Drum techs have plenty to do with just one kit to worry about. But MARK ‘WIFF’ SMITH wrangles FOUR sets of drums while on tour with UK folk-rock heavyweights MUMFORD & SONS. We caught up with him between daily cymbal polishings.
There’s no doubt the band’s multi-instrumentalist frontman Marcus Mumford keeps Wiff busy. Responsible for three kits onstage and one backstage for last-minute practicing, the seasoned drum technician has little time to spare before a show and no margin for error. The extremely tight schedule means his sound engineer colleagues rely upon him to ensure audio consistency – every single night.
Walk us through your normal routine while touring with Mumford & Sons.
WIFF: Well, first there’s a lot of hanging around the stage and the trucks. Often it takes more time than expected to get the lights up off the floor, as each venue has unexpected surprises that can’t be predicted by the lighting department, and this has a knock-on effect as to when the risers can be built and, in turn, when we can start setting up the backline. But once the risers are set it’s FULL ON to get the backline out of the truck and get the kits built as quickly as possible. Usually we only have two to three hours to set up and line check before we either – in a festival situation – push back the risers until it’s our turn on stage, or we have a sound check with the band. And it really is FULL ON.
How many drums do you have to get ready for the show?
On stage I have three setups to build: one kit for Chris Maas, who plays approximately 50 percent of the show, one kit for Marcus for two or three songs per show, and one downstage bass drum/tambourine setup also for Marcus. Everything comes in 10 large cases. Each kit has one bass drum, two snares, three toms, one hi-hat, four cymbals and lots of additional bits and pieces like a Roland SPD-SX, a concert drum, percussion, etcetera. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it really is.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
All in all, the biggest challenge is time. Building each kit takes about 30 minutes – and then some. Cymbals need polishing every day – the pyro we use leaves a horrible residue on them from the previous night’s show. I have to do at least one head set change per show, on a three-show cycle, either all of Chris’ toms, all of Marcus’ toms or all the snare heads. Again, this is a time-consuming process, as I tune the drums to specific notes. So when I take a head off any drum, I first check the tuning of the bottom head and get it back to its intended note, then put the top head on, get the note across each lug the same so that I know the head is on evenly around the drum and then tune the drum itself to a specific note. The reason I do this is so that each drum will always sound the same to both the drummer and our FOH (front of house) engineer and our monitor engineer. Knowing the drums will sound the same day in, day out really helps them with audio continuity. Once the new heads are on, I then have to check the tuning on all the drums that didn’t get a head change that day. After that, I give all the drums a quick dusting, as again the pyro on dark kits really shows up. I sometimes wonder if I’m a drum tech or a drum janitor! By this time all the microphones will be have been set on the kit by one of the sound technicians, so the final job in the setup is to check all the connections on all the drum kit stands and microphone stands.
At this point I’d say 90 to 120 minutes have passed. Almost straight away I’ll get a call to line check the kit, which is basically playing the drums individually and as a kit, so the engineers can check everything is as it was the day before. And it really does have to sound good and clear, because the band are all on IEMs (in-ear monitors) and every unwanted squeak, rattle and click is easily heard when your monitor sound is actually right inside your ear.
I then get about 10 minutes rest, while the other backline techs line check and play their instruments and then we either push back or the band turns up to sound check.
Oh, did I mention that when the main setup is done, I then have to go and set another drum kit up backstage for the band to rehearse or practice on?
How about the drum-miking regime?
For stage usage alone, we have approximately 96 inputs to wire in – of which about 30 are to do with “drum world.” What with tuning the PA and all the other things that have to be done, the FOH engineer just cannot possibly get to stage to check all the microphone positions before line check. So basically he relies on the audio technicians and the backline technicians to position the microphones exactly as he likes them. Obviously for audio continuity he needs them to be positioned EXACTLY the same every day and usually they are, but if they are slightly misplaced it’s something he can recognize audio-wise in the line check and can therefore be put right by whomever before sound check.
What is the main difference between your job and that of the guitar tech?
Unlike guitars that should always sound the same unless there is a particular problem, drums are very organic and there is very little technology to help them sound the same every day. All-weather drum heads are still affected by temperature and humidity changes. So once things are set, tried and tested, don’t change them on the next show. Audio continuity is the key to helping everyone save time.
Interview: Ryan Smith
Images: Jason Agron