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.

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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.

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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.

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Fig. 3. Your great sounding live cymbal might be the worst choice for the studio.

4. Live Cymbals Are Not Recording Cymbals

Avid DRUM! readers won’t find this to be a surprise, but this is not commonly known: not all cymbals record well. Now, back when I was a kid, when we had to walk to the music store – in the snow, uphill, both ways – the U.S. market had lathed cymbals or lathed cymbals. Finding brilliant, raw-finish, hand-hammered, or machine-hammered variants was uncommon or very expensive. How times have improved. Today’s market is a veritable cornucopia of weights, finishes, and crafting techniques. That’s super cool, but many drummers choose cymbals optimized for live use. These cymbals are designed to project in a live situation to cut through large tube amp stacks. On stage is one thing, but in the studio a more nuanced sound is often more appropriate.

In general, shiny “metal” type cymbals are better for live sound and dark, dry “jazz” type cymbals are better for studio work. (Fig. 3.) That said, experienced drummers will tell you cymbals are like people: stereotyping them based upon appearance isn’t the best policy! For example, a set of my favorite recording hi-hats is brilliant finish, named “metal hats,” and is pretty heavy. But put them in front a mike and they are silky, smooth, and controlled. I got them used because I’m sure the original owner purchased them based upon their appearance and name. It all comes down to the voicing of each plate. In this example, the name and appearance have little to do with the sound.

If you do play heavy, loud, bright cymbals, and that’s the only way to get your sound, discuss that with the engineer. There are ways to change microphones, microphone types, and placement that can help capture what you like about those cymbals. Sorting this ahead of time will avoid freaking out the engineer.

5. Set Up Time Is Not Free

Back when studio time was super expensive and you had to buy all of your tape media, some places started a “free set-up time” policy. They more than made up for it on the back end. Somehow, this urban legend is still out there. Unless the studio explicitly tells you set up time has no cost, I do not advise assuming it. Free set-up usually means rushing and doing a bad job.

Grammy winning engineer Trent Bell (Flaming Lips, The Chainsaw Kittens, The Sugar Free Allstars) puts it best: “Set-up time, especially for drums, is the hardest part of recording. It’s when I do the most important part of engineering.” A corollary to this note is not to rush the engineer while you are getting sounds. The drums and bass are the founda- tion of a song. The better the foundation, the more stable the end product. Ideally, all pricing – be it hourly, daily, or by the project – is handled before you start the session. Some places have a studio manager or office manager who handles all the billing. Most recording engineers want to focus on the creative process and do not like talking about money anyway. Since drummers are the Marines of any band (first to take the beach) I wanted to warn you about this possible conflict topic.

6. Recording And Drumheads

Many drummers I talk to are concerned about heads. Most of the advice they’ve been given comes from bandmates or web forums. Here’s my take. First, talk with your engineer about what type of heads you use. Responsible engineers should be familiar with general head types: coated, clear, single/multi-ply, as well as the various muffling lines on the market. As with cymbals, some heads are better suited for the studio than others. However, I think it ultimately comes down to the tuning and the player. Since head type affects stick response, be wary of an engineer who insists you abandon your favorite brand for a vastly different thickness. Find a compromise, if possible.

The age and state of heads is probably the biggest concern. There is a myth that you must buy new heads for the studio. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. The condition and timbre of the head is more important than its age. If the film resonates a consistent tone that’s good. If the head has impact dimples that’s bad. Coated heads that have lost their surface can be okay, unless you’re a brush player. So do not assume you must buy new heads. I definitely recommend you evaluate your resonant (bottom) heads. I once had a client who had never changed his bottom heads – and he purchased the kit in 1986! Yes, they last longer than batter heads, but don’t let a presidential cycle change without inspecting them.

If you have your heads off, it’s always a good idea to run your finger along the bearing edge. The best drums and heads won’t matter if the contact point is damaged or otherwise compromised. Small issues can be “patched” with wax or chalk, but serious issues may require a recut. If you’ve never done an edge, ask around town for a respectable drum tech. You want an experienced person on that task.

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Fig. 4. Never move a microphone. If it's in the way say something.

7. Live Engineers Are Not Recording Engineers

Most drummers have played a bunch of live shows before they ever step into the studio. That can be good and bad. Do not base your interactions with live sound engineers as a model for how to handle your recording engineer. Yes, live and studio cats do similar jobs. But we’re like cousins who see each other at weddings and funerals then never speak between.

The reason deals with objectives and constraints. Live engineers must get everything correct under a brutal time crunch. There is almost no margin for error, or they could lose their jobs. The easy part of the live gig is people hear the performance once, in a space controlled by the live engineer, and then it’s done. (Live recordings are a different discussion). Compared to live sound, recording engineers have no time concerns. However, the recording will be played back figuratively forever, under vastly different playback conditions. Consequently, while both are “audio” engineers, the demands, conditions, and end products are vastly different. Hey, pandas and grizzlys are classified as “bears” but one is a big raccoon and the other is a killing machine.

Here are some tips for interacting with your recording engineer. First, never ever, ever (did I say ever?) move a microphone once he or she has placed it. If a mike is in your way, you need to speak up immediately. (Fig. 4.) The correct process for mike placement: First the drummer sets up to his liking. Then microphones are placed where they can fit. If you are not comfortable because the engineer moved gear, or if a tom is out of place, these changes will probably have a negative impact on your performance. Remember, the recording engineer has a job because you need a recording – not the other way around. Com-fortable drummers make fewer mistakes and give better takes.

If you want to be good to your recording engineer, do it with food. Beer might be good for the live guy, but shows are typically late at night. Sober recording engineers are better for you. Feeding your engineer by picking up lunch or dinner is always appreciated. Remember: your recording engineer has great discretion on how your hourly billing is calculated. You want him or her on your side.

Recording microphones are usually very different than live sound counterparts. Live sound mikes need to withstand wide ranges in temperature, moisture, and abuse. Heck, you can hit many of them with a hammer and they will work good as new. But don’t try that in the studio. I suggest you spend extra time making sure you and the engineer are content that a stray stick isn’t going to nail a mike. Again, if you’re nervous about hitting a mike, that will affect your playing. In the event that you bump a mike, or kick a stand, do not hide the fact. Speak up. Even a centimeter’s movement will have a large effect on a recorded drum’s sound.

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Fig. 5. Play and monitor at the lowest volume that allows you to get the job done.

8. Headphones

Your headphone mix will affect your playing.

You need to get the right elements in your mix, and have them at a volume that is loud enough for you. (Fig. 5.) If you are playing to a click track, make sure you can hear it, but only enough to keep you going. Customize the click for both the type of click you like (e.g. woodblock, clock, machine, hammer, et al) as well as considering an accent beat. Most drummers I work with ask for an accent. For example, they will use a wood-block with a cowbell accent on the 4. In their headphones they

would experience: “Tock, Tock, Tock, BONK. Tock, Tock, Tock, BONK. Tock, Tock, Tock, BONK.” And this is really helpful once you have music in the headphones and you’re playing at top volume.

As with practice and live shows, be careful with your hearing. Play and monitor at the lowest volume that allows you to get the job done. Unfortunately, that will probably still be too loud, so make sure to take breaks.

If you are a touring band, you may have molded in-ear monitors you prefer to use. Here are tips for making the best situation with those. First, discuss this with your engineer. Do not assume that every recording engineer knows the ins and outs of custom monitors. Explain how you are virtually deaf while they are in, and any communication will need to be done via talkback mike or visually. Disclose that it is difficult to hear the kick drum and strategize ways to address this. Options include adding low end to the headphone mix, placing a P.A.-grade sub-woofer near your throne, or trying tactics that your live monitor team uses. There’s a DAW plug-in by Softube that emulates the Tonelux TILT hardware. (Fig. 6.) Bundled with that plug-in is TILT-live. The live version contours the overall frequency of a mix for in-ear monitors. It provides a mix that is perceived as louder, but actually projects a lower sound pressure level into your ears. You hear more clarity with less harm to your hearing.

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Fig. 6. Tilt Live provides a mix that is perceived as louder, but actually projects lower sound pressure.

9. You Are Human

You may keep time like a machine, but your body is human. Stay hydrated with plenty of water or decaf tea. Once your takes are in the can, you can grab a beer or whatever, but during the session you are on the clock. Eat healthy food that gives you sustained energy. Don’t let your blood sugar wander all over the scale. A good idea is to bring a bag of snacks: dried fruits, nuts, protein bars, and other nutritious options make good fuel for your work. Take frequent breaks to breathe, stretch, breathe, and stretch some more. I’m a big fan of the yoga, exercise, and physiology articles found in the pages of DRUM! Magazine. Learn from those. There are many times when preventative care can avoid injury or allow you to perform longer.

10. Playback Is Not The Final Mix

Making a record is like constructing a house. There are stages to the build, and you are used to experiencing a finished product. When you listen to playback of your drums you are listening first and foremost for performance. After all of the parts are captured, the song must be mixed. After the mixing is done, it goes to mastering where, among other things, the volume level is raised to CD levels to which we are accustomed. Don’t panic if you take a rough CD home and it doesn’t sound like a record. The process is not finished until later. At this point, your obligation is to work with the producer and engineer to provide the best performance while keeping an ear out for tuning or other sound problems. The rest will be done down the road.

Successful studios want you to have a good recording experience. I hope these tips allow you to be better prepared, more confident, and less anxious about your session. Engineers are human, too. We would rather you use less billable time if it means you give great performances, and feel excited about your album.

We want you to be happy, and get our names on great sounding recordings. Word of mouth is how we advertise.

Although they are “just” machines and tools, microphones and computers record more than the performance of the players. They capture the spirit, intensity, and emotion of the artists. If the band is fighting internally it will be reflected on the recording. If the band is nervous it will be reflected on the record. But the opposite is also true. If the band is rehearsed, confident, and having a good time it will be reflected on the recording.