On the riser of academia or the main stage, Mike Mangini’s knowledge of percussion shines bright. On a firm foundation of science, Mangini catapulted out of his collegiate years in pursuit of like-minded, collaborative virtuosos. After 20-plus years of playing, teaching and preaching, the perennial student of percussion landed his dream gig: full-time member of Dream Theater. We recently sat down with the former professor.
Musician’s Friend: How has your scientific background aided your integration into the band as well as the creative process for Dream Theater?
Mike Mangini: Firstly, I loved athletics more than anything as a child even though I was playing solo drums by age 5 at family weddings. Secondly, I grew into a person that loves to study how things work. I found myself studying cognitive science—why is it that I can do what I can do and this person doesn't, or why can that person do it and I can't? Is it just natural talent? And the answer is absolutely not. Natural talent makes it easier for us, but if it were about natural talent, then there'd be no hope for the rest of us. So cognitive study helped me to look at a student, to look at a bandmate and ask, “What does this person do that makes them who they are?” So I can take my computer science and math background and break it all down very quickly.
What that means is when I'm in a room with Dream Theater, I feel that I can quickly recognize their musical and personal patterns such that I can relate better to everybody. The best thing is that we all seem to love so many of the same things while composing music, or just playing.
MF: Like you, there are some notable open-handed players—Billy Cobham, Simon Phillips and others. What advantages or limitations have you found with the playing style?
MM: The thing is that they were not just “open-handed,” but just “open,” period. You’re open to so many more hundreds of thousands of expressions just because your hands aren't crossed up. Younger people starting open-handed now are going to always feel natural with it, whereas I would still feel at home playing with a conventional grip and my hands crossed over.
MF: Your set configuration lends to multidirectional playing. Was that something that you developed on your own?
MM: I developed the way that my kit is set up on my own, influenced by others and by playing in marching bands. But look, I set my drum setup in its first version of what you see now before I could play it. In other words, setting it up forced me to learn how to do it.
MF: Now the Pearl Masters MHX that you played on the new Dream Theater record…can you walk us through the setup and how you used it on the new album?
MM: The kit can be looked at by breaking it down into bass drums, snares, tomtoms, metals and then electronics—the ePro. Firstly, my two primary, 22” kick drums are played in such a way where if I make a note that is a couple of decibels softer than the others it doesn't cut through. So live or in the studio I have to whack these things at the same volume. Now coming up I was a competitive classical and jazz player all through high school. I need dynamics in my music. I need to be able to have a vast amount of dynamics or I don't feel like I'm doing justice to the music. I cannot have those dynamics with two 22” kicks, so I incorporated a 26” kick drum and an 18“ kick drum, one to my left, one to my right. They both have different qualities, with big John Bonham air movement on the 26”, or with a rapper program style with the 18”.
With the snare drums, I have used two for a very long time because functionally I am paid to play music that requires a backbeat. I love a cracking snare drum, however it doesn't move music for me sometimes. So my main snare drum has gone between a 6-½” and a 5”, and now it's just going to stay at a deeper snare because I need that depth to move stomachs. So my mini-snare is used to complement it, either for a backbeat with an electronic type of sound or for some ghost notes. With a mushier, thicker snare drum some ghost notes get lost.
Since joining Extreme in 1994, I set up my tom-toms in an apex even though I did not record my three songs for Waiting for the Punchline with them, and even though I did not do my first tour with Extreme with my apex setup because I was working on it. I had to practice. The reason I did it was to follow Nuno Bettencourt spot on, note for note. Or as much as you can. When I only have one octave and he's dealing with multiple octaves, clearly I have to approximate, right? But that's the purpose of it.
So I use the toms to follow everybody. If there's a giant thud that's needed in a song and I use my floor tom, one floor tom with a gong bass drum, clearly I'm going to get a huge stomach, earth shattering kaboom out of that.
Moving on to the cymbals, it's hi-hats, rides, effects cymbals, and crashes. My ride is utilized when there are key signature changes. In other words, I will switch from righty to lefty when there's a key signature change, because when you listen to the album in stereo you'll understand.
I shift sides with the hi-hat. The problem that one would find doing this is that you have to be as proficient a lefty player as you are a right. In order to be a true lefty player if you're a righty player, it takes a decade at least, for anybody. But just so you know, since I can do it, I do it when there are time signature changes.
Also, the texture cymbal that I use, meaning the choice of splash versus an Oriental stack versus the giant china type versus a crash versus a ride bell, has to do with timbre. So the keyboard timbre really is the decisive factor for me, because when you hear the Dream Theater album as a stereo image you're going to hear noises, but it's like a sound. The sound is a lot of times a combination of me using the right effects cymbal with the patch Jordan Rudess chose or vice-versa. And now the electronics come into play, meaning when I say the electronics I mean I have a r.e.d.box, because of the ePro...
MF: The module, the r.e.d.box module.
MM: The module, and I use the Tru-Trac pads that you can put on any shell. I have four hand pads and I have two-foot pads, so six pads total, four hands, two feet, that people hear.
The ePro equipment could not be more vital to me for accessing any percussion sound I could imagine without having to set up all the acoustic percussion. The kits do not have to be individually loaded either. Just the turn of a dial, or press of a pedal can change the sounds being triggered.
MF: Jumping back to snare drums, your Pearl signature 10-inch snare is birch and your Zildjian signature sticks are lacquered birch. So clearly you have an affinity for birch. Can you explain that a bit?
MM: An affinity for birch in my drum kit is totally the truth. The reason is because there are multiple surfaces and environments that a drum kit fits on. For example, some of the better studios have hardwood floors, but the hardwood floors are on concrete slabs. That's the worst possible thing for a drum kit.
My point is that the floors are a decisive factor and I notice that birch always had a particular clarity and consistency, no matter what floor it was on. A maple kit can be the single, best-sounding drum set that you or I have ever heard, but it depends on the setting it goes on.
For me, some floors, the maple is a little harder. It just doesn't resonate the same as it does when it's on a riser or something, but birch doesn't have as much of a variance.
The drumsticks are birch not by my doing. The drumsticks are birch because I needed a 63-gram stick in the diameter of a Zildjian Super 5A. What that means is that I'm never going to get one. It's utterly impossible. So the Zildjian team developed an idea of soaking a porous wood with resins, not only to get the weight up, but to strengthen it. Birch was perfect because birch is more porous than hickory and the resins strengthen the stick like crazy.
MF: Touching on Zildjian - as a New England guy, how important was it for you to be involved with Zildjian (Zildjian is in Norwell, MA)?
MM: Huge, because I remember the day when my family was driving to Cape Cod from the suburbs of Boston during the summer. A drummer friend that was in the car said, “Hey, there's Zildjian over there.” I was just blown away and intrigued by the fact that we just drove by the place where they made Zildjian cymbals and it's in my home state.
Anyway, Zildjian being here is important on many levels. For one, I am able to drive there. Endorsement relationships are important to me. They're important in my life on a personal level. And as an artist, while traveling, I absolutely need the support. So having Zildjian close by means a lot to me.
MF: So putting on your educator hat, what is the best piece of advice you could give to a drummer just starting out?
MM: First question being, "What kind of music is it that you really love," and the second thing to ask is when you go into a practice room you've got to ask yourself, “am I walking in this room to get better, or am I walking in this room just to have fun?” The third one is, "What can I do socially to put myself in a better position to work with people?" To be sociable, you know what I mean?
MF: That's a really fine piece of advice. As a long-time clinician yourself, who were a few all-time drummers that you'd sit up front at a clinic for?
MM: First of all, when I became aware of drum clinics I saw Simon Phillips, Jonathan Mover and Dennis Chambers. All three blew my head apart and also made me a huge fan of drum clinics. Since then I have been paired up with the likes of Billy Cobham, Terry Bozzio, Kenny Aronoff, Virgil Donati and Horacio Hernandez. I love the idea of a drum clinic. I love the idea of the wall breakdown of famous guy versus regular guy. It's just drummers in a room talking.
MF: How about a couple of highlights from the new, self-titled Dream Theater album?
MM: The first highlight would be the use of odd groupings to give me the most appropriate feeling in the intro of "Surrender to Reason” starts out with what sounds just like a snare drum roll before I play a triplet, but it's actually a calculated fifteen-tuplet, because it gave me the most amount of suspended time. That's what a roll is supposed to do. To me, using an even number, doing 16th notes like many do, is not the most musical thing in that situation.
Another one is in the same song in the same section in the intro where I have, I think it would be a 29 against 5 polyrhythm that spans my whole kit. It's a highlight because I want it to just blast around the whole kit for a fill, but I have an odd amount of drums. Secondly, it's very hard to go around that drum kit smashing them. But I did a run where I threw an odd amount of notes in with my kick drums, almost like a rush to end it. I was just trying it out and (vocalist) James LaBrie got up in the control room and came flying up to the glass saying, “Mike, that was it. That one! That one!” Another highlight would be the heavier stuff that you hear on a Sabbath record or that a Vinnie Appice would play. A couple times I would think about some vintage Sabbath and those heavy beats and spacious fills that a Vinnie Appice would play and that I love the feeling of. When that playing is perfect for the music, then everyone in the band enjoys it.
The other type of highlight would be the use of multiple hi-hats and rides with my ambidexterity to change with the time signatures. It’s subtle. It's not as in-your-face. People are going to have to listen for this. It's not going to be comprehensible initially because it's so different. I think people should look at a picture of my drum kit while listening to this album and flip the headphones around so they see it from that image. The album is mixed as if you're looking at the drum kit, so if you're looking at a picture of my kit, great. But if you like it from the perspective that you're the drummer, you've got to flip the headphones around.
MF: That's brilliant.
MM: Now, my fourth dimension; my honorable mention, are the multi-limb, or over the bar rhythms happening in "Illumination Theory." There are many moments when a listener should use headphones and a 'slow down' app to really hear how the drum parts relate to the other instruments.
Another thing about it is that because of the ePro footpads I sometimes am stepping on cymbal noises, so it sounds like you're hearing a cymbal, but it's not. It's my foot. And this is some insane detail on this record that you cannot know unless I tell you or you see me do it. Otherwise, if you try to pick it up yourself you're going to come to that point where you say, “Wait a minute. How could he have hit three things with two hands?” It's like three hands, but that's because one of my feet is doing it, because one of my feet is triggering a hand sound. I am having fun!
The new self-titled album from Dream Theater is out now. Pick it up wherever great music is sold.