Roger Hawkins is one of my all time favorite drummers.
When I think about him I think of three things: pocket, tone and Aretha!
“Sweet Sweet Baby” from “Lady Soul” is a favorite example of his deeply funky feel and unique way of driving the band.
A defining characteristic of Roger’s approach are the subtle variations he adds into his groove.
The first example is the repeating theme of opening his hi hat on the “and” of “3”.
Another is"2 -and - a "pattern on the hi hat.
A non repeating and more sparingly used idea is thesnare buzz on the "+" or "a" of beat 4.
He drives the band with his simple 8th note bass drum pattern and occasionally adds in variations to the shape of the song. Here is a transcription of the first Verse, Pre Chorus and Chorus of “Sweet Sweet Baby.”
Roger Hawkins drums when recorded by Tom Dowd are my favorite recorded drum sound. I asked my friend and recording engineer Jeff Yurek for his thoughts on this recording.
Jeff Yurek - My initial thoughts listening to the record were that the drums were recorded using a very minimalist technique. Most likely they’re using great, classic mics (that will cost many thousands of dollars today) in a great room (Atlantic Studios on Broadway in NYC). In terms of technique, I thought probably two mics, possibly a ribbon mic overhead, placed very low (by today’s standards) and definitely a spot mic on the kick drum.
The sound is all about the tuning of the drums, a very sparse drum set. Most importantly, it’s Roger’s touch. You simply cannot achieve this sound with the hard hitting hi-hat technique commonly employed by modern drummers. You can just feel how low the overhead mic is and it’s not something we do a lot of today. It’s this low mic that’s just kind of near everything, probably closest to the snare side of the kit and capturing all the drums ringing in sympathy with each other, all this kind of glue and vibe in between the notes.
When you have someone who can play the hats/cymbals with such light touch and hit the drums appropriately hard that’s all it takes.
In terms of post-processing all I really hear is a bit of EMT plate verb added in varying amounts on different songs. I don’t think there is a significant amount of compression (for context The Beatles were in the middle of popularizing super compressed drums right at about the same time- Sgt. Peppers was release at almost the same time). Compressors were not numerous in studios. Even if you wanted to compress the drums, you’ve most likely only got one comp and you’re recording the whole band live, so you’re going to use it on Aretha to keep her huge dynamic range in check. Keep in mind also that they’re recording to tape which does compress transients depending on how hard you push it so it’s not like zero compression the way it would be today if you just ran two mics into a ProTools LE rig.
Mic choice (ribbon mics also naturally compress transients, see below), placement and maybe a bit of EQ (sounds like some low-end boost on kick for sure) get you everything you need.
You don’t quite see the whole set up in these pictures but you can see that the mic set-up is pretty close to what I described above with the addition of a second overhead on the floor tom side (this is very much like the Glynn Johns approach used on many Stones records from the same period.
As I thought, the snare-side overhead is quite low and it is a ribbon. I believe it’s an RCA77 (http://www.coutant.org/ribbons.html). This type of mic is just amazing for drums. They kind of soften or compress transients and have this wonderful fat midrange quality that is just amazing on snare drums. I cannot tell what he’s got going on on the tom side but it may also be another 77 and of course we cannot see the kick drum spot mic but you can see that there is a stand in the center which is likely holding this mic.
What’s interesting here is that the drums on the record are in mono, usually panned to one side, but Tom Dowd did record stereo information. You are left to wonder how this was captured on the tape machine and when the decision was made to reduce to mono. He had 8 tracks to work with (famously Atlantic had this already since about 1960) so did he record the drums across two tracks with Left & Right overheads (summing the third kick mic across both channels) or simply reduce all three to a single track. It is also possible that he simply did not record the floor-tom side mic or only mixed it in on tunes where Roger played fills.