Tyranny of the snare: the changing status of the drum kit in record production. Matt Brennan #arp13

It stalks the desolate landscape of pop, stamping its jackboot of conformity upon all those who oppose its rules of metrical oppression. Twice in each bar.

The tyranny of the snare’: the changing status of the drum kit in record production. Matt Brennan

[abstract and commentary available on Matt’s blog]

In explaining his move away from radio-oriented pop music, songwriter Nick Lowe once recalled in interview that he had successfully escaped from ‘the tyranny of the snare drum’, a comment which resonated with some musicians presumably because it expressed an uneasiness regarding the drum kit’s gradual move, over the course of decades, from the margins to the centre of pop record production (quoted in Cantwell 2001).

This paper explores the relationship between drum kits, recording equipment, and the users of those technologies to offer a sociological account of how the drum kit moved from a position of conspicuous absence to a position of ‘tyranny’ over other instruments in contemporary recording and mixing practices. It also considers the changing status of the drummer (and drum engineer) in the compositional process given the increasing prominence of the drum kit in the recording and mixing process, and especially in light of the limited authorial role traditionally accorded to drummers in both the songwriting process and copyright law.

I address the questions above by employing social research methods including interviews with drummers, recording engineers, and producers, archival research from consumer and trade publications – and, where applicable, my own experience in the studio as a practicing drummer – describing the process of rock and pop drum performance practice and recording. I therefore build on work by Zagorski-Thomas (2010) on the interaction of recording technology and drum kit performance. However, I will also tie my analysis to theories of ‘phonographic orality’ and authorship (Toynbee 2006) and the social construction of technology (Pinch and Bijsterveld 2003) to focus on how value judgments are made about the drum kit on record. This paper is situated, then, between the conference themes of ‘Creative Practice in the Recording Studio’ and ‘The Development of Recording Technology’.

Finally, I will map my argument onto a broader research project on the drum kit and its history and the development of what I call the “double status” of the drum kit and drummers – their marginalization on the one hand in areas ranging from copyright law to higher education, and their ubiquity on the other as they have provided the rhythmic foundation for Anglo-American popular music over the past century.


  • Cantwell, D. 2001. ‘Nick Lowe: his aim is true’, No Depression 35, September-October, accessed 30 October 2012. http://archives.nodepression.com/2001/09/his-aim-is-true/6/
  • Toynbee, J. 2006. ‘Copyright, the work and phonographic orality in music’, Social and Legal Studies, 15(1), pp. 77–99.
  • Pinch, T. and Bijsterveld, K. 2003. ‘Should One Applaud?: Breaches and Boundaries in the Reception of New Technology in Music’, Technology and Culture 44(3), pp.536-559.
  • Zagorski-Thomas, S. 2010. ‘Real and Unreal Performances: The Interaction of Recording Technology and Rock Drum Kit Performance’, in A. Danielsen (ed.) Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction. Farnham: Ashgate, pp.195-212.

Matt opens, as has become his trademark, with a drummer joke, and he discusses the drummer stereotype. He notes some of the commonly held assumptions behind the construction of ‘musical value’ in musicians that lie behind the stereotype of the drummer as ‘not a real musician’. The quote in the title comes from Nick Lowe, who described the titular tyranny of the snare’s backbeat as an explanation for his move away from pop music.

Matt states that his work is part of a wider study of drums and drummers in context, and that his focus today will be specific to the studio. After Frith and Zagorski-Thomas, he notes that many non-drummers (and non-‘musicians’) make creative decisions in the studio. A properly recorded drumkit, in the context of home studio ubiquity, remains an indicator (when heard in a track) of the involvement of production professionals in a tracking/mixing session.

Drums and their mix prominence are now analysed, mainly from an historical perspective, with relevant literature (including PhD theses) cited. We see a photo of Bix Beiderbeck and hear a [1920s?] audio excerpt that illustrates how blurred the drum transients are in context (e.g. of piano or banjo). He looks at a wide angle studio photo of a bass drum in the context of Hitch’s Happy Harmonists, observing that it was clearly present in the performance but is not audible in the mix – due to technical SPL reasons and cultural performance ones. The use of small numbers of mics in early recordings led to many drum parts in recordings being based entirely on spillage from other instrument mics. We hear Fats Domino’s The Fat Man and the blurred audio image of the kit is clear (or rather, unclear).

Matt now discusses [an area that interests me greatly] the effect of copyright law’s distinction between composition and sound recording, and the way that drumming contributions historically [and, in case law, legally] usually contribute to the latter but not the forming. Issues of timbre, sonority and micro-timing are not recognised in song ownership. Matt notes that many memorable ‘drum parts’ are as much a product of the drum sound [that is, the producer] as they are of the drummer’s technique. We then hear an entertaining audio compilation: When The Levee Breaks; In The Air Tonight; The Way You Make Me Feel; Smells Like Teen Spirit. These are all ‘big drum performances’ but Matt notes that they all come from ‘big drum sounds’. He laments the fact that copyright law does not take account (compositionally) of the contributions these drummers’ performances (and associated production sounds) make to successful recordings.

We hear a Jack White quotation, and White’s position as a songwriter and producer [of drummers] is discussed;

“Technology doesn’t do anything for creativity. Yeah it makes it easier and you get home sooner, but it doesn’t make you more creative. It’s the disease you have to fight in any creative field – ease of use. Technology was heavily distracting everybody. People spent weeks getting the perfect snare or gated reverb sound.”

Matt concludes that the economic and cultural reward systems for artists is hierarchical, with the singer/songwriter figure at the top, and suggests that drummers, while having changes their status, are a long way from making headway in the challenge to traditional music industry power/ownership structures.

There follows an interesting Q&A session, with questions relating to the ubiquity of back beats, production contributions to perception of a drummer’s character, early stereo recordings that showcased drums, the demarcation of producers and drummers [from creative ownership] and the true intent behind the Nick Lowe quote.

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