Video: D'Angelo's Vibey "Voodoo"-Era Drums | What's That Sound?

D'Angelo (2015). Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

For this week's edition of What's That Sound, Noam and Jessica replicate the vibey, airtight drums from D'Angelo's neo-soul magnum opus Voodoo, focusing on album highlight "The Line".

Neo-Soul Drums in the Style of D'Angelo
Neo-Soul Drums in the Style of D'Angelo's "Voodoo"
By Reverb
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The drums on Voodoo are some of the most sampled and imitated sounds in all of neo-soul. Recording for the album took place between 1998 and 1999 at Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios in New York City—it was there during that time that Questlove, James Poyser, and J Dilla worked together and collectively dubbed themselves The Soulquarians.

With Russ Elevado as the engineer, The Soulquarians used vintage studio gear to make them sound like classic recordings from years prior, including the Fender Rhodes Stevie Wonder used during Talking Book and the same Datamix console used by Hendrix himself. D'Angelo saw these artists as his musical ancestors—as he told Time Magazine shortly after the release of the album, "I believe Jimi was there. Jimi, Marvin Gaye, all the folks we were gravitating to. I believe they blessed the project."

The original drums are mono and have lots of saturation, particularly with the snare. This led Noam and Jessica to experiment with a few different drums. Jessica ended up using Yamaha Piccolo Snare for this session since the rimshot matched the pitch most closely. The kick drum is soft, so they went with a Ludwig Vistalite kick with the front head removed and muffled with a blanket. For the hats, they went with Zildjan 14" K-Dark Hi-Hats. As you’ll see in the video, had to experiment with how they played the hi-hats to recreate the short and snappy vibe fully—they ended up swapping out the drumstick for a pencil to recreate the thin, tight attack present on the original take.

Pinning down the proper microphone placement and recording involved research through various message boards. Based on their references, Noam ended up double-mic’ing the kick and snare respectively. For the kick, he uses an AKG D12 on the inside and a Bock Audio iFet on the outside. For the snare, he uses a Shure SM57 for the top to capture the mid-range knock and a AKG 451 on the bottom to capture the low-end. For such as small kit, only one overhead was used for the original recording—so they used a Neumann U-47 set close up to capture more of the drums and less of the room.

For the most part, Noam kept the dynamics natural on the overhead mix to avoid bringing up the hi-hats over the snare. However, a little saturation was used in the mix, along with some filtering of the low-end to clear space for the kick drum. With the mix on the kick, it was important to keep it sounding dark and punctual, so filtering out the high-end was key. Noam also added a multiband expander on the kick track to further boost the low end to add more attack without adding any more high-end.

To make the snare sound fuller, he used EQing and compression for the top layer and brought out the mid-range with a little bit of compression. For extra flam, he applied saturation to the bottom snare and added a noise gate and delay to give it that stylized "clap" sound.

How close did Jessica and Noam get to the original? Check out the full video above and see how they did.

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

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