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How to recreate the Alex Van Halen Drum Sound from 1984

Van Halen’s 1984 is one of the most classic rock albums of all time, and was the first LP by the group recorded by them in their own studio, 5150. One of the most distinct sounds on the album is Alex Van Halen’s awesome and unique drum sound. Song like Jump, and I’ll wait have some of the most recognizable 80s drum sounds next to Phil Collins’ famous concert tom sound on In The Air Tonight.

So how can you recreate this sound today? From extensive research into the way 1984 was recorded, as well as Alex’s drums and tastes, it’s actually not as hard as you’d think to get a relatively similar sound as 1984, though it might take some time to get all the pieces put together if you don’t already have similar things.

Part 1 – The kick drum

This is actually one of the easiest parts to accomplish. Why is it so easy? Because believe it or not, the bass drum sound on 1984 is not an actual bass drum, but a Simmons electronic drum pad. Though the picture above shows the kit Alex was playing in the video for Jump, he did not actually use the sounds of these crazily huge kick drums, but instead recorded with a fully electronic kick drum.

You may be thinking, how the heck is that easy? Simmons pads are rare and expensive these days! True, but you don’t need a real one, just the sound. You can download some samples here.Then you can use a drum replacer plugin like MDA BeatBox, or something similar to trigger the sample with your kick drum track. If you have an electronic kick that lets you load your own samples, you could do that as well.

Part 2 – The snare drum

Alex played Steel Ludwig 6.5×14 steel snares, as well as a 6.5×14 rosewood Tama snare, but he always used Remo C.S. head (black dot) on them. So the actual snare type isn’t as important as the head and tuning. He would use a regular clear Ambassador on the bottom, and tune them both medium high. Occasionally he would also put some gaffer’s tape on the snare, but not always. Alex played large 2B sticks, which actually had quite an effect on the sound of the drum. So I recommend playing some large sticks like these to increase the chances of a similar sound.

Part 3 – The toms

Alex’s tom sound on 1984 are simple…. Roto Toms. He used several different size roto toms, with a standard Ludwig floor tom with the resonant head removed. Roto toms are cheap and easy to obtain. However, he would use Remo CS heads on them as well. Also, I would look for larger roto toms, like 12″ and above. But if all is you can find are the smaller ones, you can still make due. For the floor tom, just take your bottom head off your floor tom and muffle it a bit with gaff tape, tuned medium tension. On a few songs on 1984 (such as Hot For Teacher) Alex also used Simmons toms (in addition to the roto toms). If you really want to find these too, you could use any electronic tom, then use a Simmons sample, or even some of the newer Simmons drums have the classic sounds built in.

Part 4 – Cymbals

Alex has always played all Paiste Cymbals, and in the 1984 days he was using a very pingy ride, which was most likely a Paiste 2002 Power Ride .He also used an assortment of Paiste 2002 crashes and chinas, plus 15″ Sound Edge Hi Hats. However, these are all pretty damn pricey. So you could substitute the Paiste PST5 Rock line which comes with a 20″ rock ride, 16″ and 18″ rock crashes, and 14″ sound edge hats, all of which sound great and have similar tones as the more expensive Paistes. You could also pick up a PST5 China to complete the sound.

Part 5 – Miking

Your kick drum mic isn’t going to matter much, since you’ll be replacing the sound anyway, but the snare, a regular old SM57 should suffice. The same should work on the toms, and try to put a bit of distance from the drums to the mics, 1 foot away or so on the roto toms especially. For overheads, use your favorite condenser mics. If you have the room and channels for it, place at least 1 ambient room mic in the room at some distance away from the drums, then mix it in as a natural ambiance.

Part 6 – Mixing

This will have to be dependent on your ears, but but don’t be afraid to put the overheads louder than you normally do. Alex’s cymbals are usually quite loud. The rest is up to your ears and skills!

I hope you found this post helpful and educational. I’d love to hear your attempts, feel free to send them to me!