Tips From The Control Room
Unless your parents own a recording studio or were in a band that recorded, there is little reason to know what to expect the first time you record. Even if you have done some tracking, working styles can differ. The following contains ten essential tips that every drummer should know before going to the studio. Many of these points are actually questions. Answering these and reviewing the other items can help you have a smoother, more productive recording experience.
Fig. 1. Be prepared, or pay!
1. What Material?
The first thing you need to know must be resolved before you ever set foot in the studio. I’m talking about the material. Whether you’re playing in your band or as a session drummer, the exact songs scheduled for recording need to be determined and practiced. If the number of songs depends on progress during sessions, obtain a list in order of importance.
Work with the songwriters or producer to agree to the desired beats per minutes (bpm) for each song. This includes any tempo changes that may occur within a song. Then practice with a click track using the established bpms. The studio is not the place to learn how to play to a click track, and most drummers require some time to adjust to locking into the metronome. Now, you can find
a select group of players who never use a click. For reasons of style, experience, or preference, they eschew the metronome. But the majority should use a click. Not only is the listening public accustomed to uniform-tempo recordings, musicians doing overdubs (e.g. guitar solos) will have a nightmare without the consistency.
I recommend a spreadsheet that lists the songs in the order of recording priority, the bpm, the key (hey, some people tune toms based upon a song’s key, plus it will scare the stringed players that you know what they’re talking about), gear/stick requirements, and any notes you have. It can be as complicated as you wish or written on the inside of a snare head box. But having this simple plan will save you time and frustration in the studio. (Fig. 1.)
2. Who is Producing?
Next to mastering engineer, producer seems to be the most misunderstood recording job title. I tell people if a record were a movie, the producer would be the director. The recording engineer is akin to the director of photography (DP), who is responsible for the technical aspects of capturing the project. The producer is a vested, yet objective captain of the process. After each take, the producer has to make the determination if the pass was acceptable (known as a “keeper”) or if a better performance is still to be had.
Producers come in many variations. Some observe quietly with golden ears and give thumbs up/down. Others play instruments, sing backing vocals, or write string arrangements. Some do light engineering, while others serve as the engineer and the producer.
Choose a producer based upon past projects they have done as well as compatible working style. If your group wants to self-produce, that can work, but you need to inform the recording engineer who will approve each take, give feedback on the sounds, and make final approvals. Regardless of the path you choose, make these determinations before you go to the studio. The few times I’ve witnessed full meltdowns have been when a band tried to democratically vote on every decision during tracking. What a mess. The proverbial buck has to stop with a point person.
Fig. 2. You may not need your drum kit, but do bring your "survival kit."
3. What Gear?
It may sound strange, but have a talk with the recording engineer about what gear you should bring and what you can leave at home. Some studios have house kits they prefer to use; others charge to rent their backline. You have to ask. Some studios are flexible. At minimum you should bring a supply of sticks. You can’t rely on the studio for supplies. Most gigging drummers already have a tool box-sized survival kit filled with felts, straps, and parts. Bring that. Things only break: a) on tour, or b) when the clock is ticking at the studio. Being able to repair on the spot can save money and momentum. (Fig. 2.)
Once you get to the studio, you may want to mix and match gear. Some engineers like a birch kick drum and maple toms. Some are the opposite. If you want to try the studio’s gear, arrive early or work it out with your engineer so you are not hurried by bandmates. Test drive before you record.
If you are bringing all of your drums, talk to the studio about dropping off your gear the day or night before. Wood needs time to acclimate to different temperature and humidity levels. I’ve seen guys bring drums from their trucks in the winter. They set up, tuned, and ate lunch. Of course, everything went catty wampus as the drums settled in the new room. And while you’re at it, make sure your gear is insured when you leave it at the studio. Some studio insurance policies cover clients in active recording sessions, and some do not. If they don’t, you may want to have your own policy on your gear. After all: gear is not cheap.
If you don’t have time to ask the studio, and have favorite gear such as a throne, kick pedal, snare, or cymbals, and feel uncomfortable without them, they should probably make the trip. Speaking of cymbals.