In The Loop With The Pros
For many years since the inception of studio recording sessions, the status quo for a successful session drummer has been to have exceptional time, great-sounding drums, qualified reading skills, and an approachable personality. But during the past couple of decades the role of session drummer has changed. The late ’70s saw the rise of drum machines and electronic drums. In the ’80s, more and more drummers began to trigger sounds electronically from their acoustic kits. And with the ’90s came the flood of loop machines and computer technology. The result of all this technical advancement is that, in addition to getting along well with producers, musicians, and his own instruments (no small task in itself), today’s session drummer has to court a working relationship with all manner of electronic rhythm production.
How have things changed in the new millennium? Simply put, the advent of digital recording technology using hard disk recorders and computer programs like Pro Tools is completely changing the way a large amount of contemporary music is being recorded and edited. These days many producers and contractors are hiring “sound programmers,” along with drummers, to enhance the groove.
With all of the samplers, prerecorded loops, and programmers in the studio, how much of what we hear today from a drummer is actual acoustic drums or electronics? MD asked some of the best “hired guns” in the business to comment on their current role and gear requirements in the studio.
John “JR” Robinson
(Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Rufus)
I prefer to use acoustic drums. Since I’ve come back to Yamaha, they’ve made the Birch Custom Absolute drumset for me and also the two new JR Robinson custom snare drums that really cover all the bases. Nothing [electronic] sounds like acoustic attack – nothing.
Back in the ’80s, I was one of the first session drummers to develop a triggering system, and I used to carry mixing boards and all this stupid crap so I could blend my sound between acoustic and electric. But there was always latency coming from the electronic side. We would try to dial it in as much as possible, but it was a challenge.
Then I went through the “Forat F16” world, which was really quite innovative for its time. It was an old mono triggering sampler, which would trigger faster than anything. Next, I went through the Simmons phase of combining acoustic snare and kick with Simmons toms, which gave the tom sound a lot of length and attack and really jumped out in the mix. At that time I also worked with Yamaha in developing the PMC electronic drumset using FM digital synthesis. But that didn’t really work either.
Despite all this, I’ve always been a purist. It’s always been about acoustic drums for me. I worked with Quincy Jones, and on some of the Michael Jackson records we did, Quincy would want all these different clap sounds and things like that. So I would manufacture that sort of thing. Then he would want me to bring in the pads and trigger samples to make it sound “machine-like.” Back in the ’80s there was a trend to make acoustic drums sound like machines.
Then the ’90s came along and Roland came out with the V-Drums. And now Yamaha has come out with the DTXTREME, which is amazing. So the V-Drums have sort of become the standard for studio electronics in recent times, but the Yamaha DT electronics are a whole new animal because they do many things differently from the V-Drums. So they’ve each become unique and separate tools.
All that said, today I don’t combine acoustic and electronics at all. I absolutely hate it! What I do is isolate them and use one or the other. With the cooperation of Yamaha, I can have the JR Custom acoustic set, and right next to it, the DTXTREME setup. So if I need to roll from acoustic to electronic, I can do that. I also have a full recording studio in my house, so if people want me to program and do electronic things, I have them send me tapes and we do it on hard disk. But over the past two years, all the calls I’ve gotten for session dates have been acoustic drums only.
At this point, I would describe electronics as a carpenter would describe his tool belt. It’s one of the tools that you need as a drummer. Now, this leads into situations of using Pro Tools. A drummer who’s a “C” level drummer can basically go in and play for any producer, record into Pro Tools, and they can make him sound like an “A” level player. That’s not good. Where’s the style in doing that?
On the other side of that coin, you have engineers who will take things that I’ve done and add the same kick and snare triggers on top. In fact, the engineers are usually the culprits of what ends up being layers of junk on top of the original acoustic sounds. They like to come in and trigger snare sounds in the mix to add what they think is something that the song needs, just because they’re programmed to think that it needs more than it really does.
Over the past couple of years I’ve done about thirty percent of my work at home. The studio scene has changed tremendously. It’s not like it used to be, where you’d be locked in a studio for a week at a time. If you don’t put together your own home studio, you’re going to lose work. It’s even getting to the point where soon I’ll be able to record, in real time, a session in London without leaving my house in LA, all through the phone line.
The trend lately has been all acoustic drums. And you’ve really got to give credit to a lot of the young bands with the “garage band” sound, because they’ve repopularized real sounds – because they’re real bands!
Most of what I’ve been doing is acoustic. Eric Clapton’s “Change The World” was all acoustic. All the Clint Black stuff I’ve done is all acoustic. I just got back from Nashville from working with Toby Keith, and the acoustic drum sounds we got were huge. So at this point I’m actually working on improving the sound of my acoustic drums more than anything else, which is great. I feel like a real drummer again!
(John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton)
My session work hasn’t really changed in many years. Most of the sessions I do are live in the studio. As far as requirements for gear, my gear is acoustic drums. Bringing electronics is basically up to me. I like to bring a drumKAT and a sampler once in a while to add sounds along with the drumset. But I don’t use the KAT for drum sounds, just usually for odd sounds that I’ve sampled myself.
The majority of electronic drum sounds in the studios here in LA in the ’80s were horrible. We were all searching for just the right triggers and pads and spending a lot of money on certain gear that didn’t really live up to its promise. But what got me through that period was, instead of expecting to reproduce great drum sounds, I was enjoying – and getting a lot of use out of’the cheesy little samples that I made by blowing my own chips [creating original sounds].
I think the worst part of a lot of sessions back then was having to hit the bass drum as hard as you could to get the triggers in the booth to respond. All musicality went out the window. Nowadays I may sequence something, but I don’t like loops because they’re too static. If I’m going to do any programming, I’ll usually program the entire form of a song.
A lot of people think of me as a session musician, and I am, in that I’ve played sessions most of my life. That’s where I came into the business. But I’ve never been one who works in the studio every day like a real session guy. The closest I came to that was in the mid-’70s, because there was such a huge volume of recording sessions going on. For many years, I’ve played on albums where I only played a few of the songs. It’s kind of rare that I do an entire album.
I’ve been fortunate to have worked with great songwriters who want me to interpret their music the best that I can on acoustic drums. I continue to do that kind of work – and probably will until I drop!
(Phil Collins, Steely Dan, Whitney Houston)
Today most of my sessions are about eighty percent acoustic drums and twenty percent electronic. I’ll use either Roland V-Drums or program the Akai MPC 3000. I’m also asked to bring many different snare drums, because a lot of today’s music doesn’t use real drummers, meaning that someone has programmed sampled sounds trying to emulate a drummer. It’s not a real drummer playing. So I’m hired to record live snare drums over the loops. They usually ask me to bring a nice array of cymbals as well to add cymbal swells.
There’s not a lot of triggering going on any more from the acoustic set, because they can do that later with computer technology. Most of the sessions I do are recorded to digital tape, except for producers like Babyface, who will record me to 2″ analog as well as digital. Then they take the analog performance and save it so that when they get ready for the final mix, that’s the performance they’ll use because it’s a warmer sound.
I’ve recently been working with George Duke, and he has a couple of hard-disk systems. I also use a hard-disk system in my home studio. I use the Akai DR16 Pro, which is 24-bit, 96k, 16-track hard-disk recorder. My tape format is the Tascam DA format. Over the last few months I’ve probably done about seventy percent of my recording at my home studio, Ahhsum Lawson.
Most of the sound manipulation that’s added once my tracks are recorded is done after the fact. Once the producer has what he wants from me, I’m gone. The next time I hear the track is on the radio. The drag is that the technology doesn’t push you to become a better player, or singer, because it can manipulate the information to change the performance completely. For a singer, you don’t even have to sing on pitch. The computer will correct all of your weaknesses. What happens then is the public isn’t getting an accurate representation of that person’s abilities, yet that singer may end up getting a multi-million-dollar contract.
The new technology doesn’t push drummers to become better at their craft. Don’t get me wrong, it’s incredible technology. But it just doesn’t push a lot of young musicians to become better players. There are times when they’ll take my tracks and stretch the time, or cut out a section and put it somewhere else. It ends up sounding great, but it’s not really what I played.
A lot of times they’ll ask me to play more like a machine because most of what they’re programming is from machines. I’ve got a pretty good handle on what they want, and it can still be intimidating. But it’s a job, and you know what the job is, so you go in and make it happen. Don’t complain, just do your job. And when it’s done, you’ll actually be better off knowing that you accomplished what you were asked to do.
(Alan Jackson, Wynonna, Brian Wilson)
Combining electronics and acoustic drums for today’s recording sessions is much less prevalent than it was two years ago. Most of the producers I work for now don’t really care. It’s usually more between the engineers and us now.
When I’m called, the production coordinator tells me who’s engineering, and I know by that whether or not I’ll need electronics. Sometimes we’ll afree to record triggered sounds [as well as acoustic], and he can decide later which, if any, he wants to use.
Engineers that I work with who also produce several acts, such as John Kelton, bring their own computer. I’ll send John MIDI info triggered from my toms. He can either use them to control his gates or add to the tom sound from his own samples during the mix. He doesn’t need to worry about kick and snare, because the Pro Tools sound replacement plug-in. But this isn’t usually necessary. The song tells you what you need to do. If it’s a song that’s more in a pop vein, then we consider sound-casting “more than likely loops” for that effort.
Being that samples today aren’t “electronic” sounds and are real drum samples, it would be hard to say how much of what we hear in the final mix is electronics and/or real drums. An engineer can replace or add another drum sample to the existing kick, snare, cross-stick, etc. It’ll just be something that will sound great in the mix and maybe not so detectable to us.
You can add reverbated, reverse, echo, etc.’to a snare, kick, or toms, and it greatly enhances the drums. A lot of times I’ll hear the record, and when I see the engineer later I’ll comment on the great mix and ask what he did to the drums. In most cases he replies, “I didn’t have to do anything.” I think most of us know better. We greatly depend on the talent of our engineers for the way we sound on recordings, regardless of whether we trigger sounds or not.
I realize that most drummers reading this are thinking that it takes a lot of money to have all this gear we’ve been talking about, and that’s true. So let me inspire you and say that you can still make your way into the studio scene with only your acoustic drums. Today there are a lot of engineers and producers who only want that. They have the gear to change whatever they want later, if they decide to change anything at all.
As you work more and are able to acquire some of the gear you’re reading about, it would be a good idea to consider purchasing a few things. Obviously, by having more gear, you’d be able to handle those projects that would require more than just acoustic drums. I feel you should eventually have a rack with sound sources, a sampler, a sequencer, and a mixer capable of triggering sounds, and your sound sources should certainly be diverse and up-to-date.
All in all, the standard for me is set by the accounts I work for. It’s a different story for each one of us.
(Frank Zappa, Sting, Joni Mitchell)
All I do is play acoustic drums on sessions. I don’t bring electronic drums. I don’t get called for that. However, I am quite active in the recording industry, in fact in several different factions of it, not only a narrow idiomatic segment. So I have a good idea of the modus operandi at this time.
What I’ve seen lately is that I’m called to either replace loops that exist on tracks or play along with them. Most of the “electronic” segments of pre-existing tracks are already programmed or have been done in “pre-production.”
Sometimes if I replace a loop, I may be asked to approximate the loop as closely as possible. Sometimes they want me to play somewhat closely to the loop, or not at all. Sometimes I’m given free rein to play as I see fit, or in accordance with the interpretation of the producer, and sometimes the artist as well.
Obviously, with the array of electronic devises at a musician’s disposal today, one could assume that the drummer could bring devices that could enable him to trigger, or even create somewhat unusual-sounding rhythmic performances; i.e. pads with samplers and/or synths and filters and effects devices. However, what I see happening today is that all of that is usually done in pre-production. If the artist/producer wants effected-sounding drums, then they can create and program that very thing and do it according to their musical vision.
(John Mellencamp, Melissa Etheridge, John Fogerty)
So far this year I’ve done ten albums, and the biggest thing I’ve noticed – which is something I’ve never done before – is that suddenly I’ve become the “overdub guy.” Because of Pro Tools, a lot of today’s producers, and especially producers who are songwriters, can demo up all their songs in their home studio, which saves them the cost of going into the big expensive studio with a full band. They create the loops or have a programmer come in and create grooves. Then they bring in the vocalist and the other players to the point where the track is basically finished. After all this, they bring me in, move into a big room, and in two days I crank out eight or nine songs. So they end up spending a minimal amount of time in the large, expensive studio.
It used to be where you’d walk in with a full band and work on arrangements and discuss the music. Now the way it’s done is that the rest of the band has already played their parts, so they’re not going to be able to react to what I play. It ends up being me trying to create a vibe with the tracks that are finished. The artist and producer save money that way.
For instance, I’ve done two records with Melissa Etheridge. On the first record, we went in with a full band, arranged the songs together, and did about two songs a day. For her latest record, she went in with one guy who is a producer/engineer/programmer. They worked on the record for a couple of months, and at that point they decided that a live feel was missing.
With Melissa being a very passionate singer, when she would go for something vocally, the loops and drum programming kinda stayed in the same dynamic and it was missing the passion. So they had me come in and overdub, which provided the live excitement in the groove that was missing.
On Alice Cooper’s new record, the producer, who was also the songwriter/engineer, wrote all the songs and created some very involved drum programming with loops. They had the guitar, bass, and vocal tracks done. They weren’t the keeper tracks, but they created them so I could hear the song. So I came in and we worked hard to get the keeper drum tracks with the feel and the vibe. Then they replaced everything else and built the tracks around what I had played.
Another aspect of Pro Tools – which is involved in every session now – is that after a couple of takes the producer will say, “That’s good enough. We’ll fix it.” I don’t have a problem with producers fixing a minor thing like one bass drum kick in the bridge that’s a little late, or maybe out of five tracks the bridge in the third track is better than the track you’re keeping, so they move that bridge into the song. But when they sit there after a certain number of takes and say, “That’s good enough, we’ll fix it,” my thought is, No, it’s not good enough, especially if they haven’t gotten the best, most creative track out of me yet.
As a session player, sometimes the second take is the best, but sometimes it might be the seventh or eighth take, because I’m developing ideas and I’m developing a feel for the song, just as an actor gets into his character. Sometimes it takes a while to really get into the whole vibe of the song. So if producers are starting to shut that down, then they’re missing out on the really good stuff Pro Tools can never replace.
The electronic side of my session work is different too. A lot of times when I come in with loops and stuff to add to the tracks, the producer already has a programmer there, or the engineer has a ton of loops.
The most important thing for producers to understand is that they’ll never be able to replace real drummers. It’s impossible! It’s like trying to take a five-year-old bottle of wine and forcing it to become a thirty-year-old bottle of wine. You can get close, but anybody who’s got real ears knows it’s just not the same.
(Tori Amos, Wallflowers, Macy Gray)
On the most recent record with Tori Amos, and generally when recording with her, it’s “bring everything and do anything.” That’s great. It’s like, bring everything you have and “freak out.”
Generally what I do with most people is have three rigs set up: a traditional drumkit, an electronics rig, and a percussion kit. With my electronic rig I have Roland V-Drums, which I tend to run through guitar amps using various stomp boxes. I’ll try any odd guitar pedal I can find to run the V-Drums through to try to destroy the original sound as much as possible. V-Drums don’t work for me as an acoustic drum instrument, so I use guitar pedals to alter their sounds. It’s a lot of fun to turn the knobs and see what happens.
My percussion rig is basically a drumkit created from various percussion instruments. My kick drum is a Native American drum made by Taos. I’ll use a headed tambourine on a snare stand, a bongo, and a timpani. I also have these pieces of metal that I hammered out with Greg Keplinger, who makes the Keplinger snare drums here in Seattle. We got together and took these round pieces of metal and hammered them into cymbals. I’ve been using those a lot lately for that kit. And I have finger cymbals I use for hi-hats.
So a lot of times in the studio, along with the obvious drumset part, they’ll want some type of loop or filtered-out kit effect. If there’s not a programmer there to create it, I’ll set up this percussion kit and mic’ it with my own microphones. I have a set of these really crappy mic’s, like a taxi radio dispatch mic’ and other cheap mic’s with really limited frequency response. I’ll plug those into this thing called a Sherman analog filter, which is basically a synthesizer filter that you can run audio through and make filter sweeps and distortion. So it’s basically like running your sounds through a guitar pedal. Believe it or not, you can actually create that type of thing faster than you can program a pattern or use a loop, and it sounds more unusual. It sounds programmed, but it’s got more life and it’s moving around a little more and changing around and doing things that a programmer can’t do.
I do the same thing with my acoustic drums. I’ve got these cheap-o tube mic-pre-amps that I bought off eBay. It’s a tube mic-mixer, and when you plug a mic into it, it distorts, because it can’t handle the level of drums. So what will happen is the engineer will set up his mic’s around the drumkit in typical fashion. Then I’ll feed him a couple of mic’s, one with distortion, one with some hideous compression, and then another using the taxi cab mic over my right shoulder. I’ll give him the lines to those mic’s and have him plug them into the board. That way, if they want to get a different drum sound for the verse of a song or something, they can just solo one of those cheesy mic’s – and there you go!
Having all those kits set up makes it very easy to go from one sound to another. Most of what I’m doing in the studio is not just playing drums in a traditional studio drummer sense. They’ll say, “Okay, we need a vibe for this section of the song.” What are you going to do? You can’t just play your regular drumkit, because it will sound the same. I need definite drum sound changes, just like a guitar player will change from a dry sound to a distorted sound. I think that drums are starting to go in that direction for recording because of all the hip-hop and DJ stuff that’s so popular, where the sounds are changing constantly on the records.
For me, the standard is to have everything available to create strange things quickly. Because if you’re a drummer, you want to play drums, you don’t want to sit there and tweak a computer for hours.
The environment of today’s session is that if you can get the trust of the engineer and producer to let you try some stuff, and you’re knowledgeable about how to record things, you can create some great stuff. The most important thing for drummers is to know how to fit the vibe of the song. It’s not just about style anymore – it’s about styles and sound. You have to know how a ’70s-era David Bowie drum sound was created, or how a Stewart Copeland drum sound was created, or a James Brown or Elvin Jones sound. You may be the best jazz drummer in the world playing on a straight ahead jazz tune, but if your kit is miked up and tuned to sound like a T. Rex drum sound, you’re going to sound like an idiot. It’s very important to know how to tune your drums to get the right vibe.
(Elton John, Celine Dion, Ricky Martin)
Most of my session work involves either replacing a loop or playing along with a loop. It’s really about fifty percent each way. I also enhance loops at times as well. A lot of that is done in Pro Tools or in a program called Logic Audio. Much of that involves playing along with the rhythm stuff that they’ve already programmed, which is usually a two- or four-bar loop, or some sort of machine-generated rhythm.
Not only do you have to play along with a loop in time and groove, but it really helps to know Pro Tools or Logic formats. I know both programs really well, so if a producer or engineer wants to hear a different take of what I’ve done, I can go into the control room and start tweaking in either format and add different electronic elements along with it.
I’ve found that today it’s not really about playing electronic drums along with acoustic drums. That’s done more by enhancing acoustic drums with samplers, machines, or synthesizers. I can even change the drum’s sound with a program called Sound Replacer in Pro Tools.
In the new 5.1 Pro Tools, there’s a thing called “beat detective,” which I love, but a lot of drummers hate, because it replaces them in terms of time feel. But I love it because I have fairly good time, so I can mess around with my time to make myself feel differently via an audio file. It’s actually a very cool thing.
So in the game of recording at this point, it’s all about manipulation of what you’ve recorded. There are two schools of thought on whether or not you’ve given your best performance. There are producers who say, “that’s good enough, we’ll fix it.” Then there are producers who still want you to play it until you get it right, which is what I prefer. Right now, it’s about a fifty/fifty situation.
I think we’re going to find some amazing young drummers coming up who are being influenced by the whole computer, Internet, drum-loop world. That’s the next wave. We’re going to see a different kind of drummer that will be a hybrid of traditional drumming with the new technology. Young drummers are influenced by what they hear, and today, everything is loops. It’s not like in the ’80s, when you had guys like Gadd, Weckl, Vinnie, and the whole fusion thing. Kids are more into the hip-hop, rock, and electronica stuff.
Today’s technology is not going to make you a better player on its own. The computer is my best friend, because I can use it as a tool to enhance what I do as a drummer. But we can’t let ourselves get caught up in the gadgetry to the point where we lose the passion for drumming. Technology will always change, but drummers will never change. We will always be creating and improving the art of rhythm.