|Starting with its first release in 1989, Dream Theater's progressive rock has been propelled by drum wizard Mike Portnoy. Joining us recently, Mike describes some of the gear behind the signature sound.
GC: Why do you choose Pro Mark sticks? Tama drums?
Mike: I'll start with Tama. I started playing Tama when I was a kid. I guess the main reason any kid starting out plays any brand drum, cymbal or stick, it's because their favorite drummer is playing them. For me at the time when I was a kid, my favorite drummers were Neil Peart, Bill Bruford, Simon Phillips and Stewart Copeland. And those guys all played Tama so that's what made me buy my first Tama drum set. And then I've been with them since '83 with the exception of two years I strayed to try out a different company. But in any case, I've been with them ever since and it's a great relationship with them.
GC: So that's interesting if you tried something else for a time what made you come back?
Mike: Well, it was at a point when I was starting to finally get some recognition and some success on my own and that was when the endorsement offers starting coming in. And at that point another company approached me and it was kind of like you don't want to get married before you play the field. I figured I would try out another company and see how the relationship went and it turned out to not be what I was looking for in terms of quality and in terms of support. So Tama told me that the doors were always open if I wanted to come back to them. And ultimately that's what I did.
GC: So how about Pro Mark and Sabian?
Mike: Well Pro Mark I have been playing now for I think about four years. I've always admired the quality of their stick. To be honest, the real story is that years ago I always played and endorsed a company called Hot Sticks. And they made me colored drumsticks. I just liked those because they were purple. That was like my color for a while. I played those sticks because they were cool colors. But they were really nice to me. They endorsed me and sent me whatever I needed, as much as I needed. But ultimately they wanted to do an autograph session.... The situation with Hot Sticks wanted to an autograph model with me, basically their distribution was pretty, well, very limited. And I didn't want to do an autograph stick with a company that wasn't going to have sticks in the stores. So once word got out about that I was approached by Pro mark. Pro Mark sent me all the autograph sticks and they were really great. They worked with me on designing something close to the stick that I had been using for so many years. But they also helped me customize a lot of the features in terms of length and size and weight. And so basically I decided to go with Pro Mark because I thought they were incredibly well-made quality sticks, reliable and also they were a great company, in terms of support. One other thing that we customized with my stick is that we put the logo in the center of the stick. At that point Pro Mark had put all of their logos pretty much at the bottom, at the butt end. And I play my sticks with my left hand with the butt end out and with my right stick with the tip out. So we put the logo and my name and everything in the center of the stick so at this rate no matter which stick I'm using, the left stick or the right stick the middle won't get chewed away. Since then I think they've started doing that with all of their sticks. But I think I was the first one.
GC: That brings up two questions. If you could talk about the refinements that you made to your signature series stick and why you did it. Or how it helps you...and also that bit about sticks being switched from right and left hand. What does that do you for you? Why would someone want to do that?
Mike: Well, as far as the modification I made with my stick, I always liked their 747 model but it was a little too heavy for me. So we sort of went with a cross between their 747 and a cross between the old Hot Sticks that I had used for so many years that my hands were so adjusted to. Basically I use a pretty light stick actually, compared to most rock drummers. Especially people that are heavy metal drummers like I am. So most drummers that try my sticks are surprised by how light they are. I guess that's because I like having the power and everything of a heavy stick but it's really hard to have too much dynamics and finesse. There's a lot of intricate detail that goes into the parts that I play for Dream Theater. I kind of needed a light stick to be able to handle some of those intricacies. I started holding the sticks backwards when I was younger. I used to hold them both with the butt end out. And I found after a while of doing that, I wasn't getting much definition with my right stick on the high hat and the ride. It was kind of like a very dull-sounding attack when you had the butt end hitting the high hat and the ride. So I decided to keep my left stick turned around with the butt end out so I would get some power on the snare. And then I would turn the right stick around with the tip out so I could really get some definition on the high hat and the ride. And basically it was kind of un-Orthodox at first but my hands became so adjusted to them that it's the only way I can play now.
GC: It doesn't feel right any other way?
Mike: Once in a while I will flip my left stick around if I'm doing rolls or on a ride or on high hat. When I need definition with the tip on both sticks then I will flip my left stick around. But for the most part I'm pretty comfortable with it the other way.
GC: How bout the Sabian cymbals?
Mike: Oh I've been with Sabian now since '93. Basically they approached me just as Dream Theater was starting to break and just as I was starting to get some recognition. They offered to send me out a full line of stuff to check out. And I did, I was touring expensively. So I was interested in endorsing them and basically I fell in love with their cymbals immediately. Just as important, I fell in love with the people over there. The company is just so incredibly supportive. There's a real family vibe. I've become really close to all the people there at the company. Through the years they have been incredibly supportive to me and my career. I've done so many clinics with them. It's incredible. They have an amazing clinic program as well. I've done hundreds of clinics for them through the years. Basically, the cymbals speak for themselves. They are incredible cymbals. They are incredibly diverse. They can have any size, shape or sound that you can possibly want.
But the personal relationship, which is also so important for an endorsement, was really top of the line.
GC: Tell us a little about your current drum setup. And what do you think of the setup you have right now?
Mike: Well I guess to embellish on that last Sabian thing, I just developed my own signature line with them called the Max series. Basically it's three max splashes and odd sizes, which are 7,9 and 11. And then three sets of max stacks: high stacks which is an 8 and an 8, a mid-stack which is a 10 and a 10, and a low stack which is a 12 and a 14. I went up to the Sabian factory and developed these cymbals based upon some of the sounds and sizes I was using on my kit. And basically just customized them so they would sound great and be durable. So I'm using all those in my cymbal setup as well as a wide variety of hand-hammered crashes and rides and stuff like that. It's a huge setup, it's everything all across the boards.
GC: Can you give us a basic run down of what's in your kit?
Mike: It's so big that it would be impossible for me to do on the phone. I would suggest checking out Modern Drummer or go to my website.
GC: I think I have seen the diagram on your website.
Mike: It's pretty huge. It's everything. In terms of cymbals it's everything from small, you know 7" splashes all the way up to 22" chinas and zodiac gongs and crotales and everything in-between. As far as drums go it's ChemiStar classics, two 24" kicks, I have 6 octobans 4 on the left 2 on the right. Then my racks are 8", 10", 12", 13" and then a 14" floor tom. And a gong base drum. Basically I have three identical kits of this setup. One I keep in America which is white and purple. One I keep in Europe which is white and green. And one I keep in Japan which is white and red.
GC: Is that to avoid shipping them around?
Mike: Yeah because we do a lot of touring so it makes sense to keep them stored in different countries because we are always back and forth. But you can get those detailed on my website which is pretty cool. We created this, I've never seen this anywhere before, but me and my webmaster we did a thing where you can go on my website and play my drum set. We sampled every single drum and cymbal and piece of percussion. And basically, there's a photo of my kit and you can hit any drum or cymbal and hear the actual sounds that come out of it.
GC: That sounds pretty cool. I don't know if I went to that link, but your website was definitely pretty impressive. Fairly extensive in lists and all. The whole super-sized kit brings up a question. When you are in the middle of a song are you actually remembering okay I have to hit this specific cymbal during this part?
Mike: Oh absolutely.
GC: So you're not just taking from a range of possibilities or just going with the flow?
Mike: Well, I am picking from a range of possibilities when writing the parts. But once I establish and create my parts, every one of those drums and cymbals are musical and melodic. Same as like a keyboard player or guitar player having to hit the same notes every time they try to play the song. Yeah, so I'm playing the same patterns. My parts revolve around this big giant kit. I play it as if it's a harmonic and tonal instrument just as much as it's a rhythmic one.
GC: So in other words it really makes a difference between playing a 7" splash and a 9" splash.
Mike: Absolutely, of course.
GC: So it helps to have all those different sizes?
Mike: I'm like a 'more is more' type drummer. Everybody's stripping down but it's like I'm -the bigger the better. Everything about Dream Theater is over the top.
GC: Do you think if you were listening to a recording being played back and someone replaced the splashes with a different one, do you think you would know?
Mike: Yeah, probably. When I listen back to tracks in the studio, I place myself behind the kit mentally and visualize exactly what my patterns are. And in the studio I have control over every drum and cymbal. I know exactly which cymbal and drum I'm hitting if something needs to be brought up in the mix.
GC: What's the coolest recent addition to your kit? Or for that matter, what do you want to get next? What's on your wish list?
Mike: I've don't have any room left for anything. Basically I've run out of room. I'm fortunate enough to be in the situation where all my endorsement companies are so supportive that they give me anything that I could want. I've kind of like, piled everything on to the kitchen sink. I've experimented with everything from octobans to gong base drums. And multiple high hats and crotales and so on....
||GC: So you're not really thinking about any changes? Or what it might be like to do this or that?
Mike: No, I mean, I was able to come up with some great ideas for cymbals and that was the Max signature line I came up with. And I also developed a signature snare which is going to be coming out next year through Tama called the Melody Master.
GC: Is that going to be designed to emulate or reproduce the snare or set-up that you have now?
Mike: Yeah, Tama built me a snare, a customized snare a few years back where the snare strainer is controlled by a foot pedal. So you could block it, you could tighten it and loosen it with your foot as opposed to doing it with your hand. And it locks into three positions: either loose, tight or off. Basically to mass produce that with the foot pedal would be incredibly expensive and it would be too expensive for the average kid on the street to afford. But what we did do is we took that general concept and we're developing that now into a snare with several strainer positions. So that's going to be available next January.
GC: That sounds kind of interesting. I haven't heard of that before. Is your approach to playing and the equipment you use, different between the live situation and the studio situation? How and why or what do you use in each situation?
Mike: What I use with Dream Theater is the same live as it is in the studio. Like I mentioned, my parts are built around the instrument. So what I create in the studio I want to be able to recreate live. But my kits from project to project are different. I've done several things outside of Dream Theater the past couple of years such as the Liquid Tension Experiment and Trans Atlantic. And on those two projects I use a much, much smaller kit, with one base drum and a double pedal, timbaletos as my high toms and only one rack tom and then a floor tom on both left and right sides. The set up is much smaller, much different, which helps kind of like stimulate me to try a different approach. With Liquid Tension, that music was based a lot around improvisation and jamming. With Trans Atlantic, the music is based more around laid back, kind of simple Ringo grooves. So playing on a smaller kit kind of helped inspire me to try different things with that set up.
GC: So if you're improvising or something, you don't necessarily want more drums to have more possibilities, you want fewer?
Mike: It's different for different things. I guess when improvising I prefer to have the bigger kit, but I had already made up my mind that I was going to use a different kit for Liquid Tension just because I wanted a different perspective. I guess with improvising, the bigger the better, to have more options.
GC: Do you have a home studio at all? If so, what's in it?
Mike: Dream Theater has stuff that we own as a band. But it's actually packed up in storage at the moment so it's not even set up. It's just a couple of ADATS and stuff like that. And I have some equipment at home but I wouldn't call it a studio. Basically the last Dream Theater album as well as the two Liquid Tension albums and the Trans Atlantic album. . . Basically the last four albums I did were written in the studio so there was no home studio process. We didn't write, record and demo the material before starting the album. In the case of the last four albums I've done, we went directly into the studio and just shacked up there and did all the recording and writing there. So I haven't had the need for a home studio for the past four albums.
GC: When you do write on your own or prior to going to the studio, how does that process work? Can you describe the writing process in the various projects you work with?
Mike: It's all different. With Dream Theater, all of our career, up until our latest album we always got together in rehearsals and wrote the music. The four instrumentalists wrote all the music first and then one person would go off and write a set of lyrics to the different songs. And then we'd demo the stuff and then go into the studio and record it. But like I said on the new album, we just went directly into the studio with nothing written and then we wrote it in the studio. But the process was the same. Basically we bounced ideas off of each other and did it as a collaborative process. With Liquid Tension, like I said, half of the music in that project is improvised so basically you just hit the record button and whatever comes out, comes out. Then the other half of the material was written in the studio. Just a flurry of musical ideas putting them together. And six hours later laying down the drum tracks. With Trans Atlantic, my latest thing it was much more song-oriented so it was more like the individuals brought in the ideas, the existing ideas, and then we collaborated on them once we were together in the studio.
GC: So the kind of things you were bringing in, would be like?
Mike: My role is always as a collaborator, arranger and director. I don't sit at home and bring in bass lines and keyboard lines. But I'm the type that, when in the writing process, have total control of the situation and very much direct everybody. Like a conductor, or record producer almost or movie director.
GC: Like, 'try it this way or that way'....
Mike: Yeah, that's my forte. It's just kind of in terms of arrangement and making suggestions and I have enough musical background and education to be able to speak in terms of harmonic and chordal tones.
GC: Here's sort of a different tack. If I was a drummer who already had a basic drum set and I wanted to expand it. Having more possibilities, you know, sonically. What would you suggest be the first thing I should get?
Mike: Ten years ago I would have said a second base drum because that's what I did. When I started off I had a small five piece kit and then the first thing I did was bought another base drum and added it to it. But that was ten, twenty years ago these days it seems pretty unfashionable to have two base drums. Most drummers just have a double pedal. So I suppose that would be the next step to build your kit. Get a double pedal and try to develop double bass patterns. And then another thing I would say- Most people start off with just a regular ride, high hat and crash. I love the smaller sounding things like the splashes and the stacks. So the stuff I developed through Sabian, the Max splashes, the Max stacks, those are things that I love and that interest me. Different kind of smaller sounding, quick sounding percussive cymbals. So I would suggest experimenting with some of those things as well.
GC: What do you find that that does for you? Smaller cymbals, what does it enable you to do?
Mike: Well as far as splashes go, I like the quickness of them. I like how they really cut through. They really accent things. As far as stacks go, those are really cool because they are so quick responding and so percussive. You could almost play rhythms on them as if they were a drum and not a cymbal. So, you can really create a lot of interesting things with those.
GC: What would your advice be to a young drummer or someone starting out drumming who would want to model their career on yours? What's the secret of your success?
Mike: With me, I can tell you what I've done and that was to always keep an open mind with music. And listen to lots of different drummers and try playing different things. What I do in Dream Theater, I get the opportunity to do everything from really heavy things to really progressive things to really Poppy things. And do them all sometimes even within the same song. So if they keep an open mind to what you listen to and play and write. And the other thing I would say is to try and branch out beyond just being a drummer. To me, one of the most important things in my music is the way I write it, the way I arrange it, and oversee it, and control it, and build it and market it. I'm not just someone sitting behind the drums playing. I write the lyric, I write the music. I'm very involved with every aspect beyond just the drums. So I would suggest to try to take an interest in the whole picture, not just the drums.
GC: Do you warm up before performances?
Mike: Yeah I usually stretch out for about a half-hour or so, because it's a very physical instrument. If you go out cold without warming up or stretching, you could pull a muscle. I've had various things like that; I've thrown my back out, my neck out and dislocated my wrists. I've had all sorts of accidents on tour, so it's important to stretch out and warm up as much as you can before playing.
GC: What about practice regiment?
Mike: I don't get to practice like I used to when I was younger. When I was younger that was my focus and all my time was devoted to practicing four or six hours a day, playing along to records. But now at this stage in my career and in my life, I'm behind the drum, as it is, so much of my life doing touring, doing clinics, recording, doing side projects. I spend so much time, as it is, behind the drums that when I'm not behind the drums because I have to, because it's my job, I'm at the stage in my life where I have a family and I like to spend time with them and stuff. I have to try to balance what I do, what's my career, what I do with my family. And I spend so much time, as it is, already on my career that I don't get as much time to practice as I used to.
GC: You mentioned doing clinics. Do you enjoy doing clinics? What do you think the benefit is for someone coming to your clinic? What do you get out of them?
Mike: I do a lot of clinics. This year I'm in the middle of a tour cycle with Dream Theater so that's been keeping me busy. But normally I'll do 50, 60 clinics a year. In fact right now, I'm on my way home from the airport. I did a clinic at Guitar Center of Minneapolis last night and the night before the Guitar Center in Detroit. So I do a lot of them every year and all over the world, too. I've done them in South America, Australia, Europe and Japan. But to me, it's a chance for the drummer, and not only drummers but all musicians, to come out and really interact with me or whatever drummer it is at their singular clinic. When you watch a drummer's video or you see them in concert or when you listen to their CD, there's no interaction. You could learn a lot just from listening to what they are playing, but at a clinic you can really dissect and communicate with the drummer about what they're doing. You can discuss it and therefore, it's very educational in that respect that people have that one-on-one contact. I've done some clinics where's there's been like 1000-1200 people, and to me that's not enjoyable. That turns more into a concert. When I think of a clinic, I would rather have a thing with just a few hundred people and people are focused and interacting on an educational level. Once you get a 1000 people into a room for a clinic, which I have done before in Europe, it's really hard to communicate. And to me communication is the most important element of a clinic.
GC: So more of an intimate setting is definitely better.
Mike: I think so for a clinic.
GC: Feel free not to answer this one if you feel. You mentioned doing clinics at Guitar Center, are you a Guitar Center shopper and what are your thoughts about Guitar Center?
Mike: I guess one of the fortunate things when you're at this stage is that you don't really have to shop, you know? (Laughs) I pretty much get anything I want through my endorsers. I have Tama and Sabian and Pro Mark and Remo and DW pedals...basically any piece of gear I can possibly need.