Dave McAfee has been on the road with country superstar Toby Keith for almost twenty years. Between arena tour stops, visiting the troops overseas, and one-off gigs at festivals and award shows, Dave and the band have been just about everywhere in the world. So what does such a perennial road warrior do when he’s home? Well, he starts his own production company, of course.
Dave McAfee Productions was founded in early 2000. “I had enough work to call it a business by 2006,” McAfee says. “In 2007, my accountant advised me to incorporate, and it’s been a viable business ever since then.”
Thanks to technological advances, almost every drummer in Nashville has a home studio where they can overdub tracks remotely for clients around the globe. But McAfee takes a different approach. “I never had a working home studio,” he says. “It’s not that I have anything against them, but I love the collaborative, in-person process more. I’m hooked on the flow of ideas that you get when everyone is in the room together.”
McAfee raises another important issue when it comes to deciding whether to tackle setting up a home recording setup versus working in established professional studios. “I’m not interested in being the super-tech guy,” he explains. “If I get my stuff set up and it works, that’s great. But when it doesn’t work, it’s an interruption that can become costly to the client and to my reputation. A pro engineer will generally fix whatever problem arises in the time it takes me to walk to the break room and pour a cup of coffee. We’re up and running again in no time, and everyone is creating again.” With all this in mind, McAfee opted to run his business out of Sound Kitchen in Franklin, Tennessee, just south of Nashville. “I’ve been working with [the engineers here] since 2006.”
When he’s on the road with Toby Keith, McAfee has the dual responsibilities of being the drummer and bandleader. This translates well when he’s back in Nashville producing records. “Sometimes your job is to put a band together and do a showcase for somebody that’s trying to get a record deal,” he says. “That might not involve any studio time at all. The bottom line is money. I like to find out what the client’s budget is so we can get the most bang for their bucks. Being a producer is also about figuring out the best musicians to hire for the genre and vibe. I don’t want to turn a client’s idea into my idea, and then tell them they have to like it. I want to be able to make them smile.”
As McAfee’s client list expanded, managing budgets was a skill that needed to be honed. “I didn’t know how to speak to the client’s money managers when I first started doing this,” he says. “I’d be working with a client, they’d ask for something, I’d agree, and they’d tell me that their company would send a check. But when I’d send an invoice, they’d often respond back with, ‘Wait a minute; this isn’t how we do things. Who are you?’ So I’ve learned how to speak to accountants. And my wife taught me how to use Excel. She built a spreadsheet template, so now I just plug in the numbers and send it over to the accountants. If you put together a good session budget and manage the time effectively, you can pay everyone immediately. The check comes in advance, everybody gets paid immediately after the session, and we move on.
“The wonderful thing about Nashville,” McAfee continues, “is that I can pick up the phone and get a hold of the musicians that I love making music with. You get them in a room and simply say, ‘Here’s the song.’ These guys will bring all their instincts and experience with them, and most of that will come out during the first take. If you get too involved, you’ll kill the magic.”
Knowing which musicians to choose for a particular album or track is a talent unto itself. “I love the process,” says McAfee. “You always take something home from a session when these guys are left to be imaginative. It’s a free exchange of ideas. When you bring a song into a band, you’re blessed if you have a trusting group of people, where a musician might encourage a different set of chords during a section. Typically session guys are happy to improve on a song, and they’re happy to be an integral part in the process. That’s one of the aspects that makes Nashville so special.”
McAfee’s recent production credits include the last two Wade Hayes records and a new band called the Skallywags. “Jesse Poe and I worked on these projects, and we’re super proud of them,” says Dave. “The Skallywags is a young group in Nashville. They’re a killer band with killer vocals, and they’re gaining momentum. We did some demos with them, and then they came back to talk about doing a record. They wanted to play on it, but they knew they weren’t session musicians. I suggested using a couple of session players. I also suggested that we build in some extra hours, because if you’re not a session player, it might take you longer to get your parts right. I explained that if they did their homework and came to the studio prepared, we wouldn’t need those extra hours. That’s exactly what they did, and it was one of the most organized sessions I’ve ever been on. It was fun to give them some money back at the end of that project.”
Dave’s Preferred Studio Gear
- Drumset: 1980s Yamaha Recording Custom
- Snares: Yamaha Recording Custom 6.5×13 brass and 5×14 steel, 5×14 Absolute Hybrid Maple, 5×14 Birch Custom Absolute Nouveau, 6.5×14 Paul Leim signature chrome-over-brass, and 3.5×14 brass piccolo