You are here

Manu Katché

Session Drumming & Music Technology By Franck Ernould
Published November 2005

Katché at his drum kit.Katché at his drum kit.Photo: Jean-Baptiste Mondino

He's one of the most famous drummers in the world, having played on more than 200 records. His CV reads like a Who's Who of English, American and French popular music, and even if he prefers not to lose himself in computers, he always takes a Powerbook with him, to write songs, at home or on tour. Meet Manu Katché, drummer extraordinaire.

"Does it make sense to spend several weeks in a recording studio, working on the same album, when you could do it in days? Yes. Is this time spent thinking, going deeper into the music and the performance? Yes. Is this time useful to get to know the artist you're working with better? Yes. Is it time for pure pleasure, to enjoy being there? Yes. Of course, studio hours are very expensive, but all these factors are human. For a musician, it is of utmost importance to know, as closely as possible, the artist's code, the artist's world. Being together almost 24/24, not only in the recording studio, allows us to define the artist's personality more precisely. We joke, we chat, we laugh together, we talk about more or less serious subjects, but in the end, we get into each other's minds; we have a better understanding of why the song exists, why the artist wrote it, and how we can contribute to enhance it. When you have plenty of time, you can try a lot of things: you take a lick here, play it there, everything goes better, you can go back if you're not happy... It's a fact: when you listen, a few years later, to an album made this way, it often doesn't seem old or old-fashioned, because the music has been thought, worked and reworked, conceptualised, deepened. There are good reasons not to hurry!"

The man who speaks has spent most of his life in a recording studio or on tour. He has developed an immediately identifiable drum sound and style, and he has played with the planet's greatest singers and producers. His name: Manu Katché.Manu Katché.Manu Katché.Photo: Jean-Baptiste Mondino

Born in 1958 near Paris, France, Manu Katché studied percussion at the Saint-Maur Conservatoire, then earned a Grand Prix at the Paris Conservatoire; he also played drums, and with a love of jazz, he soon became a busy session drummer. He was perfectly capable of playing in 'standard' ways, but for other projects, he developed his own style, incorporating high-pitched sounds, distinctive syncopation, tiny splash cymbals used as punctuation, tom hits where nobody else plays them, and playing between beats rather than on them. Manu was soon working with the best French singers, and even producing records with his friends Kamil Rustam (guitar) and Jean-Yves d'Angelo (keyboards). The Michel Jonasz album Unis Vers L'Uni (1985) included some number one hits and earned the trio a Victoire de la Musique, the French equivalent of a Grammy.

After this, Manu's phone never stopped ringing, and he eventually joined Peter Gabriel's team for the So album and tour. Sting invited him to play drums on his 1987 Nothing Like The Sun album, and since then, he's been the drummer of choice for both artists, on stage and in the studio. Unlike some drummers, he's never been an enemy of technology: to be able to play back, live in concert, the intricate drum programming on songs like 'Don't Give Up' and 'In Your Eyes', he used a Roland Octapad and an Akai MPC, and triggered pre-produced sounds with contact mics placed on his toms' shells. Since then, Manu has played with, among others, Dire Straits, Tears For Fears, the Christians, Joan Armatrading, Simple Minds, Rick Wright (Pink Floyd) and Joni Mitchell, as well as many French artists such as Laurent Voulzy, Francis Cabrel, Véronique Sanson, Stephan Eicher and Michel Petrucciani. Last year, he could even be seen on French TV, as a jury member for musical reality show La Nouvelle Star.

Uniting Nations

Manu is in a unique position to compare recording styles as they differ across the English Channel. "Beyond the stories about people spending two days just to get a snare or bass drum sound — a situation I never experienced myself — English and American artists know how important it is to spend time together, to get to know each other better and to trust each other. I was raised the French way: when you are in the recording studio, everything must go quickly, there's no money, so you must record four songs a day! So, I developed the ability to understand at once how the song's built: I listen to it once, then I go and I know immediately what to play. The first time I worked with Peter [Gabriel], I installed my drums in the studio, the sound engineer placed his microphones, I played a song, we listened to it... and we had a break! We had tea, we told each other stories, then we played again, the we had dinner — and same thing the following days. In England or in the US, when you record music, you take your time. No wonder resort studios are so busy!

"Sometimes, it's good to record quickly, to favour spontaneity. If you have too much time, you can get lost: you have to find the right attitude. On Peter's last album, Up, we could record five, six or seven long takes in succession — 15 minutes long or more — for the same song. We let things go, we didn't try to be concise, we lacked focus. Peter never trashed anything, he kept it all on the computer, and took some bits here, some bits there... That's a risk with Pro Tools: it's so easy to recombine things, you end up keeping not-so-good material and playing around with it. That's not my favourite production style. I preferred So, it was much more direct. 'Sledgehammer' was recorded in three takes, just before we all went to the airport!"


Manu doesn't have a home studio, as he doesn't want to delve into technology, but he owns a portable setup: an Apple laptop running Logic Pro, a Digidesign M Box interface, a pair of Genelec monitors, a microphone and the necessary cables, all in a suitcase. "That's my musical sketchpad. I take it with me everywhere I go, and in 10 seconds, I'm ready to record. I use a limited sound palette, I don't want to get lost in the plug-in preset lists. I chose some fairly basic sounds I like: piano, bass synth, and simple loops. I don't lose time with loops: I take two bars and that's it. On tour, if I want to work on songs with, say, Dominic Miller [Sting's guitarist], he comes into my hotel room, he listens to my synth gimmick, he has an idea, I record him, and the whole song progresses this way. So I get a better idea of a song's potential, and even if the sounds are not final, they're pretty close. When the music goes, it's essential not to stop the creative flow, to stay simple, not to try something when it's not needed."

On some occasions, 'temp' sounds even end up on the final mix. Manu has written music for several movies, including When Stars Meet The Sea, a movie made in Madagascar by local director Raymond Rajaonarivelo. "It tells the story of a young boy looking for his father on Madagascar, with references to voodoo, marabouts, and so on. I had the idea to use the duduk as the main instrument. I knew a virtuoso duduk player, Levon Minassian. It's a nightmare of a double-reed wind instrument — very old, male and female at the same time, difficult to play and unsample-able. On the demos I used African sounds — some kora samples and other ethnic sounds. When we got into the studio, I transferred my Logic 5 projects onto tape, then Levon came and played over what I already had. The director was there, and was so pleased with the result we ended up using a lot of 'temp' sounds direct from my sketchpad. We redid some guitars, basses and drums, but in the end, working this way allowed us to save time and money.

"I know there are some extraordinary tools, like [Spectrasonics] Stylus, which we used on Sting's most recent record, Sacred Love. I remember that on a song called 'My Beautiful Smile', not included in the international versions of the record, but only in the Japanese version, the producer had programmed the drums with Stylus, and the result was pretty amazing. I recorded my drum parts on the song, then we compared them, and it was really difficult to choose. In the end, we kept Stylus in the intro, then my real drums come in. I told myself that the era of TR808s and RX7s was definitely over!"

On the other side, even the best tool in the world will become boring if used by someone who doesn't know much about music, or lacks experience, or simply has nothing to say. "There are no more accidents, no more risks taken on records, like Janis Joplin did, for example. In music, an imperfection can become a quality: that's precisely what makes good musicians! Industrial, risk-free music produces songs whose lifespan is extremely limited. Listen to the first Police recordings: on some songs the tempo gets faster and faster, that's audible, but nobody cares about that, it didn't keep the songs from being number one! That was Nigel Gray producing — Hugh Padgham would never have left that, he liked to sample with the [AMS] RMX16 to get quantised and aligned beats. Trevor Horn was inflexible about timing too, but if you compare his productions to what we have these days, it was very audacious, miles away from today's 'on the grid' sound."

In The Neighbourhood

Manu KatchéFor his first instrumental solo album, released this September, Manu Katché enjoyed working with a famous producer: Manfred Eicher. Boss of the ECM label since 1969, Eicher has released more than 900 records, and he combines the executive and the artistic aspects of producing. "Manfred has this rare ability: he has a musical intuition to tell him how to combine musicians from different countries, with very different personalities and styles, even having classical performers playing with jazzmen. Nobody else would have had the same ideas, and the results often sound fabulous! He even had the idea of having me play a duet with American pianist Keith Jarrett, but the project was cancelled when Keith fell very ill.

"Manfred chooses the musicians, books the studio, is there during the sessions. He leaves total freedom, many takes, he's open-minded, but he knows perfectly well where he wants to go. He tells us 'This is the good take,' we work together on it, he edits, he mixes, he always listens to what we tell him, but in the end, he's the only decision-maker. On my Neighborhood album, I played with Jan Garbarek [saxophones], Tomasz Stanko [trumpet], Marcin Wasilewski [piano] and Slavomir Kurkiewicz [double bass]. We had two days to record, in Rainbow Studio in Oslo, which is owned and operated by veteran sound engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug. Manfred mixed the album with Jan Erik in one day. That's the rule: most ECM records were made this way."

Some will be surprised by Neighborhood: it doesn't sound like a solo drummer's album! Manu doesn't hit his drums hard, or play tons of drum rolls at lightning speed, or show any displaced virtuosity. Every sound is subtle, and the production is intimate: "I don't consider myself a 'drum monster'. I don't think I've made the instrument develop like Steve Gadd or Peter Erskine did. They have a real musical touch, they changed the idea of drumming itself — it was considered as a percussion instrument, but they made it melodic."

Drum Sound

Since we're talking to one of the most famous drummers in the world, let's take his advice on recording the instrument. When you hear a nice drum sound on a record, where does this come from? The drums? The room? The microphones? The drummer? "There's no rule, actually. The final drum sound may come from a good recording, or may be built at the mixing stage. Let's talk about the drum sound on 'Slave To The Rhythm', a Grace Jones song Trevor Horn produced in 1985. Trevor told me the drummer could not keep the beat, he kept on changing. After a certain number of takes, Trevor chose two bars and looped them. It's the playing which does the trick, there's a hell of a groove. Trevor enhanced the sound at the mixing stage, but even then, it's the way the drummer played that makes the song groove.

At the desk in Ferber Studios, Paris.At the desk in Ferber Studios, Paris.Photo: Jean-Baptiste Mondino

"It all depends on what you want to do with the drum sound. Even today, some sound engineers prefer to damp the drums, like when I began, at the end of the '70s. That was the disco era — Kleenexes on the snare drum and every tom, blankets in the bass drum, low studio ceilings, no acoustic resonance, no ambient mic, overheads over the cymbals. Like the rhythm machine sounds we had! Hugh Padgham came a few years later, and on Peter's third album, he created Phil Collins' drum sound. He opened a door there, and a few years later, drum sounds had become very live and ambient."

It's the drummer who makes the sound in the beginning, and if he doesn't work with the sound engineer, nothing good can happen. "I worked once with one of the greatest producers in the world: Glyn Johns. He produced a Joe Satriani album I played on in 1995. He recorded my drums with only three tube microphones: one in the bass drum, one overhead above the snare drum, miking the charley, the left cymbal and the alto and mid tom, and one microphone above the floor tom, just under the ride cymbal. The sound he got was amazing! But I had to be very careful: with such a setup, the sound engineer is trapped. What he gets on tape is what the drummer played, he can't change the balance.

"With these three microphones, I was back in the '60s, in the best jazz recordings: the drummer has to balance his playing, be subtle, and not smash everything because he suddenly feels like it, as it would overload the microphones. Drumming is a real job! Imagine you have to record a pianist who plays all the bass very loud with his left hand: if you let him play like that, you won't be able to use the tracks, there will always be too much bass. A real musician has to balance his playing, to learn to be measured, to give sound to the microphone. Glyn told me, right at the beginning of these sessions: 'You're a top drummer, you have to master your playing, to tune your drums. There's no reason the sound engineer should have to play with your sound once you've left the studio!' That's pretty logical, and very true!

"In fact, there are two ways to play: in the studio and on stage. In the studio, you have to have discipline, to get control. The microphones are near you, the studio is silent, the slightest sound is audible, so you have to find the right balance. On stage, the conditions are all different, even for the public, and you can free yourself. I remember an interesting experience at a NAMM Show. Yamaha had organised a Drums Night, and all the drummers they endorsed played on stage. Same drums, same microphones, set up the same way, same sound engineer, same sound system. The only thing that changed was the drummer himself. They sent me the DVD they shot during the night, and believe it or not, there were incredible differences from one set to the other — you could tell immediately if it was Erskine or Jordan playing. When the drummer changes, the drums sound different."

Facing The Future

At 47, Manu Katché admits he's an 'old generation' studio musician. He witnessed the shift from analogue to digital and from tape to computer, in the 'pro' domain and in home studios. For him, there's a risk of confusion: "Today, with a laptop, the world of musical creation seems wide open. All these easy-to-use music programs lead people to think anyone can become a producer instantly, and that, as long as you know how to use the tools, you are a master in the domain, and you will produce masterworks. I don't believe this at all, it's a lie. People forget that music cannot be restricted to technical issues to do with computer programs. All this powerful and affordable software and hardware is good news for the music industry, for the home studio sellers and for computer makers, but it's dangerous. It's so easy to get lost in all the menus, the possibilities, the configurations, the setups... I respect people using these modern technologies, but they're alone in front of their computers, they lose perspective, and what they produce is not interesting any more."

So, everything's negative about music and computers? "Not at all! What people like Moby or MoJo create, for example, is very original, pretty sophisticated and well done. You can still find things to criticise, but the fact is these people have been discovered and made it thanks to their personal use of technology: perhaps 15 years ago, they wouldn't have been so successful. The computer and the tools made them develop an artistic sense, and allowed them to create a world they wouldn't have even dreamt of if they had needed real musicians and expensive studio time to build it. I admire this young generation: some of them never get lost, even if they're alone in front of their computers. Now, there's not organic music any more, there's electronic music, and some tunes they make are really incredible.

"It's a question of generation. These young people were born with the Atari, and they use the computer in a 'primary' way. This is really a compliment: they master the digital tools, they know instinctively how to use them, they go directly where they want to, they use the machine only for what they aim. That's amazing! We, the old generation, we learnt music in a different way. We knew analogue multitrackers and consoles; we had to adapt ourselves to digital computer audio workstations, but we kept the reflexes we had from the old days: 'OK, I have this sound, what if I try this effect? No... this one? Finally, what about EQing it?', and the possibilities were not endless. Today, using this kind of approach is the ideal way to get lost among the endless possibilities of a computer software's menus and submenus.

"Another point is that in the recording studio, there were always many people working together at the same time: musicians, recording engineer, producer, arranger... There was lots of talking, a direct contact between human beings, negotiations and compromises had to be made, and in the end, all this was beneficial to the music. All these relationships disappear when you're in front of the screen of your computer. You lose perspective so easily, and nobody's there to tell you you're going in the wrong direction, or to give you good ideas."

A Tune A Day

Manu Katché is also emphatic about the importance of tuning drums. "This doesn't mean a note per drum, even if some percussion instruments, timpani for example, produce recognisable notes, with a precise pitch. Nor does it mean that you will have a fifth interval between, say, the floor tom and the mid tom. The notion of drum tuning is wider: it's about creating 'harmony' between the different sounds. For example, I tend to like high-pitched snare sounds, with plenty of harmonics. So my toms must sound the same way, but with more depth. I won't use plastic transparent skins, like the Diplomat, but the white Ambassador ones, which have much more resonance and harmonics. I tune the snare first, then the other drums. And even if the drum sounds don't have recognisable pitch, I'll make the snare and toms higher or lower according to the song's key."

Manu even tunes his drums according to the artist's personality: "If I play with Peter Gabriel, I tune my drums differently. If it's for my own music, then I'll unstretch the skins and the rattling chains, leave the snare to resonate a little. With Sting, I'll dampen the snare a little more. With Peter, its sound would be rounder. And in a drum kit, every sound is relative to the others: that's why it takes time to tune drums — and that's without even mentioning the mechanical problems we always have to fix... It's very important to give the drummer time to install his drums in the studio, and to feel how it sounds."

Manu has some other advice to give to recording drummers: "Always replace the drum skins before a recording session! In France, this is not a tradition, but it's very important. When I am in the studio, I replace the skins every day. It's like using new balls when you play tennis: with old balls, you can't play well. If the drum skin is 'tired', no matter how you play, the sound's gone. Same thing with the cymbals, ride or crash: playing them hard, temperature differences and travel, like on tour in rock music, sucks their sound out, and when they're too old, they lose harmonics and release, and it's not so bright any more. That's true with modern cymbals, not with old ones, which were made differently."

With all his knowledge, does Manu tell the sound engineer which microphones to use, and where to place them? "Never. The only thing I ask for is 'No noise gate during the recording.' Sometimes, the engineer comes to me and tells me, for example, that my snare drum sound has too many harmonics. I answer 'That's normal, it's my sound, and don't be afraid, you may think, when you listen to it alone, it's too high, but once this sound will blend with the others instruments in the mix, it will go in place.' Usually, I don't know the room, the microphones are different, the listening conditions are different, so I re-tune my drums, and I never record anything final before having listened to a proper balance of what we played, with the others. I trust the sound engineer, if he knows his job he knows what to do and respects the musicians' desires. I have my own sound, my own style, and people call me for that: if they want a Californian sound, they don't call me! So I don't need to ask the sound engineer for that."

Manu Katché: The DVD

It's no surprise that Manu Katché has been asked repeatedly to record sounds and loops for a sample CD-ROM. He has always declined. In 2006, however, he will release a more ambitious project: a DVD video in French, English and Japanese. "There will be a training session, a drummers' game with several levels and pattern puzzles; once you find the solution, you see and hear me playing the patterns. I filmed studio sessions, masterclasses and concerts, there are multi-angle video sequences, there are interviews with artists I have played with [including Sting, Eicher, Gabriel, Jonasz and Voulzy], and sequences shot during the recording of my 1991 solo album. We even filmed a recording session, from beginning to end, with the Neighborhood group: we enter the studio in the morning, we set ourselves up, we record, we discuss... and in the end, we go away with a CD with the rough mix of the song, a Burt Bacharach cover."

When we interviewed him, Manu was right in the middle of recording sessions at the Ferber recording studio in Paris, with Pascal Danaé (voices, guitars) and Laurent Vernerey (bass): it's a personal project (the three men have played in residence for weeks in Tahiti, but have never recorded together), not signed by a label yet, and put together by French sound engineer and producer Jean Lamoot. "That's a personal album, so I feel free to get a different sound. It's like the DVD: I play like I feel, with my instinct, without thinking of a musical format. We aren't doing it to sell it by the million, but to interest people, to make them feel like playing. It's important to remember that music is something you play — it has a game-like dimension. Let's never forget that."