Drummer’s Guide To The Recording Studio
Why the lesson on digital audio? Because 95 percent of all drummers under-hit during sound check. Levels are set with the expectation that you’ve demonstrated your loudest playing. But once the adrenaline of the moment and the music in your headphones take over, most drummers begin to bash at their kits, exceeding the sound check levels. This will ruin the take and cost time. So please, make sure you hit hard enough during the sound check. Also make sure you wear the headphones you’ll be wearing for the session. Some drummer’s studio headphones are similar to shooting muffs, which may make you play louder.
While we’re on the subject of headphones, please don’t throw your headphones, whether it be out of frustration or just carelessness, after a take. Studio owners hold on to a pipe dream that headphones last forever (they don’t), but you don’t need to contribute to their early demise by treating them as disposable.
For many drummers, the term “click track” carries the same connotations as “root canal” or “tax audit.” Most recording engineers, on the other hand, like to record using a click track. So what’s the real story? Is the click track good or evil? Unfortunately, much of the recording literature is heavily biased one way or the other. The truth is, it depends. First, let’s cover the benefits of recording to a click. The most obvious is that the song will maintain a constant tempo, which your listeners will perceive as a stable, solid performance. The second advantage deals with overdubs. As other instruments take turns recording additional parts, having a click will allow them to start, play, and end their sections exactly in tempo with the song. This is particularly important if you have guest musicians (i.e. a steel guitar, vocalist, or organist). They will have a very difficult time punching in their parts without the benefit of a click. Playing to a click also makes you a better drummer. Yes, you may keep good time in the verse, but are you losing it during fills? A click track is a great way to find out. Finally, a click can give you creative options down the line, especially in terms of augmenting a live show with prerecorded tracks or MIDI controlled virtual instruments.
That said, a click track can be bad for a recording session. This is especially true if you’re not used to playing to one. Remember: You’re paying by the hour to record; it’s not the time to learn how to play to a click. You could end up wasting a lot of your band’s budget before you get the hang of it, or decide to scrap it. Another snag can be if the band has songs that include tempo changes. You’ll need to know how many bars each tempo lasts. If you don’t have that figured out before you come to the studio, you’ll have to spend time calculating it. Then, you’ll have to sit down with the engineer and create a tempo map. There goes the day. Although this is not an intrinsic reason to dismiss click tracks, they have been known to leak into the microphones, especially when a drummer turns his headphones up to “ear bleed.”
And finally, a click might force your band to alter its fundamental personality. Can you imagine how horrible some of the early Rolling Stones records would have been if they insisted Charlie Watts played to a click?
Talk it over with your band. If a click makes sense, then play to one at practice. Write down the beats per measure of every song (bpm) and do a tempo map for any song that requires one. Let the engineer know about this way ahead of time.
If you choose not to employ a click track, accept the consequences of possible difficulties with overdubs, and move on. (This means no complaining from the guitarist if he has issues dropping a solo down the line!) Simply explain your choice to the engineer, and offer some clear reasons why you and your band believe it would be a hindrance. The engineer will appreciate your candor and should respect your choice. Whatever you do, don’t act cool and mumble that a click will “mess with the band’s feel and chemistry.” We’re used to hearing that excuse from people who are too scared to use a click track. And you wouldn’t want your engineer thinking that, would you?
Hopefully these suggestions will help you prepare for the next time you’re headed to the studio. Having your drum kit and parts sorted ahead of time will save your group hours of studio time and potentially a lot of money. Regardless of the outcome, you’ll be doing the prudent and professional thing. Oh, and one last tip: If the band gets food, make sure you feed the engineers. They’re overworked, underpaid, and never forget a kindness.