Top Tips for Working With Drummers to Achieve the Best Studio Takes
There is no doubt that recording drums is one of the most difficult and time-consuming parts of making a record. There is a lot of equipment to set up, precise microphone placement, trial and error exploring tones, and a lot of drum tuning involved.
Here are my top tips to help you achieve great studio takes when working with drummers. These tips will maximize your efforts, create good habits going forwards, and help to create an efficient workflow in the studio.
Communication is arguably the greatest tool you have as a producer. It will enable you to work with musicians to realize a mutual artistic vision. To achieve great results, you must understand what drives the musicians you are recording.
Through communication you can direct a musician in a way that you feel can best serve the music. Positive communication and affirmations whilst tracking will help to yield better results – musicians need to know that you are on their side.
Create a Good Working Relationship
Invest time getting to know a drummer, and make the effort to cultivate a good working relationship. A relaxed drummer will be more focused and offer creative musical ideas.
Never critique a drummer without having a solution in place. This will knock a drummer’s confidence and will also create unwanted tension. There is no room for bad energy in the studio, and criticism will lead to further conflict.
When offering creative input and solutions, try to be as specific as you can whilst explaining your vision, and be considerate because musicians may be reluctant to change existing musical ideas.
Bring a Drummer’s Best Techniques to the Spotlight
Every musician has a specific skill set. It’s up to you as the producer to determine what aspects of a drummer’s sound can be brought to the forefront and given that extra attention.
Listen carefully to a drummer warming up to try and get a feel for what type of musician he is, and what types of ‘tools’ he has in his toolbox. Even better, do some research beforehand. He or she might perform precise double paradiddles or pull out a really creative off-beat hi hat groove that has a unique flair to it.
Invite a drummer to spend time warming up before you hit the record button. For drummers (and any other musician) warming up is absolutely essential and this will give you plenty of time to observe his or her playing.
Bring real positivity and channel lots of enthusiasm to build confidence and encouragement in the studio when recording a drummer.
Explore the Human Element
Too many modern recordings sound stale and lifeless. Why go to the effort to record a real human drummer if you are just going to sample replace and quantize each hit? If this is what you do, you’re missing an opportunity to explore a raw creative flair and capture a human essence.
Of course, modern music demands a level of perfection, and listeners expect to hear drums that are exactly in time. But don’t crush the life out of the music and leave a song sounding empty. You will want to retain a life-like feel and natural dynamics.
Drums enable listeners to connect with a song. They are the driving force behind the music and the drums act as the glue that holds all the music together.
Every drummer has a unique musical voice, and no two drummers sound the same. There’s a lot of variation in how drummers play because it’s so physically demanding.
Capture Unique Drum Tones
Try to explore ways to create unique sounding tones that can help breathe life into your recordings. Be open-minded and try new things. Even if you think you have a fool-proof process, do you really want all your drums sounding the same for different artists?
Mix it up and explore new musical avenues. For example, try to incorporate more percussion such as a tambourine or shaker into a chorus section. Or even try using a variety of snare drums and tunings for different songs, depending on their feel. This can keep a record sounding very lively and engaging throughout.
Changing cymbal accents, dynamics, and when the downbeat falls on the snare are also very easy ways to alter how drums sound in a song. They can range from being subtle to having a dramatic impact on the song.
Be sure to use fresh drumheads to capture clean drum tones. A cymbal’s sound cannot be modified or altered, so recording with quality B20 bronze cymbals such as Zildjian K’s or Meinl Byzance series cymbals will offer a richer sonic palette.
Setting up and recording drums requires a great deal of patience, and although in an ideal world every drum recording session will go without a hitch, it’s not always going to be so simple.
Drum recording can be frustrating, so try to allow for some flexibility and prepare for the unexpected – whether it’s hardware or software issues, broken equipment, or even a lousy drummer. Try your best to keep a cool head and remain professional in the face of any issues that might arise.
Gideon Waxman is a London based drummer and music educator, who holds a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Westminster. You can find more of his advice over at Drum Helper – one of the web’s most popular free online drumming resources.