the back end. So if you see me play, you'll often see the stick being flipped around depending on whether I'm coming back to the hi-hat or going up to the cymbal. When I play matched grip, I tend to use the back end of the stick also. If I'm playing my left hand in a legitimate grip, then I use the proper end of the stick on the drum.
There's a mentality that's woven through all that I've talked about, and that is that there's nothing in the middle in my drumset. It's either super low or super high--super bottom or super top. Everything cuts through the band. The bass drum and the floor tom are like volcanos. The high tom is high, like a timbale. It cuts. The snare drum is a high-pitched crack, and all my cymbals are high, quick explosions. The hi-hat has definition, just by the nature of it. And when I play the ride cymbal, it's on the bell because the bell has more punch to it. So there is an attitude here that shows through the whole drumkit, and that is that every note on the kit is designed to have an impact. There's no middle-of-the-road in the drumset."
Making it Work For You
Andy sums up quite clearly, outlining a concept of sound and set up that is an expression of his attitude. Remember that individual expression should also weigh into making choices that work for you. Andy comes from a background of funk-influenced rock drumming, often working in an environment of electric instruments, heavy amplification and large venues. His choices make sense for expressing himself comfortably in that environment. You needn't imitate Andy to successfully develop a sound concept of your own.
Consider another point-of-view. When asked in the April 2003 issue of MODERN DRUMMER how he selects cymbals that work well with small groups but still cut through a larger orchestra, jazz drumming great Jeff Hamilton responded, "The ride cymbal blends well with either large or small groups without being 'ping-like.' I'm not a fan of cymbals that cut through the band. After all, we're supposed to be playing music with other musicians, not 'cutting through' them." Certainly that makes a lot of sense as well, and illustrates that Jeff has a sound conception quite different than Andy's. Keep in mind however, Jeff, in contrast to Andy, works in an acoustic music environment that includes very soft dynamics levels as well as louder ones, generally without much extra amplification.