I got the chance to drop in on Mike Wengren and Disturbed while they were recording Believe, the follow-up to their multi-platinum release The Sickness. I wanted to get inside the head of producer Johnny K who has helped catapult the band the worldwide recognition and success.
Pearl Drums: Johnny, thanks for letting us get an insight on how you recorded the drums for Disturbed’s first two releases. How did you go about recording Mike this time as opposed to The Sickness?
Johnny K: On The Sickness we used Mike’s black maple kit. (This was Mike’s MRX Black Mist kit used for the latter part of Disturbed’s club days and their Ozzfest 2001 tour) We used the box that the bass drum came in as an isolation chamber and put it in front of the kick. We threw a blanket over both to help with the isolation and miked the outside of the bass drum. Since we used the MHX bass drum on this record, we didn’t need to do that.
PD: Which kit did you both decide on for the new record, Believe?
JK: We tried the MHX Mahogany kit but we ended up only using the MHX 22” kick and the same MRX Black Mist toms from the first record. The MHX toms were a bit too dark for this recording. We started with MRX 10”, 12”, 14”, and 16” sizes but ended up adding a 13” and taking out the 10” tom. On The Sickness, we used a 12”, 14” and 16” configuration. Both the top and bottom of the toms were miked.
PD: A 10” drum isn’t really that scary of a drum is it?
JK: (laughs) The 10” wasn’t liked here!
PD: Even though the Black Mist kit had logged in countless hours in clubs, recorded the first CD, and survived a major tour, they were still the perfect choice for recording. That’s pretty amazing!! Let’s talk about choosing the MHX kick for this session.
JK: We EQ’ed it up and sounded good. Some kick drums have too much low end and it can get murky. It’s all about balance and this one was bright enough and still had the bottom end we needed.
PD: You could’ve used the same tricks from the first CD to get Mike’s sound but how did you go about taking it to the next level for the new release? The tracks sound absolutely great!!
JK: Well, some of the sound is automatically improved because now he’s a better player. That’s where a lot of the initial sound comes from. To try and take the drums to the next level we use all of the studio tricks we can, but also try to be more specific about the tunings and sizes. Just having worked with Mike before and knowing how he plays gives you a heads up and how to approach it right off the bat.
PD: How different is his style than other drummers you’ve recorded?
JK: He hits a lot harder than most so it limits which microphones you’re going to use. You have to pick mics that have the ability to handle the sound pressure. He also likes to tune the snare drum head really high, which changes our approach cause you want to get a certain amount of “beef” out of it. When we tried tuning them lower it didn’t fit his style cause he’s used to feeling that tight snare head. He gets his own snare sound by the way he hits the drum. Everyone really has that but I think Mike’s is really identifiable. You can automatically hear Mike’s sound when “Down With The Sickness” or “Stupify” come on the radio.
PD: You’re right. His drum sound is a huge part of the band’s sound. “Down With The Sickness” has a really long drum intro considering it’s a radio cut?
(Mike Wengren walks in the room and takes a seat at the table)
PD: Were you a reluctant to have Mike’s tour kit used as his recording kit? Tour kits are usually subjected to extreme temperature changes not counting regular wear and tear.
JK: I was a bit skeptical about using his Pearl kit in the studio during The Sickness. But we were making the record in Chicago and you can’t really call up The Drum Doctor and say, “Bring over a Gretsch kit or this or that.” Mike said all he wanted to use was Pearl in the studio and we had success with them. I looked at it as we had Mike’s kit already here and turned out great. I’m very proud of those sounds on there. I didn’t give it a second thought when it came time for the next record.
Mike Wengren: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
JK: Mike doesn’t really use your standard studio 5-piece kit. He’s got a very specific setup and I don’t believe in saying “Take this other kit and fit it into your setup.”
PD: I think that happens to a lot of drummers in the studio.
JK: It’s not my philosophy. The performance should always come first and if I can’t make his drumset sound good, then I’m not doing my job. In the beginning, I made my living recording demos with whatever band I could get. I worked with many types of bands but I also liked to use their kits to get experience in different drum sets. The majority of the drum sets I had coming in weren’t Pearl kits and I think that had to do with the drummer’s budgets.
MW: Don’t forget that during the time that we were recording the first record, I wasn’t on the Pearl roster. I had been playing a black Export kit for ten years. Once we received our first advance, I bought the best, top of the line Pearl kit I could get… the MRX Black Mist Masters Custom. (Mike is currently playing an MRX Masters Custom Kit in Cranberry Fade)
JK: There’s something about the sound of a Pearl kit that really suits Mike’s playing. I don’t hear him playing another type kit. There’s an “open sound” about the toms that fit him. If you went in the drum booth now and played the intro to “Down With The Sickness” without the mics and effects on, it sounds like “Down With The Sickness”!
PD: Johnny, are you a drummer?
JK: No, I’m a guitarist but I like to think I can hold down a beat. I wouldn’t consider myself a drummer but I can play some simple beats and tune a kit.
PD: Do you think that’s an area where most drummers are lacking? They may focus 95% of their time on parts but not on how the sound of the kit will fit in the big picture once you throw in the band.
JK: Exactly. Drummers are people who hit things!! (laughs) Tuning is an exercise in patience.
MW: I don’t have patience but I have a tech for that! Just kidding…!
JK: I have a lot of experience in tuning drums for the studio and I like to see how it works together. Once that’s done, you figure out what tunings work with what EQ’s……. but that’s a totally different animal. A lot of times the tuning troubles come from the heads. Sometimes you’ll find a bad head every once and a while. Without tuning drums all the time under the microscope of a studio mic, how would you know you recognize certain problems?
PD: Is there anything else in a drum that you look for before recording?
JK: I like to see the actual workmanship in a drum. Things like how smoothly the tension rods turn… because that will factor into the overall sound. Mike’s tension rods were really nice even though they had been on the road and got beat up.
PD: Which snares are you using for the new recording? MW: The Sensitone 14x5 brass, 14x8 old style maple Pearl Free Floater, and the 14x6.5 maple snare from my Midnight Fade road kit. The brass snare was a lot of the first record.
JK: The 14x6.5 was our favorite because it fit the mood of this record.
PD: Because it had a darker sound?
JK: Not so much darker but more melodic. Obviously we’re not going for a super warm sound because it’s a hard rock/metal record but that maple wood sound helped us out.
PD: Mike, it must be really great to work with a producer that knows your sound inside and out. MW: We believe in The K!! We had done demos with him before we hit it big. We relate on a personal and musical level so there was no contest. When it comes to the studio, he’s the unofficial 5 th member of Disturbed. We’ve had the option to fly out somewhere and use “a big time producer” but we wanted to be home and have that comfort factor. There are some cities that have a lot of “distractions” and we really wanted to focus on putting out a good second record.
JK: Since the success of the Sickness, I’ve done some work in LA and other places but it’s always nice to get back home to my shrine. I love this place. Chicago is a little bit of a shelter from the regular music industry. The atmosphere is a bit more relaxed and laid back.
PD: Thanks to both you guys for taking the time to let us in behind the curtain!
JK: No problem.