Methodically and magnificently, one of future metal’s brightest lights is going to places most of us mortals would never dare.
Progressive metal drummer Travis Orbin has been confounding and inspiring his fellow sticksmen since his early days as an original member of the band Periphery. Orbin left that groundbreaking group in early 2009 to join the equally intense Sky Eats Airplane. Recently he’s also recorded epic tracks with Us & Them, Of Legends, Nick Johnston, and the “ecology inspired” Simbelmynë.
A deep pocket sets Orbin apart amid the clamoring double-pedal speed hits and hyper pulse fixations of progressive metal, but he can absolutely shred when required, as seen in his many YouTube videos tracked at Oceanic Recording and at his own Woodshed studio. Travis is one of the clearest, most articulate drummers playing in any genre, and his knowledge of metric modulation and odd groupings is as impressive as his unusual practice routines and literate mindset.
MD: How did you achieve the level of clarity and power we hear in your drumming?
Travis: Slow, repetitious practice to the metronome. I practice off the set, just bare hands and bare feet. I don’t want to be dependent on rebound. The barehanded approach has improved my consistency since I began doing it in 2006.
MD: So you play with your hands on the drumheads?
Travis: I play with my hands on my quadriceps [the muscle group on the front of the thigh], to a metronome. For my legs, I shift between heel down and heel up, with an emphasis on heel up. I keep the legs as still as possible and throw from the ankle. I time my hits to the metronome and play flat flams or unison strokes, four-way, with the hands and feet all timed together. That fundamental motion is the most difficult drum move to do accurately.
MD: So it’s a coordination exercise.
Travis: Yes. It translates, clarity-wise, to the kit. I’ve really seen improvements in power and precision and speed, but mostly in consistency. I warm up with this regimen as well, but also using sticks on the set. With the sticks I can warm up my grip muscles, which you can’t do using the bare hands only.
MD: You’re playing unison flams between the hands and feet?
Travis: Yes, the hands mirror the feet, which makes it more difficult. It’s all like a machine. I choose the most fundamental, four-way unison motion because that’s what translates to all the sub-motions. For example, I never really drilled myself on double strokes, but I can sustain them at like 250 bpm with my hands. I attribute that to barehanded practice.
MD: When doing that practice regimen, are you playing double-stroke rolls on your legs using palms or fingers?
Travis: I modeled my hand technique after Mike Mangini. He claims to never use any fingers. I’m the same—it’s all driven from the wrist. Playing from the wrist takes longer to develop, but you get increased clarity and power that translates across the entire kit. I’m using the palms on my legs.
MD: You record tracks in your own studio. Does recording yourself aid your drumming?
Travis: It does, but I think more as a musician than as an engineer. When I finish tracking I create a stereo mix for the client. I also provide them with stems of each individual track without plug-ins, so that they can build their own mix. I use Pro Tools as a marker for how well my time is developing. I can’t do severe editing; I can move a few hits around. My hands have to be spot on, and the kicks have to be uniform. When I edit I import MIDI drums from Guitar Pro, which are 100 percent accurate. I can see just how well my hits are timed. Since I’ve been recording in my studio starting in early 2010, my time has been improving.
MD: How do you program drum parts?
Travis: I don’t do too many programming gigs; I far prefer the real thing. But when I do, I program in Guitar Pro, export it as MIDI, and send it to the client. Often they use Toontrack’s Superior Drummer sample library as a plug-in. They can EQ that to get a big sound right out of the box, rather than spending thousands of dollars on a drum room.
MD: You have a great pocket, especially for a drummer in this style of metal, which is typically about speed and complexity.
Travis: I recommend that drummers practice to a metronome. I practice not only to quarter notes but to the dominant subdivision within the song. So if it’s a heavy 16th-note feel, I’ll plug in the 16th-note subdivision on the 8thnote and 16th-note upbeats on my metronome. That’s had a tremendous impact on my time. You’re lending importance not only to the downbeat but to all the beats in between. I also mike my bass drum into the mixer. And I patch the metronome into the mixer, so now I can clearly hear how well my kick relates to the metronome.
MD: The intro to Of Legends’ “Nothing Matters” is a real lexicon of modern drumming ideas and oddly grouped phrasing. What exactly are those odd note groupings?
Travis: There’s a three-against-two polyrhythm, 8th-note quintuplets, then 16th-note quintuplets phrased partially in two, like two within the five. Shortly after that is a nine-tuplet and three groupings of 16th-note septuplets, then towards the end is a three-against-four polyrhythm. It’s two bars; the kicks are playing two groupings of 16th notes, then two groupings of 8th-note triplets. The right hand is playing quarter notes orchestrated between the stack cymbal and the snare. The left hand is playing two groupings of broken 8th-note triplets, then two groupings of broken 16th notes orchestrated solely on the ride bell.
MD: What do you practice now?
Travis: Fifteen minutes of improv, some stretching, twenty minutes of barehanded practice, and then I move to the pads for a half hour. Then fourway unison again, but with the pedals and sticks, and then I rehearse for upcoming sessions. I start at half the performance tempo and work my way up in 10 bpm increments. I work out all the kinks. Methodically.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Orbin plays a Pearl Reference Pure drumset with a 61/2×14 Reference brass snare drum, an 8×12 tom, a 16×16 floor tom, and a 16×20 bass drum. His TRX cymbals include a 21″ DRK ride, an 18″ MDM crash, a 19″ MDM crash, 14″ MDM hi-hats, 13″ hybrid hi-hats (BRT top/DRK bottom), a 19″ LTD Custom China, and a 14″ Icon Stacker on top of a 16″ ALT china. His Remo heads include a Controlled Sound snare batter and Ambassador Snare Side bottom, Coated Emperor tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and a Clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter. He uses Vic Firth Ralph Hardimon Hammer SRH2 sticks.
Sky Eats Airplane The Sound of Symmetry /// Us & Them Adventures Into the Dark /// Of Legends Stranded /// Nick Johnston Public Display of Infection /// Simbelmynë Trillium /// Andy Gruhin World Out There, Let the Darkness Grow! /// JudaBlue Forty Days /// Cyclamen Senjyu /// Pete Peterson Transitional Farms /// I Am King I Am King /// Set Apart Fear & Trembling /// The Countdown Starts Now The Countdown Starts Now