The tech-metal phenom has made tsunami-like waves on YouTube and continues to lay down mind-bending tracks for artists the world over. Now, with the extreme-metal goliath Darkest Hour’s upcoming album, his artful drum science is about to blow away anyone and everyone within earshot.
Travis Orbin is a true standout among the growing ranks of talented players to emerge from the teeming depths of the Internet. The difference between Orbin and most others is that he attracts attention not just with speed but with ideas as well. Orbin plays with a level of musicality that is sometimes missing from extremely technical music, and his dedication to the craft is nothing short of epic.
The DIY spirit is certainly strong in this new generation of tech-metal prodigies, as you can see and hear from the quality of work that Orbin and his contemporaries crank out of their humble home studios. The sheer volume of recorded material that Travis is able to produce is staggering, as are the outstanding tones that he and producer/engineer Taylor Larson achieve, considering the amount of preparation that must go into making the music happen.
The game has changed, and Orbin has changed right along with it, shining through the information overload of the digital age and using technology to his advantage, while writing and recording some seriously challenging music. In addition to his busy recording schedule, Orbin has been sweating it out since 2011 on the road and in the studio with the Washington, D.C., metal heavyweights Darkest Hour. After signing a worldwide deal with Sumerian Records, the band toured North America supporting Killswitch Engage last summer and is now putting the finishing touches on its latest album.
Outstanding natural drum tones, superhuman execution, and a work ethic that an Olympian would envy have made it possible for Orbin to live the dream that began the very first time he laid stick to skin at age thirteen. With stints as a member of Periphery, Sky Eats Airplane, and Of Legends, plus sessions for extreme-metal artists around the world, Orbin has rightfully earned his rep as a trailblazer on the sizzling D.C.-area metal scene and an esteemed journeyman in the tech-metal universe.
MD: YouTube seems to be an effective way to disseminate your playing.
Travis: It certainly is! It’s a wellspring of inspiration, and it’s very effective for promotion. There are people who have hundreds of thousands of subscribers. I’m just doing my thing. It’s really cool how you can reach so many people with it.
MD: Where are you from? Travis: I’m from southern Delaware, a stone’s throw away from the Maryland border.
MD: It’s been interesting to see how much progressive metal is coming from that area.
Travis: Yes, it has. It’s been a bit of an explosion, I guess. There’s Periphery and Animals as Leaders, and my new band, Darkest Hour, is from there. I tell people there’s something in the water around here. [laughs]
MD: With the YouTube thing, though, it matters less where you are in terms of finding bands to play with and recording projects to do.
Travis: Right. The session thing just kind of grew out of having a friendship with Taylor Larson, who operates a studio called Oceanic Recording. Darkest Hour’s new album was recorded there. Taylor also did Periphery’s second album there. He got turned on to recording because he developed a disinterest in touring and being in bands and such. He just started learning it on his own. Then he got me turned on to it, so I started buying up some gear. I made my early Periphery play-alongs and my Sky Eats Airplane interpretations, and eventually I started getting gigs to record out of my home studio. In the meantime I was doing session work out of Oceanic as well. It just kind of grew from that.
As far as the band thing, that’s been more of one door leading to another. When I joined Periphery, the singer of Sky Eats Airplane at the time was a fan, and that’s basically how I ended up with Sky Eats Airplane. And then with Darkest Hour, they just started renting a space out of Taylor’s studio to rehearse. They were working with a fill-in drummer at the time, and he was like, “You’ve got to check out my friend Travis.”
MD: And now you’re an official member of Darkest Hour.
Travis: Yeah. I started jamming with them in late 2011, and last March we began writing the new album. I did my first tour with them last summer, opening for Killswitch Engage, and that was the most fun I’ve ever had on tour. So I’m even more confident about my decision to join them.
MD: How long have you been posting your videos on YouTube?
Travis: I posted three videos back in 2006, and I didn’t start filming and getting paid to do session work out of my home studio until the spring of 2010.
The first videos were really bare bones. I had a Fostex multitracker, and I didn’t even have a camcorder. I just had a digital camera that had the option to capture video. I made a drum solo video, a Jay-Z cover, and a thing that was just a compilation of grooves. I was playing it all on a Mike Mangini–style setup, with crisscrossing cable hi-hats, and I was demonstrating the grooves that I wrote but playing them completely lefty, basically.
Those were my first three videos, and then there was a bit of a lull because I moved to Rockville [Maryland] briefly to pursue Periphery with a bit more tenacity. Then I moved back home, made a few more videos, and then started snatching up some nice recording gear via Taylor’s interest. I made a couple other cover videos and a few more free play-along Sky Eats Airplane interpretations. All that stuff was back in 2009, then at the tail end of 2009 I posted my first session video, which was the first Cyclamen session. Cyclamen is a Japanese tech-metal band, and I actually did that session out of Oceanic. When Hayato from Cyclamen contacted me, I was like, “I could do what I’ve been doing out of my home studio and sync it to the final mix,” and he was like, “Yeah, that’s a great idea!” I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but in retrospect I realized that I hadn’t seen that done before. I’d seen drum-cam videos and DVD extras and such, but never the final mix synced up to the footage.
MD: Talking to [Orbin’s friend and former student] Alex Rüdinger of the Faceless about his home studio [March 2014 Modern Drummer], it’s clear he’s got a real ethic as far as his tones being as natural as possible and not doing very much sound replacement or adding samples. Do you feel the same way?
Travis: Yup. The recordings out of my home studio feature natural sounds. I’ve done a couple sessions where they’ve blended the kick with a sample, but the vast majority are sample free.
MD: Do you edit the material before you submit it, or do you leave that to the mix engineer?
Travis: I do a little bit of editing, though, again, it depends on the session. If it’s more groove oriented, I’m not going to pin it to the grid. I rarely pin it to the grid anyway. It depends on the music, but I don’t beat detect, so nothing’s straight-up quantized. I only have so much time in the day, because I still work a side job, so if I get a good take and the sounds are there, if there are a couple flubs, I’ll fix them.
MD: There are interesting ethical issues that the YouTube thing has brought up. For one, it’s a way for guys like you, who are creating some amazing stuff, to sort of say, “Look, I’m actually doing this.”
Travis: Yeah, there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people aren’t privy to, so I try to demystify some of that. Also, sometimes the mixes themselves don’t turn out so hot, so it’s like: This is what I played. If you can hear it, that’s great, but you can definitely see it.
MD: What software are you using to edit video?
Travis: Just good old iMovie.
MD: Are there any audio plug-ins that you’re particularly fond of?
Travis: This is the side of home recording that I kind of leave up to Taylor and whatever tickles his fancy. He sets me up with templates, and I’ll mess with the levels and maybe change up the EQ a little bit. Obviously, a lot of the sound is in the tuning, since I don’t use samples or anything. I know he’s fond of the SSL 4000 collection.
MD: The Waves SSL plug-ins?
Travis: Yeah. We’ve got some API stuff, Focusrite Red, and something called Smack! [Avid] that he puts on the drum buss, I believe. That covers most of it.
MD: What mics do you favor at home?
Travis: Right now I’m using Shure KSM32s on my toms, a Shure Beta 56A on the top of my snare, and a vintage AKG C414 on the bottom. My overheads are Blue Baby Bottles, and I mike all my cymbals individually—my China and my ride have Shure Beta 98 mini condensers and my hi-hats have a Shure SM81. My room mics are Neumann TLM 103s.
MD: That’s not something you see a lot, having detail mics on every cymbal.
Travis: Yeah, it’s great. You can automate stuff, so you can make a cymbal pop out more in the mix, or if you hit it kind of lightly you can boost it a little bit. It’s great to have that kind of control. It brings a sense of clarity and also widens the stereo image.
MD: What are you using on the kick?
Travis: Inside is a Shure SM7B and outside is a Yamaha Subkick.
MD: I wouldn’t expect the SM7B in the kick.
Travis: Yeah, that’s another Taylor thing.
MD: When you do a session for someone new, how do you deal with submitting the WAV files, payment issues, and all that?
Travis: If it’s a remote session, I write all the parts in Guitar Pro. I’ll send them the MIDI, and then they can provide critique or give the okay to track it. Before I write the parts, though, I get a down payment of half of my rate. After they okay the parts, I get the other half. Once I have payment in full, I rehearse it, track it, and send them either a wet stereo mix or the individual stems so they can mix it.
MD: So you’re writing the parts away from the kit?
Travis: Yup. I started using Guitar Pro in 2007. I was turned on to it by former Periphery vocalist Jacob Tull. He would use it to write wacky solo music. Initially I used it to write drum grooves, and then I started composing with it as well. It’s a great time-saver to write all the parts and have them okayed, rather than putting all the time and effort into getting what you think is a great take, but it’s not congruent with the artist’s vision. This way I can take on more projects than if I had to track and retrack.
MD: So after you’ve written the parts, then it’s a matter of learning to physically execute what you’ve created?
Travis: Sure. When I write the parts, I obviously bear in mind my current facility on the kit. It’s rare, but occasionally I’ll write something that might be impossible or is just too far ahead of my abilities, so I’ll substitute a different component of the kit or change something minute.
MD: When did you begin playing drums?
Travis: Right after I turned thirteen. That’s when I received my first kit as a birthday/Christmas gift, since my birthday is dangerously close to Christmas. The first time I played, I had two revelations: I knew that I was going to do it until I was no longer physically capable, and I knew that I wanted to be in a band and try to derive income from that.
MD: That’s a rather lucid thought at that age.
Travis: It was quite lucid. It was a pretty powerful initial experience.
MD: Did you participate in marching band at some point?
Travis: Strangely enough, I didn’t. The band program was during marching season in the fall, and then in the winter you had a Christmas concert. Then you started rehearsing the material that comprises the spring concert, so it’s kind of an all-encompassing thing. I was in band between tenth and twelfth grades. Aside from that, I started taking private lessons in ninth grade. I started with a man named Honey Voshell. He resides in Felton, Delaware, and runs a shop called the Drum Pad, and he’s been giving lessons for a long time. I took lessons from him for several years. After that, I continued on my own path of autodidactism. I took two more lessons, one with Bill Meligari and one with Mike Mangini.
MD: Had you already started on the ambidextrous thing before working with Mangini?
Travis: Yes. I was obviously inspired by him, and I think I had his books at the time. I went to him with questions, some technique related and some business related. On the technique side, he told me that everything looked good and to just keep going down the path I was headed down, which was pleasant to hear.
MD: Have you worked out of Gary Chester’s The New Breed?
Travis: Yeah, that’s one of the books that my instructor put me through. There’s another book that’s comparable but a little more straight ahead, Four Way Coordination by Marvin Dahlgren and Elliot Fine. It’s pretty much a nightmare! [laughs]
MD: At what point did you move away from a traditional right-handed setup? Are you right-handed?
Travis: Yes, I’m a righty. I always gigged on a conventional four- or five-piece kit with a standard cymbal setup and the rack toms up front. But sometime in late 2003/early 2004, I was in a kind of techy metal band with Taylor. We arrived late to a gig and didn’t have time to set up the whole kit and kaboodle. On a whim,I just played a three-piece kit—kick, snare, and floor tom, and I rather liked it. It was challenging and stimulating. I thought maybe I was on to something. It was a very efficient and quick setup, but I wanted to add something to promote more left-hand movement.
At first it was a 12″ side snare, and that basically evolved into a rack tom, but I was still playing a standard, simple setup. Once my interest in Mangini’s playing flourished, I started doing the symmetrical-cymbal-setup thing. Prior to that, in late 2004/early 2005, I’d started developing more of an interest in double bass. I thought that to give my left foot a fighting chance to catch up to my right, I needed to use it more, so I added the legless hi-hat stand to the right. First it was a very mechanical decision—I just wanted to stress the left foot. Then, as my interest in Mangini’s playing grew, I got a pair of 14″ hi-hats and put those on the left, so I had all my low-pitched cymbals on the left and my high-pitched cymbals on the right. My ride cymbal and bigger crash are on my left, and my China and smaller crash are on my right.
A setup like this definitely draws out a different sort of creativity. You have to be a bit more clever with your stickings. And it forces you to think more musically in a minimalistic sense. Eventually it graduated into something that I began to use musically to complement certain parts of songs. If the chorus needs more energy, maybe I’ll ride on my open 13″ hats on my right side, which usually means I’ll use my left foot to play the bass drum parts. And if the chorus is already strong and ballsy, I might use the 14″ hats on my left side, which forces me to use the right foot.
MD: Your videos show you changing feet for the bass drum parts. Is there a set structure for that? If you’re playing a right-hand ride, would that generally mean using your left foot for the bass drum? Would you ever play right-hand ride and right-foot bass drum?
Travis: Sure. It still feels more comfortable to play doubles with my right foot, so if there’s a pattern with a lot of doubles in it, I may rely on my right foot for that. A lot of little things dictate which foot I use or how I arrange the sticking of the feet— the “footing,” if you will. Depending on the cymbal I’m riding on, it may be easier to lead with the left or to use more left- or right-foot strokes. Also, where the backbeat is could make a difference, depending on the tempo or if the pattern is kind of weird, or if I’m playing the snare and kick drum in unison. If a part is coming up where I play my rimshot and my foot on the same side, my hand can sometimes hit the top of my leg, and it won’t produce as loud of a rimshot. So sometimes little stuff like that can dictate which foot I use.
MD: What is your general approach to foot technique?
Travis: It’s all heel-up. When you get to the higher tempos, it’s mostly ankle driven. I try to use more of my hip flexor, which is a new technique I’ve been focusing on. I used my ankles and a low spring tension for so long that it’s hard to work that out of my muscle memory, but I’m trying. It also depends on the movement. Doubles are all ankle, and sometimes I like to interlace quick double strokes with each foot, and that’s entirely ankle driven.
MD: Your hand technique is very relaxed. Are you sometimes playing French grip?
Travis: It may look that way, especially if I’m on the ride, but it’s all entirely from the wrist. It could be the camera angle fooling you. I don’t use my fi ngers whatsoever. I’m independent of rebound as well.
MD: How come?
Travis: I spent a very short period of time invested in the Gladstone technique, utilizing the rebound to the fullest extent. I’ve got nothing against it. It defi nitely has its purpose. But from a playing standpoint, and acoustically, I like using my wrists.
MD: So even when you’re playing double strokes, those are pretty heavily stroked out from the wrist?
MD: What tips do you have for developing independence? You’ve previously mentioned spending a good deal of time working through method books completely left-handed.
Travis: I went through The New Breed and some of Four Way Coordination lefty. I would just try to re-create everything that I played conventionally with my weaker limbs. If you want to get into ostinatos and all that really challenging stuff, I’d say The New Breed is where to start. As soon as I hear the couplet “extreme interdependence,” though, I think of Marco Minnemann. [laughs] I worked on some of his concepts and some of Virgil Donati’s stuff back in the day. Now, if I write any of that kind of stuff to be incorporated into a song, it’s the same as when I shed through any other session—I start at about half of the performance tempo and work my way up in five- or ten-bpm increments.
I wouldn’t be able to play the stuff that I play without doing that. It’s a process that I adhere to for several days, until it feels good under my limbs. I don’t just do one practice session and then I’m ready to track. I let it simmer for a few days so it feels good and so that when I’m tracking I’m not completely reliant on the chart.
MD: About how long of a process would that be for one song?
Travis: It depends on the length of the song and the difficulty of the parts. It can take anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours to rehearse one song.
MD: When you’re writing a part from scratch, how long does that process typically take?
Travis: As far as creating the parts, I usually try to write about thirty seconds to a minute of parts per day. I just hack away at it every day until it’s done. It usually takes three or four days to write parts for a whole song.
MD: How do you view the comments people leave on YouTube about your playing? Do you read them?
Travis: I do, because they pop up in my email. [laughs] I’m not forced to read them, but there’s an intrinsic curiosity. Most of them are very kind and convey a sense of appreciation of my playing and acknowledge that I’m a source of inspiration. That’s powerful for me to read. The stuff that’s negative, 99 percent of the time I brush it off. It’s not going to change what I do.
Drums: Pearl Reference Pure series, including 8×12 and 16×16 toms and a 16×20 bass drum, with a 6.5×14 Reference Brass snare
Cymbals: TRX, including a 21″ DRK ride, a 19″ MDM crash, 14″ MDM hi-hats, an 8″ BRT splash, 13″ BRT/DRK hi-hats, an 18″ MDM crash, and a 19″ LTD China
Hardware: Pearl, including Eliminator Demon Drive P-3002D double pedal; Gibraltar legless hi-hat stand “I play the Demon Drive pedal in the longboard configuration,” Orbin says. “My spring tension is maxed out, with the ‘power’ and ‘heavy’ settings engaged. I utilize Pearl QuadBeaters, either the plastic or felt side, depending on the music. They rest about six inches from the head, hitting close to the center of a 20″ bass drum, and I have the BW-100 beater weights attached at the top of the shaft. I only use the body of the weights, though; the black and silver add-on weights are left off.”
Heads: Remo, including Vintage Emperor coated or clear tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, a Controlled Sound snare batter and Hazy Ambassador bottom, and a Coated Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter and Ebony Powerstroke 3 front head with a port
“I tune my drums depending on the genre of music that I’m recording. I try to match the pitch of each lug, and generally the overall tuning of the batter and resonant heads, for maximum resonance. I control said resonance with a sliver or two of Moongel on each drum.”
Sticks: Vic Firth Ralph Hardimon SRH2 “Hammer” model
Percussion: Pearl low clave block and 7×13 Primero steel timbale; LP fiber maracas, Cuban-style guiro, egg shakers, Soft Shake shaker, grenadilla wood clave, and brass Cyclops jingle tambourine
Accessories: E-Pad! 12″ practice pad, Gibraltar GBDP bass drum practice pad, Power Wrist Builders PWB28-795 solid brass practice sticks
Electronics: Boss DB-90 Dr. Beat metronome, Direct Sound Extreme Isolation EX-29 headphones
Metallica …And Justice for All (Lars Ulrich) /// Tower of Power Soul Vaccination: Live (David Garibaldi) /// Screaming Headless Torsos 1995 (Jojo Mayer) /// Pantera The Great Southern Trendkill (Vinnie Paul) /// Miles Davis Milestones (Philly Joe Jones) /// Frank Zappa Joe’s Garage (Vinnie Colaiuta) /// Dapp Theory Y’All Just Don’t Know (Mark Prince, Sean Rickman) /// On the Virg Serious Young Insects (Virgil Donati) /// Various The Colors of Latin Jazz: From Samba to Bomba! (Ray Barretto, Pete Escovedo, Tito Puente, Poncho Sanchez, Mongo Santamaria, Sheila E, Duduka Da Fonseca) /// Dream Theater Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory (Mike Portnoy) /// Mr. Bungle California (Danny Heifetz, William Winant) /// Spastic Ink Ink Complete (Bobby Jarzombek) /// Opeth Blackwater Park (Martin Lopez) /// Faith No More all (Mike Bordin) /// Herbie Hancock Head Hunters (Harvey Mason)
Adam Edgemont “Dreamer’s Axiom,” “Fall Back Into Our Lives,” “Velvet City” singles /// Andy Gruhin World Out There, Let the Darkness Grow!, Cobwebs /// Arizona Lives The Pictures We Pose /// Cartoon Theory Cartoon Theory /// Cyclamen Dreamers 2010, Senjyu /// Dyed in Grey The Abandoned Part /// I Am Abomination “Hangin’ On” single /// I Am King I Am King, Onehundred, “Without Fear” single /// In It to Win It To the Top /// ItsTeeth Divided /// JudaBlue Forty Days /// Mocean How We Grew /// Nick Johnston Public Display of Infection, In a Locked Room on the Moon /// Of Legends Stranded /// Pete Peterson Transitional Farms; Songs, These Are Songs /// Set Apart Fear & Trembling /// SIKES! Thank You for Your Cooperation /// Simbelmynë Trillium /// Sky Eats Airplane The Sound of Symmetry /// Star Monarchy Volume 1 /// The Countdown Starts Now The Countdown Starts Now /// The Gabriel Construct Interior City /// The Twelfth Amethyst “J-Wagz the Alpha Male,” “Get Saved or Go to Hell” singles /// This War We Live “Flood the Hollow,” “To the Lost Ones” singles /// Travis Orbin “Pixieprog,” “Cookies & Scarves,” “Project 15,” “Watchpork” singles /// Us & Them Adventures Into the Dark