Updated: Dec 2, 2021
This may be hard to believe but sometimes recording engineers and producers from back in the “good old days” don’t have the best memories. I cannot imagine why. Early on in my career I was thrilled as I got to engineer for a British producer who had worked with Kiss, and I wanted to know was what was it like, expecting to learn at least something like if The Catman could play in time, The Demon’s bass antics or if The Starchild kept an armadillo in his spandex, but, no. All I got was “I don’t know. All I know is…I was there!” before a punishing day of Italian house music. How the mighty fall.
Fortunately, as an engineer the nerd-dom never stops, and the making of Nirvana’s Nevermind was an obsession for me, especially how the drums were recorded, way before we had instant access to this kind of information on the net. Over time I read snippets of interviews with Bitch Vig on what mics were used for record Nevermind, how it was set up, and I even read someone’s college paper on the topic (top lad!) but as usual - you can’t trust the internet. It turns out nobody quite got it right. I finally found two pictures of the tracking session and you can see what was actually used.
So, here we go - how the drums were recorded and how the kit was miced up on these legendary sessions!
First of all they were tracked in Sound City's Studio A, which is a great sounding room more by accident than design. A former Vox warehouse, the more or less rectangular room with one slanted wall should not have worked, but DID, and became renowned for recording killer drums. If you haven't seen the Sound City documentary, go watch it now! The console also played a big part in the sound, a Neve 8028. It cost $72,000 when new (apparently twice the cost of the studio owners house) and was loaded with Neve 1085 preamps/EQ; there were only five all completely Class A designs made by Mr Neve and this was one of them, and the modules, while all 1073-based actually differed between individual 8028's that were commissioned, using 1073/1084/1085/1088 modules.
Dave used a Tama Artstar II kit for the session, rented from Ross Garfield, credited on tons of records as "The Drum Doctor." It had large shells - 24"x16", 15"x12" rack and 18"x16" floor with a Tama Bell Brass 6.5"x14 snare, which also made an appearance on a lot of other snare-tastic records. I couldn't find any specifics about cymbals but at the time from his touring kit, he usually used the following:
Zildjian 15” A Custom Hi-Hats
Zildjian 18” A Custom Crash
Zildjian 20” A Custom Crash
Zildjian 22” A Custom Ride
So what about the mics?
Starting with the toms, we can see a regular black Sennheiser MD421 about two fingers up from the skin, and a couple of inches in from the hoop on the floor tom. In the second photo, we can see a similar arrangement on the rack tom.
Snare top is a regular SM57, and snare bottom is a 451 both facing from the hat side of the snare at about the same angle, just under 45 degrees.
For the hat, we can see another 451 pointing down, slightly angled outwards towards the edge, and something worth noting is just how FAR Dave Grohl’s hi-hats are from the snare. What a champ. Apparently he had to use a special stand from Sonor to get it that high!
Photo one shows the kick mic stand holding the D12 that went into the kick drum shell, with no front head on the kick itself, and the high quality DIY kick “drum tunnel” made from some butchered drum cases hastily thrown in from of the kick shell, and a packing blanket casually tossed on top. In the “tunnel” itself is a U47 FET in BLACK, pretty rare and cool. For something suggested to be concocted to stop bleed, it’s all pretty sketchy and flimsy!
Overheads are silver AKG 414’s in A/B about 2 feet above each crash, angled slightly down. There is no apparent ride cymbal mic, or KM 84’s visible. Being silver, it’s likely that these 414’s were probably earlier versions which are a little special as they had adapted C12 capsules.
And finally - the mystery of the room mics!
Now, despite every interview or article I’ve saying the room mics were “probably a pair of 87’s” we can see there’s actually a single STEREO AKG C24 low down in front of the kit about 10-15 feet back. Perhaps there was a second pair out of shot, but it doesn't seem likely.
Now we have all the info....all we need is Dave Grohl and we’re good to go!
If you made it this far, I congratulate you on being a true audio engineer nerd like me, and wish you happy recording!
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