The ever-busy prog-master shows us around his mega setup
Mike Portnoy has long been known for his love of big kits. From his hulking acrylic ‘Mirage Monster’ to the equally huge ‘Siamese Monster’, Portnoy has always surrounded himself with an array of toms, effects cymbals, percussion and more. His latest – armed for prog-metal supergroup Sons Of Apollo – is no different. “Everything in my kit gets used.” Mike tells us. “It’s not just there to look cool, everything has a use or a purpose at some point in the songs.”
A long-term endorsee of the brands he plays, Mike’s setups are ever-evolving around a core setup, so we took the chance to take a look around during SOA ’s recent European tour. If you’ve ever thought your load-in was tough, set your flight cases to stunned.
“I’ve been playing Tama for 35 years now. I bought my first Tama kit when I was a teenager in high school. I guess most people choose their brands based on their favourite drummers, and back then my favourite drummers were Neil Peart who was playing Tama at the time, Bill Bruford, Simon Phillips and Stewart Copeland, so I wanted to play Tama. So, yeah, I’ve been with them for 35 years with the exception of a couple of years in the early 90s when I played another brand. Other than that I’ve been with them pretty faithfully all this time, I even have their logo tattooed on my arm, I’m a lifer!
“I stay with them for two reasons. First of all the products themselves. I’ve always loved their drums and hardware, the durability. I’ve been playing them my whole life, and I’m just so accustomed to the feel and look of everything that they make. But the other thing is the relationship. Ever since I signed on as an endorser in the mid-90s, they have treated me with so much respect. They get me whatever I need, whenever and wherever I need it. That kind of support is really important in the relationship between an artist and their company, so I value that.”
“I’ve played Sabian since 1993, it’s been 25 years for me. Once again, their product speaks for themselves. They’re constantly trying new things with their cymbals. And it’s the same as with Tama, it’s a family. I don’t think I’d ever look anywhere else. I have the Sabian logo tattooed on me as well! I’m a dedicated artist, I’m not one of those guys who jumps around from brand to brand. If I find a company I like and respect and the feelings are mutual, then I’m very loyal.”
Sons Of Apollo Kit – Tama Starclass ic Bubinga
“I call it either the Apollonian Monster or The Kit of Apollo, I haven’t decided on the name
for it. This is basically my Sons Of Apollo kit. It’s a Bubinga kit with a mirrored finish. It has been through several different incarnations. The first time I used it was with Adrenaline Mob back in about 2012. Since then I’ve used it with Twisted Sister, and last year on the Shattered Fortress tour. This is the most up-to-date version. We’ve changed a few things here and there, but for the most part it’s been pretty consistent. The gong drum on the right, the Octobans on the left, three rack toms, three floor toms, it’s a pretty consistent big kit.
“For me, Bubinga strikes me as a very warm sound, which I like. But to be honest, I’m not one of those people who’s very anal about different woods and different types. I’m very open to trying different things, and being that I play in so many different bands with different configurations in different countries, there have been times where I’ve had to use a supplied kit. So I’m very open to trying different things – birch/bubinga, maple, or whatever else.”
“I’ve been using Remo’s new Colortone [Emperor] heads, which I really dig. First of all they look really cool, but they’re very warm. They’re not overly ringy, and they have a lot of control to them. The ones that are on this kit are the Ebony Emperors. Another really cool feature that my drum tech thought of was putting mirrored [Starfire] chrome heads on the bottom.
“With the Colortones I’ve found that [muffling] is not needed. Sometimes, if
I’m playing a regular Emperor I’ve found that I’ll need to put some duct tape or some Moongels on there, but the Colortones are pretty dark and not very ringy so I don’t really need it.”
“I tune them by ear, and I just know what my ear likes. I prefer it when the octobans aren’t tuned too high. You don’t want them to sound like timbales, I like them to sound like coconuts with a little bit of a lower tuning, even though they’re going to be naturally a little higher to begin with. I also have an LP timbalito all the way over on the left side. It’s really hard to reach! I use that in ‘Signs Of The Time’ and ‘Lines In The Sand’.”
Tama Mike Portnoy Melody Master snare
“[The throwoff] was something I came up with about 20 years ago when the snare came out. That was one of the unique features – having the three-way throwoff. So instead of being just on or off you can switch it between a tight or loose or off setting. So you can switch it from song to song or within the same song. It’s almost like having two snares in one. The one that’s on my kit now is one of the Bubinga ones with the Mike Portnoy ambigram. The older ones had the Dream Theater symbol, but once I left we changed it to my name.
“I usually keep it on the loose snare setting for the most part, and I like the top head to be tight.”
Pedals – Tama Speed Cobra
“I pretty much play the Speed Cobra, but once again, I’m in six different bands at the moment with different setups, so if there’s an Iron Cobra supplied sometimes, then that’s fine too. I’m really not picky about that. But the ones that stay on my kits are the Speed Cobras. I keep the beater kind of halfway between my leg and the head so it’s kind of floating. But I play my kick drums really strangely. I’m always heels-up, and my toe is usually around halfway up the pedalboard. So my foot is barely on the pedal and I’m kind of just pressing down on the pedal with my toes. I have to admit, it’s a little unorthodox.”
SABIAN MAX STAX/SPLASHES
“I always have a mid and a low Max stack with every band that I play with, and I usually have all three Max Splashes: the 7", 9" and 11". They’re pretty much staples with every one of my setups. I like them super-tight. In fact, I usually keep all my cymbals tight, there’s not much swing to them. I think I might have been the first [to release a signature stack]. I think Terry Bozzio’s came out after mine, but I kind of modelled it on Terry’s. Before he had his own Radius series with Sabian, he was stacking cymbals with his previous company, and I was trying to get that by stacking a bunch of
Sabians. Eventually, I decided to make my own Max Stax. Now there’s a lot of different ones, but I always did it because I loved that quick trashy sound. My son Max needs to come out with his own signature line named after me!”
“If you look at the crashes and chinas they’re almost completely symmetrical. I’ve always had the two big ones up front and 18" and 19", then I have the two chinas. On the right I have an additional 20" crash, then we have the O-Zones and the ‘Lampshades’ on both sides. Those aren’t even available, they’re prototypes that Chris at Sabian showed me and I absolutely loved the sound of them. They actually sound a bit like firecrackers. I used them on the Sons Of Apollo album and they’ve pretty much stayed there ever since. They pop almost like a gunshot, and they certainly sound different to anything else I have.
“So it’s pretty symmetrical, it’s not identical on both sides, but it’s pretty close. My body is always twisting and turning, so everything is always getting hit!”
“I try all different ones. I have some that are old faithfuls for me, like the signature Max stuff, and there’s always certain AAX and HHX ones that I like. But I’ve been using a lot of the Artisans lately, they’re really nice. Sabian has so many different awesome cymbals, I just say to Chris, ‘Just send me whatever and I’ll put them on the kit!’”
“I always like super-small splashes, and obviously most cymbal companies just do the 8", 10" and 12"s, so I wanted to go with the odd sizes; 7", 9" 11" just to offer something different. But I have the ability to have three different sounds, and the ones on the right are X-hats, there are no pedals attached to them.”
“I’m using my signature Pro Mark 420X sticks. They have the Active Grip and the black finish – whatever band I’m touring with I have the custom band logos on them.I was just saying to my tech yesterday, it’s incredible how durable the splashes are. Already on this tour, I’ve broken some big crashes and chinas, yet these little 7" and 9" splashes are holding up through the whole tour. I joke that I probably should have made them a little more fragile so people would have to buy more!”
“I’ve got three sets of hi-hats on the kit. There’s a traditional set of 14"s on the left, then over on the right there’s a set of 12"s that I keep closed all the time, then a set of 13"s that I keep open all the time. I hold my left stick with the butt-end out and my right stick with the tip out. It makes my tech crazy having to wrap half the sticks one way and half the other!”
Above: Mike at his Tama Starclassic Bubinga ‘Apollonian Monster’ kit Top right: The Sons Of Apollo kit, from the driving seat Middle right: Mike’s Max Stax signature cymbals were one of the first stacks on the market Bottom right: The latest version of Tama’s Mike Portnoy Melody Master snare drum
Far left As well as 14”, 16” and 18” floor toms, Mike uses a gong drum Above There are three sets of hi-hats in the kit for a range of open/ closed sounds Bottom left Tama Octobans: “I ike them to sound like coconuts” Far left Mike has been a fan of the Tama Speed Cobra since it launched