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Recreating The Drum Sounds of “When the Levee Breaks”
If you’ve ever been in a conversation about iconic drum sounds, surely at some point you found yourself on the topic of John Bonham and Led Zeppelin. For decades, Bonham has been acclaimed as one of the best drummers in rock music and musicians all over the globe have been trying to recreate the feel and tone of his performances. This drum tone was the result of a combination of several key elements; amazing playing, beautiful drums, a great live room and some studio magic.
I’m sure you’ve all heard stories of how Zeppelin recorded. They would go hide out for months at a time at the Headley Grange mansion in England. In the late 1960s and early 70s, Headley Grange hosted a handful of artists including Bad Company, Genesis, Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton and many more. The mansion was a way for bands to get away from the everyday hassles of the real world and really “live” the music while recording an album. The mansion also comprised of countless rooms, cavernous hallways and echoing acoustics, making it ideal to shape any type of tone from up close and personal to larger than life.
One of Bonham’s most iconic performances was on “When the Levee Breaks” off of Led Zeppelin IV. It’s a slow and swampy sounding groove that sounds larger than life. It's nothing flashy, just pure feel and mojo. The drum take was recorded at Headley Grange in December of 1970 by engineer Andy Johns and producer Jimmy Page. The guitar line was something that Page had been working with for quite some time, but never really had any life until Bonzo added his drum parts.
We recently set out to recreate the drum sounds on “When the Levee Breaks” with help from two Q2 Audio Compex F765 500 series modules, a pair of Beyerdynamic M160 microphones and some additional gear. Check out the video below to see how we did and continue reading as we go in-depth on the history and set-up of this classic song.
The History Behind The Sound
When Zeppelin went to start recording, the band was put in the main room while the drums were set up in the main hallway, which was a three-story hall with a grand staircase going up. John had just got a brand new Ludwig kit from the factory and started working out the groove for the tune, Page heard those fresh drums in the hall and said, “Oh, wait a minute, we gotta do this!”
Johns and Page had the idea to set up a pair of microphones on the second floor of the stairwell to capture the larger than life sound they were hearing. They ended up using a stereo pair of Beyerdynamic M160s which helped give it that resonant but slightly muffled sound.
Since Headley Grange was not a traditional recording studio, a mobile truck had to be brought in to handle all the recording. For the making of this record, Led Zeppelin used the mobile recording studio built for The Rolling Stones just a few years prior.
Back in the truck, Johns compressed those two room mics with a pair of Helios F760s. The compressed drum tone was then sent through Page’s Binson echo unit to help give that ambience and slapback effect. Although I would imagine they used close mics on the kick and snare, it is rumored that the final drum tone on the recording is just a balance of those two compressed M160s run through the Binson. The song was recorded at a faster tempo then slowed down on the tape machine, which helped with the overall lo-fi sound and swampiness of the groove.
I think it’s pretty incredible that they came up with something so unique and iconic with such a simple setup. It really goes to show you it doesn’t take millions of dollars worth of gear to get the job done. All you need is a couple basic studio tools and creative thinking. For the time, the studio equipment might have cost an arm and a leg, but nowadays you can achieve pretty close to the same results in a home studio setup.
Recreating The Drum Tones of “When the Levee Breaks”
We recently started carrying the Q2 F765 500 series modules at Vintage King, which are modern day replicas of the classic Helios F760s used on the original Zeppelin recording. This is what gave us the idea to recreate that classic drum tone, so we grabbed a pair of Beyerdynamic M160s and headed to the 45 Factory to start the recording process.
Since we don’t have a three-story grand stairwell at the studio, we had to get a little creative. The live room is quite small actually, but don’t let anyone ever tell you a small room can’t sound big. With the proper placement of microphones and the right amount of compression and reverb, you could make a closet sound like a concert hall.
I started with some close mics on the kit. For the kick drum, I used a vintage AKG D20 on the inside and a Neumann U47 FET on the outside, both mics were running through a Shadow Hills GAMA preamp followed by an API 550a EQ. I use the inside kick drum mic to enhance the attack of the drum, and the outside mic is to capture the tone and note of the drum.
For the snare, I used a single SM57 on the top head. The mic was run into a Shadow Hills GAMA preamp followed by an API 550a EQ, I also used a touch of compression from the Tree Audio Roots console. On the Zeppelin recording, Bonham is using a snare that has a lot of overtones. The Detroit Custom Drum Company snare I was using doesn’t have too much ring, so we were more focused on the size of the sound rather than nitpicking the specific tone of the drums. It would be hard to match the exact pitch of his snare because as mentioned earlier, the song had been recorded at a faster tempo then slowed down on the tape machine.
For the overheads, I used a pair of Mesanovic Model II ribbon mics in a Blumlein Pattern panned hard left and hard right. They were also run into Shadow Hills GAMA preamps, followed by an UnderTone Audio UnFairchild compressor hitting around -2dB to -3dB of gain reduction.
I then set up a kit crush microphone in omni above the kick drum, using the Flea 47 SuperFET into a Shadow Hills GAMA preamp compressed with a vintage Universal Audio 176-B. This mic adds a lot of excitement to the kick and snare, as well as added dynamics to the cymbals, hi-hat and ride. I also threw up a vintage Neumann KM84 on the hi-hat so I could have a little more control on the attack of the stick.
In the back of the room, I threw up a spaced pair of BeyerDynamic M160s, same microphone model used on the classic recording at the top of the stairwell. I ran these through the Shadow Hills GAMA preamp followed by the Q2 F765 compressors. I was slamming these pretty hard, about -7dB to -10dB of gain reduction, with a fairly heavy ratio, medium attack and release.
The majority of the tone you hear in the final bounce is coming from these two microphones. Once I added these mics into the mix, all of a sudden the track opened up and the room sounded 10 times bigger. The M160s through the Q2 F765s are a perfect combination for adding size to any recording.
Lastly, I left the door to the live room cracked and threw up a microphone in the hallway near the ceiling. I heavily compressed this through a vintage Universal Audio 1176 Rev D. This mic was a great help to add more dimension to the performance, as well as enhance that lo-fi sound that was on the original Zeppelin recording.
Now that all the mics were in place, it was time to dial in the sound. I had our video director Dustin McLaughlin play the drums for a bit as I started getting levels for the close mics. The Sugar Percussion drum kit we have at the studio sounds huge as it is, so before dialing in any room mics I was pretty happy with the tone. Once I began bringing in those M160s, the hair on my arms started to stand up. I’ve done a lot of recording in this room on multiple genres of music, but never heard the drums sound like this. The two M160s alone in this setup took the kit from being in a relatively small, pretty acoustically dead live room, to sounding like we were in Headley Grange.
Once I got everything dialed in, I went into the live room to record the drums for this example. I cut the track without headphones on, so in the live room the drums were sounding great, but not as big as I was used to hearing a couple minutes before in the control room. When I went back in to listen to the playback, I felt like a drum god hearing such a huge tone. I think regardless of what style of music I’m working on, I’ll always be throwing a pair of M160s in the back of the room just in case I need to make the track larger than life in any section.
For the video example, I ended up doing multiple bounces of the audio so you hear what each layer is doing. For the first example, I bounced the close mics on the kit so you can hear what those sound like in the room. I also did a bounce of just the overheads, kit crush, room and hallway mics so you can hear how much life and ambience they are adding to the close mics.
Remember, no additional reverb was added to those bounces, just the raw sound of the room and compression. I then did a bounce with a combination of all the mics, but no added effects or overall EQ. This will give you an example of how to make a smaller room sound bigger just using compression.
Lastly, I did a bounce where I added some EQ, delay and reverb to try and match the original recording as close as possible. As mentioned earlier, the pitch of the drums isn’t exact, but I think the overall ambience and vibe is there.
Looking for that larger than life classic rock drum tone? You can pick up a Q2 F765-500 at Vintage King for only $1,025. A pair of these bad boys would be a great addition to any studio that is serious about drum recording. Of all the compressors I’ve used over the years, the F765 definitely has a unique sound to it.
If you'd like to know more about the gear mentioned in this blog or have a question about another type of sound you'd like to achieve, please reach out to one of our Audio Consultants via email or by phone at 888.653.1184.