A Drummer's Guide To Studio Recording
You’ve been practicing for months. You’ve played some gigs. Now it’s time to record your music. Your band has booked a studio. It’s go time. The last thing you want to do now is hold yourself and your band back while you struggle over the learning curve. As both a drummer and owner of a commercial studio, I’ve seen my share of sessions, and one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty is that a little preparation ahead of time can save you hours in the studio — where time really is money. Whatever your musical trend or playing style, here are some things to keep in mind that will help your session go smoothly.
While this might seem obvious, it must be stated: Decide which songs you will be recording and practice the *bleep* out of them. Then make a set list of the order you want to record the songs. Don’t wait until you’re in the studio to make that call.
Also, someone in the band should talk to the recording engineer to see what the studio’s preferred tracking method entails, since there are many ways to record basic tracks. For instance, many studios will have the entire band play a song together. Amplifiers will be isolated from drums and the vocalist will be in a separate room. Although everyone will be recorded, the main goal is to capture the final drum takes. The other instruments will be saved as scratch tracks, or placeholders.
There are numerous benefits to this approach. First, the bandmembers can vibe off the natural energy of playing together. As you know, bass players and drummers often like to play together since the rhythm section forms a singular backbone. Second, you get to play with your bandmates instead of reading a chart and playing to a metronome. I, for one, key off of the vocals, and have a terrible time playing drums without hearing the singer. Another bonus of this approach is that the scratch tracks are often good enough for a final mix. Why? The nominal focus for these passes is to record the drums, so the other players, not feeling like they’re under the microscope, will be more relaxed. Plus, you just saved time because that’s one less instrument that needs to get recorded later.
If the studio cannot accommodate the whole band, you’ll need to have a plan for having someone play along with you via headphones or create some other method to help you get through the song. But you need to know how the studio deals with this before you get there.
Another question you may want to ask ahead of time is if the studio has instruments you can use, and if there is any additional charge to do so. Not every studio keeps a supply of drums, cymbals, or even a snare collection, but some do. If your drum kit is just getting you by for practice and gigs, you may want to consider using a studio kit. I still suggest bringing your ride, hi-hats, throne, and kick pedal — just for familiarity’s sake. A word of caution on bass drums: The studio is not the place to change sizes. We had a monster 24" kick in house that everyone wanted to use for recording. Since all of the drummers were used to 22" bass drum setups, it messed up their tom height and no one could get used to the beater response of the larger head. After two years, no one recorded a single thing with that drum, so she went to eBay.
Even if you have killer gear, you might want to talk to the engineer about your cymbals. Some heavier cymbals, while great for live work, can come across as too dark or gong-like in a recording. Be open to switching out if you experience this phenomenon.
Assess your heads. Do they require changing? While this often comes down to preference, there are some indicators that can help with this decision: Are the heads dented, with a depressed soft spot in the middle or numerous potholes in the surface? Time for a new set. Does the head suddenly refuse to hold its tuning? If so, you want to examine your bearing edge and tuning rods, but consider a new head too. Finally, if the head was put on the drum more than three presidential administrations ago (typical of bottom heads), you’ll want to spring for a new batch. If you do change your heads, do your best to break them in a few days before your recording session.
Check the rest of your gear. Do cymbal stands have washers and sleeves? Are there any stripped screws or missing feet? A couple of usual suspects for studio problems are bass drum and hi-hat pedals. They love to squeak. Get down on the floor with your ear next to the pedal and work it with your hand. Do you hear any grinding or squeaking? If so, you can guarantee the microphones will hear it even better. Get out the petroleum jelly or spray lubricant of your choice and get to work. You want to sound like a drummer, not the mattress at a motel that charges by the hour. Check your throne as well, as this can also be a source of metal-on-metal sounds.
Make a studio survival kit, so if something does go wrong you won’t lose much time. Grab an inexpensive plastic container, hardware box, or fishing lure bin. Stock it with the following: cymbal felts, drum keys, snare cord, or plastic sash (which holds the snare to the strainer and butt end), band aids, pain reliever, tuning lugs, lug washers, flashlight, small scissors or knife, and duct tape. Make sure you have extra sticks, and pack up.