Recently we sent the owner of Revolver Drums and self confessed drum nerd Conrad Tracey off to sit down with Hilltop Hoods Drummer Leigh Ryan to talk about his approach to gear, touring with the hilltop hoods and keeping it in the pocket.
Can you tell us how long you’ve been with Hilltop Hoods and how the gig came about?
It was later in 2011. We’ve known each other for years and we were label mates for quite a long time. Making hip -hop through the 90’s, I was aware of what they were doing, so we share a lineage of sorts.
I was doing a national tour with Muph and Plutonic, and it was way past our album cycle for that record, we really should have had a new album out. We were just doing some shows and went through Adelaide. They watched the show, I came off stage and was asked the question. It was a no brainer really. It was just good timing.
So the personal relationship played a part?
Yeah, I’d done remixes for them in the past and they championed different music I had made always making and stuff, so we have that kind of relationship.
Having the skills must play an important part?
Yeah, I guess. I mean, my whole thing forever has been producing, and playing drums to production, I guess anytime they’ve seen me live I’ve been drumming over samples and beats.
I think if you’ve got two dudes rapping, like 80 percent of the time on all these tracks, you don’t want someone to diving off on a tangent and smashing shit out. It’s distracting.
With the Hoods, their live set is mastered with all the drums in it. I play what’s there or work around it. I just have to be in the pocket enough to make it work. If there’s space or gaps in the production where there’s room for a cool fill I’ll use that opportunity.
What’s your current live set up wit the Hoods? Are you still playing DW drums?
I was for a while, now I have a hook up with The Drum Cartel in Brisbane, which suits me a little bit more in terms of trying to pick something with a little bit more a vintage edge to it. I’ve been playing Q drums a little bit as well.
I play a 13” rack tom 22” Kick drum and two floor toms either 14”,16” or 16” 18”. I actually prefer the 16” to be the lower tom. The 18” seems a little too large and the 16” seems to translate better when it’s micd up. Snare wise I'm currently playing a 14” x 5” Blackbird snare, which is built in Chicago to a Vintage spec. It’s a 3ply drum sort of like a Ludwig I guess.
How does your live set up vary from the drums and approach you would use at home in the studio?
Yeah I think tuning is the big part of the difference between a live setup and a studio setup. At home I tune a lot higher, almost like a jazzy type tuning on the toms and a lot less muffling in the kick drum, more open. For the Hoods it’s more of a rocky sound, which suits their thing a little better. Physically the volumes that I'm playing live are a lot harder. I don’t take vintage drums out on the road, I think that they would probably fall apart.I stick with Remo Emperor and Ambassador drums heads. They’re versatile and you can get a lot of different tunings out of them. The sound guy with the Hoods likes things a little bit deader than I like, so I use moon gel or a bit of gaffa.
So you have to compromise your approach to suit the gig?
Yeah, you could try and do it your way but that can be in total opposition to what’s required. You have to play for the material, if you’re going to do it, don’t be selfish about it, make the sound fit the material. Mugga (FOH engineer for the hoods) has a really good grip on what’s going to sound good out front, he’s a master and I trust that.
What’s your approach to onstage monitoring and in ears with the hoods?
It’s pretty unusual I guess. It's pretty much just kick and snare and a bit of the rest of the kit and then the beds, which is what Debris is spitting out from the decks. There’s no extra information, there’s no click track, there’s no different mix. I’m just getting the backing tracks.
Do you get the scratching on top of it?
(Laughter) Debris has managed to work it out so he can cue it visually through Serato so I don’t have to hear him cue it. On occasions he forgets to flip the cue switch and you’ll be in the middle of something and you’ll hear this [scratching sound] and be like, “what the fuck”. It can really throw you when you’re trying to play to beds, play in the pocket and you have to deal with this other thing. It’s all pervasive!
Playing with beds and being able to hear them must be the most challenging part of the gig?
I run in-ears and I keep the side out a little to get a little stage sound. The drums are predominantly in my speaker folder and the beds are the only thing that’s in my in-ears. Between the two I can mix it myself with the volume on my headphone pack. In some songs there’s no click and flourishes in the music that are really heavily orchestrated. I just push them (in ears) all the way in and listen to less of myself, and more of the beds which helps me keep in time.
Tell us about you studio set up
I've got 2 vintage kits, both mid 60’s. A smaller Slingerland with a 20” kick and a Ludwig which is a 22”,13”,16” configuration and a whole cunch of snares that I can chop and change. Mic wise I used to close mike, now it’s real simple. Two ribbons as over heads in a Glyn Jones configuration. It’s measured equidistant from the middle of the snare, about 32 inches. One directly over the rack tom and the snare and the other one is off over the top of the floor tom looking at the ride cymbal, tom and the snare.
On the desk you pan the middle mic slightly to the left and the other mic 50% to the right. It’s not like a regular v configuration. Then I add a kick and a snare mic. I really like the sound of the drum kit. I like it to sound like a kit in a room rather than a bunch of individual things. It affects the way you play. You have to be more even.
Do you use triggers or sampling pads to recreate productions sound live?
I've done like a lot of stuff as far as triggering and pads. I’ve owned them all and I always go back to acoustic drums. I mean, like when you do that you have trigger things, you know they might not want anything to offer acoustic and so they wanna quit or whatever weird sound that is, a clap or something. I really like all of that stuff, it’s not that I’m opposed to it. For myself, I always prefer acoustic drums. We have used triggers with the hoods before, but funnily enough they were all used for lighting (laughs). We used acoustic triggers into a midi translator so different drums trigger different lights!
How often do you listen back to yourself. Are you listening to desk tapes?
Usually when songs are added into the set, which is not that often. When I first started I had the tracks, these had been doctored or mastered for live work. I recorded everything in my studio and so I could play it back and see what was actually working.
So they’ve put trust in you, how particular are they about the parts?
Usually I’m left to my own devices, which is really good. Sometimes I’ll try something and it doesn’t get talked about or they’re like “do that every time” I try stuff out and every ones cool with it. You know when it’s not cool because you get those looks (laughs)
Do you have any takeaways or advice for someone who’s looking to get a touring gig, keep a touring gig and keep growing as a musician whilst being on the road.
If it’s what you really want then, you’ll probably excel. It’s not for everyone, touring as a drummer, you’re not always creative. It’s more like stamina, almost like sport. The show is the game and you have to achieve a result. It’s gotta fire, everytime! Keep a healthy head and healthy body. Be able to draw that energy up and do the job over and over again!
BY CONRAD TRACEY
Conrad Tracey owns and operates Revolver Drums. Visit www.revolverdrums.com.au for more.
Photo Credit: Nicole Reed Photography