Top modern country drummer Travis McNabb resides in the cozy town of Franklin, which is located just outside of Nashville, Tennessee. “I left New Orleans in 2009 and relocated to Nashville,” he says. “It was a transitional period in my career; [my band] Better than Ezra had made the decision to be more of a part-time endeavor. I made the move to facilitate the logistics for my [sideman] work with Sugarland, and I also wanted to get more involved in the Nashville session scene.”

Nashville is known for its abundant supply of touring musicians and first-call studio aces. In the past, rarely did the lines between those two roles blur. But things are changing, and musicians are starting to do both types of work. “Things are fast-paced in the studio, though,” cautions McNabb. “Doing sessions requires sharing musical ideas and having great tones and feel, but the pace is quick. You have to deliver in a take or two, or you won’t get any callbacks.” McNabb is no stranger to the business of making records, however. “My having produced and engineered records for Better than Ezra is appreciated here,” he says. “Anything that adds a bit more value and makes me harder to replace is an asset worth cultivating.”

McNabb’s home studio is in the 600-square-foot lower level of his home. “I decided to forgo a control room in favor of a single open space,” he says. “The majority of the time I’m working by myself, so having the gear that would typically be in a separate control room right next to the kit makes more sense.” But the computer is strategically placed just out of reach of the drumset. “Those couple of steps are enough time for me to change my hat back and forth from drummer to engineer,” Travis explains.

Travis’s Studio Gear

Drums: 1960s Ludwig in Champagne Sparkle (22, 13, 16), 1940s Ludwig & Ludwig in Blue/Silver Duco (26, 13, 15), Ludwig Keystone with zebrawood hoops (24, 13, 16, 18), Ludwig Stainless Steel (24, 13, 16, 18), Ludwig Classic Maple with Pewter Sparkle wood hoops (20, 22, 24, 10, 12, 13, 15, 16, 18), Ludwig Club Date (22, 12, 13, 14, 16), 1960s Gretsch (24, 13, 16, 18), DW Classic (24, 13, 16), Sonor Force 3000 Scandinavian birch (22, 13, 16)

Snares: Over forty options, including a rare 1989 Zildjian/Noble & Cooley, a ’90s hand-engraved Clevelander, a vintage Slingerland Radio King, custom drums by AK, Dunnett, Brady, and Bearing Edge, various Ludwigs (Black Beauty, Supraphonic, Acrolite, and Copperphonic), and several one-offs by DW

Cymbals: Assorted Zildjian and a few oddities

When asked about the types of records that feature drums recorded in his home studio, McNabb says, “The bulk of what I do here is independent records. About a third of the time, a producer, engineer, or artist comes over. But most of what I record is for people that I’ve developed relationships with over the years but that live in other cities. Clients will send me tracks with everything from rough sketches to complete drum parts. Sometimes I’m replacing real drums, but more often I’m replacing programmed drums that were in there as a placeholder.”

How does McNabb dial in sounds to match the vibe of the music? “I’ll switch out the gear to achieve the sound I want,” he says. “But this is a very specific-purpose studio, so my mics and preamps are set to where I can just forget about them—with the exception of minor tweaks from time
to time.”

Travis refined his recording skills by asking for advice from some of the engineers he’s worked with before. “Tom Tapley (Sugarland, Faith Hill, Pearl Jam) and Mark Dobson (Keith Urban, Hunter Hayes) have been over to help me figure out the best ways to use the room and the gear that I have,” he says. “I went to school for recording, and when I was with Better than Ezra we had our own studio and would engineer our own albums. So I have a good amount of experience, but I don’t know as much as my engineer pals do.”

Rather than mess with the position of his mics to get the sounds he wants, McNabb will change out drums and cymbals. “If the track calls for a big sound, like a ballad with a lot of space, that might require me to use a big bass drum without a lot of muffling, and a big, detuned snare,” he says. “I might also use different compression settings on the room mics.

“For a ’70s-sounding track with Mac Powell of the band Third Day,” Travis continues, “I experimented with single-headed toms. I loved the way they sounded, so the next week I brought them on the road with Frankie Ballard.”

McNabb’s room treatments are a little DIY. “I have some foam right over the kit, because I don’t have a high ceiling,” he says. “I also made curtains from packing blankets over foam for sound absorption, and there are rugs over the tile floor. I also installed double-pane glass on the sliding doors, with a layer of Plexiglas and a 4″ gap between the two panes, so I can have a beautiful view without beating up my neighbors with drum sounds.”

One of McNabb’s favorite pieces of equipment is his RCA 74B ribbon mic. “It’s a cool old mic that has been rehabbed in recent years,” he says. “It has an interesting character about it. Room mics capture the whole picture of the kit. I put another mic in the shower that’s in the bathroom around the corner from the drumkit.”

When asked if there are any secrets to capturing a great drum sound, McNabb responds, “There’s a technique that recording engineer Tom Tapley shared with me. I place a figure-8 mic between the bottom snare head and the batter side of the kick and compress the heck out of it. It sounds very aggressive and crunchy.”

McNabb relies on a mixture of high-quality gear combined with more affordable options. “I use the fancy stuff, like the old RCA mic, where it really matters,” he says. “More pedestrian items, like the workhorse Shure SM57, are used on the top and bottom of the drums. I prefer to spend the most money on the snare itself, since that’s what’s played the most and has the most dynamic possibilities.”

What are some things to keep in mind when building a home studio? “Don’t be afraid to experiment,” suggests McNabb. “Don’t be frustrated if you think you don’t have enough equipment. Sometimes limitations are good; they make you be creative.”