Saturday, July 25, 2009

Preparing Your Drums for a Session...

After I posted a couple of weeks ago on how to tune a drum on the fly, I got a few questions on tuning and preparing drums for an actual studio session. I'm by no means an expert on the subject but I do have a running checklist that I use when preparing for a session.

The thing you'll need to remember is that every sound is captured in the studio...EVERY sound, both good and bad. Small things that you may not notice on a live gig become large issues when put under the microscope, so you might as well confront them before the red light comes on.

Clean Your Drums- This sounds simple...and it is. You want to sound and look professional in this type of situation and lugging in a set of drums that have half an inch of dust on them doesn't look professional in the least bit. I mention this for a couple of other reasons as well though. You want the best sound possible out of your drums when recording. You want the tone of the wood to shine through. Eliminating excess dust and dirt from your equipment not only lets the brightness of the wood cut through, it keeps the moving parts in better working condition. Lugs and rims should be periodically taken off, cleaned and oiled if needed. Taking the time to detail your drums also alerts you to other problems that may have gone unnoticed if you hadn't taken the time to carefully look them over. A couple of weeks ago I discovered a missing lug on the bottom head of my floor tom that I otherwise would never have noticed (I guess I lost it at a gig...who knows...). A good wipe off with a dry rag will usually work. If they're really bad, you can use an appropriate cleaner to really make 'em shine.

Check All Lugs- You hit drums, therefore they occasionally break in places. I have a snare right now that needs to have a lug casing replaced...after 2 or 3 hard hitting tunes it starts to back out, resulting in the overall sound of the drum changing. Not a huge deal live, but consistency is the key with recording.

New Heads- Over time heads wear out. Since you're with your drums all of the time you may not notice the head dying, but once you get in the studio you'll find that you won't be able to get half of the tones that you want out of your drums without good heads. I prefer to change them the evening before. This gives them time to seed to the drum over night and you can then revisit them the next day and fine tune them. My personal preference in the studio is some type of single ply, coated head (Remo Coated Ambassadors, Evans J1, etc). I find I get a much cleaner tone with a single ply coated than I do with a doubly ply (Remo Pinstripes, for instance). And let's not forget the bottom heads...they don't need to be changed as often, but they affect the tone of the drum every bit as much as the top if it's been a while, change them out.

Pedals- You'll want to take your bass drum pedal off of the kick drum and press it a few times without hitting a drum. Any squeaks or rattles? Those have to be addressed. Again, that's something that can be let go on a live gig but that will come through on a recording. There's nothing worse than recording a great drum track for a soft ballad...and then realising that your kick pedal is squeaking everytime you press it. Some WD40 will fix the squeaks. If the pedal is rattling, you probably have some loose hardware. Most pedals have several places to adjust the tension and play in the pedal, so you'll want to visit every bolt and make sure they're tight.

Same thing with the hi-hat. You need to also check that the springs are set at the proper tension so that your top cymbal rebounds quickly and quietly after you press it.

Faulty Hardware- On to the stands. Make sure that all stands that support a drum or cymbal are sturdy. If you hit a cymbal and the top arm swings a little to the left, fix it. If there's a lock bolt that isn't functioning, fix it. You don't want to be wandering if the cymbal stand is going to stay still while you're playing...there's enough to worry about without that. It sucks to be in the middle of a great take and have something like a stand collapse or malfunction...because you probably could have attended to that problem before the session.

You'll also need to make sure that every cymbal stand has the appropriate cymbal sleeves and felts so that no part of your crash or ride cymbals touch the stand. Metal on metal is a less than pleasant sound as well as it affecting the tone of the cymbal you're hitting. Doing this also extends the life of your cymbals by preventing cracking at the bell.

Tuning- Like I've said before, tuning is very personal and varies from drum to drum and person to person. Some drummers tune their drums to specific notes on a keyboard...i.e. a major third apart, a minor fourth, etc. and others just go for a good sonic range that sound well when played in succession. Neither theory is wrong, just a different way to approach it. I'm with the latter. I've never tuned to specific notes per say, just what sounds good to my ear. However you prefer to tune is fine...just take time to get the tones you want. Don't forget to consider what kind of session this is...Is it a pop recording where the drums need to be cutting and powerful...a small group jazz session where the drumset is heard as a whole and not necessarily as individual drums...tune accordingly.

When you arrive at the studio (you'll be early, of course, because if you're not early you're late in my book) you'll want to re-visit the tuning of your drums, especially if they've travelled in extremely hot or cold weather conditions. Let me also say a note about Studio Engineers...USE THEIR KNOWLEDGE! They do this for a living, therefore alot of their suggestions come from practical application in recording situations. They're not just trying to cover your musical voice or dictate how you should tune...They're trying to help get great sounds. Don't forget they're getting paid for this too and want the best possible outcome. Just keep an open mind to their suggestions is all. And lastly...

Cymbals- If they're broken, replace them. Nuff said.

That's a small sample of what I do with my drums before a session...following is a short list of "extras" or necessities you might want to bring along with you to the session in case a malfunction happens...


-Extra hi-hat clutch

-Extra bass drum beater or bass drum pedal

-Rug...most studios are hardwood or concrete...they generally provide a rug, but not always. Chasing your hi-hat all day while laying down tracks is lame...make sure it's more than big enough for your whole kit to comfortably fit on.

-Extra snare strainer and snare head, or just bring a completely different drum (which is a good thing to do anyways...artists love variety!)

-Drum key

Again, all of the above are simply suggestions. I can tell you, being over prepared is far better than being under prepared anyday!

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

How To Be Creative...

If you haven't heard of Hugh MacLeod, you're missing out. He draws cartoons on the back of business cards...pretty silly huh? Except that he's built it into a very well known, very profitable little side business. He could probably make it a full time gig, but then that takes the "Sexy" out of it (Read his Manifesto How To Be'll understand). Instead, he keeps it at a level that makes it completely enjoyable to him, completely stress free...and that's a beautiful thing.

I'll post his 38 Steps of Creativity below...they're genius...and you can read the Manifesto to hear him expound on these. He's one of the reasons I decided to do a 180 degree turn with my career and completely go about re-vamping how I was doing things.

Let me just say...if you're looking for an "easy" button for your professional and creative career, this ain't it. This completely flies in the face of the "normal" way of doing things...and that's a beautiful thing!

So can check out some more of his cartoons at and you can download his complete manifesto as a PDF for free at .

38 Steps of Creativity

1. Ignore everybody

2. The idea doesn't have to be big. It just has to be yours.

3. Put the hours in.

4. If your biz plan depends on you suddenly being "discovered" by some bigshot, your plan will probably fail.

5. you are responsible for your own experience.

6. Everyone is born creative: everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten.

7. Keep your day job.

8. Companies that squelch creativity can no longer compete with companies that champion it.

9. Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb.

10. The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props.

11. Don't try to stand out from the crowd: avoid crowds altogether.

12. If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you.

13. Never compare your inside with somebody else's outside.

14. Dying young is overrated.

15. The most important thing a creative person can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not.

16. The world is changing.

17. Merit can be bought, passion can't.

18.Avoid the watercooler gang.

19. Sing in your own voice.

20. The choice of media is irrelevant.

21. Selling out is harder than it looks.

22. Nobody cares. Do it for yourself.

23. Worrying about "Commercial vs. Artistic" is a complete waste of time.

24. Don't worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually.

25. You have to find your own schtick.

26. Write from the heart.

27. The best way to get approval is not to need it.

28. Power is never given. Power is taken.

29. Whatever choice you make, the Devil gets his due eventually.

30. The hardest part of being creative is getting used to it.

31. Remain frugal.

32. Allow your work to age with you.

33. Being Poor Sucks.

34. Beware of turning hobbies into jobs.

35. Savor obscurity while it lasts.

36. Start blogging.

37. Meaning scales, People don't.

38. When your dreams become reality, they are no longer your dreams.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Practice: Swimming or Treadingwater?

Treading water is deceiving. You're working, but not that hard...and you never get anywhere.

Swimming is have to use your whole makes you move foward into newer waters...deeper waters...

Practice is similar. Alot of players say they practice...a small percentage of those are actually doing it...or should I say doing it correctly.

You see, we sometimes get review confused with practice.

If you can play a figure or piece of music at an acceptable level, then each time you play back over that piece you're reviewing. Review is necessary...when you have a big test coming up, you learn the material and then review it so that it's fresh on your mind. The problem is, if you take that same material and review it for the next test (which is on newer material) you'll mast likely fail. Not because you didn't look at the material, you just looked at old material.

So what is practice? Practice is learning new material...harder material. I don't sound good when I practice...actually, I sound awful. I flub fills, drop beats, screw up patterns, hit rims...and that's ok...because the next time I drop fewer beats, flub less, don't hit the rims. And the next time I actually sound good...that's when I know it's time to move on.

Here's a few points that let you know if you're practicing...

-You sound like a 3 year old.

-Your brain hurts when you get done.

-You stop in frustration, hit the snare real hard, compose yourself...and try it again.

-There are stick shaped holes in the wall...

If you're always reviewing the old stuff you know and you sound good playing it you're not really learning anything new. You stop growing, and that's the goal of practice.

Here's the point...if you set aside the time to practice, make sure you're really practicing. The goal is foward movement...faster hands, quicker reactions, deeper groove, etc. It's don't feel as good about your playing when you leave because you still can't play it, but that's why you get up the next day and hit it again, and again, and again...and when it sounds good you move on.

So here's to sounding's to headaches and sore's to patching those holes in the wall...and here's to swimming to better beaches.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The How and Why of it all...

One evening not to long ago I was driving home from a gig and I decided to take stock of how the night had gone. It was a nice restaurant in town, outside but the weather was just right, and we had a decent sized crowd. So I began to critique my playing…how I played this groove really well, incorporated that new sticking I’d been working on into several places, needed to work on my up tempo samba…then it hit me. There had been three other musicians onstage with me and all I remembered about the gig was what I had done, how I had sounded. As I dug a little deeper I discovered that I couldn’t remember one musical moment between me and another one of the players, or for that matter anything they had played at all. I could only remember what I had done. Then I felt it…remorse. I mean, I wasn’t going into depression over it, but it kinda’ve felt like I had missed seeing my best friend when he had come through town. It annoyed me, like fiberglass under the skin. I had had a well educated conversation going on around me and I had chosen to yell and scream (figuratively) to get my own voice heard.
I began to ask myself ,”Self, how could this happen? Why did you let this happen?”. I turned those questions around in my head for a while and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. The answer to my question was actually found within those two questions (yea yea, so I got philosophical on myself). I saw that two words in those questions could be used to explain it…the “how” and the “why” of it all. What I mean is, we as musicians (yes, drummers are musicians too…reminds me of a time I was on a flight with a band and the onboard magazine had a bunch of drummer jokes on the last page and the band proceeded to tell them to me, one at a time, for the next few hours…it was a really long flight…), need to not only analyze and understand how a person plays something but also why they play it. Was it a reaction to a soloist, a prompt for the chorus, or simply an effort to create a musical rhythmic background for the rest of the group?
The “how” really has to do with the mechanics of playing (the stuff us nerdy guys who love to practice spend off nights doing…). We as drummers spend countless hours listening to and picking apart what our favorite players are doing. We watch instructional videos to learn the correct stickings and proper technique. Then, for sheer love and enjoyment, we practice them and try to incorporate them into our vocabulary. A lot of private lessons are geared towards the “how” of drumming and this isn’t a bad thing. It is absolutely necessary to be comfortable and well versed on your instrument and in the knowledge of styles needed to perform our job correctly. But then there’s the “why”…
The “how” is a much easier question to answer because it’s set in stone. If one was to ask Steve Gadd to explain the groove on “Fifty-Ways to Leave Your Lover” or “Late in the Evening”, he could not only explain it and show you how, he could write it out, as he’s had to do countless times already. There is a specific sticking he used as well as an exact volume and area on the drums that he played to get those very distinct grooves and sounds. But why did it work so well? Sure, he could tell you his opinion of why it worked, but the fact is that if another drummer had recorded those same songs, they would have played them very differently (I’m praying I won’t be struck with lightning for even suggesting someone else could have recorded those songs near as well as he did). The reason is because every drummer has a different “why” to each situation, and the only wrong one is the one that’s not about the music but about the player and their agenda.
I was sick a while back and visited a new, very young doc who looked to be fresh out of med school. During my exam he used all of his new, fancy and impressive words to tell me what was wrong and I left his office extremely confused. Was it terminal? Would I ever be the same? What were these prescriptions for and why did they smell funny? He had been taught how to use his big words, but he had neither the experience nor the practical knowledge of why he would use them. On the other hand, my older family doc had learned how and why to use his twenty dollar words (as I call them). I always left his office with a complete understanding of the situation. He knew that doctor talk was supposed to be used with doctors and not with drummers. He never sought to impress me with his knowledge of medical terminology because he knew that wouldn’t be appropriate for solving the problem at hand.
To fully comprehend why a musician plays certain things we must immerse ourselves in the music, and that means listening. I’m ashamed to say that it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve come to the complete understanding of the importance of listening. The only catch is we can’t listen like drummers. The next opportunity you get, put on your favorite album, whether it’s jazz, rock, blues, or anywhere in between, and instead of listening for the drums, listen to everything BUT the drums. It’s hard at first. You’ll have to resist the temptation to air drum that massive fill into the chorus but trust me, the cold sweats will eventually subside and you’ll begin to hear a world of other things. Pick apart every instrument and be aware of what they’re doing. Then, slowly bring the drums back into the picture and begin to see why the placement of the bass drum works so well or why that massive fill was appropriate. Was it a response to the soloist or a cue for the bridge?

The great thing about answering the “why” of the music is that virtually any opinion about why a player played a particular part is right. There are no wrong answers as long as your answer is derived from the music itself!