Music creation has changed greatly since the days when musicians mostly tracked live in a studio. Because modern technology allows for a self-contained process of making music, it’s common for songs to be created in a home studio using very few instruments—or, sometimes, only a computer. A single producer can create an entire song, which is often then handed over to a band to bring it to life onstage.
The difference between the recorded and live versions of a song can be easily heard and felt at a show. This is why people see bands play! Live music has energy, growth, and that human touch that technology alone just can’t emulate. However, if you go to your favorite band’s show, chances are you want to hear their songs played the way you know and love them. Due to the nature of our instrument, a lot of the responsibility for making music sound “human” falls on us drummers, so we have to carefully strike a balance between shaping the performance and staying true to the essence of the original song.
This process doesn’t have a formula, because every song and situation is different. But from my experience, the approach can be summarized in a few general steps. Keep in mind that the less live drumming was used in the original track, the more the following steps apply. If the producer who created the music thought like a drummer and used real drums or realistic drum sounds, you may not have to change much when playing live.
The following steps aren’t the only ways to create energy and growth in a live setting, and part of the beauty of creating any form of art is finding your own way. At the end of this article I’ve included examples of how a few different drummers have used these steps—in addition to their own creativity—when performing live versions of songs you may recognize.
1. Lay Down the Foundation
In the world of popular music, the track you start with will often have a rhythmic way of representing the downbeat (beat 1) and the backbeat (in 4/4, most commonly on beats 2 and 4). The downbeat and backbeats will likely be represented by a bass drum and snare, respectively, but alternatively can be played by voices such as an 808 kick sample and handclaps. To preserve the essence of the song, play these parts exactly like the record or as close to it as you can get.
2. Switch Things Up to Create Energy and Growth
As I mentioned earlier, a live performance of a song often calls for something more than what was played on the recorded version. As you probably already do instinctively as a musician, use your judgment to tastefully add shape to the foundation. There are two key ways to accomplish this. First, you can add subdivision by incorporating a hi-hat or cymbal part or by playing ghost notes. In addition, you can change timbre and intensity by playing backbeats with a flam or snare/floor tom combination, incorporating toms into the basic groove, or switching from the hi-hat to the ride or crash as the song progresses.
3. Let Technology Help You
Thanks to technology, modern drummers can employ a hybrid approach, which means using a combination of acoustic and electronic instruments. If you have a sample pad, triggers, or backing tracks at your disposal, use them to include any important sounds from the recorded version of the song. This could be a specific kick or snare sound, or other voices such as claps, snaps, or tambourine hits.
If you want a sample to be played alone, you can play it on a sample pad or an external trigger pad. If you want a sample to be played at the same time as one of your drums, use a trigger on that drum. If there’s a part that cannot physically be played live on stage, such as a continuous shaker part that you can’t play because you’re already using both hands, you can load that loop into your sample pad or let it live in the backing tracks. The more you alone can physically cover, though, the better, which leads me to my last point.
4. Remember to Think Outside the Box
Let’s say you’re already grooving with both your hands and feet, but you also want to play a clap sample on a trigger on beat 4. Before resorting to putting the clap on a backing track, experiment with stickings to see if you can possibly cover it all. Maybe if you leave out one hi-hat note or play a double stroke with one hand, the other hand can sneak over and hit those claps. Pulling off tricky moves definitely requires some practice, but it becomes second nature with repetition.
This process is fun and can be a surprising opportunity for creativity in a world where we’re often asked to simply “play the part.” Although the goal is to do exactly that—play the part—in these situations we’re helping to recreate that part. Remember, though, that at the end of the day, our job is to support. Don’t play too much, and stay true to the essence of the song.
“Electric Love,” from Børns’ 2015 debut album, Dopamine, was one of the first songs I had to adapt to a live performance setting. After analyzing the track, I concluded that from a drumming perspective, the recording contained kick, snare, finger snaps, and a few tom fills. The kick and snare made up the foundation, and the snaps were a characteristic sound that I wanted to include if I could get my hands on the sample. I knew I was going to stick to the foundation, but I also knew that I needed to fill in some of the space.
I wanted to support the infectious swinging, locomotive, almost tribal feeling that the guitar and bass created on this song. I noticed that there were no cymbals used throughout this track, so I decided to mimic that swinging feeling using the toms: I added subdivision by using triplet rhythms on the toms in between the snare backbeats on 2 and 4, while playing the tom fills that were already in the track. For the verse groove I stuck to the floor tom, and to change up the timbre in the pre-chorus groove I added the rack tom. And at the top of most sections I added some crashes, as I felt those spots demanded some extra intensity. The producer sent me the snap sample, which I loaded into my Roland SPD-SX pad and played in the pre-choruses. That was the cherry on top!
Here’s the verse to “Electric Love.”
And here’s my embellished approach to the song’s chorus.
On “Faded Heart,”from Børns’ latest album, Blue Madonna, the producer made my job easy by creating a very realistic drum part, which he pieced together from samples of his own kit. Because he can think like a drummer, his parts were easy to adapt to a live set. When we play this song on stage, I copy his part pretty closely but use my judgment to occasionally play an open hi-hat, ghost note, or fill. To tie in the sound of the record, I loaded the snare sample into my SPD-SX and assigned it to my snare drum trigger so that it fires every time I hit that drum.
Though the process for “Faded Heart” was pretty straightforward, I had an opportunity to think outside the box. Upon my first listen I noticed the groovy 8th- and 16th-note tambourine part and decided that I wanted to play that live at some point in the song. It happens throughout each chorus and the bridge, but because I needed to cover the ride cymbal in the choruses, the bridge was the only section in which I could physically pick up the tambourine. Therefore, the tambourine part in the choruses lives in the backing tracks, but it’s muted in the bridge so that I can cover it myself. It took a ton of practice to switch from stick to tambourine and back to stick in time to play the fill leading into the last chorus, but now that I have it down, it’s super fun to play!
Mike Robinson, who plays drums for the indie band Bay Ledges, does a great job of building the energy live in the group’s song “Tween Love.” “I start with just the snare sample on my SPD-SX and the kick sample on my Roland KT-10,” Robinson says. The drummer stays true to the song by also playing the occasional hi-hat sample and reverse cymbal sample. After the whole band breaks and re-enters after the bridge, he brings the energy up a notch by switching to an acoustic kick that has that same bass drum sample triggered.
He then utilizes subdivision on the ride to build dynamically into the outro of the song. “In the fifth bar of this section,” Robinson says, “I start playing half notes on my ride, then quarter notes, and then 8ths.” After this gradual build, he hits a reverse cymbal sample into a unison snare/floor tom backbeat before playing the outro full-throttle on the acoustic kit with the added snare and kick triggers. At the very end, he comes full circle by playing only the snare and kick samples on the SPD-SX—exactly how the song began.
Scott Quintana, the drummer for the country singer and songwriter Kacey Musgraves, had to really think outside the box when translating Musgraves’ version of “Feliz Navidad” to a live performance, as the song was recorded for her album A Very Kacey Christmas using only congas and percussion. “We didn’t want to drag out even more gear for just one song,” Quintana says, “so I had to adapt it to an acoustic drumset. There are group handclaps on the record, which the rest of the live band could help with at the top of the song. But after the intro, their hands are full because they’re playing their own parts.” It’s during this section of the song that Quintana starts playing the handclaps on a trigger pad mounted on his kick drum rim. He replicates the congas by playing a rimclick on a snare with the wires turned off, as well as normal strokes on a rack tom, which is fitted with a ring made from an old head to soften its tone.
If you listen closely to the recorded version of Musgraves’ “Feliz Navidad,” you’ll also hear a woodblock playing mostly quarter notes throughout the majority of the song. Quintana covers this with his left foot on an auxiliary pedal. To cover the jingles in the chorus, he had to get creative: “I have a set of trashy-sounding jingle bells that I was able to hang on my hi-hat. When the chorus hits, I have to angle my left foot so that I can stomp on the block pedal and hi-hat pedal at the same time.”
With the rock singer-songwriter Grace Potter, drummer Matt Musty increasingly finds himself in a double-drumming situation with second drummer Daiki Hirano. The pair work together to break down the production of Potter’s most recent pop record, Midnight, and they assign dual drumset parts note by note to achieve both the bigger tones and the tighter, quieter sounds of Potter’s own set. “Generally we try to be pretty true to the recorded material,” Musty says. “It’s been an awesome challenge to get into it and break it up in that way.”
I had the pleasure of touring with the alternative pop singer Halsey and her drummer, Nate Lotz, and I got to witness Nate’s hybrid drumming up close. He explained to me that he starts the process of bringing each song to the stage with a recording and a folder containing all the drum samples from the record. “I listen several times while making notes of what can go where on the sample pad and what can be recreated with an acoustic kit,” he says. “Then I experiment with the playability of each section in the song to see what I can cover and what should be left in the percussion stem [of the backing track].” In the song “Colors,” Nate plays the verses using a combination of his Roland sample pad and external kick trigger, and then he brings the energy up in the choruses by moving to the acoustic kit.
Despite all the prior rehearsal for a pop gig such as Halsey’s, not everything that happens on stage is planned. “One great thing about the show is that there are moments of live experimentation,” Lotz says. “The end of ‘Colors’ was one of those moments. This is one of those things that happens organically on tour with Ashley [Frangipane, aka Halsey]. One day we broke into a half-time feel out of nowhere. It felt so good, and it stuck. Now it’s part of the show.”
With the indie band Father John Misty, drummer Dan Bailey explains that the real challenge is finding gear and ways to play that can cover ten or more genres in an eighteen-song set. “Father John Misty has a hard-and-fast ‘no tracks’ rule,” Bailey says. “So as much as I’d love to phrase-sample some things, we have to figure out ways to do it all by hand, and I have to compile parts into drumset orchestrations.” There are some songs that don’t have any real drums on their recorded versions, so Bailey uses his SPD-SX, triggers, and pads to provide roughly the same vibe as what’s on the record. Bailey also had to take a track that contained only congas and percussion, Misty’s “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins),” and come up with something that gave the same feeling using the drumset.
Bailey sums up the process of bringing a produced track to the live setting this way: “Obviously different gigs have different approaches,” he says. “A pop gig likely requires you to stay as true to the track as possible. But I’m lucky to get a little more leeway, and usually as long as the track feels right, I get away with whatever makes the finished product the strongest.”