Hal Blaine, one of the most revered and prolific session drummers of all time has died, aged 90. This article originally appeared in 2014 as part of Rhythm's classic drum sounds series.
Some drum sounds transcend the hitting of sticks on skin, or even sound hitting microphone and then vinyl.
The vibrations of Hal Blaine’s drum intro on The Ronettes hit ‘Be My Baby’ are still being felt now, with bands mimicking the drum intro, the production and attitude, all of which emanates from one of the music world’s finest, quirkiest and pioneering of characters.
Without Phil Spector’s eventual free rein to experiment in LA’s Gold Star Studios, culminating in the ‘Wall of Sound’ production, we wouldn’t have had Brian Wilson’s groundbreaking production on Pet Sounds and therefore Sgt Pepper wouldn’t have sounded as it does.
Whilst this is quite well known in music circles, what isn’t so well known is that the echo on Spector’s records wasn’t made electrically. the secret to gold Star’s huge success (search for the list of hits recorded there) was the two 20ft specially-built rooms designed and built by studio partner David Gold.
Gold was an innovator that deserves more recognition – even going as far as building the studio console and an am transmitter so mixes could be checked on nearby stereos.
Of recording the classic track, Blaine recalled “My memories of a Phil Spector session are just the greatest. Not hard, but it took a lot of stamina because Phil did not like to take breaks. Through the years, ‘Be My Baby’ obviously had a major influence on drums and drumming and rock and roll.
"For some reason I really did not remember anything about a drum part that was written out. We may have been rehearsing with a straight backbeat on ‘2’ and ‘4’ the entire song. But, the red light goes on and I counted off and I dropped a stick on the floor!
"All of a sudden I’m not playing on the ‘2’. Playing the ‘4’ with my good hand that’s still working as I’m reaching for another drumstick out of my trap case! When you’re in the studio, if you make a mistake, do it every four or eight bars. It becomes part of the arrangement. So, they seemed to love it and it worked great. Leave it the way it is. We did a number of takes with Phil; 28, 29, something like that. It was an amazing time.”
How we recreated it
We were keen to use as much of our studio space’s natural reverb to recreate ‘Be My Baby’ as possible. The kit was tuned as close to Hal Blaine’s bass drum and snare as possible but, with reverb plastered all over the track, the tuning and type of drum almost becomes irrelevant – although we did opt for quite a dead snare and used a couple of Moongels.
The actual sonics of the room were a little harsher than Studio A’s chambers at Gold Star, meaning the initial hits of the bass drum and snare were a little more defined than on the original. The pure room sound was huge so all of the sound comes from just the two overheads and room mic – the two close mics were fed to an auxiliary plate reverb channel that was pushed quite hard, the mics themselves aren’t in the mix at all.
The most surprising thing when it came to mix the track was how critical the percussion (tambourine, hand claps, shaker/cabasa and castanets) were to the sound – without them, it just doesn’t sound right. I overdubbed the percussion at my studio and fed them to the plate reverb to sit them in sonically.
The mix was quite straightforward in terms of balance as the room mics were effectively the reverb channels too – it was just a case of balancing them against the plate channel. I EQ’d the master channel to dial out some mid-range and make it sound a little more ‘tape’-like.
It’s hard to tell how much of the overall sound of the original is due to all of the musicians playing in that room and so much of it being sent to the echo chambers – getting just the drums to sound like the final product is a sum of all the other instruments being involved too.
Mic: Sontronics DM1B – pointing at the resonant head with a blanket over the bass drum/mic
Preamp: Universal Audio 4710D (valve)
Mic: Sontronics DM1S
Preamp: Universal Audio 4710D (valve)
Sontronics Sigmas used as overheads 15ft away in XY position through a Focusrite 428 and the Sontronics STC-3X in a figure-eight pattern facing the kit as the ambient mic