Austin Blau on Binary Code’s Memento Mori

This past May saw the release of New Jersey–based progressive metal band Binary Code’s sophomore album, Memento Mori, their first featuring drummer Austin Blau. The album was inspired by the suicide of founder/guitarist Jesse Zuretti’s girlfriend; all proceeds from sales of the album will be donated to suicide prevention causes.

Since their founding in 2004, Binary Code’s sound has evolved from technical death metal to “a cinematic version of heavy rock,” which founder and guitarist Jesse Zuretti describes as “between Katatonia, Gojira, Devin Townsend, and composers like Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman.”

Notably, the album, which features a solo by guitarist Jeff Loomis of Arch Enemy on one track as well as a cover of Mazzy Star’s classic ballad “Fade Into You,” is driven by drum tracks that by metal standards are relatively free of quantizing and editing. We asked Austin Blau to elaborate on the recording, and provide some personal background information. Advertisement

My Backstory

I started drumming at the age of fourteen, when I had already started playing guitar and singing. Honestly, I feel like it was the younger-sibling effect of my wanting to be like my older brother, who had already been playing drums for years at that point. Once I sat down on his kit and started playing, I never stopped obsessing over it, eventually outweighing my love for guitar and singing.

I joined a new band a few weeks after learning to play drums; we ended up playing to more than a thousand people a few months later at a festival. Time went by very quickly, but after being in a power metal band and a jam-rock band, and filling in for different friends’ bands, I ended up joining Binary Code.

Well, at first I was their front-of-house engineer. After I did that, they were looking for a drummer. After seeing a drum cover I did of the song “Immersion” off of their Moonsblood album, they eventually asked if I wanted to join. Advertisement

We played a few shows and then started preparing for a new record. This would be the first time I wrote compositions with our guitarist and lead songwriter, Jesse Zuretti. After creating the record, we ended up both moving into the media-composing field for film, TV, and video games as the record was being finalized. Now we’re music-composing business partners, and I’ve been utilizing my drumming skills for media composition rather than for live gigs.

Working with Aaron Smith for Memento Mori

We decided to use our friend Aaron Smith to be the producer for Memento Mori mostly because of his previous work with the amazingly underrated band 7 Horns 7 Eyes, which he writes for. Instead of putting Aaron up at some random hotel, he stayed with me and my family, which incredibly improved the recording process. We ended up recording the drums from around 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and then went back and continued working on ideas for the record and geeking out on studio gear and recording processes.

The recording went so smoothly that we ended up finishing all of the songs earlier than expected. We recorded thirteen songs, and eleven made it on the record. We spent the first day geeking out on the gear at Backroom Studios in Rockaway, New Jersey, which is owned by friend Kevin Antreassian of Dillinger Escape Plan, and set up the drums and mics together to get the perfect sound we were looking for. We’d set aside five days to record the drums for the record but ended up only needing four. We recorded four songs a day for three days, if you don’t include the initial setup on day one, giving us an extra day to go over everything. Advertisement

Each song consisted of running through the performance as I wrote it for about two or three takes, and then when we had a good take of my version, we started to go over every part and see what we could add to spice up or change certain pieces. It was more than an amazing end result, it was also an incredible learning experience to work with someone who truly cared about the parts and would be on the same level as I was when recommending ideas. We even would write things knowing that it would affect the other instruments in a beneficial way down the road. In the end, we created something that I feel fit so well for the record and shaped what would come for the other instrument recordings.

How We Determined What Performances Were Right for Each Song

Since we recorded drums first, we not only had to figure out which parts worked for the drums, but how that would affect the changes made on the other instruments in the future recordings. We decided to record my original ideas for each song first, and then go in and mold the idea I had into something that had its own story, just through the drums.

So we ended up using different techniques to create this story through drums. One way was to write drum parts that would move with the songs, to build their energy starting from the beginning and going all the way to the end. We would also take into account how the listener was going to hear these performances, and opted to use a crash less consistently, choosing the cymbal hits specifically for the stereo experience by alternating the left and right crashes. Advertisement

These are just some of the ideas that helped us to not just determine which performances were right for the song, but how we would mold these performances into a singular idea to benefit the song (rather than choose the best take of my original ideas).

Why We Used Natural Drum Takes Instead of Quantizing Every Hit

In metal it’s often the case that you’ll quantize every drum hit to make sure that the drums are as heavy as they can be and don’t distract from the song by being off the grid. My personal belief is that it doesn’t need to be perfect to the grid, and the character of a drummer may get lost when quantizing everything. I do think that you should play your parts as perfectly as you can when recording, almost believing they’re snapped to the grid while you play. But when you actually edit drum takes, you realize how massive a millisecond delay can change a drum performance. So to breathe life into these songs from the beginning of the recording process, we decided to go heavy on the comping and very light on the editing, giving it a naturalistic feel without losing that ultra tight cohesion of a modern metal record.

Alternative Ways of Practicing

Now that you understand who I am, and what I have been a part of, I can explain my alternative ideas when it comes to practicing. I didn’t have any drum instructors growing up, so I never gained the ability to infinitely practice in a scheduled manor, and even skipped most rudimental studying, which I wish I knew today. But what I did learn was an alternative way to learn how to play drums. Advertisement

I would start by watching drummers in videos online and study their hand movements for different techniques, like ghosts notes or simple single-stroke linear fills. It made it so I would copy their hand technique, almost like I’m mimicking them, but it makes it so you can learn the muscle memory quicker, since you’re watching their skilled movements from the beginning. It’s definitely not something that works for everyone, but it came naturally to me, and I ended up learning certain things quicker than I [otherwise would] have.

This technique doesn’t work for everything, especially basic rudiments, but it does help to learn how to be more comfortable on the kit quicker. It’s almost comparable to playing the crashes in a figure-eight pattern, as to not ruin the crashes, instead of playing directly down on them. When you learn that crash technique, you just watch how it’s done, and it ends up making your playing smoother. So I recommend trying this method. It has helped me to figure out my own style of playing the drums and how to achieve new ideas in an alternative way.

Thinking as a Composer and Not as a Drummer

These days I mostly compose music for video games and films, so it’s even more apparent to write for the song and not for the drummer. But I tried to apply this thought process particularly on the recording process of Memento Mori. I like to think that when I play drums, it creates a feeling of energy and movement that lets me improvise in a brainstorming kind of way. That may make me go off on tangents that don’t fit the song but that feel so enjoyable to play. Advertisement

This thought process is what plagues drummers, because what you write usually doesn’t work for the song. This style of playing will make the song more about each instrument and not about the song as a whole instrument itself. So what I did was remind myself that when I was writing parts for the song, I should write parts that complement the other instruments, or add space to let other instruments complement the drums. It should be a collaboration to elevate the song and let it breathe in a cohesive way that makes the song the clear focus, and that lets you blend in with the other instruments. There are definitely moments to stand out, but you have to know when and where those are, discuss them with your band, and choose them wisely.

Staying Up to Date with Other Drummers and Techniques

Even though I don’t get to play the drums as much as I used to, I always like to stay up to date with new drummers and new styles of drumming. It’s important to stay in the community of drummers and continue to learn. I’ve found that the best drummers out there never stop learning and don’t discriminate when it comes to who they learn from. You can learn new ideas from someone just starting to play, or someone half your age, as well as a drummer who has been playing for twice as long as you have.

You can also learn more than rudiments, like preferences on how you like your kit set up. Some people have only one tom on their kit and enjoy their ride on the left side, when they’re actually a righty, and some people may like to have a perfectly symmetrical kit. Just don’t stop, and don’t become complacent in what you study. I personally don’t think I will ever stop learning from other drummers, even after I lose the ability to play the drums in the distant future. Advertisement

The Gear I Used on Memento Mori

• 6.5×14 DW Bell Brass snare

• Tama Starclassic Green Sparkle Birch kit (12, 14, 16, 18, 22)

• 22″ Sabian AAX Heavy ride

• 17″ Sabian AA Holy China

• 19″ Sabian AAX X-Plosion crash

• 18″ Sabian HHX Evolution crash

• 9″ Zildjian K Custom Hybrid splash

• 14″ hi-hats (Zildjian A Fast crash on top, Sabian Groove Hat bottom)

• Stack: 12″Sabian AAX splash on top of a 14″ Meinl Generation X Thomas Lang Filter China

• Zildjian Zil-Bel

• Tama Hardware including a Speed Cobra double pedal

• Vic Firth LA 5A sticks

• Evans heads, including an Emad bass drum batter, EC2 tom batters, and a Power Center Reverse Dot snare batter

Photo by David Zeck

Austin Blau (Binary Code) – “Into the Maw”

Austin Blau (Binary Code) – “Unborn”

Austin Blau (Binary Code) – “Notion of Gravity”

Austin Blau (Binary Code) – “Let Them In your World”