Frank's Gear

Frank Van Essen took some time away to answer a few questions related to his Iona gear.

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Frank Van Essen: Drums / Percussion / Violins / Vocals

Q. Can you tell us what equipment you used on the new Iona album 'Another Realm'?

As we recorded this in several phases, I used my 2 different drumkit setups plus a load of other stuff. In my own studio, I have a permanent recording setup for my drums, based around my good old 6-piece Sonor Hilite, quite a unique and great looking and sounding set of drums, with ivory white piano laquer and Protec titanium hardware stands. This is the first kit I ever bought myself, many years ago and never departed with because it is such a great sounding kit. I equipped it with a RIMS system to give the toms more sustain, and use Pinstripe heads on the toms, although I sometimes use Evans G2's as well if I want a bit more "open" sound. When I bought the kit, it came without the snare, they had sold it separately, but found it years later in a shop in another town second hand! It must have been the original snare, since they are quite rare in this finish. That Sonor Hilite snare sounds great and has been used on most of the tracks, along with my copper and slightly deeper Ludwig snare. For the tracks recorded in Johan's studio (Let Your Glory Fall, Clouds and Another Realm I believe) I used my touring kit, which is a red Sonor Force 3003, also a great sounding and more modern kit, with Evans Genera G2 coated heads on toms. Since this is a 5-piece kit, I brought my 15" Hilite tom as an extra. Sometimes I will also use a 10" Remo piccolo snare, like on "Let Your Glory Fall" where I use that in the beginning with the snare off.

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Another Realm kit, 2011

Cymbal wise I have aquired a great collection over the years, of all kinds of different brands. They are just cymbals that I like, I don't go for a particular brand. As ride I have a great 20" Zildjian K Custom ride which has a very distinct ping and not too many overtones, great for heavier ride work. But I also use a 20" Masterwork Pera sometimes, which is a lot lighter with more overtones. Crashes are 16" and 18" Masterwork Pera, an 18" Sabian Crash Ride, a Zildjian 18" K Dark Custom, an 18" A Custom crash, and an 18" Sabian HHX O-zone crash. Hihats are either 13" Turkish hats, 14" Masterwork Pera, or 14" Zildjian K/Z. And of course my great and amazing 22" Zildjian Oriental Trash China cymbal, plus 2 Ufip splashes, 6 and 8".

For percussion I have used a myriad of different drums and all kinds of shaky and tingly goodies. I have a great Brendan White bodhran that I used on several tracks, a Meinl talking drum, a Remo Djembe and a huge African drum that is mainly featured in White Horse. Don't remember what else I used, really....

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On to the violins!

My most "personal" instrument is a very old, small yet lovely Klotz violin which has been build in 1784 in Germany. I have had this for 20 years or so, so it is really "my" instrument. I also have a 2006 Leonhardt violin which has been build in the same town as the Klotz and sounds bigger and fuller and will only get better as the years go by. Well, I won't make 250 years with it I guess, but hope to be enjoying the instrument for a long time still!

My 3rd violin is a lovely acoustic 5-string of unknown origin. I bought it on eBay a few years back for 400 Euro's or so. It has a vey deep sound and a 5th string, the low C, so I can use it both as a violin and as viola. Actually, the label inside says it is a Guarneri - if true that would mean it would be worth millions, but it is most likely some kind of copy. Sounds lovely though. And than - last but not least - I own a wonderful viola, build around the 1900's in Antwerp, on which I also feel particularly at home since it is a lot bigger than my violins and I am a big guy. It has a very warm and deep sound with an amazing singing quality in the higher regions.

Q. Has your drum setup changed much since the early days of Iona?

Not really. I change cymbals every now and than, sometimes using a double hihat or bassdrum pedal. But the main setup is quite consistent.

Q. You are pretty unique being a great rock drummer as well as an amazing violinist - quite an unusual combination! How did this come about?

Haha divine intervention maybe? Well, I come from a very musical background and my whole family was trained in Classical music, so the choice for violin was not surprising since my brother also studied violin - although I also played piano for a while, which I picked up again at a much later time in my life. But I grew to love groovy music, like Stevie Wonder, black gospel and jazz rock-fusion. Around 15 or so I had an opportunity to start playing drums, something I wanted for quite a while. I loved it and it became my passion to play and practise for many years following.

Q. There's a great bit of what sounds like electric violin on the title track of the new album. This is a new sound for Iona. Can you tell us about that?

Yeah, that's my 250 year old violin on amphetamines! I have a pickup in the bridge, and the signal from that gets processed through a virtual guitar amp, with some distortion on it, lots of compression and a virtual cabinet with 4 10" speakers in it. I don;t use that setup a lot, but it somehow seemed to fit the song, and it makes me play in a different way as well.

Q. On several tracks of 'Another Realm', there is what sounds like a large string section, notably on the track 'Clouds'! But this is all you! How did you achieve that sound?

What I did a lot in the studio was that I overdubbed Dave's key parts with several violins on separate tracks. So I would extract a 1st violin part from his keys and overdub that 3 times with different instruments and microphone setups, move on to a 2nd violin part and do the same, and finally a viola part which I also overdubbed 3 times. It makes for a very rich and full string sound, especially when combined with sampled orchestral sounds. On Clouds though, I started from scratch and arranged the strings around what was already there in the track. Dave encouraged me to get really creative there, so there is some wild stuff going on in the strings. Maybe I'll upload a sample of just the strings one day, so you can hear really well what is happening there.

This method of working actually became a bit of a specialty of mine, and over the years I have developed an online service for arranging and recording full string sections/orchestras through my website More recently I have moved on to doing full orchestrations after studying a few semesters with the Berklee School of Music in Boston, USA.. Although I do not play every instrument in a symphony orchestra, unfortunately! But it is surprising what can be achieved nowadays with good samples and careful programming.

Q. Quite often Iona albums feature unusual-sounding percussion instruments. There is some interesting percussion on the track 'Children of Time' from The Circling Hour album and also on the new album's 'White Horse'. What instruments are you playing?

As mentioned earlier, on White Horse I mainly used a big African drum that I bought a few years back. It is a beautiful drum with cowskin, although I could never bring it on tour, it is too big... I also used a very small but lovely sounding clay drum that I bought in Israel a couple of years ago, plus a metal fruit bowl which I thought sounded great!
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Darabukah from Jerusalem

On Children of time I mainly used a middle eastern Darabukah (pictured right), also bought in Jerusalem, but Syrian in origin. It is beautifully laid in with mother of pearl decoration. More importantly, it sounds amazing! Also, I used some finger cymbals, which are small, thick bell like cymbals with a little elastic loop on them so you can strap them around your fingers and play them that way. I usually just hold them by the loops, one in each hand and play them that way.

Q. You have a huge collection of percussion instruments from around the world. Can you tell us more about them and where they are from?

I have a few more African longdrums that I bought when I visited Uganda a few years back. Not easy to bring on the plane, but I managed! The Darabukkah's I already mentioned, I have a few of those in different sizes, including a metal one with a small tambourine inside that is quit fun to play. Other than that, most of my instruments are copies of originals because they are more durable that way. My Cajon for example, originated from South America and is used a lot in Flamenco music. It looks a bit like a wooden box, well it IS a wooden box, and the top layer of wood is slightly loose so it makes a snapping sound when you hit it, plus it has a few nylon strings inside, so it sounds a bit like a snare drum.
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My percussion collection!
It also has little bells on the inside which are pretty hard to distinguish when you play it, but adds a specific flavour to the sound. In the back of the box there is a hole, kind of like a bass port, great for miking it up.

My talking drum is a Meinl, quite similar to the one I was using on the Book of Kells album, many years back! That particular one had leather ropes on the side and was from Senegal, but I broke the heads after a while and they are almost inpossible to re-skin. So that was the end of that one. The commercial Meinl is sounding great too, and is more durable and easy to replace.

When playing live I use the Talking drum instead of the big African drum in White Horse, as well as as replacement for Bodhran, because it has a little similar sound. By putting more pressure on the ropes, the sound goes up, and down again when I release it, hence the "talking" quality - a technique also used with Bodhrans, but in that case it is done with the hand inside the drum. Those are a few I can think of!

Q. Do you have a chosen instrument - a kind of 'desert island' choice?

Hmmm not really, but if I could only bring 1 instrument it would probably be a piano, since it is the easiest instrument to sing and worship with! I can always find something to bang on or make a drum with, and a violin would probably wear out really soon.

Q. As well as playing drums, violin, piano (yes, Frank is also a very good pianist!) and vocals, you also have your own recording studio where you record and produce many projects, including parts of the new Iona album. Which parts were recorded there and what are the favourite bits of equipment you used?

A lot of the drumparts were recorded at my place, including White Horse, the Angels Dance and Another Realm. I have a nice selection of microphones that I use, including a similar Soundfield Microphone that Dave also uses a lot, for ambience recording. The mikes go into a Focusrite ISA 828 and a Focusrite Liquid Saffire Pro into my workstation, a Mac Pro running Windows 7. The software I use for all my recording, editing and mixing is the amazing program Samplitude Pro 12, and I use the internal Samplitude plugins for EQ's and some reverbs, plus Universal Audio "powered" plugins including an emulation of an EMT 250, one of the first digital reverbs, and a Fairchild compressor which I use a lot too.

I am a great fan of ribbon microphones and I usually record my violins using an AEA R84 through the Focusrite. But I also use the Soundfield, or a small condensor mike clipped onto my violin, build by SD systems.

Q. How do you think the new Iona album differs from the previous studio album ' The Circling Hour'? Do you have a favourite track and if so, which one and why?

I think the thematic approach to Another Realm works really well, because it inspired us to explore the unknown! And also, it is real testament of our journey of faith over the last years. That makes it more cohesive, athough still very varied in styles and atmospheres. I think my favourite track would be "Let Your Glory Fall", although White Horse also comes to mind! Oh and The Angels Dance of course! And how about Ruach and Another Realm... Hard to pick one!

The Circling Hour did not have a real prominent theme, although there are some great songs on it too, like Strength and Children of Time.

Continue to Frank's Bio >


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