Skip to main content

QOTSA engineer Eric Valentine: How Dave Grohl recorded drums on No One Knows

Eric Valentine: "The thing that is most striking about Dave Grohl's playing is how consistently he hits the drums."
Eric Valentine: "The thing that is most striking about Dave Grohl's playing is how consistently he hits the drums."

In 2002, frustrated with progress on sessions for Foo Fighters' fourth album, One By One, Dave Grohl took a call from his old friend, Josh Homme, accompanied by an invitation to record drums on Queens of the Stone Age's upcoming album.

Grohl and Foo Fighters took a temporary hiatus - the rest of the band took time to focus on side-projects - while Grohl embarked on the Queens of the Stone Age recording sessions, along with his then-biggest tour as a drummer since Nirvana's untimely end eight years earlier.

The resulting album is nothing short of a masterpiece. Homme's soundtrack to a conceptual drive from LA to Joshua Tree is interspersed with faux radio broadcasts, and most importantly, 14 tracks of unfiltered brilliance. 

 

It remains high on any Grohl fan's list of his classic drum moments (although previous QOTSA drummer Gene Trautman plays on the opening track), displaying a different dimension to his playing while retaining the classic Grohl power, shotgun snare rolls and flams and song-based composition of his parts. 

From the 5/4 jerk of the Mark Lanegan-fronted Hanging Tree to the hypnotic eighth-note push of Go With The Flow to Grohl's partial lifting of Black Flag's Slip it In for the now-iconic drum intro on Song For The Dead (also sung by Lanegan), there's track-after-track for drummers to sink their teeth into.

But the biggest hook comes from the swinging stomp of No One Knows - Grohl accenting the guitar line between the pounding snare and barking open hi-hats. The chorus erupts with Grohl's 16th-note triplet flurries, even throwing in some tricky straight five-stroke rolls against the swung pulse of the song.

20-years on, it's well-known that Grohl undertook the incredible feet of recording the album in two passes as a production choice - first to capture the drum shells, and then again, played verbatim in order to record the cymbals and giving greater flexibility when it came to the mixing stage. 

What we end up with is an almost bone dry drum sound with zero bleed between the metal and mylar. The kick is huge and thumpy, the snare is dead and thick, and the low-tuned toms bite through with attack while blooming with huge dub-like round low end. Meanwhile, the cymbals sparkle on top of the mix without ever getting in the way. No wonder it's considered a classic drum sound.

In this interview from our archive, Songs For The Deaf engineer Eric Valentine talks about working with the drum icon, specifically highlighting the challenges they faced recording the drums and cymbals separately.


Eric Valentine on how Dave Grohl recorded the drums for No One Knows

Was there a particular magic ingredient when recording 'No One Knows'?

"Obviously, like any amazing recording, it's primarily the room and the drummer. One of the standout things for me about [Dave] is how he mimics the length of the guitar notes with the hi-hat open/closed pressure.

"The thing that is most striking about Dave Grohl's playing is how consistently he hits the drums. He plays very hard, which in a lot of cases does not necessarily result in the best drum sound. Because Grohl hits so consistently it is much easier to accommodate the really hard playing. I have heard people speculate that there are samples layered in with the drum recording. There are definitely no samples. Grohl just plays with inhuman consistency."

Where exactly were the drums recorded for the track?

"The drums were recorded in a small isolation booth. It was roughly 8'x12' but not exactly a rectangular shape and the ceiling was quite tall (16'). It was very dead acoustically. It has curtains and cork on the walls and carpet on the floor. The idea was to have a room sound that still sounded very tight, focused, punchy and kind of claustrophobic. I used a pair of Sony C37A microphones for room mics. They were positioned up high - maybe about 12' up. I would just move them around in the room until they both sounded balanced between the kick and the snare and were roughly equal distances from the snare drum."

The drums were recorded separately to the cymbals. How did you practically go about this?

"QOTSA had done it on the previous record and wanted to try that approach again. The advantage of doing this is that it allows a lot more flexibility in how you can mic the drums. This time we actually set-up electronic cymbal pads for Dave to play when doing the initial pass when all of the drums were recorded. Having cymbal pads to hit made it easier for Dave to play the way he normally would and allowed all of us to hear some sort of cymbal sound while everyone was playing. It did sound pretty ridiculous before we replaced the cymbal samples with the real ones.

"After all of the drums were recorded for all of the songs, we set up to record just the cymbals. We set up a dummy snare and toms that were padded to be as quiet as possible for him to hit while playing the cymbals. This way he could simply replay the same drum parts and only have the cymbals be captured by the mics. Overdubbing the cymbals separately is very difficult. Dave Grohl is an extraordinarily positive guy with a seemingly endless reservoir of energy and enthusiasm for playing drums. Even he at one point started to get frustrated with overdubbing the cymbals on 10 plus songs. He got through it and obviously did a great job.

"There is the trade off [with this method]. You can do some cool miking stuff when the cymbals are separated, but you risk having the cymbal sound disconnected from the overall drum performance both sonically and with the feel.I have not chosen to do the totally separate cymbal thing again. I don't think the trade off is worth it."

MusicRadar is the number 1 website for music makers of all kinds, be they guitarists, drummers, keyboard players, djs or producers...

GEAR: We help musicians find the best gear with top-ranking gear round-ups and high- quality, authoritative reviews by a wide team of highly experienced experts. TIPS: We also provide tuition, from bite-sized tips to advanced work-outs and guidance from recognised musicians and stars. STARS: We talk to musicians and stars about their creative processes, and the nuts and bolts of their gear and technique. We give fans an insight into the actual craft of music making that no other music website can.
With contributions from