Drummer with UK rock band Embrace, Mike Heaton is an inspiration to a new generation of drummers. Originally self-taught, he now teaches, writes, and records using his Audient ASP880 and iD22 which are compact enough to fit in his small, yet perfectly suited studio – which was also mostly his own handiwork.
He’s also rather busy as a partner in new drum head company, Code as well as being actively involved with events to raise money for children’s charity Martin House, but amazingly – in between all that – Audient managed to snatch a quick chat with him, to find out what makes him tick.
You were essentially self-taught, so how is that you got into teaching drumming?
It was Rick [McNamara, Embrace guitarist, owner of two ASP880s and producer of the band’s most recent, eponymous album] that suggested the idea of teaching. I’ve never had ANY formal training; never done a grade in my life! I was in my thirties when I realised that I couldn’t do a lot of the techniques that some of my heroes like John Bonham could do, and that’s because I’d never learnt what are known as the rudiments of drumming. I’d got to be able to play a groove quite quickly and just played in bands, moving from one to another, and didn’t really need to use them.
I sorted that out by spending a year and a half with a good friend of mine who’s a drummer, who taught me all the things that I’d never learnt. I can say to my young students now: ‘Trust me. Learn this now, because it’s a lot harder in your late thirties.’ I’ve been teaching for the last seven years and I can tell my students that for the first five albums, I never used a double stroke or flam roll. ‘You may never use all this stuff,’ I tell them, ‘But if it’s in your arsenal then at least you can if you need to.’
“iD22: it’s got a good feel about it; the way it’s designed, it’s tactile and has very straightforward, easy to understand controls”
I play bass guitar as well. I spend a lot of time teaching grooves and then I’ll pick up a bass and play along with them – kind of like being in their first band. This is where the ASP880 and iD22 come in. I record the session through the ASP880 and iD22 and when they’ve gone, I’ll chuck a bit of guitar on top of it, email it to them and say: “There you go, that’s you playing drums on your first studio session!”
That must blow a kid’s mind! Tell us more about the set up you have in your studio, to help make this happen.
One of the drum kits is fully mic’d up to ProTools and now the only thing I use is the ASP880 and iD22 because the 10 inputs is spot on. Nine inputs for the drumkits and one for the bass. I always keep the drum kit with ProTools all set up and ready to go with the ASP880 – I know it’s going to sound good. It’s very useful.
We’d already built a small studio space in a barn at Rick’s house [where all Embrace albums are now produced] learning about sound proofing, how to use space, insulation and different densities of rockwool as we went along. Then my dad passed away eight years ago. He had a workshop on the side of his house, a room which was then just sitting there doing nothing. I drew on the experience at Rick’s, and with the help of my friend John the carpenter put in a floating floor and suspended ceiling – and created Squirrel Studios. It’s all of 13ft square, but I have a drum kit in there and my own space to write and record.
Sounds like the iD22 and ASP880 are just the ticket for you then.
They’re ideal for a small project studio setup that takes up very little room. Both very easy to use and sound great.
The iD22 looks expensive. It’s got a good feel about it; the way it’s designed, it’s tactile and has very straightforward, easy to understand controls. Not too many buttons on there – which I like, being a drummer as it’s not too complicated [laughs] – just a big knob in the middle for the volume. That’s great!
I also like that it’s really ergonomic. It feels good to use, doesn’t take up much space on the workstation and sits neatly by the keyboard …it’s very useable.
The preamps – obviously the same preamps on the iD22 and the ASP880 – soundwise are very transparent, clear and precise. They seem very punchy. I didn’t have the impedance switching [featured on the ASP880] before, and that’s really helpful to match up the different mics that I’m using.
The Audient set up just does what I want to do. For a small project studio, having 10 really good preamps and a clear software interface as well, it just makes things easy and quick to do. If I want to take it out and record on site, it’s easy take the iD22 and a laptop with you and set up in someone’s front room. I’ve done it a couple of times, and it’s very simple to do. That’s what I like about it – it’s such a compact little piece of kit.
“I always keep the drum kit with ProTools all set up and ready to go with the ASP880 – I know it’s going to sound good.”
You have given a lot of your time to kids and young people in recent years. Tell us more about that.
It’s funny because I’ve done a few talks in universities and colleges and you do find that people, especially younger kids, think that since you’ve had three number one albums, you must live in a castle and own a Ferrari. When you give them the news that neither of those are true, and we actually have to work ourselves silly to keep going, it’s a bit of a shock!
Yet you don’t want to shatter young musicians’ dreams. That’s why I like to work with young bands as they don’t think about that. We never thought about that when we started out, nobody does. You just think you’re the best thing in the world and you want to prove that.
You gifted some your time to the Martin House Children’s Hospice ‘Centre Stage’ competition too, right?
This is an amazing, battle of the bands type of competition, where the entrants have to raise money for Martin House and play in heats to be in with a chance to win a slot at the Leeds/Reading festival. There are various runner up prizes on offer too: a day in the studio recording with Rick and a day shooting a promo video with local film makers. Everyone chips in and likes to get involved. It’s young people raising money for young people.
Last year this band of 14 year-olds were playing at the final at the O2 Academy in Leeds – one of the most prestigious venues in Yorkshire if not the UK. There was a problem with the bass drum during their first song: it crept forward and fell off the stage. They only get to perform two songs and as a result of this they didn’t win.
The drummer himself was distraught and in floods of tears (although the Cribs guitarist, who was judging, reckoned it was pure rock’n’roll), so as a kind of consolation prize – and empathising with a fellow drummer – I invited them back to Squirrel Studios. I’m not really set up for band recording due to the size of the room, but have been doing more and more over the last couple of years with great results, but it just shows you don’t need a massive studio with the technology available today. We recorded each of them to a click track, and they went away with a tight and punchy mix that they’re proud to put on social media. Not bad for 14 year-olds!
Whilst you’re there as an inspiration to the next generation, who is it that YOU admire?
From a drumming point of view I’d say my favourite drummers are John Bonham, Benny Greb and Dave Grohl. Admire as a person…I’m going to have to be topical and say Bowie. Hunky Dory has to be the most genius album, whilst Life On Mars is probably my favourite track of all time.
I’m a massive Led Zeppelin fan, but there’s something about Life on Mars. Oh, and I’ve just got the new Bowie album and it’s incredible. The drumming is just …incredible.
“For a small project studio, having 10 really good preamps and a clear software interface as well, it just makes things easy and quick to do.”
Did you always want to be doing what you’re doing?
Music – yes. When I was 10, I was really into the Pistols and Clash. For my 11th birthday I wanted a white Les Paul so I could be like Steve Jones from the Pistols. My dad bought me a snare drum.
And then I became a drummer.
What piece of advice would you give a younger you just starting out?
Work harder. Spend more time learning your craft. When I first met Danny [McNamara, Embrace singer and Rick’s brother] he was – and still is – very driven. He helped me realise that I had to work hard to get anywhere.
Keep your ears open and learn everything you can from everybody you speak to.
Great advice, Mike – and thanks for the chat!