How’s it going guys? This is Seb and today I wanted to take some time to talk about how to properly record drums or at least get the best results as possible (in my opinion). Those of you who know me know that I’ve been playing and recording drums for about 15 years now and I’ve been mainly a studio drummer specifically.
Why did I specialize in studio recording? Well I wouldn’t recommend anybody to either be a touring drummer or a studio drummer, you obviously need to do both, but I’ve always preferred the working environment of a studio versus the craziness of going on tour, which is awesome, but from a working point of view can be very chaotic.
I started recording and producing when I was about 16 actually, my first studio experience was not the best to say the least but I’ll leave that one for another blog post.
After some years I was able to purchase an Alesis interface with 8 inputs from a friend and set up my very first home studio at home. I had a 5 piece Pearl drum kit that sounded pretty decent (I think it was one of those older Export models, they were pretty good), and then I had some delicious Sabian Cymbals (hhx evolution). For mics I was using a CAD kit (very affordable and decent sound) and I believe I had a shure 57 for the snare and probably some other overhead mics to make the overall quality decent.
That was my first experience recordings and I actually ended up recording 2 albums in that little room, my first ever recording job and my own album “Lost City” (2010). As the years went by and I kept getting more sessions I started to work in a really nice recording studio as the house drummer and also sound engineer assistant. So pretty much my life was in the studio, I’d practice there, record every day, and be surrounded by different artists and music genres. Later on in 2011 I came to California which is now my home and here I was able to record in some amazing studios with top industry recording engineers and musicians. Some include Anthony Crawford (Virgil Donati, Ronald Brunner Jr) Anton Davidyants, Jeremy Hanlon, Brockett Parsons (Lady Gaga, and an inmense list of artists), Shawn Phillips, Fabrizio Leo (Italy-Laura Pausini), among others.
Back to drums recording, I believe it’s an art in itself, but at the same time I truly learned and noticed that your gear doesn’t matter, your room doesn’t matter (it does but you’ll see what I mean), what really matters is that first you know how to play while recording, which is a lot different than playing live for instance, not only dynamic wise but also playing and serving the music versus having fun shredding the drums (unless music requires that). So obviously the way you play in the studio makes the difference between you getting some killer drum tracks and you having to deal with hours of mixing and trying to make up for a lack of good recording skills. Don’t get me wrong I’m not perfect and either way the best way to learn is to record and then hear yourself as much as possible.
So here’s some key tips:
Think of this, as drummers we don’t have many notes to work with, but we do have a massive dynamic range to express ourselves as artists (Yes we are artists even if your tacky guitar player tells you otherwise) so you really need to get the most out of that.
One of my least favorite things is when I hear a drummer play and sound monotone, with very loud “ghost notes” for instance, this makes people confused on whats really important in the grove and whats not. Pick carefully and wisely when you play ghost notes and remember that they are mean to be your own guide in the groove and rhythm. The band has you as guide, but you have ghost notes to subdivide time and help you stay locked in. So don’t oversaturate the groove with them and also pick them and really think to yourself, is this note worth playing? Or If I remove it , it might actually let the rhythm breathe more? If you hear beats that groove, they’re very simple, they’re never super busy. So keep that in mind, but also remember, when you play ghost notes don’t play them louder than they should be, this will also generate a greater contrast with the louder notes – rimshot strokes. This will make you sound very clean and professional, sound engineers will love you for that.
2-Serve the music:
Did you ever find yourself listening to a track and then realizing that the drums are there? Meaning you first noticed the music and then slowly started paying more attention to the drums realizing how well it blends with the track. That’s how all drummers should play (for the most part), obviously it’s great and we love it when the drums are upfront with an epic groove, but that’s rarely the case usually. So always think on terms of what the track really needs, experiment as much as possible (before the session) with different rhythms and fills to see what fits best the type of music you’re playing. Feel free to record 2 solid takes and 1 or 2 more experimenting more, so then you have a great amount of material to work with (I wouldn’t recommend more than 3-4 takes as this can make it very time consuming during editing)
3-Dealing with the click:
For some drummers the click is a bad word or an enemy, whereas it should be your very good friend. I knew this that’s why I started from very early playing with a click and trust me it becomes very natural, in fact, like Simon Phillips says you’ll know when you’re on time because you’ll stop hearing the click. You don’t have to put it ultra loud on your headphones, just enough to hear it but also it’s very true what Simon says, if you actually hear the click too much then it means your not really locked in.
Obviously sometimes (more advanced “techniques”) do require you to play slower or faster than the click (behind-ahead). But first you need to master being on time, it was to be one of your Aces, there’s no other way around it, if you want to become a recording drummer this is a must. There’s a great variety of exercises to perfect this, from mastering how to play very slow, to play for 4 measures and then remove the click 1 measure, then 2, and so on until you can play in time for 4 or more 4/4 measures. Play in all times and signatures and you’ll become a master of time!
4-Write your own charts:
Picture this, you’re now a very busy recording drummer and they contact you to record an album next week, it’s 20 songs. What would you do? Obviously it would be not only really hard but very time consuming to memorize those tracks, but writing charts will save you time and guide you through the sessions. Don’t let them scare you, I used to write very messy charts at first but they made sense to me and helped me remember arrangements, time signatures, dynamics, etc.
You’ll also realize that most songs are always the same and repeat the same parts, but you should also be prepared for more complicated parts and learn how to follow different structures from rock to pop, jazz, latin music, as much as possible. If you want to have consistent work you need to be able to play everything.
5-Communicate with the other musicians:
This is always necessary, go into detail with the producer or whoever hired you on what he wants you to do. Don’t be scared to ask twice, it’s better that you’re sure about the parts than having to stop mid recording to discuss what was wrong with what you played.
On the side note: Be confident about yourself, I know sometimes it can get a bit intimidating specially if you’re the only one recording and there’s a room full of people watching you play behind the glass. The only way to fix this is practice as much as possible and just be yourself, if they called you they know how well you can play so they know you’re the right person for the part, blow them away with your chops and grooves and don’t let the situation make you nervous. The more you record the more used to it you’ll get.
Some extra tips:
Before leaving to the studio make sure twice that you’re bringing everything you need. -Write charts even if you feel like you don’t need to, the more information you have the better.
Bring extra drum heads and always use some tape or pad to protect the bass drum head, if you play rock and even if it’s a brand new head you can still break it with the beater of the pedal because of the high friction, so try to avoid that at all cost.
Get this Vic Firth headphones: They’re perfect for recording, not only they isolate the drums but they sound good while doing so, it’ll help you taking care of your ears and having to use a random headphone that will not fully isolate the loud noise, resulting on you having to crank up the track way too loud!
Always arrive early: Be professional and arrive a hour early or 30 minutes at least, that shows that you really care about your job and you’re not just rushing and want it to get it over with. Specially if you need to set up, we always know it takes longer than we expect.
This is your profession and you do it for a reason, all your practice will be rewarded with more opportunities and an income that will give you freedom to play more music.