The 20 Best Drum Sounds of All Time

Give the Drummer Some...

Words by Paul Sumpter, Thursday 3 Sep 2015


For us, getting the drums on our work right is absolutely central to striking the right vibe for our clients, probably more so than an other instrument. More than ever now, bands and artists are defining themselves by their drum sound, and simply changing the way the same physical pattern ‘sounds’ can have a huge effect on the listener’s perception of the track.

Traditionally, a great drum sound was the product of a great drummer, in a good room, recorded well with solid mic placement. With the advent of drum machines, sampling, convolution techniques, loops, and drum replacement and layering, there are virtually limitless sonic possibilities for the producer to create a really ear-grabbing drum sound. Whether it’s all in a drummer’s touch and feel truly inventive masterful programming or mixing it up in post-production, in no particular order here’s our (non) definitive list of the twenty most iconic drum sounds ever produced.  

1. Led Zeppelin, When the Levee Breaks (1970) from the album Led Zeppelin IV

Quite simply one of the most monstrous drum sounds ever committed to tape, the story of which is the stuff of rock ’n’ roll legend. John Bonham’s unrelenting drum performance was masterminded by engineer Andy Johns by placing Bonham and a brand new Ludwig drum kit at the bottom of a three story stairwell at Headley Grange, with little more than a pair of Beyerdynamic M160 microphones at the top.

The drums were treated through two channels of basic limiting and then fed into Jimmy Page’s Binson Echorec unit for added depth. The slightly muffled, sludgy feel is also a product of the track being recorded at one tempo, then slowed down afterward before Robert Plant put his vocal down (the drums being recorded at the original tempo allowed the limiters to ‘breathe’ in time). When combined withe the Binson, the ‘Levee break’ became famous for that ‘ga-gack’ syncopation. Sonically, the bass drum is surprisingly light (from a pure frequency point of view) considering the monstrous 26” bass drum Bonham was famed for, as a result of the lack of a dedicated kick microphone and the distance of the kit to the ambient mics. As we always say, sometimes the best results are a product of breaking a few rules…


2. David Axelrod, Holy Thursday (1968) from the album Song of Innocence

Recorded at Capitol Studios in LA, engineered by Joe Polito and produced by Axelrod himself, the drums were laid down by veteran studio drummer Earl Palmer (Little Richard, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys). The drums (especially when considering they are panned hard right), manage to retain a phenomenal depth and dynamism to them. Beautifully compressed and EQ’d, every last nuance of the kit performance is abundantly apparent. With a loose, mysterious, and yet celebratory feel, Palmer once said you could always tell a New Orleans drummer the minute you heard him play his bass drum because he’d have that parade beat connotation. The drum solo at 2.20 is a clear highlight and one to rival Joe Morello’s on Dave Brubeck’s Take 5.

In 2000. Palmer was one of the first session musicians to be inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.


3. Clark, Herr Bar (2006) from the album Body Riddle

A truly mind-boggling and insistent drum sound, Herr Bar showcases Chris Clark’s drumming at it’s finest, coated in several layers of pure analogue grit. His original drum performances are sampled, re-triggered and re-ordered to give a heady blend of human groove and programmed stutter edits, buzz rolls, and off-kilter ghost notes. No doubt drawing influence from forebears Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, this hypnotic 6/8 pattern slinks and shifts from one bar to the next in an ever-engaging, changeling of a part. The lack of any solid tangible bass line allows the kick drum and low toms pride of place at the bottom end of the mix. The aggressive and forward sound of the drums are balanced beautifully by the delicate nature of the synths and childlike music-box patterns.

“I’m often inspired by the path of most resistance. Looking for those tiny snippets of error, machines being pushed into areas of behaviour that seem wrong and un-useable, there is real fruit there.”  Clark.


4. The Stone Roses, Fool’s Gold (1989) from the album The Stone Roses

The hypnotic multi-layered groove came to symbolise the sound of Madchester, fusing acid-house tinged dance and indie together. Produced by legend John Leckie and recorded at Sawmill’s in sleepy Cornwall (a studio we ourselves have been lucky to work in), the song itself takes more than a little helping hand from James Brown’s Funky Drummer, which Ian Brown stated the song was written over. Leckie recalls, “we copied the James Brown drum track and made the loop in an [Akai] S1000, sequenced on Cubase. We spent ages tuning that loop, trying to get the right tempo and generally fiddling about, and we quite enjoyed doing that. After that, the challenge was where to put the band on top. Reni would play along, aware that we didn’t want to replace the loop, even though on the final record it’s mixed out in several places to reveal Reni’s playing.”

Reni’s kit was his own custom setup made up of bits and pieces: floor toms painted by John Squire, a Gretsch bass drum, and a Ludwig snare (although on Fools Gold the final take utilised a smaller Noble & Cooley snare, probably to closer mimic the original loop). A fairly standard D12 on the kick (with a Sennheiser 421 for click), SM57 on the snare, AKG 451 on hats set up was applied, fed into the beautiful 82-channel Trident Series 80B console and 24-track Otari MTR90 MkII recorder. The final mix was completed at RAK Studio 3 on an SSL following unsuccessful attempts to mix the track with engineer Paul Schroeder at Battery Studios.


5. Justice, Genesis (2007) from the album †

Justice earned considerable acclaim for their heavy blend of disco, funk and electronica. This track taken from their seminal Cross album, a self-proclaimed disco opera, highlights their signature slammed, cut-up drum sound. The highly processed ‘smeared’ snare drum sound (utilising samples from the ubiquitous Linndrum and DMX machines of the 1980s), comes as a result of several gain stages of distortion and of course, the brutal limiting. The kick however, as with most dance or electronic music is king and cuts through the dense mix via some fairly overt sidechain compression, again taking reference from other French producers such as Daft Punk and Alan Braxe. There was a rumour that a cheap Alesis 3630 compressor was used (the same compressor Daft Punk claimed defined the pumping French House sound on Homework 10 years earlier) all over the Justice album, but the pair insist the album was made entirely ‘in the box’, on GarageBand and Cubase SX on a Mac G5 computer.



6. Professor Longhair, Big Chief (1964)


7. Queens of the Stone Age, No One Knows (2002) from the album Songs For the Deaf

Argued by many (and we don’t disagree) to be the greatest modern rock drum sound, Dave Grohl’s guest drum spot for QOTSA is a masterclass in hard-hitting. The sound is tight, punchy, and forward sounding as a result of the kit being tracked in a small corked, 8 x 12 isolation booth by engineer Eric Valentine, and controversially, the cymbals overdubbed separately. This allows more surgical control over the snare, kick, and toms, with just a pair of high positioned Sony C37As for added subtle room ambiance. Electronic cymbal pads were set up on the initial pass for Grohl to hit as he bullies his way around the kit, and then damped dummy snares and toms added to the actual hardware so he could replay the fills note for note with the minimum of microphone bleed.

Valentine recalled, “One of the standout things for me about [Dave] is how he mimics the length of the guitar notes with the hi-hat open/closed pressure. But the thing that is most striking is how consistently he hits the drums. He plays very hard which, in a lot of cases, does not necessarily result in the best drum sound. But because Grohl hits so consistently it is much easier to accommodate the really hard playing. I have heard people speculate that there are samples layered in with the drum recording. There are definitely no samples. Grohl just plays with inhuman consistency.”

Grohl himself echoes, “Consistency is very important to me. Perfect time, perfect tempo, locked-in perfection doesn’t turn me on. But consistency does. When I play drums in the studio I don’t barrel down on my drums as I do at live gigs. A long time ago I learned a lesson with three microphones and a Fostex cassette 8-track in my bathroom in Seattle. I recorded a drum track and listened back and realized I was bashing my cymbals too hard. I couldn’t really hear the snare. So I did another take and laid off the cymbals a little bit and gave it a little more snare. I did a roll, but I lost that because I didn’t have mics on the toms. So next time I did the roll I laid into the toms more. Basically I learned to equalize or mix myself in the room.”

So there you go….


8. The Winstons, Amen Brother (1969)

This track makes an appearance quite simply for the six and half-second break in the middle, which is very possibly the most sampled drum pattern in music history. Performed by Gregory Coleman, now known simply as the ‘Amen break’, the classic ‘poc’ of the snare has been sampled the world over by the likes of The Prodigy, Shy FX, Mantronix and NWA and almost single-handedly became the blueprint for jungle and drum and bass in the early 90s when it was sped up to tempos in excess of 170bpm. Neither Coleman, nor the song’s copyright owner Richard L. Spencer have ever received any royalties or clearance fees for the use of the sample, nor has either sought royalties. Spencer considers musical works based on the sample to be both “plagiarism” and “flattering”.



9. Herbie Hancock, Sly (1973) from the album Headhunters


10. Marva Whitney, Unwind Yourself (1968)

As James Brown’s timekeeper from 1965 to 1971, the legendary original ‘funky drummer’ Clyde Stubblefield’s recordings with the Godfather of Soul and his female guest vocalists are simply considered to be some of the standard-bearers for funk drumming.

Written by Charles Spurling, Unwind Yourself was originally recorded by Hank Ballard in 1965 and featured a Motown-esque four crotchet snare pattern at a decidedly more pedestrian tempo. When the song was re-recorded by Whitney (who Spurling himself discovered in Kansas) and produced by James Brown, Stubblefield’s break is put front and centre of the track. Highlighting his seminal piccolo snare ghost note work in the opening break, his patterns move into a series of syncopated grooves underneath the vocal, first with a two-bar dotted snare pattern that interrupts the groove by shifting the snare hit half a beat forward from the conventional beat 4 to the ‘and’ of beat three.

This technique of shifting snare hits away from the conventional 2nd and 4th beats, deconstructing pop music’s simple 4/4 rhythms into a thousand different sly syncopations, became synonymous with James Brown’s late sixties output and laid the foundation not only for funk but for most of hip-hop, as well. Unwind Yourself is most commonly heard as sampled on DJ Chad Jackson’s Hear The Drummer Get Wicked.


11. Phil Collins, In the Air Tonight (1981) from the album Face Value

One of the most famous drum fills of all time, this classic 80s gated drum sound as good as served as a kit template for the rest of the decade. Engineer Hugh Padgham and Collins had previously discovered the sound purely as an accident when working on former bandmate Peter Gabriel’s Intruder. They had stumbled across the technique by engaging the reverse talkback circuit on an SSL 4000 desk whilst Collins was still playing. The circuit was designed so that the control room could hear the musicians talking between takes without the need for a separate extra talkback mic. The circuit connected a dedicated room microphone hung from the ceiling in the live space to a compensatory compressor designed to accommodate for the differing distances of the musicians away from the microphone. Overnight, they rewired the board so that the reverse talkback could be recorded via a more traditional routing manner and later models of the SSL 4000 allowed the listen mic to be recorded with the touch of a button.

The rest of the sound is, of course, the result of heavily compressing Collins’ trademark single-headed toms and gating the ambient mics hard (as with When the Levee Breaks, the sound is largely the product of room mics with just a little kick and snare close mic added in for definition). Gating the room mics is a technique that became synonymous with 80s drums, whereby the reverb (or ambiance) is truncated after a set period of time or threshold, producing an unnatural sucking type effect (check out the kit sound on Sussudio for an even more pronounced example of this). This allows big reverbs to be ‘cut short’ and not to clutter up the frequency spectrum, facilitating extra space in the mix. Hence more reverb (in theory) can be applied or retained and the 80s was of course infamous for that drenched big reverb sound. Collins explains, The fact that the drums were in a very live room, when you compress the recording it brings up all the background noise and the echo in a room and makes it just sound much bigger. Then with the gate, you go from something sounding big to nothing, so you get this feeling of massive contrast. That is the whole essence of why the sound was so interesting because it is going from all to nothing in milliseconds.”

This technique would later be developed into what we use now as side-chaining reverbs and send effects (a similar but perhaps more refined practice that allows the reverb or delay tail to be ducked when another sound is present). Within a year of Face Value being released AMS released the RMX16 digital reverb unit which was among the first to feature non-linear electronic room simulations, based on the Phil Collins sound captured in Townhouse Studio 2.


12. Aphex Twin, Vodhosbn (2001) from the album Drukqs 

Richard James (aka Aphex Twin; aka AFX) is one of the most inventive electronic musicians of the last 25 years. His pioneering schizophrenic, buzzing, stuttering blend of techno, ambient music, and hip-hop gave rise to a whole generation of new electronic producers. Setting Brian Eno inspired pads against an audio onslaught of bit-crushed drums became just part of what made Aphex Twin’s signature sound so different.

With a background in electronics, James once quipped he “made music with a machine code”, Aphex Twin was renowned for his use of the notoriously difficult-to-program Roland MC-4 sequencer and the Roland TB-303 for accompanying basslines. This track taken from his pivotal Drukqs album is regarded by some as the pinnacle of his output. His complex drum parts have also since been translated live and performed by the London Sinfonietta and by the Alarm Will Sound collective projects: well worth a sniff.


13. Skrillex feat. Sirah, Bangarang (2011) from the album Bangarang

Skrillex spearheaded the dubstep crossover into the mainstream that was everywhere a few years ago (literally every brief we got for about 18 months had some kind of dubstep reference). In a slight change of tack, the snare drum became the centre of the drum sound, with the kick playing a more supportive role. The snare was almost insatiably compressed, cooked, and slammed and yet retained considerable weight around the 80-160Hz range (often vacated to make room for the kick) which in turn is characterised by a hard, pokey knocking sound with a supporting subtle sub element to it. Bangarang won a Grammy award for Best Dance recording in 2012.



14. Minnie Riperton, Inside My Love (1975) from the album Adventures in Paradise 


15. The Beatles, Come Together (1969) from the album Abbey Road

What always stands Ringo Starr apart from other drummers is the melodic simplicity of his playing and fills: you can almost sing his drum parts. This may in at least some part be explained by the fact Ringo is a left-handed drummer who has always played on an instinctively right-handed kit, so his approach is somewhat unique, even unorthodox. Yet, his phrasing is both beautifully understated and fantastically musical.

Incidentally, when listening to the isolated drum track, it doesn’t sound half as dead as it does on the final master. The kick has a lovely flab to it, but it is the toms that really identify the sound of the drums. Damped to within an inch of their lives via the use of the famous tea towels draped on the kit, this sound became the blueprint for the super-dry, close mic techniques of the early seventies, as used by the likes of the Eagles, The Carpenters and later Steely Dan.

It was the first Beatles album that was recorded in stereo (on an eight instead of four-track) and the additional inputs allowed engineer Geoff Emerick to mic underneath the toms and generally place more mics around the kit. The sound is also in part a result to the softer, rounder sound of the frequency specific compressors and limiters on each channel of Abbey Road’s new transistorised desk: the famed EMI TG12345 (up until that point, all of the Beatles previous albums were recorded on tube REDD consoles).


16. John Scofield, Southern Pacific (1998) from the album A Go Go

An exquisitely executed jazz-funk crossover kit. For us, very elegantly the epitome of a well recorded, flawlessly played, natural sounding drum kit. Just listen to that immaculate ring on the snare. Lovely.


17. Peter, Bjorn & John feat. Victoria Bergsman, Young Folks (2006) from the album Writer’s Block

A definite nod to the late sixties (just breathe in that plate reverb on the guitar), the beautifully nostalgic tone of the recording is underpinned by that cardboard drum sound and the emphatic shaker part the rolls along with it. Sounding like it was recorded in a bedroom with two mics, from the opening tom fill to the even more retro fade-out, 
it’s lo-fi, lazy, small-sounding, but vibey as hell…


18. Michael Jackson, Billie Jean (1983) from the album Thriller

Whilst other artists in the early 80s seemed to be going bigger, flashier, more processed, and more extravagant with their drum sound, for an artist to release something so natural and minimal was a real gamble. Producer Quincy Jones wanted to cut the 29-second introduction (which was the longest one ever created at the time) and yet it is undoubtedly the drum sound that has since gone on to define the record, and all within the first few beats. Jones had earlier instructed engineer Bruce Swedien to create a drum sound no one had heard before.

The pattern itself is about as simple as it gets, kick on beats 1 and 3, snare on 2 and 4. The same pattern has been played thousands of times before and since, but it is perhaps the production that gives the track its inimitable sound, combined with the cabasa part and subtle offbeat accent in the hi-hats.

The drum track, laid down by session drummer Leon Ndugu Chancler in Westlake Audio’s Studio ‘A’, was in fact an overdub. The rest of the music including vocals had been already put down against a drum machine. This is of course a particularly unorthodox way of recording as the drums in most cases very much form the foundation on which other musicians build their parts and feel (ahead, on or behind the beat, etc). This may in part explain the incredibly simple drum pattern, although producer Qunicy Jones suggests the live drums simply copied the drum machine pattern verbatim. The drums were recorded in a handful of takes (Jackson’s lead vocal was famously recorded in one on an SM57, with the BVs sung through a 6-foot cardboard tube)!

The tight, crisp sound was produced by recording the kick, snare, and hats on the principle pass (with minimal ambient microphones used) and then tracking additional toms fills and a solitary crash cymbal at the start of each chorus). Billie Jean’s effortless feel can largely be attributed to the exemplary ‘pocket’ the drums and bassline create. Chancler and bassist Louis Johnson hardly deviate from the pattern at all (aside from a few open hats here and there on the basic drum track).

Sweden’s experimental set-up in response to Jones’s request included a custom made special bass drum cover made out of furniture blanket with a zippered hole for the mic to go through and cinder blocks to hold the drum still. A similar, foot-long wood/mu-metal isolation baffle was placed between the snare mic and the hi-hat mic in order to give much better imaging and mic separation. This helps the soft but tight, succinct sound of the kick and meant no additional gating was needed, maintaining a beautifully natural sound.

Bruce Swedien also relied on a purpose-built drum riser the engineer originally had constructed for recording the previous album’s Rock With You: a braced, eight-foot square plywood platform raised 10 inches off the ground, employed to minimise the transference of low frequencies through the floor to other mics.

Of course the use of the remarkable EQ on the 3232C Harrison console became synonymous with the sound of that record (the famed Harrison 32C is currently our go to EQ in the studio. It’s so musical). Bruce Swedien did an epic 91 mixes of Billie Jean, before Quincy Jones pointed out that he may have over-mixed the song. As is customary it seems whatever the client, the mix that ends up getting used is one of the first ones delivered, before all the changes by a committee: they used mix number two!


19. Ground Hog, Bumpin’ Part One (1974)


20. Bob Marley, Waiting in Vain (1977) from the album Exodus

Right from that initial open snare fill, despite the close gating and tight compression, what is wonderful about this recording is the space in the music and your ability to really hear into the room. Recorded at SARM (then known as Island Studios) in London, drummer Carlton Barrett’s work on Waiting in Vain, is a first class example of the classic reggae drum pattern, with rim shot and kick on beats two and four with the hi-hats emphasising the offbeat, locking with the guitar.

The Marley drum sound often featured the hi-hat much more prominently than a lot of previous reggae records, and the extreme hi-pass filter applied allowed for a smaller, notably crisp, bright, and tight hi-hat sound. What is overall a (relatively) dry drum sound (especially in comparison to the vocals), places the drums very much at the front of the mix, with the neat interplay between the tambourine panned left and the sporadic clave percussion. A fine example of ‘pocket’ playing, with Barrett hardly lifting a finger from the groove dynamic at all, aside for the short bridging section at the end of the chorus before the solo (notice how he fills around the vocal with a short roll, on the fourth beat). Textbook stuff…

What do you think, we missed anything? Have your say on Twitter…

Posted by
Founder & Creative Director

Thursday 3 Sep 2015

Similar Posts