Defend Your Drum Sound Or Die Trying
(Left) The enemy
My band just finished mixing its debut CD and I hate to admit that after all the hard work it took to complete, I walked away with mixed emotions. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy with all of the performances and feel that we wound up with a nice selection of songs. I’m even satisfied with the final mix, except for one thing – the drums don’t sound like my drums.
I knew going in that the producer had a radically different opinion than I do about studio drum sounds. I like a lively, wide-open Steve Jordan sound with lots of pinging overtones, a tightly tuned snare, big booming toms, and minimal muffling on the bass drum. But he wanted a controlled, deadened Steely Dan ’70s sound, with a deep-voiced snare tone and very little resonance from any of the drums.
Time and money were big issues when we went in to cut our basic tracks. I didn’t want to get into an argument with the producer about drum sounds, because not only would it waste precious time, it could create a hostile vibe right off the bat, and poison the atmosphere in the recording studio. So with all that in mind, I swallowed my pride and made each and every alteration to my drum sound that the dude asked me to make.
We replaced my snappy 1-ply snare batter head with a coated 2-ply head with a dot and tuned the sucker way down. All of my toms were muffled with duct tape. The front bass drumhead was removed and the drum was stuffed with a huge pillow. I was proud that I took the high road and acted professionally, but couldn’t shake the idea that my compliance had helped transform my beloved drums into this dull, lifeless, thudding, rhythm-making behemoth!
Okay, here’s the real kicker. By the time we finally got around to mixing the tracks, the producer was long gone. He and the band had a falling out and we were left to produce the final product ourselves. So I learned my lesson, once and for all. Life is too short. It takes a long time to develop your personal drum sound. Don’t compromise it. Argue if you must, otherwise you’ll probably have to live with the consequences forever.
Skimp On Your Sound, Pay The Price
Now that I spend most of my time doing DRUM! Magazine business on the Internet rather than in print, I’ve come to terms with the flamers and spammers who’ve elevated indiscriminate criticism to a high art, even (or perhaps especially) when they don’t have much to say. Well, I get it – it’s hard to resist leaving a comment, erudite or otherwise, when all it takes is a few keystrokes to go down in impermanent history.
Generally, I don’t take the bait when it’s clear somebody’s just trying to get under our skin, although it isn’t always easy. For example, I recently had a snarky troll respond to a link I posted on Facebook to the 70+ video booth tours and gear demos we shot at the 2013 NAMM show last January. Our Facebook “friend” sneered that the video archive was just one big advertorial paid for by the featured companies.
He was just plain wrong. We pay thousands of dollars to send our editorial crew to Anaheim every year armed with video cameras so that we can inform our readers and online members about the newest tools on the market to help them sound better. We do that because sounding good is just as important as playing well.
I’m living proof. Back in the ’80s, when I was throwing 100 percent of my energy into the pursuit of a professional drumming career in Los Angeles, I was focused entirely on technique, to the exclusion of everything else. I wanted my drumming to be the fastest, trickiest, and most complex in town. But I almost never considered how my drums actually sounded.
I remember a recording session where the engineer winced at the sound of my dead, buzzing mounted tom. “Why don’t you replace the head,” he suggested. Embarrassed, I had to admit that I didn’t have a spare head with me. He looked at me like I was insane, and never called again. Can’t say I blame him.
I still managed to accomplish many of my professional goals during this period, but continued to struggle infinitely more than other drummers my age who were kicking around Los Angeles during that same time (like Gregg Bissonette, Matt Sorum, and Mark Schulman, to name a few).
Look, there’s something close to a million other reasons why their careers took off while mine sputtered (like, for example, being better drummers!), but I can assure you that one of the big ones was that their drums just sounded a lot better than mine did.
So when we post videos from NAMM, or review new gear, or publish articles about how to tune your kit, these tips are meant to help you become more competitive, rather than to pacify advertisers.
But you aren’t alone. Limousine drivers have to invest in vehicles, carpenters must own power tools, bakers need ovens, farmers need ploughs, painters need easels, and drummers need kits that make them sound great. That’s simply what it takes to get the job done.
Between A Whisper And A Scream
Beginners working through Stick Control might think drumming is all about rudimental patterns, but they’re only partly right. Sure, it’s essential for every drummer to build a rudimental foundation, but in the long run it will be just one of many building blocks that combine and intersect to finally make up a complete drummer.
We’ve talked about these skills many times in these pages, driving home practical advice about grip, technique, musicianship, tempo, tone, and on and on. But this month I’d like to focus on one element that often constitutes the dividing line between drummers who are musicians and those trundling along with the rest of the pack. I’m talking about dynamics.
In the broadest sense, playing dynamically means a drummer has the ability to execute patterns with equal precision at both loud and soft levels. But dynamic drumming is not only about deafening volumes and near silence. Rather than being a light switch that is flicked on or off, dynamics are more analogous to a dimmer that allows any shade of luminosity, depending on what the situation calls for.
I vividly recall watching one of the most distinguished orchestral percussionists of all time, and my former teacher, the late James Blades OBE, demonstrate passages that involved dynamic phrasing. Employing the grace of a ballet dancer, the mechanics of his hands were unique, deliberate, and yet changeable depending on the amount of volume he needed to pull from the drum. His absolute dynamic control was a thing of beauty.
All drummers should aspire to the ability to shift volume with as much ease as Mr. Blades could. But there are also times when we want that proverbial room to be basked entirely in blinding light or utter darkness.
For example, I recently had a rehearsal with a bandleader who I haven’t worked with for a couple of years. After we played one of the songs, he said, “Things have changed, Andy. We now come way down on the verses and bring it up on the choruses.”
Okay. I get it. But being a loudmouth, I had to ask, “On all the songs?”
“Yes, on every song,” he replied.
“But that’s not necessarily true of every song we play. Some of them demand that we keep the groove chugging along at approximately the same volume level throughout.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Okay, I’ll bring the verses way down on every song,” I consented.
But I don’t think that’s very musical. Applying the same rule to every song creates a sameness that eventually dilutes the effectiveness of dynamic phrasing. Shouldn’t some songs be loud, others be soft, while the rest shift between those two poles to varying degrees?
Of course, I know there are many popular songs that come down on the verse and up on the chorus. But there are plenty of others that barely change at all dynamically. “Lust For Life” by Iggy Pop, “Sex Machine” by James Brown, “Give It Away” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and “Born Under A Bad Sign” by Albert King are just a few incredible songs that come to mind. Go on Spotify and check them out for yourself. I’d love to know what you think.
Are You As Unique As You Think You Are?
We live in an era of conformity, where vocals are Auto-Tuned beyond perfection, Pro Tools can conceal any flaw, and drummers wouldn’t dream of veering far from the click. God forbid if a final mix doesn’t sound like everybody else’s.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t blame anybody for playing the game. You should work to acquire whatever skills it takes to advance your career in the music business. After all, almost all musicians hone their craft by learning riffs and licks played by those who came before them.
In some cases such simulation, when applied creatively, can rise to the level of mastery. In her jazz work, Cindy Blackman-Santana has often been lionized for channeling the spirit of Tony Williams. Gregg Bissonette not only perfected the feel of Ringo Starr’s deep groove, he even became Ringo’s drummer of choice in the All Starr Band.
There are also incredibly gifted chameleons like Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Smith, and Bernard Purdie, who refuse to be typecast. They walk straight from a rock session into a jazz gig, and sound perfectly in character at each performance. But is there a definitive Colaiuta sound? If so, where would we find it – in his work with Sting, Frank Zappa, Chick Corea, or Megadeth?
Indeed, a signature sound doesn’t come easily, even for many of the world’s greatest drummers, which makes it extra special when you hear one who has developed a unique style that remains identifiable over the course of decades. For example, I like to believe that I can recognize Ginger Baker after hearing only a couple of bars of his outrageously pulled-back pocket and deep-throated tunings, no matter if he’s playing rock, jazz, or blues.
The same goes for Elvin Jones, whose powerful, skittering drum style is at once utterly musical and mathematically baffling; Zigaboo Modeliste, whose convoluted, loose-limbed take on funk is often copied but never equaled; and then there is John Bonham, whose balance of heaviness and finesse, brains and brawn defined his every performance.
It’s difficult to identify the special ingredient that makes it so hard to reproduce these drummer’s styles; but that’s the magic part. Perhaps, instead, we should hope that it never is definitively quantified and bottled, since such elusive factors are often the most delicious to ponder.
There’s No Such Thing As Shortcuts
Between sets at a gig in San Francisco, I happened to run into an old friend who is an impassioned writer, hardcore blues enthusiast, and college-level journalism professor. We started chatting, and I asked how his job was going.
He shrugged. “You know ... it’s going.”
“That doesn’t sound very encouraging,” I responded. “What’s going on?”
“Well, to be honest, it is a little discouraging these days. A lot of my students have really poor reading skills. Some of them are practically illiterate — no kidding — and yet they seem to believe they have what it takes to be a journalist.”
“Wow. So what do you do for them?”
“I just do my best, but the problem actually goes beyond their reading skills. Many of them seem incapable of critical thinking, as if they’ve hardly read any books or newspapers. Seriously — a number of my students couldn’t name the candidates in the last election if you put a gun to their heads, and they’re of voting age! We’re raising generations of ignorant adults, which I find very frightening.”
I shook my head and went back onstage to start the next set.
The following morning, in a case of unforeseen synchronicity, DRUM! publisher Phil Hood emailed a link to an educational drumming site. “It’s interesting how they emphasize that there’s ‘no scary theory or sight-reading’ in the lesson videos,” he wrote.
It struck a nerve. Every so often after I post a link on Facebook to a notational drum lesson from our website someone responds, “What, no video?” I’m always tempted to write back, “What, you’ve never bothered to take a couple of hours to learn to read drum notation? How serious about drumming are you?” Of course, instead, I let the comment float away into cyberspace.
But as that thought swirled around with the memory of my previous night’s conversation, I wrote back to Phil: “It’s a compelling sales pitch — but I think it’s kind of irresponsible. It’s not at all that hard to learn to read music; especially drum notation. When you encourage young drummers to skip that step in their development, you’ve denied them access to a library of tried-and-tested pedagogy that has helped generations of drummers become better players and professionals.
“I believe mentors should do exactly the opposite — excite the desire for education and improvement by pointing students toward the best resources and skills rather than hyping get-rich-quick schemes.”
Take it from me — you won’t get rich by skipping a vital step in your development. I can’t tell you how much I regret never learning to play brushes believably, for example. How many more opportunities would I have had if I had studied Latin drumming or learned to play to a click earlier in my career?
My list goes on. What’s on yours?