Ash Soan has the sort of career that most drummers dream of. From recording drums for A-list musicians and producers, to sharing his journey as an engineer from his instantly-recognisable Windmill studio, the last decade has seen Ash harness the power of social media to build himself a large and loyal fanbase.
As well as his inventive playing and dedication to perfecting the art of groove, Ash’s followers tune-in to watch and listen to his studio tinkering, as he showcases the results of engineering and mixing the drum sounds - which range from straight-up pop to processed and experimental - via Instagram.
A key ingredient in Ash’s sound are his snare drums, which largely jump between a fat, heavily-muted sound, and a contrasting cranked, 12”x7” purpleheart-shell drum. For 2022, Gretsch has unveiled the Ash Soan Signature Snare Drum, which offers the same dimensions and spec as the snare Ash has been playing on recordings and his Instagram videos for some time.
We caught up with Ash to talk about his day-to-day as a self-recording drummer, social media, and of course, his brand new signature snare.
Your work in The Windmill seems to be going from strength-to-strength, how has it been since the pandemic?
Well, I [drummed on] The Voice for about seven years, and I decided to quit a year before [Covid hit]. Because I wanted to concentrate on my studio, I started to get a few really good sessions. And I thought, 'I've got to sort of give it a go, I've got to give it the benefit of the doubt and sort of invest in time in the studio.' So I left The Voice and I was ready for change. It was great, a really brilliant experience playing on that, a fantastic band.
But it started for me, to become a bit of a job and as far as music is concerned, as close to being a day job as I could possibly think. I just didn't want to be 60 and still playing on The Voice! And I've always done this all my life. I've always taken gamble's and gone for things. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don't.
I invested in the studio and went for it and started to get some good sessions during 2019, all sorts of good stuff happened. And then the pandemic hit. And to be honest with you, I had an incredibly busy year. I'd established my studio before that, producers knew that I could do it. And of course, all of a sudden, that was the only way to get any sort of drums recorded.
I did a movie with Hans Zimmer. I did lots of albums, lots of artists and producers came to me during 2020. So I had, in some respects a very, very good year. Well, the studio certainly did.
Now, interestingly, everybody's a remote recording drummer. At first I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, I've got all these guys [competing] now' that ordinarily would not have even looked at it. They've been so busy on the road, they wouldn't have even cared. But now everybody's doing it. And in the end, actually, I think it's good.
One of the reasons it's good, is that it's actually quite hard to record drums! As people are starting to find out. It's not like, oh, just put 10-15 mics up and it's gonna sound great. I'm 10 years down the line of learning to be an engineer, and I'm still nowhere.
It's taken me a long time to get the confidence of producers that I can send stuff to. I did something recently for The Chemical Brothers. It's totally changed for me now, bigger names are going 'Well, this guy obviously can do it.' And, and now I've got a very unique sort of position really, where I can do it.
I can play and I'm interested in the sound and I know how the technology works, because if you think about it back in the day, lots of drummers didn't care about any of this stuff. Now, younger drummers, most younger musicians actually, seem to be interested in recording, which is fantastic.
It does help your playing in the end because without you start hearing the inconsistencies in your own playing, and it gives you the opportunity to rectify that.
Do you think there’s a generation of players now that have gridded timing almost built-in because of the way music has been produced for the last 20 years?
"There is no question about that. I'm absolutely sure of it. I mean, everyone can seemingly play to a click now. My first big break was Del Amitri, and one of the reasons that I got that job in 1994, was because I could play to a click live, and that's what they wanted.
"Even in the early '90s, it was still quite a new thing. There were lots of drummers that didn't like it. The '80s, came along and destroyed a lot of drummers because they couldn't do it, and then there was still a hangover in the '90s.
I think my generation was the sort of beginning generation of what we're witnessing now, which is everybody can play to a click. What is a fantastically interesting phenomena that's arisen out of that is that now people can't play without one! That's the truth.
You've got to develop your time. Because there's there's all this sort of mythology going on with 'Oh, if you practice to a click your timing is going to be impeccable.'
Well, maybe. But where is it when you take the click away and you've got to count a band in? And actually, the better the band, sometimes the harder it is, because you might be dealing with a bass player, that's very, very good, and they've got their own perspective of where the one is, and it might be a little bit different to yours. Then you've got to go You've got all of that to contend with, and there's no click.
Are you finding that artists and producers are now coming to you with requests specifically for your sound?
"Yeah, with The Chemical Brothers thing, they'd been following me for a while and realised that I'd played on some records that they'd liked and stuff. But often, exactly what you said, someone will come to me and go, 'We really want that sound that you got there'.
"And then they'll actually send me clips of my Instagram and go, 'We want this.' That actually happened very early on. I remember, Paul Jackson Jr. - I played on a track for him quite early on, about sort of five or six years ago and he just sent me a picture of the snare drum, ’I want this snare drum.’ It's very, very specific. You know, it's like, 'Wow!'"
It must be a great feeling having been on a journey of building the studio and learning to create and engineer your own unique drum sounds…
"Yeah, it's fantastic. And this sort of feeling of like, 'Okay, I'm actually doing it, I can do this’. Because this is the thing about about recording, it's all very well being good drummer and maybe having a good drum sound when you tune your drums in the room.
"But then you've got to put microphones on, and straight away, there's a problem. Like, immediately, there's going to be problems. The room is going to be a problem. And you've got to figure that out. There's going to be a phase issue with the microphones, you've got to figure that out.
"Then then you start working on the actual sound, and there's going to be inherent problems with all that. It's a proper, long journey. It’ll be 10 years next year that The Windmill's been around as a studio.
"But I now actually just feel like I'm in that place where when people as heavyweight as the Chemical Brothers go, ‘Oh, can you make it a bit more like Bernard Purdie?’ or whatever sound-wise, that I can. I feel very confident now that I can probably just - given a little bit of time and a little bit of back and forth with someone - I can get the sound."
How important has social media been to you?
"It’s also 10 years that I've been on Instagram. 10 years ago, there were a lot of musicians of my generation that laughed at social media. I'm very, very lucky, my wife tour-managed Imogen Heap. Imogen became a friend of ours, and she came to our wedding and stuff.
"She was, and still is, in some respects, sort of the queen of Twitter with millions of followers. At that time, I think she was one of the most-followed female artists on Twitter. There was no Instagram back then.
"She basically said, 'You should get involved in social media.' I was just like, a cynical old musician, like all my cynical musician friends. 'Well, that's gonna be no good to me.' And she went, 'Well, you're an artist, too. You create, and you make grooves and sounds, why can't you do that?'
"So it was Immy really, that sort of nudged me to get involved. I jumped on Twitter and then eventually jumped on Instagram, and Instagram landed for me perfectly at the time where we built the studio and all I actually wanted to do was just document my progress as an engineer, but also the studio's progress and, it was just like, ‘Okay, this is a good way of kind of keeping a visual/audio reference for what's going on in here.’
"Then here we are 10 years later and people are coming back and going, 'We want that.' The other thing, which I'd never really imagined, is that it would blow-up so much for me on Instagram in particular.
"Now of course I tell every single younger musician that I know, ‘You've got to do this’. Just because, without putting too fine a point on it. There's gonna be said popstar, said super producer sat on their khazi, looking at their phone! It's just what happens!
"If you think that you are beyond that - and this goes out to some of the cynical older musicians that I that I knew that will will remain nameless - but who were sort of like 'Nah, fuck that. Telling people what you're having for lunch?' It's much more than that. Trust me.
"If they think that, for argument's sake, Hans Zimmer doesn't look at social media and isn't influenced by what he sees and hears then they're morons. Because Hans does, I've seen it! I've been in a session with him, and he looks on Facebook, and he looks at musician's playing. Like, ‘Well, there you go.’"
You’ve found a niche with the types of things you post too…
"In the early days with Imogen, I thought, ‘What have I got to offer?’ Even though I'd played on records, and I was a relatively established studio drummer and stuff. But then you just think about it and go, ‘Okay, maybe I have got something.’ Then the studio came along.
"It's like, well, this is what I want to offer people. And you've just got to find out what your niche is in the world as a player. And it might be that you just play brilliant ska drums. You are the man, you've got that feel that's halfway between swung and straight, you've nailed it and you know all the records and you're in a few ska bands. And your thing is ska music. You are the ska drummer on Instagram or whatever you want to be.
"Or you're the wacky dude that's got the calfskin heads, and you've got more stuff on your drums…bells and nuts and chains on your cymbals or whatever it is! Find the thing that is you and and go for it."
Talking of finding your thing, your signature snare drum is certainly ‘your thing’. Can you talk us through the story?
"Well, the story goes, back in 1993 I was playing for Tom Robinson. I lived in London. I lived in Blackheath, which is southeast London, and there's a guy called Gary Noonan who's a dear friend of mine now. I've known Gary over 30 years now, I think. He lived in Gravesend and he's a snare drum manufacturer.
"His response to Brady drums, making those Jarrah wood and really interesting sort of exotic Australian wood snare drums, was to find a wood that was interesting and slightly exotic, and to make a similar type of sound.
"He made a stave drum for me out of purpleheart. To give Gary credit, I'm pretty sure he was the first drum manufacturer in the world to use purpleheart. I'm looking right at it. I've still got it. It's a fantastic drum.
"He made Dave Mattacks one, I think he made maybe about five in total, and I had one of them and certainly Dave did, I don't know where the others went. He made he made a 12"x7" for me, and I think Dave had a 14"x6" or something.
"I loved it, and I used it on a record and I used it on some Del Amitri B-sides when I joined. I used it with Faithless and MJ Cole at the time, it was a brilliant sort of cracky fantastic sounding snare drum. And then I went out on the road with Del Amitri and and I would go back to that snare drum every now and again.
"But my sort of, pop drumming career started taking off and that sound didn't really fit perfectly with vocalists because it's quite an in-your-face sort of sound. So I started developing the fat sound, which everyone knows about too.
"James Morrison, Ronan Keating, Robbie Williams, Adele, it was all a similar type of fatter snare drum sound that I was using. So the purpleheart thing sort of got put on the shelf.
"Then I did an album with Jeff Lorber and I used that snare. It was also around the beginnings of Instagram, and I realised 'Oh, this snare drum really works well on Instagram.' It really sort of pokes out, and it worked well on Jeff Lorber's album. In fact, it was the snare drum that that Paul Jackson Jr. was talking about.
"I started playing it again, people starting to ask about it, lots of people were were intrigued about the sound. I joined Gretsch and they basically made me a prototype version of [what has become] the signature snare in the same 12"x7" dimensions, but this time as a ply drum.
"So Gretsch made me the drum, which I love, and I played it, and at the time there wasn't really any thought of it being a signature snare drum. Then as time’s gone by and I've played it on lots of records now - Julian Lennon, I did an album for Bob Marley, weirdly, which will hopefully be out next year. And I used it on there, I used it on Boss Baby 2. Lots of really cool things.
"It's a sound that's now an absolutely integral part of my soundscape as it were, in The WIndmill. And then Andrew Shreve from Gretsch, about two and-a-bit-years ago, said, we'd like to do a signature snare drum. And here we are, it's coming out!"
What is it about purpleheart that works so well?
"I really like the tonal qualities of purpleheart. If it's open - I did a track with Cory Wong and Ariel Posen, it's called Spare Tire and I used this snare on that and it's open as hell. It just rings like a good 'un, it sounds amazing.
"But also, if you dampen it down, it sounds like a beautiful hip-hop drum, it's got a beautiful tonal quality to it in that sort of Questlove hip-hop kind of way. I love it. It's got brilliant sustain if you want it to ring and it's got a great crack to it, if you want it to be that. So it's a very, very versatile drum."
You chose die-cast hoops too…
"I've just gone over to my '50s drum and it's pretty much the same hoop thickness. On the Broadcaster they've got the call them Woodchopper hoops. I actually quite like them. They're pretty cool. But this is a little bit chunkier. And I'm glad because it you know, it's, it gives it a fantastic sustain as well. So they're lovely, those die-cast hoops.
"On the inside obviously, it's got the Gretsch silver paint. It's got a badge that I've signed with the date on it. It's sort of boyhood dream. You know, I'm 52, and to have a signature drum made for me at this stage of my career, it's quite a surprise, really.
"Arguably, I'm in the autumn of my career. I feel like I've got lots left in me, and I've got some going on tour with Tori Amos next year. There's lots of really fantastic things coming up, I'll be using that snare drum on tour. There's lots of things going on. But for Gretsch to go, 'Let's go with Ash' is really beautiful. It's a sound that is definitely part of my thing."
There seems to have been a shift back towards higher-pitched, cutting snares across multiple genres in the last few years.
"That's one of the things I discussed really, with Gretsch. If you think about signature snare drums, they're still a product. If you put out a 14"x5.5" brass snare drum, or something, there's a lot of people that are going to be happy with that.
It's actually quite brave I think, of Gretsch, to put out something that is quite niche. But I also think it's a it's a really cool sound. It is it is part of my sound, but also people can take that and do what they want with it. There's so many variations of openness, you know, it doesn't have to just be ringing like a timbale, there's, there's all sorts of, of beautifulness in between.
What's your go-to tuning on the signature drum?
"Well, at the moment, I've got it absolutely cranked both sides. So for that particular hip-hop thing that I'm sort of experimenting with it’s a bit drier, with less sustain. So it's got some dampening on it, I try to get as much crack out of it as possible.
"So, right now, it's fully cranked both sides. But I think to get a bit more sustain, I'd detune it a little both sides. I mean, not loads, but that the bottom head, when you crank it so much, eventually you start losing resonance, because it's just so tight.
"Same with the top head. But yeah, that sort of sweet spot of it really sustaining - that track Spare Tire really is the one that I should reference - that is the optimum sort of ringing sound from that drum. That's a little bit detuned, from where I've got it at the moment. But yeah, to get a real 'crack' I'll crank both sides."
Does that level of tension change how you approach playing to get the sound?Oh, definitely a rimshot. You know, centre and rimshot. Then when it's more dampened and slightly - just a quarter turn everywhere down - it's got a bit more sustain, I might come a little bit off-centre to get that proper sort of ringy thing going on.
Does your approach to recording your signature drum differ from your fatter snare sound?
It's overheads. Most of the sound for that when I do those things is coming from my overhead mics. I use Coles  and now seems like everybody does. The reason I bought a set immediately 10 years ago was because I'd seen them on nearly every session I'd ever done. But they're a figure-of-eight pattern, Coles, so you get a lot of room in the mic.
"Some people don't like them because you can't get them to sound very dry. But I've got a trick up my sleeve, which I'm sort of keeping to myself, which means I can make them do that.
"That's the sound that I use. So there's a lot of overheads with that snare drum. You get the crack, and the ring from the overhead from the close mic. Then the overhead gives it the body and the sustain and the sort of width, as it were."
Do you have a target drummer in mind for the snare?
"I want everyone to buy it, obviously! But to get that cracky sound with the potential of having a more sort of ‘90s Steve Jordan sound there isn't really anything elese out there.
"So I think if people like that sound, then hopefully my drum’s worth having. Either an auxiliary snare drum or, you know, some people might use it as a main snare for sure. And I think it's possible. If you play a certain style of music that warrants a drum tuned like that, why not use it as your main snare?
"The actual ultimate would be that someone uses it as a main snare, and bases the sound of their entire drums around that snare drum, and just takes it much further than I have, that would be a wonderful thing to happen."