A Drummer's Guide To Studio Recording

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.

Preproduction

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.

Gear Inspection

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.

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Logistics

As the drummer, you probably have the most gear to haul. Check with the studio concerning the correct time for equipment load in. Some places will let you drop your equipment off ahead of time, while others won’t let you in the door until the clock is running. In the Northeast we have four distinct seasons, so summer and winter can wreak havoc on wooden instruments. Moving from your practice space to car to the studio can put your kit (as well as your bandmates’ guitars) through humidity and temperature shocks. This will make tuning difficult and might even change the tuning as the wood acclimates to the studio environment. When possible, we ask drummers to drop off their kits 12 to 24 hours before their session. If your studio offers this option, definitely check to see if your gear is covered under their insurance policy.

Another load-in consideration is parking. Many urban studios have to fight with other businesses for client parking, so a dedicated loading zone is a rare commodity. Follow the same precautions you would when playing live shows. Make sure you have enough people to watch the vehicle while your mates haul the gear in (I lost a great DW kick pedal in San Antonio thanks to someone’s sticky fingers). Remember: Thieves know where the recording studio is. They also know bands can get so excited to get there that they may fail to protect their gear. Likewise, the police might be watching to prevent double parking or excessive stays in loading zones. Have someone around to respond or move the vehicle if needed.

Getting Started

Now that you’re in the studio, it’s time to set up. Most recording engineers have a favorite spot to place the drums (through trial and error they have found the place where a kit will sound and record the best). Ask the engineer where they want you to set up. Not only have you just improved the quality of your future recording, you’ve started off on the right foot with the engineer. Set up your kit as usual. As you tap around you’ll notice that your drums probably sound weird. They’re in a new room, and you’re going to have to tune again. Smart engineers will send the guitarists for pizza so you can have some peace and quiet to hear what you’re doing. Get to work, and dial in your sound.

While you’re setting up, the engineer is probably placing microphones. Besides not playing when the engineer’s head is nearby (they need their ears to earn a living) there is an unwritten code of conduct for both the drummer and the engineer (though I’m about to write it). Professionals know this code instinctively, so here goes:

The engineer is never to ask you to alter your setup so he can place a microphone — unless there is no possible alternative. It is reasonable to alter your stand configuration — but only if the drum or cymbal remains in its original position. The stand is moved — the gear is not. Over the years I have seen a few cases where something had to be moved, but for the vast majority of times, the drummer’s setup should not be altered. If the recording engineer you’re working with doesn’t understand this principal, you might want to start looking for a new studio.

As for the drummer’s responsibilities: The drummer is never to move a microphone, even by a centimeter, without the express consent or instruction of the engineer. Sometimes you can do that at a live show, but not in a recording studio. Mike placement is the most important thing an engineer can do to get good drum sounds. And moving a mike the smallest amount can have significant consequences in terms of tone, bleed, and impact.

This is also the time to speak to the engineer about your expectations for your drum sound. A colleague of mine, Chris Garges, a recording engineer and fellow drummer from Charlotte, North Carolina, offered some great advice for this situation: “That little buzz or ring in your snare drum that drives the engineer crazy might be your favorite thing about the drum. Try to sort out those kinds of things beforehand. Be clear about what you want, but try to be conscious about whatever the engineer tells you about getting there.” The point is you have to communicate what you want, otherwise, the engineer will assume you’re not picky. You may end up with a drum sound that suits his tastes, but not yours.

Once mikes are set and you’re in tune, it will be time to “get levels.” This is where you hit each drum while the engineer verifies that an optimal signal is flowing from the mike to the recording device. When recordings were primarily done on analog tape, it was critical to get the highest levels possible just short of overloading the system. This allowed the recording to have an optimal signal-to-noise ratio (i.e. more drums and less tape hiss). This practice remained valuable in the early days of 16-bit digital. However, we now live in an age of 24-bit PCM digital, which does not require super-hot signals to capture a good recording. While that might seem great on the surface, there is a catch — you should not overload a digital signal. Unlike tape, which pleasantly saturates as it approaches clipping, digital has no way to process a clip. You’ve reached the end of the road. There is no value past zero. The result is a harsh, lightning sound that can hurt ears and harm speakers.

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.

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Click Tracks

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 had insisted Charlie Watts play 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?

Conclusion

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.