Video: How to Get the Drum Sound of Nirvana's "Nevermind" | What's That Sound?

Photo of Grohl by Tobby Holzinger / Agentur Spirit. CC BY-SA 3.0.

From the intro flams to the tight chorus fills, Dave Grohl's playing on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" brought in a new era of rock drums. But how they were recorded and mixed were equally important to the sound, with producer Butch Vig and mixer Andy Wallace highlighting all of that power with precision.

How'd these elements combine to create one of the most recognizable drum sounds of the '90s? We asked Rax Trax Recording's Noam Wallenberg and Jessica Burdeaux to help us figure it out.

Drums and Mics

Let's first discuss the drums and microphones. At the time, Grohl played a Tama Grandstar, but we're using a '70s Gretsch, adding the all-important second kick shell to extend the low-end.

Instead of a Tama Bell Brass snare drum like Grohl used, we have a Ludwig Supraphonic Brass, which also has a really strong sound and crack.

There's a few mics on the kick and kick canon: a Beyerdynamic M88 inside the first kick (Nirvana used an AKG D12) pointed toward the beater. The outer kick mic, positioned at the end of the empty shell and about seven feet from the beater, is a Neumann 47 FET.

Hi-hats are captured with a Neumann KM 84. The snare is mic'd with an SM57 on top and an AKG C 451 on the bottom, toms are Sennheiser MD 421s, overheads are AKG C414s, and the room mics we used at Rax Trax were Bill Bradley Mic Shop 47s. (For the Nevermind sessions, Vig used Neumann 87s and the stereo AKG C24 at different times).

Hardware Processors

What's next on the signal chain? A majority of the drum mics in our video are going through Rax's Neve 1073 EQs, except where noted below. Settings include:

  • Kicks: Taking out some at 500Hz, adding 60Hz, adding 10kHz and above
  • Snare: Adding 10kHz, adding 3.5kHz, and a little 100Hz
  • Overheads: Adding a 10kHz shelf
  • Rooms: Pulling down around 300Hz, not with the Neves but with the SSL board
  • Hi-hats: No EQ, but mics are going through API 3124+ preamp

The snare was also treated with an 1176 compressor for extra snap. And—as Noam suspects Nevermind mixer Andy Wallace probably did as well—he uses the SSL's noise gate to clean up some of the cymbal bleed between the snare hits.

Gear Highlights and Budget Alternatives

Room Secrets and Sample Tricks

To Noam, the room mics are one of the most important parts to the overall drum sound. By multing the signal through the SSL, he's actually recording a total of four tracks: a stereo signal without compression and that same stereo signal passing through a Chandler Limited TG1 in Limit mode.

Also, because the drum room at Sound City where Nevermind was made is a lot bigger than Rax Trax's, Noam adjusts for the difference by using Pro Tools' Time Adjuster plugin, pushing back the room mics by 200 samples so that it sounds like they are further away from the drums than they actually are.

Lastly, Noam shares a trick for triggering reverb. Because the overall sound would have been so active, with so much bleed between the mics, mixer Andy Wallace would send a sample of a snare (inaudible in the dry mix) to the reverb instead.

How close did we get to the original? Watch the full video above.

Learn more about how your favorite artists created their signature sounds in our ongoing What's That Sound? series.

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