“I do almost everything at my place now,” says top L.A.-based session drummer Aaron Sterling. In addition to recording about fifteen songs per week for artists and producers around the world, Sterling has created five online master classes that focus on topics for today’s home studio drummer, from dialing in snare tones to building full drum tracks. The most recent master class, Sound of Sterloid, Volume II, focuses on four distinct drumsets—“big and beefy,” “wide open,” “Sugar bop,” and “super-tight and super-dead”—and includes chapters on experimenting with effects pedals and improvising.

Photo by Scott Liken

Before we dig into the master class, we ask Aaron how he manages his time, since he could theoretically record around the clock. “I created my own system that works around my life and my family,” he says. “I typically work from 10 to 5, but there are some days that are shorter because the songs are easier or the session is really gelling. Even in a worst-case scenario, where I have to change all the drums and mics, I can still get most songs done within a certain amount of time.”

One thing every session musician working remotely has to deal with is the lag between when a take is recorded and when the artist or producer signs off on the performance. “I try to get a lot of information ahead of time,” says Sterling. “And I want to know if there are any drum parts in the demo that they’re married to. I also schedule a time with them to have their phone and headphones available so that when I send over an MP3, they can listen to it and get back to me within ten minutes. That system has worked very well for me.”

Sound of Sterloid, Volume II begins with a chapter on the big, beefy sounds of a ’70s Ludwig kit. When asked if that’s the drumset he uses most often, Sterling says, “I don’t have a go-to kit; I try to build something that gets whatever the artist or producer describes.” A good portion of this chapter focuses on ways to minimize sympathetic resonance, which Aaron prefers to do via tuning and muffling rather than relying on digital tools. “Gating always has a sound to it,” he says. “And those sympathetic overtones are spilling into every microphone anyway. So even if you used gates, that note is still going to be popping through.”

Chapter two is the first of four open jams with guitarist Tim Young of the Late Late Show with James Corden. When asked how improvisation influences his approach to session work, Sterling explains, “It impacts me enormously. The more you can have an open mind, the fresher your playing will be. Even if I’m playing a pop song, there’s always a moment where I need to be open to other possibilities rather than staying boxed within conceived notions of how to make music. It’s like I’m playing free jazz at all times, where I’m reacting to the sounds that are coming my way.”

Sterling employs that exploratory mindset in the early stages of building drum parts. “I’ll play along to the track and try different ideas,” he says. “Some things will immediately sound bad, but some things end up sounding cool. It’s funny, but that process doesn’t work as well when you’re in the studio with the artist and producer; it’s hard to do that in front of people. But when you just try a bunch of things, you often discover
new ideas.”

The second kit featured is a wide-open setup with a 26″ bass drum and lively Gretsch toms. “The other day a guy came over with some really cool songs,” says Sterling. “One of them was very spacious, so it was obvious that the drum part needed to be minimal, and that marching kick drum was perfect. Everything just needed to ring out.”

When it comes time to deliver his final tracks, Aaron often includes mix instructions so that the client can get an accurate representation of the intended drum sound. “Sometimes I’ll print a stereo drum mix,” he says. “And I’ll always send a screenshot of my mix so they can set up their session to hear the tracks as I was hearing them.”

Chapter five explores ways to create unusual sounds by running mics through guitar pedals. This is something Sterling incorporates into his recording process often. “There’s always a mic going through that pedal system,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a ribbon mic in the back of the room, and sometimes it’s a dynamic mic that’s very close to the kit. But I always have a channel dedicated to the pedals. Sometimes it’s just adding a little reverb, but sometimes it’s the loudest thing in the mix. I did a hip-hop track recently where we used an octave pedal to pitch the drums down by a fifth, and that was the main sound.”

The third kit is a gorgeous Sugar Percussion setup with an 18″ bass drum, which Aaron grabs when he’s looking for a round, electronic-inspired tone. “If I’m hearing a smaller 808 kind of kick sound, I’ll use that one,” he explains. The final kit is a super-tight James Gadson–style setup that features a single-headed bass drum and toms and a very dry snare with a goatskin batter. At the start of the chapter, Aaron confesses, “This is my kind of kit.”

Does Sterling have plans to produce more online master classes? “I said I was never going do videos again after the first one, but then I made four more,” he chuckles. “I’d love to be able to do them on a somewhat regular basis. But with my schedule being what it is, I have to ask myself how much I want to do this. I do think it’s good for your brain—to keep learning new things.”

Check out all five master classes at aaronsterling.com/masterclasses/.