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Rigged: Dream Theater’s Mike Mangini Takes You Through Every Piece of His Mega-Drumkit [Part 1]

When I contacted Dream Theater’s press folks for a Rigged interview with new drummer Mike Mangini about his new kit, I didn’t realize I’d end up publishing a book.

But that’s the kind of dude Mangini is; incredibly passionate, earnest, easy-going, and without a doubt one of the nicest guys I’ve ever spoken with on record. He’s also a gear nerd of the highest order, and the drum kit he’s hauling around with him on tour with Dream Theater is no joke. Mangini’s set up is so complexand his explanations so detailed, we’ve decided to split up this Rigged feature into three parts to avoid the dreaded wall of text. Drummers in the MetalSucks readership are gonna LOVE what we’ve got in store for you.

Up first: Mike takes us through his quadruple kick set-up, his pedals (8 total), hi-hats and snares. He also talks a good bit about technique as it relates to his drum setup and playing ambidextrously. Here’s Mike:

These two pictures were taken from Pearl headquarters. That’s it right there. That’s what’s being sent to rehearsal and that’s what I’m going to play.

Starting with the bass drums: there are four acoustic bass drums, one 26″ diameter bass drum to the far left on a slave double pedal so I can reach it. Two 22″ diameter kick drums in the middle on regular single pedals and then an 18″ diameter bass drum to the right on a righty slave pedal. So the far right and left kick drums are set up on slave pedals from the double pedal so that they can be placed where I can reach them. The purpose of the four kick drums is firstly that the two 22″ kick drums are the main kick drums for double bass playing, although I don’t use them in a typical fashion. In other words, I’m not always leading with my right foot; sometimes I lead with the left foot depending on the part of the song. With the 26″ kick drum and 18″ kick drums being far left, I am able to reach them both from the same stool which means that I can play a song like “Fatal Tragedy” starting out with the big 26″ bass drum to the left and then I don’t have to get up to go to the two 22″ kick drums; likewise I can do the same for the 18″ kick.

I have two hi-hats, but they’re remote cable hats. They are wired on opposite sides that I step on with my feet. For example, the hi-hat pedal that I step on with my right foot is on the left side of the kit. This means that when I’m playing on that lefty hi-hat, which is essentially a darker hi-hat sound, my left foot has to become the main kick and that is where I would use the left 22″ kick drum as the main bass drum. When I step on the hi-hat with my left foot, that cable stretches all the way to my right and the hi-hat cymbals themselves are struck with my right hand. What that means is that I play kick drum with my right foot so the 22″ kick drum to the right becomes the main kick drum. The hi-hat to the right is a set of brighter cymbals.

Basically the pedals thus far are four acoustic kick drums and two remote hi-hats. There are two more pedals: one to the extreme left and extreme right. They’re both also slave pedals. On my far right foot is actually a righty double pedal where I’m playing slave such that the beater connects to an E Pro Pad. Pearl has an electronic drum set called E Pro, and I’m using one of the pads to my far right. Similarly, on the far left I have a lefty double pedal, a slave double pedal that stretches to another E Pro. These I use for triggering. For example, with the upcoming tour, I have a giant concert bass drum for one particular tune with the right foot and I have a cowbell assigned to that E Pro Pad on my far left foot. With the new album, those two trigger pedals are triggering anything from timpani to cowbells that are tuned exactly to the notes that Jordan (Rudess), John (Myung) and John (Petrucci) are playing.

By having 8 pedals (4 acoustic kicks, 2 electronic ones and 2 hi-hats) they are arranged such that I can adhere to Mike Portnoy’s original drum track – be it a 26″ kick drum or a 22″ kick drum or a small one because Mike grew from having just a regular double bass kick starting with 24″s, I believe. I think he started out with two 24″ kicks and then went to two 22″s. At one point he put an experimental kick to his right which was a small bass drum, and I chose to use an 18″ because on the new album I actually use that 18″ in the same beat where I use the 26″, for dynamics. So in a non-heavy metal kind of a structure, I can get away with dynamic on one bass drum by hitting a note softer or laying the beater into the head to get a slap, but with a heavy metal situation, especially Dream Theater, I have to exaggerate everything. In other words, the dynamics kind of get lost and you really have to hit those drums. Having an 18″ bass drum do subordinate notes while the 26″ bass drum fires off the huge downbeat is the way that I get dynamics. That’s an entire overview of the pedal scenario.

I have been nurturing this for the past decade or so and before I got a call to audition, I had a very down moment in my studio looking at my drum set saying “who the heck is going to let me use this?” It’s always someone telling me what to do, that I have too many drums and too this and too that. I swear, I’m just a kid at heart having fun and I don’t know why the world is such that we have to tap each other on the shoulder and say that you can’t do this or you can’t do that. It’s almost like somebody is talking to a kid saying “hey, stop having fun.”

It’s funny because I say that to my kids all the time, in fun of course. They’re acting their age, and I can’t go there and say “don’t act your age” or “stop having fun.” So I’ll say it in fun and my five year old gets the humor of that. That’s kind of how I see it. “Man, I got this set designed for orchestrating, and that’s what it’s for.” I’m a trained classical drummer, and I’ve got these skills that I’ve developed. Why can’t I just use them? These guys in Dream Theater are so secure and so pleasant to work with and so supportive that I’m still pinching myself going “how did this happen?”

Onto the rest of the kit. I have two snare drums. They’re both placed in the center as far as a left/right axis is concerned. The main snare drum, well there’s nothing much to say about that other than it’s a main snare drum. The mini snare which is dead center but up above my rack toms, is used for a few different reasons. Firstly, I use it for dynamics where I will play a pattern using two snare drums and a sticking. For example, drummers know what a paradiddle is. I might play a paradiddle between the two snare drums but by racking the back beat on the main snare with a really hard hit rim shot and having the subordinate notes be the mini snare just brings that paradiddle to life. It’s like nothing that I’ve ever heard before. It’s not that none of us can pull it off on one drum, it’s that it doesn’t work on one drum the same so why not have two. That’s one purpose. Another purpose is Mike eventually set up two snare drums, so I use that mini snare for backbeats in a song like “These Walls” and I turn it off for a song like the Great Debate. I can access it with either hand, and that’s the third thing: that when I make the decision to play lefty or righty (which I will explain very specifically once I get to my cymbal setup) essentially if I had my snare drum off to one side that would limit me depending on what side I’m using.

Almost every drummer that I know is either a righty or lefty, but my drum set is not set up that way. The fact that I’m not righty or lefty or ambidextrous or not ambidextrous has nothing to do with it. In fact, I’m not ambidextrous. I trained myself to play ambidextrously because I didn’t want my flawed, awful body to get in the way of my musical soul. I have a flawed body. It doesn’t do what I tell it to do. By my deciding for the right reasons (which would be musical reasons) that I would place this mini snare dead center and my hi-hats flipped lefty and righty, it means that I had to work my butt off to play “Back in Black” by AC/DC lefty. I’ll tell you what – it’s not an easy song to play.

I don’t care what anyone says. I think real musicians know . . . people that are happy, too, that are secure in themselves and happy, you can accept your own lack of skill in different areas because you simply see it as something you didn’t get to yet. It’s just not a big deal. You either do it or you don’t. My placing the snare drum dead center meant that I had to develop ambidextrous skills, although I am not an ambidextrous person.

COMING UP IN PART 2: Cymbal arrangements, toms, electronics and more!

– Mike Mangini / Dream Theater

Categories: Greatest HitsRigged
Tags: dream theatermike mangini
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