A red light means “go,” but only in the music business. In every recording studio, the red light means “musicians at work.” The red light means it is time to be serious. The red light means this is a “take.” It also means that money is at stake. In the music business, like all businesses, time is money, and this is especially true when you are recording.
A young drummer’s first time in a recording studio can produce any number of reactions. For example, it is easy to be intimidated by the thousands of dollars invested in equipment in even a modest studio. One look into the control room is enough to impress most young drummers. On top of that, the studio presents firsttime drummers with several new challenges and demands.
The first such challenge is that the sound and acoustics present in a studio are usually quite different from the rehearsal room, garage, or nightclub that most young players are familiar with. The drums may sound and feel different. The players are often farther apart from each other than when playing in a nightclub. This can create a time lag, making it difficult to stay together. To overcome the time lag and to guarantee a steady tempo, a click track may be used. If you have never played with a click track, it can be an unsettling experience. A click track can make you feel “humble” about your sense of time, because it is perfect. Staying with the “click” can be a real problem at first. With practice, the click track can be a real aid—especially if other tracks are to be overdubbed later on.
Harvey Mason says, “The secret to playing with a click track is to sound completely natural—as if the click were not there. You don’t want to sound as if you were hypnotized by the click.” Experience will help the young player develop enough confidence to play with a click track with- out feeling or sounding confined by the click.
The initial moment of truth will come when you hear the first playback. Responses can range from “Wow, that sounds pretty good!” to “Why do my drums sound so funny?” Then the engineer may say, “One of the toms has too much ring. Quick, get the tape out, and try to adjust the drum.” Or “The bass drum isn’t punchy enough. Put another pillow in it.” Or perhaps “The snare doesn’t sound right.” The engineer may suggest, “No rimshots—just play the backbeat in the center of the drum.” All this can take some getting used to if you have never done it. It is also possible that, after you have retuned and re-muffled your entire kit so that it records well, it will then feel really weird to you; they just won’t “feel” like your drums. However, if the playback sounds good, you most likely will have to live with the adjustment.
You can learn a great deal from the playbacks. You may notice that you rushed a drum break or that the snare needs retuning. Listen for things that sound good to you, as well as things that need improving. Make mental notes as to how to make the next “take” a better one. Learn what to leave out, as well as what to add, to make the overall effect a musical one.
Another challenge for the studio novice is that you may find yourself in a drum room: a small room with barely enough space for a medium-size kit. The other musicians will generally be in the main room of the studio. You will have headphones, but you will still be physically isolated from everyone else. This can be a strange experience; you may feel as though you are playing with a record. However, in some small studios a drum room is the best way to record a good drum sound, and you will have to make the adjustment.
You may be getting the idea at this point that drums are not easy to record. This is true! More time is spent on achieving a good drum sound than is spent on any other instrument. So don’t take it personally when the engineer says something like, “That feels pretty good. We need to work on the drum sound some more, and then we will be ready for a take.” In most cases, the extra time and effort will produce a better drum sound and a good sounding record.
If you plan to do a lot of recording, you will need the right equipment. Twenty years ago, a four-piece drumkit with a 16″ crash cymbal, a 20″ ride, and 14″ hi-hats were all you needed for most recording dates. If you had mallets, brushes, and drumsticks, you could most likely handle anything that would come up. Today, the recording scene is quite different.
Chet McCracken (who has performed with the Doobie Brothers, Joe Walsh, Tommy Tutone and others), does quite a lot of studio work, both as a drummer and as a producer. Chet has his own studio, and is constantly experimenting with drum sounds and effects. I was talking with Chet recently, and the subject of equipment came up. Chet made the comment that “studio work requires an investment of $5,000 to $10,000 just for equipment.” For example, Chet has his large rock ‘n’ roll touring set, which includes 26″ and 22″ bass drums, several rack toms, a pedal-operated RotoTom, a gong drum, and an assortment of cymbals. However, for most commercial recording sessions, Chet uses a smaller kit: one 26″ bass drum, a 9x 13 rack tom, a 16″ floor tom, and an 8×15 snare drum. Chet feels that an engineer is usually glad to see the small kit; it means fewer problems in arriving at a good, solid drum sound. Chet’s attitude is, “Much of the music is so groove-oriented that a huge kit really isn’t needed. Why spend all the time and effort getting a good sound on a big kit, when you are there basically to play time?” Remember, in a recording studio, time is money. Saving time with simpler equipment saves money.
Chet usually takes about 15 cymbals to each record date, as well as at least two or three pairs of hi-hats. But he adds, “I take only three cymbal stands. Then I select whatever cymbals are right for the music.” Limiting the number of cymbals (as well as drums) makes life easier for the engineer. Recording is hard work, and it is wise to do whatever you can to help things go smoothly.
Naturally, Chet takes extra drumheads, extra snare drums, and plenty of sticks, mallets, and assorted spare parts, just in case. He also oils his pedals to avoid squeaking and to keep them operating smoothly. In other words, be prepared, and keep your equipment in good working order.
Chet also owns a complete electronic drumkit. As he puts it, “You must have the right equipment if you want to cover all the bases.” In some instances, a combination of electronic and acoustic sounds is required. Often, the acoustic set is used to trigger additional electronic sounds.
Today, no studio drummer can be completely prepared unless he or she owns a drum machine. According to Chet, “I’ve had calls for recording dates when the producer said, ‘Just bring your drum machine. We want you to program the appropriate rhythms and sounds.’ In some cases, I have used an acoustic set in combination with the drum machine.”
Since Chet is also a producer, I asked him how he decided on which drummer to hire for a recording session. “First of all, I must be familiar with the way the person plays. There’s no point in hiring someone unless I am sure that that person will be good for the music we are recording. I feel it also helps if I know the person. It makes communication that much easier.”
According to Chet, the qualities needed to be a successful studio or recording drummer are as follows: (1) good time, (2) good feel, (3) good attitude, (4) good reading ability, and (5) good equipment—not only the right equipment, but good-sounding equipment.
Chet is quick to point out, “The way a person plays is always the first and most important consideration. If we have to search around and rent equipment, we will do so. However, it is better if the person already has the right equipment.”
Chet also offered an interesting comment regarding tuning. “It is very important for the young drummer to learn to tune the drums to get a good sound in a studio. It is even more important to learn to tune them for different musical styles. One drumset can sound many different ways depending upon tuning and upon the player. You never know what style you may be asked to play when recording.”
I asked Chet what advice he would give to young drummers who want to prepare themselves for recording, either with a group or as studio drummers. He replied, “Buy a drum machine, and practice with it. It will improve your sense of time. I feel that practicing with a drum machine is far more beneficial than practicing with a metronome. For one thing, you can program different ‘grooves’ into the drum machine. It can help you to learn to play different ‘feels,’ while improving your sense of meter and tempo.”
Recording also means playing well under pressure. There is usually a time limit in a studio. Each hour in the studio costs money, and the better the studio, the more it costs. This fact adds to the pressure. People can get pretty tense in a studio when things are not going well. For this reason, you must try to anticipate problems and be prepared. It is worth the effort in order to make a good recording. Remember, when the tape is rolling, a red light means “go.” Be ready!