Features

Josh Groban’s Blair Sinta

Juggling arena tours, specialized studio work, and online lessons is all part of the game for this L.A.-based groover.

Story by Ilya Stemkovsky
Photos by Alex Solca

Blair Sinta spent his formative teenage years playing gigs in Detroit, and if you’re looking to prove that the famous Midwestern work ethic applies as easily to drummers as it does to auto workers, he’s a great example. After graduating from the prestigious University of North Texas, Sinta headed west to Los Angeles, where he played rock and jazz gigs around town until finally landing the drum chair with Alanis Morissette in 2001. Since then he’s kept busy playing with an impressive array of pop and rock icons, including Annie Lennox, Stevie Nicks, Chris Cornell, Glen Ballard, Melissa Etheridge, Idina Menzel, and his most recent employer, vocal powerhouse Josh Groban.

Sinta has expanded into the world of creating custom drum tracks, and he’s jumped headlong into the crowded YouTube video-lesson pool. Identifying no shortage of gospel-chops content online, Sinta instead decided to focus on dispensing practical knowledge for the recording studio and the road. Check out his Sinta’s Sounds videos for tips on getting varying bass drum tones, examples of applying two radically different drum approaches to the same music, and more.

“When I give lessons, for the guys that seek me out, a lot of it turns around toward these things,” Sinta says. “It’s stuff that became super-important to my career, so I felt like sharing those things. Getting different snare sounds wasn’t something I thought about until I started working in studios. It was always, ‘Tune it up until it sounds good, and hit the drum with a rimshot.’”

MD caught up with Sinta while he was finishing up a tour with Groban to dig deeper into these topics and others.


MD: Let’s talk about school. Is North Texas or Berklee worth it today when so much education can be found elsewhere?

Blair: It seems to me that all that knowledge is available online, as far as technique and learning your rudiments and metric modulation. The invaluable thing about being at a place like Berklee or North Texas or Miami is the musical community there—just being in those scenes and having those guys become your peers, and actually playing music. You can sit in your basement all day and learn YouTube licks, but you’re missing out on making music with other human beings that are there to gain knowledge on playing music, and not just being a drummer that has incredible chops.

MD: What about the fact that you’d be missing out on the competitive vibe that comes from being around other hungry drummers?

Blair: A lot of it is personal motivation, but being in that environment, hearing Keith Carlock or Ari Hoenig in their practice room, is highly motivational. Plus at those schools you [gain] melodic and harmonic knowledge, study mallets, and learn about music and not just drums.

MD: With regard to being an educator, your Sinta’s Sounds YouTube videos are very informative, but aren’t you giving away secrets that make you hirable?

Blair: That’s the gray area of YouTube and trying to have some kind of presence. But about giving out information—can I make money off doing that? Yes. Can I hold those cards tight and not tell anybody? I can do that too. But we’re drummers. It’s valuable information. I wish I’d known some of that stuff earlier. I was fortunate early in my career to have chances in the studio to discover the stuff from friends and engineers. That’s the million-dollar question in this day and age. What do you make people pay for, and what should be public knowledge? I would never make a video on a bunch of licks that I do, because I’m not that kind of drummer. The whole YouTube thing is such a game, and we’re all trying to figure it out.

MD: In one of your YouTube snare videos, you say engineers prefer when the snare is hit in the center, instead of rimshots. If most of us don’t get to play on beautiful stages, with a front-of-house person playing a big role in our sound, is it practical to play the center and not cut through with a rimshot?

Blair: That was interesting, because there were a lot of people who didn’t agree with me, which was fine. There are different styles of music and different situations that do require it. In fact, on this Josh Groban gig, right before the first gig, the front-of-house engineer came up to me and was looking for a bit more definition from the snare. So I figured I would tune the drum higher and I would hit a rimshot, because he was looking for a clarity that wasn’t happening from hitting the center of the drum. So when I express my opinion about things like that, I try to do it in a fashion that’s open. There’s no right way to do it. People have different styles and tastes. What I was trying to get across in that video was that maybe due to the style of music that I play, and that I’m not a metal drummer, for me [not playing rimshots] sounded better in the situations I’m in, the way the drum speaks under a microphone.

MD: What about when the guitar player keeps turning up? Rimshots just cut in those situations.

Blair: I’ve been there a thousand times, when you can’t even hear yourself. So I totally understand. But there are also some great modern rock drummers who don’t play rimshots, from what I observe.

MD: So how do you stand out on YouTube? There are so many people putting up videos now.

Blair: I’m just trying to find my niche. It’s about going with what your strong points are. There’s a term I’ve recently learned, “finding your tribe.” And there are other people out there who are interested in the kind of work that I do. And hopefully it can turn into a more monetary type of venture.

MD: Putting cymbals on snares and other acoustic tricks aren’t new, but they seem to be essential to sounding electronic or programmed. Do people request that for recordings and the live stage, or do you just do it as a surprise?

Blair: All of the above. [laughs] When I hear programmed things, I think that this is the way the songwriter or the artist wants this to sound, and that’s why it was recorded that way. But instead of bringing all this extra gear like a Roland pad and a sampler for this one handclap in the tune, what can I do to emulate that sound?

I’ll think, What is that sound, and how can I make that happen in an acoustic way that sounds convincing? So I’ll experiment with turning the snare upside down or using a different mallet or stick or brush. I’m staying true to the recording, but I also don’t have to bring a bunch of electronics, because that’s another whole trip to the car and time to set up. To me it’s a challenge, and I think it’s cool. And frankly I’ll get bored on a four-piece kit after a while.

After Melissa Etheridge hired me, I brought a handful of extra sounds and snares to the first rehearsal, so I could cover her twenty-five-year recording span. I had no idea how she would react when I’d go to emulate some of these things. And I vividly remember her turning around and going, “Whoa, what was that? That was cool.” So that was a big plus in that scenario. And maybe it helped her with the approach to the song or the monotony of having to play that song again.

MD: In the past year you’ve played with Melissa, Chris Cornell, Josh Homme, Josh Groban, and Idina Menzel. That’s an eclectic roster of artists. Is there anything special that you do to prepare for the versatility needed?

Blair: That goes back to your first question about being at North Texas. I didn’t set out to be a jazz drummer. But at North Texas it was sink or swim. I’d done one or two big band gigs since getting out of school. So when it came to Idina’s music, which had big band sections in it, I was prepared. And it was amazing to me that I was able to walk into that situation and understand how to set up horns.

MD: The Cornell and Homme gigs are pretty rocking, though.

Blair: I’ve always been a rock-band guy. That was always the goal, but the bands unfortunately didn’t go anywhere. I’m a huge Soundgarden fan, and stylistically it’s not really a stretch, because I love that stuff so much. I played with Cornell once this year and once about five years ago. But I was a grunge kid in the early ’90s. I listened to that as much as jazz.

MD: Talk about some of the gear you’re using with these artists. Do you work with a musical director to come up with kits and cymbals, or can you kind of guess on your own at this point?

Blair: There’s no real outside influence. With Groban, it’s much more of a rock gig than people would expect. Bigger toms, bigger sounds, a pretty fat snare. I’m actually hitting relatively hard. But it all comes from listening to recordings and experimenting with what I think is going to work. Last summer with Idina, I took out 12″ and 16″ toms, a 20″ bass drum, and a 5″ snare. The music was much lighter and there was a swing element to it, and bigger drums were going to be too weighty for the music, and possibly overpowering dynamically too.

MD: The Groban show is not to a click, right?

Blair: About 90 percent of it is.

MD: So what about ritards at the ends of phrases?

Blair: The click on this gig is nuts. It’s all over the place. In fact, in rehearsals I had to go check a few times to make sure I wasn’t sucking. Is it me, or is this thing moving? [laughs] And I think the reason it’s like that, and I hope I’m right about this, is that when Josh records, they don’t use a click, and then they click to it later. So with the live string section and him it feels natural.

MD: Exactly how much cymbal swelling are you doing nightly?

Blair: I’ve done more cymbal swelling on this tour than I’ve ever done in my life. [laughs] Learning the art of the cymbal swell has been an interesting experience for me.

MD: Are you starting on the edge or in the middle of the cymbal?

Blair: It’s about how quick the swell needs to come, and dynamics. I’ve discovered in certain tunes, sometimes going into a chorus, you’re really starting to lay into the cymbal and have it almost sound brighter when you come to the end of the roll into the chorus, which is more exciting. And other times I’ll do a mezzo-forte longer roll and not lay into it as much and have the cymbal have a darker tone.

MD: You’re using mallets? And you’re swelling mostly crashes?

Blair: Yeah, the same timpani mallets the whole time, and the cymbals are bigger—20″ crashes, a 21″ sizzle, and a 24″ ride. Ironically, the 24″ ride is quieter than the crashes, because it’s darker.

MD: Do you have musical interests outside of the drums?

Blair: I’ve always written music, but not necessarily for public consumption. But lately I’ve started writing for music libraries or commercials. I scored a friend’s movie a couple of years ago, and I found that really fascinating.

As a guy who’s not going to put out chops videos, some of what I do to draw work into my home studio is try to display drum sounds, so people think, This guy can get any type of sound for the artist. Much of the time the inspiration is coming from a drum sound or a combination of kicks, snares, cymbals, etc. So instead of putting up just some drum groove, what if I write some music and put it in context? And through that, I’ve had a music licensing company reach out to me and ask if something was available. I was hoping it would work its way out there, and it actually did.

Part of it is another income source, and the other part is trying to fulfill a creative side. But I’m also focusing more on becoming an educator. My focus is not necessarily on technique but on the conceptual side, creating style, and what that means, through YouTube or in-studio lessons. So it’s geared much more toward becoming a working, functional musician than a chops drummer, and also being an educator through doing as opposed to a “classroom” teacher.


Recordings

Melissa Etheridge 4th Street Feeling /// Annie Lennox Songs of Mass Destruction /// Nicky Corbett To Lose a Girl /// Pedestrian Sidegeist /// Stevie Nicks In Your Dreams


Drums:
A. 8″ DW Design series concert tom
B. 5×14 Keplinger Black Iron snare
C. 9×12 DW Classics tom
D. 16×16 DW Classics floor tom
E. 14×20 DW Classics bass drum

Cymbals: Istanbul Agop
1. 6″ Xist Ion Raw Bell (on concert tom)
2. 15″ OM hi-hats
3. 20″ OM crash
4. 22″ OM ride
5. 16″ Xist Ion hi-hats (upside down)

Hardware: DW, including 5000 series bass drum pedal, 8000 series hi-hat stand, and 6000 series Ultra Light cymbal stands

Heads: Remo, including CS black-dot snare batter, Coated Ambassador tom batters, Coated Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter, and Clear Ambassador concert tom batter

Sticks: Regal Tip 9A sticks, Sutter model brushes, and hard felt cymbal mallets

Percussion: Gon Bops