Learning Curve Ahead!

As one of only two musicians onstage with today’s fastest-rising and most intriguing pop singer, the drummer is in his happy place, using all the stylistic and technological skills he’s learned over the years to bracing effect.

Billie Eilish. Listen to the pop playlist in a restaurant or store, and you may hear her. Multiple songs have placed well in the charts, while her album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, debuted at number 1 in multiple countries. Fueled by a buzz built through artfully crafted videos for each song release on YouTube, Eilish has rapidly developed a rabid fanbase. With her image gracing the side of office buildings in major cities, she’s a fully formed star talent in the pop world. Pretty impressive for a seventeen-year-old.

Featuring an understated vocal style, Eilish’s songs, written with her brother Finneas O’Connell, come across as both moody and catchy. Developed in the studio, as their songs caught on they made the transition to the stage. Enter drummer Andrew Marshall, a bright, dedicated talent as comfortable with electronics as he is with acoustic drums.

Able to feed live drumming energy into electronic music seamlessly, Marshall never loses the intent of the songs as he highlights the talents of the artist he’s backing. MD had a chance to catch up with the drummer just after he returned to L.A. following a string of concerts in Europe, and right before he was about to hit the road again.

MD: Billie Eilish has quickly made a name for herself.

Andrew: Yeah, it’s really been amazing; she’s growing really fast. We just keep going to new countries and people know her. Her audience skews younger, because she’s seventeen, but I think she’s on the rise.

MD: What’s that experience like for you?

Andrew: It’s definitely wild. It requires a lot of work on everybody’s part to keep up in terms of the technology and the stage show, and being up to speed for the places we’re playing. It all feels really fast: one minute we were playing 300- to 500-capacity rooms, and just a year later it’s amphitheaters and small arenas. I’ve certainly never experienced anything like it.

MD: Take us through how you got to this point. What’s your background like?

Andrew: I grew up in New York and started playing when I was nine, taking drum lessons and playing in school band. I got into jazz in high school, as a lot of kids interested in music do. I thought I was totally going to become a jazzer. All my teachers and all the musicians I knew were jazz musicians at heart, even though some of them did other types of gigs.

Then I joined a pop-punk band. During high school I was developing a working drummer mentality, playing all kinds of gigs. So I joined this band and went to rehearsal, where they asked, “Can you play the ride with the shank of the stick?” and said, “For the chorus here’s the kick drum pattern, and open the hi-hat on the ‘and’ of 4 on the fourth bar.” Up to that point, my whole musical experience was rooted in improvisation and different types of grooves, rather than drum parts. That opened me up to this whole rock and pop world of crafting drum parts to serve great songs. Those guys were awesome; that taught me a lot.

I then ended up going to college at Northwestern, originally in a dual-degree jazz/liberal arts program, but ended up not doing the music degree and graduating with an English degree instead.

By that time I was re-imagining myself and had discovered what the modern pop drummer is. I would look at artists like Taylor Swift or the Weeknd, and while I knew there were bands and musicians hired to play with those people, I didn’t know anybody who did that. I didn’t really understand what that whole world was about. Discovering those players and researching it more, I decided that’s what I wanted to do.

So I started checking out all this pop music and getting into electronics. Along the way I played a ton of musical theater, did marching band drumline, was in a Stomplike percussion group—I became a sponge, just trying to play as much as I could, learn as much as I could about music and drumming, and soak up all kinds of music experiences.

After college I went back to New York for three years. There I tried to play all the time, with anybody who asked. Whether it was musical theater, rock, songwriter gigs, a wedding band or cover band, it didn’t matter. And then I started to get calls for some small tours, which snowballed until I was spending half the year or more on the road.

At that point I saw the writing on the wall: all the players I admire live in L.A. That was where I had to go. So I moved out there and started working with Billie three or four months later.

MD: How did that come about?

Andrew: A musical director friend who knew their management connected us. It was fairly early on in Billie’s touring career. She had put out several songs, and the EP Don’t Smile at Me was out for about six months at that point, but she’d only done one proper headlining tour and some press trips before that. Basically it was all still pretty new. So the time had come to add a drummer to the live show, and my name was put in the hat. I did the audition, and a few days later they called to tell me I had the gig. Three weeks later we were on a plane to Singapore to play the 2018 Laneway Festival.

MD: That’s an interesting background, with your focus on the working pop drummer field. It seems like there are some different requirements, and it’s different from forming a band, getting a break, and so forth.

Andrew: Yeah, that’s true. When I realized that this was a thing and became inspired by it, there was an Oh, shit! moment, because it’s a hard thing to try to do. But at the same time, getting a break as a band is just as hard. For me, though, I just thought, I’ve got to try it, because I was just so interested in the setups, the playing, and the whole lifestyle. I found it mesmerizing.

And that focus helped me. In the beginning the goal was just to work as a drummer, no matter the gig or situation. I’ve found that having a focus beyond that moved me faster; it drove me. Yet there was so much I had to learn to do this. I tried to embody the whole persona: coming into situations knowing the songs, valuing the song, understanding song structure, having instincts for pop situations, and playing for the song while honoring the parts from the production. I ended up becoming that and bringing those things to each situation through a natural evolution. And I love it; I love working out the drum parts, the shows, the lifestyle, everything. At the same time, I’m not only a pop guy. I love all kinds of music and situations.

MD: Are there any particular influences for you as a drummer?

Andrew: Steve Gadd is for sure the biggest one. I’ve been lucky enough to see him play a few times in different situations. Jeff Porcaro is another huge one. And Steve Jordan. Aaron Sterling is one now. But I must point out Brendan Buckley, because to me he is the quintessential modern pop touring drummer. He was one of the first people I discovered who does this, and it blew me away. You couldn’t ask for a more supportive drummer. Brendan plays the part, exactly what has to be there—nothing more, nothing less. He’s a wizard with electronics. And he knows how to fit into different situations. He’s a huge influence.

MD: Playing with Billie involves a lot of electronics, and you play a hybrid kit. What got you into that?

Andrew: There are two factors that led to that: the musical and the professional. The musical side is that I got into electronic music. I was listening to Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and electronic songwriters like Bj.rk and James Blake. I then researched how that music was done live and how drummers were involved. So there was a musical interest.

On the professional side, when I started looking at what pop drummers did and what their setups looked like, there were always pads and triggers. When I read through Modern Drummer and looked at whoever’s setup, there were always pictures including SPDs and laptops. I realized that if I wanted to do this career path, I would have to be hip to all this stuff because it’s on almost every single pop gig. Learning it could only help.

So I bought an SPD-SX and started learning how to program, and how to load and play different sounds. Eventually I played in some situations where that was needed. In New York I then started having more gigs involving electronics, using Ableton and routing click and tracks to the in-ears, or using an SPD-SX and pads. Everything built on itself, so every successive gig I would learn something more.

At this point with Billie, her music is very electronic, so all of this became beneficial. I still play plenty of real drums, but it’s super hybrid: in order to do justice to the songs and production, I have to integrate all the electronics into the setup.

MD: The sound palette you have with her is very interesting. There are electronic sounds and acoustic sounds, and you create a seamless blend when playing live. How do you make everything gel smoothly?

Andrew: Well, that’s the goal, and there’s a number of factors that go into that. Billie’s music is super diverse. There are electronic ballads, hip-hop bangers, trap hi-hat, shuffle—it runs the gamut. But all the songs have to gel. What’s important is figuring out a way to make it all work and make the set run smoothly.

The first thing I do when I get new music from her is pull the sounds and figure out how to orchestrate them around the kit. Sometimes I’m sent drum samples, but when I’m working from the stems I’ll start chopping out all the drum sounds that could be played. My goal is to remain true to the production and recording of the song, to retain any signature elements, but also to bring some live energy to it.

Then I’ll orchestrate the samples around the kit by playing through the songs. I need to feel out which parts are more drumset oriented, which ones are more sample oriented, and which are hybrid. A lot of times I’ll end up playing an actual drum or cymbal with one limb and a pad with another.

All of those decisions just come from what the music is telling me. If it’s a super high-energy chorus, I’d probably go to the kit for that, because live that will translate better than the pads. Sometimes that’s not true, though. If the snare drum in the chorus is a bottle sound or a door slamming, you can’t really replace that with a snare unless that’s what the artist wants. So all those decisions go into it. Plus the live set goes through different iterations in rehearsal, and there are discussions with the musical director and artists.

In the case of Billie, the only other person in the band is her brother Finneas, who produces all her stuff and co-writes with her. We all discuss it and try to come up with parts that will work really well live. Then there’s time spent leveling out the samples and making sure they’re hitting hard, so that everything sounds seamless.

The other factor is that your engineers play a huge role in getting the samples to sound good and hit as hard as the real drums. We’re lucky with Billie to have engineers that really understand that. They see me playing a pad and understand it’s not a background sound; it might be the snare sound for the chorus, so it’s got to be slamming.

MD: For sample sounds like doors slamming and bottles, are those from Billie or are they yours?

Andrew: Mostly the sounds come directly from her albums. Ninety percent of the time that’s what I’ll use, and that’s the approach I’ve taken with other artists, too. There have been occasions where I’ve used my own sample libraries, especially early on when I was playing with artists who just wanted an electronic kick or snap. Then I’d find a good sound for them and level it.

Sometimes an artist will want to do something different live that might require a different sample, like if there’s a live intro that hasn’t been recorded, and then I might have to find some other samples. But most of the time they’re coming directly from the recordings.

MD: Are there any differences in your technique for playing electronics as opposed to drums?

Andrew: I try to get everything feeling as close to a drum as possible, but it also depends on the sample. Sometimes a sample is just a sound with one dynamic level no matter how hard you hit it, while other times it’s a dynamic sample. I customize the pads to make it sound right and make sure it feels good to play.

MD: What about dynamics? Billie’s delivery can be quiet at times, so how does that affect you?

Andrew: That’s an area where the electronics help. Of course when I’m playing on pads it’s easier for the engineer to mix with her voice, but it’s a combination of things. Even being aware of where she is onstage matters. If she’s close to me and I hear the drums from her vocal mic in my ears, I’ll back off. And that’s just instinctual. It’s a delicate balance, though. She is quiet, but she also likes the shows to be really rowdy. And the crowds are super wild. So I do have to slam a bit and bring that energy to certain parts, while still being sensitive to her voice having to be the loudest thing. There’s a lot of push and pull.

MD: Stylistically Billie draws on a lot of feels, from the dark shuffle of “Bury a Friend” to the lively electronics of “You Should See Me in a Crown.” What sort of preparation goes into your approach?

Andrew: This gig is really interesting because I came from listening to and checking out a million things my whole life. From jazz to pop-punk to electronic music…. I played in a funk band, and was into metal at one point, and I had those musical theater experiences. So with Billie, even though the songs are hers and Finneas’s, all the different feels and grooves are things I’m familiar with.

MD: It’s an accumulated knowledge.

Andrew: Right. And of course there are things I’ll have to practice to make them feel good. But I love getting to play all those different feels. If you look at my drumkit for Billie, there are acoustic drums, a double kick pedal, a bunch of pads, brushes and mallets…. So it’s very diverse and musical, and I can really go in any direction with that kit. It’s super fun and a great challenge.

MD: In preparing for live performance, what sort of warm-up do you do? How do you get in the zone?

Andrew: I like to do yoga a lot, and I try to get in a yoga class on a show day. That’s really great for me. Right before the show I do this thing called progressive muscle relaxation, where you contract every muscle individually and relax it, to release the tension.

Basically the name of the game in drumming, as a physical thing, is avoiding tension. You want to be as relaxed as you possibly can be. These are things that help me really tune in to relaxing my entire body so that when I’m playing stuff that’s fast or technical, it’s just smooth. Then to warm up for the stage I’ll do jumping jacks or skip rope.

It is just so important to get out of the mind and into the body, because that helps me play better. The Kenny Werner book Effortless Mastery says the master is within us all, and you just have to access it. You have to enter the flow state, and relaxation exercises help to get me there.

MD: That process really shows an awareness of mind, body, and connection to the instrument. Most drummers don’t talk about this much, although Derek Roddy comes to mind as someone speaking about similar things.

Andrew: I have a ton of respect for Derek Roddy. To have the speed to play death metal, you have to be more relaxed than anyone! Those techniques have been huge for me, especially when it comes to dealing with such a hectic schedule and relatively high-pressure playing situations.

MD: Now that Billie’s LP is out, what are the next steps for you?

Andrew: First, rehearsal. Then some shows and television spots before we’re out on the road. There are some European festivals and then more concerts. We’ll be out for a good while!

 

Marshall’s Setup

Drums: Gretsch USA Custom
A. 6.5×14 chrome over brass snare (shown: 6.5×14 hammered brass)
B. 6.5×14 wood side snare
C. 8×12 tom
D. 14×14 floor tom
E. 16×16 floor tom
F. 14×22 bass drum

Cymbals: Zildjian
1. 15″ K Sweet hi-hats
2. 20″ K Sweet crash [shown: Cluster crash]
3. 22″ K Light ride
4. 19″ K Special Dry trash crash

Electronics
aa: Roland PD-85BK pads (3)
bb: Roland PD-8 pad
cc: Roland KT-10 pedal
dd: Roland RT-30HR trigger
ee: Roland RT-30K trigger
ff: iConnectivity iConnectMIDI4+ interface
gg: Roland TM-6 Pro trigger module
hh: Roland TM-2 trigger module
not shown: PlayAUDIO12 interface

Heads: Remo Controlled Sound Coated Black Dot main snare batter, Emperor Coated tom and side snare batters, Ambassador Clear tom resonants, Powerstroke P3 Coated bass drum batter

Hardware: DW, including 9000 series rack system, 5000 series two-leg hi-hat stand (shown: 3000 series), 9000 series double bass drum pedal and snare stands; Porter & Davies BC2 (shown) or TT6 throne

Sticks: Vater 1A wood-tip sticks, T4 mallets, Heavy Wire brushes

Percussion: Big Fat Snare Drum White Copper Bling Ring, Rhythm Tech Studio Shaker

Accessories: Big Fat Snare Drum Donut-XL, 64 Audio A8 in-ear monitors

 

 


 

Hybridizing

Andrew Marshall on Incorporating Electronics into Your Rig

Much of today’s music requires drummers to combine acoustic drums with electronic elements like pads, triggers, modules that store sounds and transmit MIDI, and all-in-one devices such as the Roland SPD-SX.

Electronics are nothing new in the drumming world—we all know and love those big hexagonal Simmons pads from back in the day. But now more than ever before, working drummers will find that knowledge of this subject is a key to success not only in pop music but in other genres as well. Even country artists are running playback rigs nowadays!

Using an SPD-SX to store and play samples is a great way to introduce electronic elements into the drumkit. Not often discussed, however, is how integrating Ableton Live into an electronic hybrid setup can open the door to a massive dose of creativity, flexibility, and, of course, employment.

Ableton’s built-in drum rack device is a way to store sounds and trigger them from any MIDI-equipped drum module. Drum racks are groups of slots where samples can go. Drag and drop a sound onto a drum rack pad, program your module to send the MIDI note assigned to that pad, and the pad on your kit will play the sound. This allows for a lot of flexibility—samples can be moved around between pads quickly and easily; levels, crop points, velocity response, and other settings can be adjusted in the drum rack window; and effects like filters and EQ can be added to individual samples or the entire kit. You can also drag multiple sounds onto a single pad to layer them.

 

Ableton’s drum rack device. The sounds are laid out like you might program an SPD-SX to control a drum rack, with a 3×3 square that mimics the physical pads. The selected sound’s waveform is displayed in the window along with some controls that can be edited.

 

There’s another device in Ableton called an instrument rack, which is exactly what it sounds like—a group of MIDI instruments. Ableton calls these instruments chains, because each one can actually be a long chain with effects and multiple MIDI devices. For the purposes of this article, each chain will just contain one drum sample.

Instrument racks can be extremely useful when many samples need to be played within the same song. Instead of dragging a sample onto a drum rack pad, drag an instrument rack onto it, and load some samples into the instrument rack. This way, one pad can be used to play different sounds at different times.

Using the instrument rack’s chain selector feature, you can cycle through the samples in the instrument rack, and the pad will play whichever sample is selected. If you’re playing to backing tracks, you can automate the chain selector to choose for you whichever sample you need at a given time in the song. In many modern pop and electronic settings, a single song might have ten or more samples the drummer needs to play. Using chain selector automation to change the samples on the pads for different sections allows you to cover everything you have to cover within a song without needing a pad for every sample.

This works the other way, too: load multiple drum racks into an instrument rack, and you can move the instrument rack’s chain selector to change the entire kit at once. This is useful when each song in the show has its own set of sounds. Assign drum racks in an instrument rack to the songs, automate the chain selector to choose the correct drum rack for each song, and when a track starts playing, the sounds appear on your pads.

When you’re running Ableton for your drum sounds, minimizing the processing load on the computer is key to avoiding issues with the playback session’s performance. Automation can again be used here: to reduce the impact of your drum racks and the samples within them on the computer’s CPU, automate each drum rack’s on/off button to the “on” position only during the correct song so that devices don’t waste valuable processing power when not in use. It’s worth noting that drum racks and short drum samples are pretty light on CPU load in general, especially on newer computers. Still, it’s good practice to disable all MIDI devices when they’re not needed, particularly when they include third-party plugins.

 

An instrument rack. Each sample is assigned its own “chain,” and the chain selector (in blue at the top) can be moved to select any of the samples in the list. This instrument rack shows “Verse Snare” selected.

 

A note of caution: triggers can be used to play drum rack and instrument rack samples in this way, but they often create more latency than pads do. ApTrigga3 is a useful plugin that bypasses the MIDI and greatly cuts down on latency. You can always use triggers with sounds stored in the module as well, of course, and setting up triggers this way is usually relatively low-latency. If you have a module like the Roland TM-6 Pro that can send both MIDI and audio, then you can send the pads into Ableton via MIDI and have the triggers play the module’s onboard sounds simultaneously.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that the goal of these tools should always be to serve the music. If you’re an experimental electronic drummer, perhaps with a solo project or a band, then feel free to go wild. Get nerdy for the sake of it, and make your setup and Ableton session as complex as you want. But if you’re a hired gun playing with an artist, make sure you’re always keeping their needs and those of the music at the forefront. Your ears are the greatest tool of all—let the music tell you when the samples are best and when the acoustic drums are a better choice. Sometimes sounds that work well on the recording don’t work as well live, and it’s up to you to always be listening to the overall sound of the band to ensure that what you’re playing is supporting the music.

Hybrid acoustic/electronic setups can allow drummers to remain loyal to the artist’s vision by reproducing trademark sounds from the recordings while augmenting them with the power of live drums. The result for audiences is a show that delivers the songs they know and love in a way that translates to an exciting concert experience. Happy drumming, and make sure you’ve got plenty of coffee on hand for those inevitable late-night programming sessions!

For more information on this subject, check out Daniel Mintseris’s excellent course on Lynda.com, “Performing with Ableton Live: On Stage with St. Vincent.” He discusses these and other methods for using Ableton in the live environment in great detail, and I am indebted to him for much of the information presented here.