One of rock music’s most celebrated recording venues wasn’t a studio but a house in Hampshire, and no music has been recorded there for almost 40 years — until now...
It was the Rolling Stones who pioneered the idea that rock bands shouldn’t have to work in recording studios. In 1968, under the guidance of Glyn Johns, they had a control room installed into the back of a van. Featuring a Helios desk built by Dick Swettenham and an eight–track tape machine that was soon upgraded to a 16–track, the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio had a technical spec to rival many dedicated recording venues. As well as capturing the Stones’ notorious Hyde Park concert in 1969, it soon became a popular choice for bands who wanted to make studio–quality recordings away from the studio. Before long, it was to be found parked on long gravel drives all over Europe, in the service of acts such as Deep Purple, Bad Company and Fleetwood Mac.
One long gravel drive in particular would prove significant. A former poorhouse in Hampshire, Headley Grange was a large three–storey stone building with a damp problem and malfunctioning heating. But, as Jethro Tull found, it had the advantage of being relatively affordable and splendidly isolated — qualities which attracted Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page when he, too, decided to step outside the established studio world.
Recording Led Zeppelin with the Rolling Stones Mobile, it was engineer Andy Johns who discovered Headley Grange’s greatest contribution to the history of rock: a large, three–storey hall with a staircase. Johns had drummer John Bonham set up his kit at the base of the stairwell, and miked it from high up with a pair of Beyer M160 hypercardioid ribbon mics. Heavily compressed with an Audio & Design F600 limiter and fed through a delay unit, this setup produced perhaps the most famous drum sound in rock history, on ‘When The Levee Breaks’ from Led Zeppelin IV.
Headley Grange and the stairwell contributed to several other ’70s classics, including Zeppelin’s later ‘Kashmir’, but later in the decade its owners stopped making it available for hire. It has been the best part of 40 years since the thunderous reverberation of a rock drum kit resonated through the Headley hall — until now.
British sample-library developers Spitfire Audio are perhaps best known for their orchestral products, but their latest offering has nary a violin in sight. By hook or by crook, Spitfire have managed to carry out the first recording session to take place at Headley Grange in nearly four decades — and, naturally, they used the opportunity to make a drum library. They’d have been mad not to, really.
However, The Grange is emphatically not an attempt to reanimate the ghost of John Bonham. There are no 26–inch kick drums or Binson Echorecs here. The library is based around the kits and playing of three world–class drummers, but none of them ever worked at Headley Grange in the ’70s. And although engineer Nick Taylor recorded the samples to tape and mixed them in the analogue domain, this was purely because he felt that was the best way to capture the sound (see box). In other words, The Grange is not an exercise in nostalgia. It’s better understood as presenting different interpretations of how you might take advantage of this legendary space in a modern production context.
Spitfire’s powers of persuasion are obviously impressive, because the three drummers they’ve recruited are absolutely pre–eminent in their fields. There can be few alive who’ve never heard Roger Taylor’s work with Queen, while the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith is one of the foremost American rock players in the world and Rick Rubin’s first–choice session drummer. Andy Gangadeen, meanwhile, has done more than anyone to pioneer the integration of live drums into electronic music. From revolutionary work with Lisa Stansfield and Massive Attack to his involvement with current pop acts like Clean Bandit and Gorgon City, he has shown that there is a role for human players in programmed rhythm sections.
The Grange can be bought as a download or on a hard drive, and occupies about 25GB of space once installed. Most of the drum libraries I’m familiar with are packaged as dedicated plug–ins with their own custom interfaces — think BFD, Addictive Drums, Superior Drummer and so on — but The Grange is supplied as a series of libraries for Native Instruments’ Kontakt sampler. If you don’t already have this on your machine, you’ll need to download and install the free Kontakt Player version; all of The Grange’s features are accessible here as well as in the full version of Kontakt.
Spitfire Audio have taken advantage of Kontakt’s scripting utilities to make The Grange as easy to use as possible, with a friendly pop–up help system and some nice graphics, but in all honesty, it’s no substitute for the bespoke approach. I’ve never found Kontakt’s interface very congenial, and despite the attentions of Spitfire’s boffins, it remains dour, grey and festooned with cryptic symbols, many referring to features that aren’t relevant to The Grange. Although the Kontakt interface as a whole can be resized, everything of significance happens in the Multi area, which remains resolutely the same width, and really isn’t big enough for the job. Even the most important controls, such as the buttons that turn on and off the different miking ‘perspectives’, are absolutely titchy.
This being the case, it’s probably a good thing that The Grange isn’t designed to offer the same sort of flexibility as BFD or Superior Drummer. This is not a comprehensive drum instrument, or a blank slate that can be tailored to any possible context. Rather, it presents three very well-recorded drum kits and gives you a few basic controls to adjust the sound. Whereas BFD and so on give you complete flexibility to mix and balance every individual element, what’s on offer here is perhaps more akin to stem mixing.
Each drummer’s kit is represented by a set of Kontakt instruments with the suffixes ‘Easy Tweak’, ‘Mixes’, ‘Kit mics’ and ‘Stereos’. The simplest of these is Mixes, which allows you to set a balance between three preset mixes of the whole kit. Created by Nick Taylor and not further editable, these preset mixes offer ‘tight’, ‘medium’ and ‘epic’ alternatives in the case of Chad Smith and Roger Taylor’s kit, with the ‘epic’ option replaced by ‘super tight’ in the case of Andy Gangadeen.
The Easy Tweak instruments provide a slightly greater level of control. In essence, each of them offers you a balance between four miking ‘perspectives’ on the kit: tight, ground level, first floor and second floor. The tight balance on its own gives you a very nice basic drum sound created from conventional overheads and close mics. Airy and powerful but not conspicuously roomy, it would be very usable in its own right. By enabling one or more of the other layers and juggling the extremely small faders, you can then bring in as much stairwell as you need. All in all, Easy Tweak provides a really nice balance between ease of use and flexibility.
The other two options are designed to be loaded simultaneously, and doing so gives you some additional control. In essence, the ‘Kit mics’ instrument covers all the close-mic samples, while the ‘Stereos’ includes all the overhead and ambient miking options. Again, user control is limited to turning on and off individual instruments or mic pairs and adjusting their level, but for the most part, this is all you need. There’s a surprising amount of sonic variety to be extracted from the same drum kit simply by choosing different types and levels of room sound. On the down side, having to load two separate Kontakt instruments in order to create a complete drum sound is a bit of a pain.
In drum instruments that do aim to be comprehensive, such as BFD and Addictive Drums, you’ll usually find facilities to repitch individual drums and tailor their sustain. There are no such options here, and I could imagine circumstances where they might be missed. The Roger Taylor kit, in particular, sounds quite live and undamped, with a substantial ring (and a nice pitch dive) on the toms. Andy Gangadeen’s toms don’t ring on so long, but do have a very clear musical pitch to them.
So much for how it works: how does it sound? The simple answer is that it sounds fantastic. This is not a generic drum library containing generic drum sounds. Rather, it’s a brilliant recording of three top–flight drummers, and as such, it drips with personality in a way that drum instruments so rarely do. If you work with programmed drums a lot, you wouldn’t really want The Grange to be your only source of sounds. Each of the three kits is readily identifiable in a mix, and the trademark Headley Grange ambience only adds to their strong individual character. Take into account the lack of options for mucking about with individual drum sounds, and it’s inevitable that The Grange won’t be right for every track — but when it is right, it’s very right indeed. In particular, if you’re the kind of songwriter who likes to put up drum tracks to work to, I think these sounds will prove inspiring in a way that very few others can.
If I had to pick one of the three kits to take to a virtual desert island, it would be Chad Smith’s. Solid, punchy and aggressive, it has a classic modern rock sound which will punch its way through the most congested mid–range, leaving fragments of guitar in its wake. Focus on the close mics and overheads, and the sound is tight and muscular; bring in the room mics, and you add an element of sheer size that’s simply not there in conventional drum libraries.
The Roger Taylor kit has an unusual sound which provides a considerable contrast to Chad Smith’s, and although it took me longer to warm to it, I ended up finding it equally useful. The drums themselves seem to have more high and low end, their relatively low tuning complemented by a very crisp and bright attack. And while neither kit offers a comprehensive recreation of its player’s drumming style — how could it? — there are a handful of nice characteristic touches such as cymbal catches and tom ‘granks’ (whatever they are).
The Andy Gangadeen kit is different again, with a leaner, snappier feel to it; if Chad Smith’s kit were an Alsatian and Roger Taylor’s a Rottweiler, this would be a wire–haired terrier of some description. The slightly different miking options in this case reflect the fact that a drier sound is generally more appropriate in styles such as drum & bass — a busy drum part at 160bpm just doesn’t leave space for an epic room sound — but the kit as a whole is very usable in mainstream pop and rock as well as in electronic genres.
Gangadeen’s is also the only one of the three that has been recorded with brushes as well as sticks. Decent sample libraries of brushed kits are quite thin on the ground, so this is a very welcome inclusion, though it should be pointed out that this one is limited to Andy Gangadeen’s rather individual style: there are none of the sweeps and subtle touches you’d find in jazz drumming, and at higher velocity levels, the drums really thump.
All three kits are, I might add, spectacularly well recorded and sampled. Quite how Nick Taylor managed to mic them in so many different ways simultaneously without running into phase problems I don’t know, but in practice, you almost never hit on a combination of miking perspectives that doesn’t work. The stereo presentation is expansive, yet collapses to mono without disasters, and there are more than enough velocity layers and round–robin samples to ensure that even the quickest and dirtiest piece of drum programming can sound natural.
On a side note, though, it’s a pity that copyright issues seem to have prevented Spitfire Audio supplying impulse responses of the Headley Grange stairwell along with the samples. Obviously you wouldn’t need them for the drums that were actually recorded there, but they’d have come in handy if you wanted to blend these drums with other sources and make them sound like they belonged together.
Out of curiosity, I spent an hour or so trying to copy the ‘When The Levee Breaks’ drum sound using The Grange. It was a strange experience: so familiar is the Headley Grange ambience that simply turning up the room mics, adding a lot of compression and bashing out the rhythm produces an instant feeling of recognition. Yet even after much tinkering with vintage delay plug–ins and EQ matching, I couldn’t actually recreate the original at all.
However, to think of that as a failing in The Grange is to spectacularly miss the point. This is not a product aimed at Led Zeppelin obsessives or producers recreating old tracks to get around sample clearance issues. It’s an instrument designed for people who want modern, relevant, powerful and, above all, playable drum sounds for use in today’s music. And although it is nothing like as versatile as a generic drum instrument, such as BFD, what it lacks in flexibility it more than makes up for in personality. Spitfire Audio’s promotional materials for The Grange make repeated use of the word “inspirational”, and I think the results they’ve achieved here justify that claim.
If you are ever going to be truly inspired by a drum sample library, this is the one!
As well as single–hit samples, all three drummers have also contributed a selection of loops, which can be made to follow the host tempo of your DAW if you like. These are loaded into separate Kontakt instruments, available only in Mixes and Easy Tweaks variants. Each instrument contains a number of variations on the same basic rhythm, and in the case of Roger Taylor and Chad Smith, this feels a bit like a token effort; the impression is that they each blasted through a couple of drum takes which were then chopped up, though it’s nice to hear Taylor attacking John Bonham’s part from ‘Immigrant Song’. As a Grange user you’d be lucky to get more than one song out of either, and then only if you wrote that song to the loops.
By contrast, the shelves of the Andy Gangadeen loop library are more richly stocked. There are ‘construction kit’ type selections covering several different musical styles, and a healthy choice of percussion loops into the bargain. Not all of the ‘loops’ actually, you know, loop, but to many that will be part of their charm.
Each instrument in The Grange is included in ‘mapped’ and ‘unmapped’ forms. In the former, each kit piece is pre–assigned to a MIDI note in a way which mostly follows familiar convention: kick on C1, snare on D1, toms on the white notes and hi–hats on the black notes, and so on. You might prefer the alternative if you have a MIDI controller that uses non–standard mappings, but also because each kit piece in The Grange gives you the option of using ‘two–note mapping’, allowing you to play that piece from two keys a tone apart. Turn this on for the snare drum, for example, and you’ll find that both D1 and E1 trigger the snare. This is great for playing fiddly patterns from a MIDI keyboard, but in the default mapping, means that E1 is now triggering two separate sounds. Hence, if two–note triggering is something you’ll use a lot, you might want to create your own custom mapping.
Engineer Nick Taylor calls London’s AIR Edel Studios his home. He has worked with Spitfire Audio founders Sam and Christian on film scores and smaller sampling projects, but The Grange was his first full-scale Spitfire library. “The brief was to approach this as though we were going in and doing an album,” he says, “but I kept it a little wider than that, because I did bear in mind that people want options and some flexibility.
“The main question was: did we want to use tape? I think we all did, but getting a tape machine down there nowadays is not as easy as it used to be! There aren’t as many good working machines as there once were, and Headley Grange isn’t a studio, it’s someone’s house, so we had strict time limitations. We had one working day, nine to five, to set up, and then were back in 9am next morning to record Chad Smith’s kit. So it was a bit seat-of-the-pants to set up the machine in that time, but we’re all fans of tape, and if you’re going to get the benefit on any instrument then drums are the one where it’s worth going the extra mile for.
“The good thing about that was that it restricted the number of tracks we used — if I was recording for a band, I’d try to keep the number of mics to a minimum. So straight away we were limited to 24 tracks, which was more than enough.”
After the initial day’s setup, Chad Smith and then Roger Taylor each came in for a single day’s recording. “Chad’s kit was a nice one to do first,” says Nick, “because it’s a Pearl Reference kit, which I’ve recorded quite a lot, and it sounded great. I went through it with his drum techs for about three hours on the setup day, and then we spent another couple of hours tweaking it, once we’d heard it through the mics. They know what he wants, and he didn’t change it at all.
“It was very much left up to each drummer what to do with the tuning. It was pretty much ‘Get it sounding how you want it, and we’ll record it.’ We didn’t change the tuning apart from tweaking the snare. We had each drummer for one day, so there wasn’t a lot of slack if things went wrong. We’d do a couple of hours and then take a break, and do that three times.
When it came to microphone choice, Nick says: “My approach was to use as few [FET] condensers as possible, really. I tried to use as many dynamics, ribbons and valve mics as possible. It’s not really a retro thing: it’s because they sound better with hard-hitting drummers. The Headley Grange stairwell sounds amazing, but it’s quite harsh-sounding and unpleasant if you’re actually standing in the same room as someone playing. There’s a lot of hard surfaces. And I think using ribbon mics and tape really helped with that.
“We didn’t go in wanting to create a drum sound that slavishly followed the classic sounds that have come out of Headley Grange. Obviously the room sounds as it does, and you want to capture that, but I also wanted people to be able to get a more contemporary sound as well, should they want to. I did a bit of research into what Andy Johns had done when he recorded Led Zeppelin, but it’s quite hard to find out exactly what he did. I know he used two Beyer M160s [hypercardioid ribbon mics], and we did that as well. On the ground floor I had spot mics, overheads and two Neumann U47s as room mics, six feet in front of the kit in a spaced omni configuration. On the first-floor landing I had the Beyer M160s, and on the top floor, I tried out a few different things for different drummers: a Royer SF24 stereo active ribbon, AKG C12s in omni, and Royer 122Vs.”
Taylor’s close mics were the classic Neumann FET 47 outside the kick and a Telefunken M82 inside, while snares were miked with a Shure Beta 58 and Beyer M201 on top and AKG C414 underneath. Neumann U87s and Telefunken M81s were used on toms. Two stereo overhead configurations were recorded, both using ribbon mics: a ‘Glyn Johns’ type arrangement with Royer R121s and a more conventional spaced pair of Coles 4038s.
“Chad’s got a pretty conventional kit setup, and I decided not to use tracks 1 and 24 because we didn’t really need them, and I didn’t really want to use them as tracks 1 and 24 on a tape machine tend not to sound as good. Roger Taylor’s is not a conventional setup and at first I was a little bit taken aback by it, but he was really determined that’s how he wanted it tuned, and when we mixed it, I realised that it really works, and made a great contrast to Chad’s kit. They all had drum techs, but he was the most involved in the tuning of his kit. He also used the most modern kit, a DW. As Roger has more toms we did end up using all 24 tracks of tape with him.”
By contrast, Andy Gangadeen — arguably the most ‘modern’ of the trio in terms of his drumming style — chose to record with a vintage Ludwig kit. “I’d already mixed the Chad and Roger stuff by the time we recorded Andy,” says Nick, “but I tried to keep the miking as consistent as possible.”
In the finest Rolling Stones Mobile tradition, Nick and the team (Spitfire’s Stanley Gabriel and assistant engineer Brett Cox) were working in a Red TX truck parked outside the house, but the Studer 24-track and several racks of preamps were positioned inside, in a small lounge adjoining the stairwell. “There was a lot to do on that first day!” laughs Nick. “Working on tape even in the studio nowadays is a massive faff, and to do it on location was pretty stressful. We had 24 Neve preamps — a mixture of 1073s and 1081s — set up next to the tape machines. We didn’t use any compression or EQ at the recording stage except for some filters on the tom mics. Chad Smith is the heaviest drummer I’ve ever recorded, and I actually had to put attenuators between the mics and the Neves.”
The challenge of recording endless single hits is different from what is usually required of a drummer, but all three took it in their stride. “The main skill I’d say it takes is patience, really!” says Nick. All involved felt that it was more important to capture samples that represented each drummer’s real-world sound and techniques, rather than attempting to cover a huge range of dynamics and articulations that the three would never actually use in practice. “There’s something about the space at Headley,” adds Nick, “which means that heavier playing really sets it off and really gets the most out of the sound. I noticed that the heavy, slower grooves were the ones which instantly made us all smile. They just sounded brilliant in that stairwell. It definitely makes sense that ‘When The Levee Breaks’ is, arguably, what Headley is best known for and Chad is, without doubt, the most ‘Bonham’ of the three drummers.”
Recording the entire sample library to tape for mixing later would have been prohibitively expensive in tape costs, and in any case, the team were initially unsure whether recording to tape would prove the best option. With this in mind, they used the Studer machine as an in-line effects processor, recording directly from its repro head into Pro Tools at 24-bit, 96kHz. At the same time, a clean digital feed was recorded directly from the preamps. This arrangement allowed the same four reels of tape to be used repeatedly.
“We weren’t sure if the tape was going to get used when we started,” says Nick, “but we could A/B the clean digital signal and the post-tape recording at the touch of a button. The first thing we heard was Chad just playing, and it instantly sounded really, really good. I was quite surprised at how much difference the tape made. We were running it at 320nWb/m, which is 2dB hotter than standard Dolby; it was going into the red at times, but I didn’t want it to start sounding crunchy. We just kept Pro Tools running, and every 15 minutes, we’d stop and rewind the tape.”
Following the recording session, the samples were prepared by Spitfire’s engineers prior to being mixed by Nick. “They’d cut it up and return it to me to mix. It was quite nice to realise that tape isn’t quite as noisy as you’d think! I think they did some minimal RX on it, but noise really wasn’t a problem.
“I started by getting a good balance from the loops and then printed the loops for the ‘tight’ mix. I then kept the balance pretty much the same whilst running the single hits through them. I then repeated the process for the ‘Mid’ mix and, finally, the ‘Epic’. For each mix I’d have my balance on the desk and the stereo A bus would equal that mix. In addition, my individual mics were feeding group sends which were, in turn, making up the stem mixes — ‘Easy Tweak’ as they are called within the software. This means that my combined room mics for each floor were stemmed off such that, when added to my ‘close mix’, it’s possible to easily tweak the room sound for each floor: ground floor, first floor and top landing.
“The stereo A bus went through a [Inward Connections] VacRac, and I had Manley Vari–Mu compressors on the individual stems, but not much. The idea was to make it as dynamic as possible but make it sound as good as possible straight out of the box. There certainly wasn’t as much compression as I’d put on a record. I did EQ on the desk but didn’t need to use any plug-ins. I didn’t really need to brighten stuff because it’s such a bright room.
“It took about three days to mix because there was so much stuff, but in terms of how I approached it it was quite simple and conventional. They were like monitor mixes, in the best possible way! Also, extra time was taken as I wanted to approach each mix completely from scratch, rather than simply use the same basic balance and then add in the room and landing mics in order to make the roomier mixes. I also wanted to keep it all on the desk and not do any mixing ‘in the box’. It’s more suited to my way of working and, I think, also better suited to this type of project. It does take a little longer, but I do believe that there is a tangible difference in the end result.”
- Three very characterful and playable drum kits, beautifully recorded and sampled.
- Unique Headley Grange ambience.
- Not as slick and user–friendly as instruments that use bespoke plug–in interfaces.
- There are circumstances where you might want more control than is available here.
- The Roger Taylor and Chad Smith loop libraries are quite perfunctory.
The Grange sounds great and, above all, supplies the ingredient that is missing from many drum instruments: personality.