How To Record and Produce Powerful Drums and Bass By Yourself
Along with the vocal – or other melodic, mid-range instrument – drums and bass are the most important instruments of the band. These three can hold any song together and even stand on their own as a complete whole.
The drums provide a strong percussive rhythm to hook the audience while the bass and vocals combine to create harmonic logic, suggesting chords and creating such strong expectations in the mind of the audience, that they fill in the blanks.
Humans do this to varying degrees, depending on the individual, automatically, like “seeing” the entire cat behind the tree when in truth we can literally only see its head and tail.
If you have any doubts about whether a melody and a bass line can suggest an entire harmonic world, listen to Bach’s Partitas for Solo Violin or Cello Suites. He does it with a single instrument.
It’s because drums and bass are so important that I wait until everything else is recorded before specifically building them.
I don’t track drums live. If you do and are happy with the results, carry on. But sampled drums have come a long way since the 80s. They’re real. Not real-sounding. Real drums played by real drummers. For people who don’t have access to a live drummer, they’re miraculous.
The times that I’ve worked with live drums were such a headache. Not just recording and mixing but timing and consistency. While playing with a click track. Unless your drummer is rock solid, you’ll be replacing their work with samples. And you’ll be in great company. The record business has been replacing drummers with samples for a couple of decades now.
Listen to a rock station.
If it’s a post-90s era song, most of the drumming you’re hearing is not entirely real.
Can you tell the difference? Me neither.
Modifying the Drum Scratch Track
The process isn’t so much about building a drum track from nothing. It’s about modifying what’s already there, the patterns and sounds that I’ve been working with since I started recording.
When I first start recording, I substitute the click track with a more exciting drum pattern. It’s kind of like a scratch track for drums. I choose a kit that matches the spirit of the song and build a simple pattern of kick, snare (or rimshot) and hi-hat. Hearing 8th or 16th notes on the high hat, especially when I’m building other parts like guitar and keys, really helps me find a groove.
What to Keep, What to Cut
By the time I’ve recorded all the instruments and vocals, I’ve learned a lot about what I want to keep from the drum scratch track and, more importantly, what I don’t like.
Places where the drums should stop have become painfully obvious to me.
- Or when the kick continues by itself.
- Or how the chorus should differ from the verse
- When to ride the cymbal
- When to use the bell
- …and when to add hand claps or snaps.
One thing the drums always sorely need: fills.
Usually, these come before the chord cycle begins again, just when you’re about to repeat either the verse or chorus, and almost always as you go into the chorus.
I like to use a simple kit – think Ringo Starr or Max Weinberg, from the E Street Band. By limiting myself to a kick, snare, two toms, hi-hat, and two cymbals (crash and ride) my choices are more about how I use each element, not which element to use. I get a ton of variety from different levels of velocity. You’d be surprised how different a snare sounds when it’s hit just a bit softer. Same goes for every piece in the drum kit. Try it.
How do I know what hits to program at what velocity? I pay attention to how the great players play. It’s all right there.
An important guiding principle for me: If a real drummer can’t play it, don’t write it.
Sounds obvious, right? But it’s easy to wander into the weeds when building a drum part. Before you know it, you’ve created something that no human being could play – hitting every instrument in the kit at the same time, like the drummer’s an octopus.
My drummer is Dave. Dave has two hands and two feet. Dave likes to keep it simple but has been known to overdo it on the toms and hit the cymbals one time too many. Dave does not hit everything all the time.
In case you missed it in the earlier post – Dave does not really exist. But the idea of him is the whole point:
Play human drums.
Since I Gave Up Hope (I Feel Much Better) is an example of a track where I used two kits. I don’t do it often but, in this case, the second half of the song needed a different sound.
When we get to the bridge, we’re in a different world, the story has gone from present to past, we’re in a memory – and it’s a happier, less harsh place than the one we came from. I didn’t want to jar the listener with a sudden shift. I was after a more subtle, subliminal effect.
But no matter what I tried (EQing like crazy), I couldn’t get that softer but still same-enough sound. So I turned to a different kit for that section. Problem solved.
After I’ve arranged the drum part, the song really comes together. The band sounds intelligent, like they all arranged the music together, each player carving out space for their work to support the greater whole. Any timing issues stick out and I address them immediately.
But by this point, timing isn’t the issue. The low end is the issue. And I plug in my bass.
Before I add the bass, my work sounds very thin and it wants some gravity. But I don’t automatically drop in some root notes and follow the chords. Every song is different. To find the right place for the bass I ask a simple question:
What role does the bass play?
Notice, I didn’t ask how big or small a role. The bass plays an enormous role. It provides the low-end with pitches and tones. It balances out the rest of the band, most of which exist in the mid and upper frequency ranges.
No matter how you answer this question, the bass provides a sonic foundation for everything that’s built on top of it. You can’t get around that.
That said, there are two ways to answer the question of purpose. Either the bass holds down the basic chord structure, sticking to its main role of playing root notes, or it plays a more melodic role.
The Song Wants What the Song Wants
I’ve learned the hard way that fancy isn’t better. Sometimes the best choice is the most straightforward, obvious, and simple one. On the other hand, a walking bass line or one with lots of movement and melodic elements is exactly what’s needed.
That’s exactly why I wait until the other parts are in place before I write and record the bass.
If I recorded it early – people usually do it first, along with the drums – then I would probably end up with very basic bass lines for all my songs. Doing it after allows me to hear when the bass can flourish and when it can’t afford to, when to play the melody and when to stay simple and strong.
After working out a scratch drum track, you can lay down a simple bass part if you like. I’ve tried this but it distracts my attention from working out other rhythmic parts (like guitar and keys) so I stopped doing it.
But if you’re experimenting, it’s worth a try. You can replace it later when you have a clearer idea about what the bass is doing.
Fancy Play Syndrome
While complex musical phrasing is cool, if it’s unnecessary – it’s distracting. Especially in the bass. It can get super murky, super fast.
In Since I Gave Up Hope (I Feel Much Better) I tried a few very different approaches to the bass. A contrapuntal version that filled in the gaps during the verses, a syncopated version that built a pattern on upbeats (between the downbeats), and a more straightforward version playing in unison with the guitars.
I chose the latter: power over finesse.
In fact, the whole idea for the bridge is “old times.” What’s more old-timey than a bassline like a tuba? Root, 5th, root, 5th. Om-pa, om-pa. Works great for that whole section, especially in contrast to the verses which feel more aggressive.
Simple, simple, simple. When in doubt, try it out.
I’ve got plenty of songs where the bass plays a much more melodic role. But that wasn’t right for this one.
If you’ve never tried this “save the bass for last” approach, give it a go and see what happens. It will certainly help you think about your whole arrangement in a different way and I think that’s valuable.
You might hate saving the bass for last, but if you find something else that you weren’t expecting along the way…that’s the whole idea of this entire blog series.
I hope you got some ideas and found something useful
Tell us what you discovered!
Reporting on your experience will not only help others find their own way, but it will help you hone your own.
Writing forces you to articulate your ideas. That’s one huge plus I got from this experience. I know more about my own process and I’ve become more efficient in the studio as a result.
Up Next…(there’s a next…?)
This is technically the end of the One-Person Production Series, but we still have a short post left for next week about reference materials.
I hear all the time about using references when you mix and master but I never hear about using references when you arrange. I’ll share my go-to sources of inspiration when it comes to arranging. I thought it would be a nice way to end.
Next week, we’ll also be rolling out something really cool for anybody who wants to get feedback on their songs, their arrangements and their productions. So stay tuned and look for our announcement next week about the Bedroom Producer Program!