Tom Knight

TLC’s Tom Knight

On Tour & On Stage Making It Work On The Road

by Mike Haid

The live arena is where drummers sink or swim. There’s no “fixing it in the mix” if you flub a fill, no second take if you stray too far off the click, no starting over if you can’t hear the vocals in your monitors. And as anyone who’s done time on a tour bus knows, day-to-day pressures of touring, like living with strangers in close quarters and fighting off boredom and loneliness far from home, can be as tough as the demands of the show itself.But touring and playing live also provide some of the most magical moments of a player’s career. The camaraderie of sharing an adventure with good friends, the transcendent moments when you and your bandmates are so on that you can practically feel the stage levitate…

This month we ask seven road dogs about the ups and downs of life on tour, and for useful tips on everything from dealing with odd personalities on the bus to working with a click track live to choosing the right gear for the long haul. Listen up—it’s the kind of stuff that can help make your next gig or tour a dream rather than a nightmare.

There’s no room for scrubs with a high-profile act like the hip-hop superstars TLC. A first-call touring machine shares some hard-earned road wisdom.

One of the top drumming guns on the Atlanta music scene, Tom Knight made his mark with the Grammy-winning producer Dallas Austin, who once called Tom “a human MPC3000” for his impeccable timekeeping. Knight has worked on numerous top-selling recordings with Austin and remains the first-call touring drummer for the Grammy-winning hip-hop artists TLC.

MD: What are the differences between being a member of a band and being a gun for hire?

Tom: I think there’s a different dynamic as a touring sideman. It’s very important to be able to get along with everyone when you’re not a member of the band because you’re more easily replaced. The thing that got me into the TLC gig is that I had a successful track record and a strong relationship with Dallas Austin, who produced most of their music. The girls also had a say in the decision. But it was his recommendation that got me on the tour. He had confidence that I would give the music what it needed.

I believe the key to becoming a successful recording and touring sideman is how quickly you can give them what they want. Because I had a strong relationship with the girls and the producer, it was an easy transition to the touring band. I found it to be a profound transition from the dark, air-conditioned recording studio to the bright, hot stage, far away from home. The more comfortable your relationship with the artist, the easier that transition can be.

MD: With TLC, you play to a click track for the entire show. What’s the setup like?

Tom: I hear a click track generated from off stage—I’m the only one hearing it—and that enables me to keep the band in time with the choreographed stage show, lighting cues, and screen projection, all of which are crucial to the overall performance.

I highly recommend always using a single cable from the sound-emitting device to your headphones. I experienced an extension cable disconnect during a show, lost the click, and went into panic mode. Luckily, my drum tech was there to quickly reconnect the signal; a few moments longer and it may have been unsalvageable.

I also recommend the Vic Firth shielded headphones. There’s an avalanche of noise when you’re playing in front of 25,000 screaming people, and you need to be able to hear the click two-bar verbal count-in with the click. The first bar is for me, the second is for the band. This ensures always starting the sequence on the 1 of the first measure.

MD: What gear do you feel the need to have duplicates of?

Tom: For a major tour, you need a duplicate rig so there’s a spare for everything—not necessarily the bass drum and toms, but practically everything else. For TLC we also have a duplicate rig of electronics, powered up and running, in case anything fails.

MD: A good drum tech must be very important for a tour of that size.

Tom: By the time I arrive at the venue, the drums are set up. My drum tech’s job at soundcheck and during the show has been to keep a watchful eye on my stage and to update the bank of samples at the end of each tune so that when I hit the drums, it actually sounds like the recording for that song. We have an intercom system to communicate, if necessary. We play twenty-two songs a night, each with a different set of samples from Dallas Austin’s library of music.

MD: How do you remain focused during a long tour?

Tom: TLC manager Bill Diggins has us on the bus immediately after the show and traveling between cities overnight, so there’s no chance of anyone engaging in anything unnecessary. It also encourages getting a good night’s sleep. I’m very health conscious and exercise on a regular basis prior to going to the venue. And the big arena gigs are usually in a venue that’s on ice because they play hockey there. So it’s imperative that I keep my hands warmed up before the gig. I usually practice the Mitch Markovich piece “Tornado” on a pad to warm up my chops. After doing that pop gig, my heavy jazz chops went away, and it took several months of practice to get them back. That was an unexpected dose of reality after the road.

MD: Do you find it difficult adjusting after returning from a tour?

Tom: Landing a major tour was a dream come true and everything that I had always thought a major tour would be. But I was so busy enjoying it that I wasn’t thinking about what was going to happen when it came to an end. And they all come to an end, eventually. When the tour ends and you haven’t been thinking about what your next move is, you’re not moving! And that’s what happened to me. I thought I was going to walk off of one major stage directly onto another. Wrong!

MD: So what did you do?

Tom: I pulled all of my marketing resources together and made a promo video, which helped land a potential gig with LeAnn Rimes, though the tour never happened. Even if you’ve done everything in your power to keep your career alive at home, though, people at home have a hard time believing that you’re really home for good. It takes time to reestablish trust that you’re not going to leave again. I had a hard time finding work after the TLC tour because of all these unexpected circumstances. We recently did a short TLC tour in Japan, and I made everyone in town well aware of my schedule so my work would continue upon my return. TLC was also slated to open for the Michael Jackson tour before his untimely passing. Playing live on a major tour can be the ultimate experience. But you also need to prepare yourself for what lies ahead, after the lights go down.

Tools Of The Trade
Knight plays Yamaha Recording Custom drums, including a 22″ kick; 8″, 10″, 12″, and 14″ toms; a 14″ main snare; and a 10″ side snare. His Zildjian cymbals include K series crashes and rides, Quick Beat hi-hats, and A series splashes. He uses Remo heads, Vic Firth sticks and mallets, an Akai MPC2000XL MIDI production center/drum machine, and a Yamaha DTX DS10 electronic drum and percussion system with triggers on the kick and main snare.