Our upcoming Spanish project, Alli en la Cruz, was recently mixed in Nashville by Billy Whittington, a gifted and humble engineer who has participated in other Sovereign Grace projects. He was assisted by John Behrens, who interned with me this past year, and Mauricio Velarde, whose songs and vocals are featured on the album.
When I asked how it was going, John mentioned that he asked Billy how we could grow, since all the players have limited studio experience. Billy kindly shared his thoughts on “what makes a great studio drummer.” They were clear and to the point, partly because he has had to spend a lot of his “mixing” time lining up drum tracks so they’re tight and consistent. So I asked John to send Billy’s thoughts to me and the drummer who played on the project.
If you’re really serious about growing in your drumming skills, you aren’t going to find what you need at this site. But if you know any drummers who want a better idea of what they could be focusing on to grow, I think these tips are invaluable. Consider them “Keys to Good Studio Drumming,” or maybe, “How Not To Annoy Everyone Else in the Band.” This is the email (slightly edited) that John sent to me and the drummer:
The first key: Play in the pocket.
Lock in to the click and groove with the other instruments. This is indispensable. Practice and/or play with a metronome as often as you can until your time is natural and consistent, and remains the same for each section of a song.
The second key: Play the drums that matter most, and hit them solidly and cleanly.
(A) KICK and SNARE. Hit them solidly. Every time. They are the backbone of the song. Anything else you hit, hit it well too. Why do session drummers sound like a CD when they’re playing? Every hit, no matter what it is, is solid and even. Kick and snare are definitely the most important in this regard.
(B) Following from (A): Don’t play the hi-hat too loud. I figured an expert mixer would be able to work around a loud hi-hat in a few places, but Billy was genuinely stymied for awhile. I ended up literally going through the snare track and pasting in clean snare hits for every hit in the song so that he could get the snare up above the hi-hat in the mix. Hi-hat, ride, riding crashes… keep them all toned significantly down.
(C) Also springing from (A): Figure out whatever technique you need to in order to not double-hit the kick drum. In general non-studio drummers often do this, and it’s partially un-fixable. You can replace the kick track with triggered samples, but the double hits make triggering those samples very time consuming, and the overhead mics still pick up the double hit, which blurs the focus of the kick overall.
(D) Similar to (C): Avoid flamming between the kick and the hi-hat, snare, ride, or cymbals. This is another basically unsolvable problem. In one song there was a lot of this – kick hitting slightly before or after the hi-hat, instead of right together. I went through and slid over the kick track individually to line up with the hi-hat, but again, the overhead mics still pick up the flam, and it really blurs the kick in the track. This is one of those little details that marks a good studio drummer.
Now to the other half of studio drumming key #2. I’ve heard Billy bemoan this several times when talking about other projects.
PLAY LESS! i.e. Play the drums that matter the most. This is especially important with lyric-centered music (i.e. worship music).
What matters most? The kick and the snare. Laying down a solid beat that compliments the song and supports the other instruments. Tricky fills, accents, intricate beats… they’re all frosting on the cake. The meat and potatoes are your basic kick and snare beats. Session drummers can bust out amazing fills, but usually they play simple stuff with excellence. And at the right moment they pull out a tasty fill or a slick beat that compliments the song beautifully. They have a huge bag of tricks, but what makes them good studio drummers is only dipping into that bag at the right times, and pulling out something tasteful.
The third key (literally): Become an expert at tuning your drums.
Of all steps involved in tracking drums, your role in tuning them is easily the most influential in getting the recording to sound good. When they’re tuned up beautifully, it is literally hard to make them sound bad on tape. [There are plenty of videos on YouTube that explain this process thoroughly]
Every time I’ve asked Billy about a killer sound I hear, he has referenced the musician and the instrument they were playing, not the equipment he was using to record it. He even brings in a session drummer to tune up the kit before tracking younger bands.
- Hit the drums in time.
- Hit them solidly.
- Hit the drums that really matter.
- And have them tuned well so they sound really good when you hit them
Those are Billy Whittington’s tips. If you’re a drummer that participates in leading congregational worship, what’s the best counsel you’ve received or want to pass on?
As a drummer, the best advice I’ve ever been given is “keep it simple.” Billy’s tips above certainly fall under that umbrella. In worship settings, I would argue that the drumming to function like breathing: Unless you’re especially conscientious, you never notice it, but if you were to take it away, you’d miss it dearly. You want to be simultaneously unnoticed and vital.
I heard a (apocryphal?) story that Stewart Copeland gave a drum clinic once and announced that he would “play something that very few rock drummers can play.” He proceeded to play a very simple rock beat for a few minutes. Whether or not Copeland did this, I think the point is huge: Less is more; keep it simple. This is especially true in worship settings, where the focus ought to be God, not the band, much less the drums.
This is great. I am worship leader in Micanopy, Florida and would really appreciate any resources (videos, books, seminars, etc.) that you drummers would recommend for our drummer. Thanks!
Excellent read. My advice is to leave your ego at the door. That sounds cliche but it’s so important. If you’re the drummer, you have a very important role in the music and how the song goes, but you are not in charge. Follow the leader’s directions and take his/her suggestions with an open and teachable heart.
@ Brandon W. As far as resources and DVDs, I’d REALLY recommend Tommy Igoe’s Groove Essentials 1 & 2 books/DVDs. Tommy has played on Broadway for years, is a 1st call studio guy in New York. He knows his stuff. Groove Essentials walks through dozens of the most common grooves drummers need to know, how to play them, variations, and musical examples. Great DVD. Check it out.
I fully agree with the original post. I’m a pro gigging drummer but the studio is a different matter. It’s really putting you under the microscope. Many times I’ve seen good drummers being recorded for a full song, then the engineer lifts one good 2-bar or 4-bar section and loops it. Serving up each and every hit exactly on time, not late, not early, is no easy thing, so it needs practice.
And yeah, keeping it consistent throughout each section of the song is also important. Live, you can play about a bit, but not on a record.
Especially watch your fancy drum fills. Unless the producer specifically asks you to do something to draw attention to the drums, stick with something conventional that leaves space for the rest of the instruments. Indulgent fills are the sure sign of a rookie, insecure drummer. Plus, complex fills make you speed up, or play louder, which is distracting.
Bob, I think your post is just about the best information drummers can learn if they want to know what it means to be a pro. Focusing time and effort in these areas will definitely have the biggest payoff. Good stuff!
In the initial stages of recording “This is The Story”, we actually recorded drums and cymbals on different tracks and at separate from one another altogether. This is very challenging as I am NOT a studio drummer, but it makes you think much differently about the groove when all you hear are kick and snare and then you come back later and play only hi hat and cymbals. On the songs where we recorded the drums and cymbals simultaneously there were definitely challenges with the hi hat being too loud at points so THANK YOU Jeremy and Steve for “fixing me” in the mix.
I would kill for an article like this for guitarists.
Brad, thanks for the suggestion. I’m working on the solution. And you don’t even have to kill anything.
This is a great article, expecially about the “Less is More” idea. I’ve been playing for many years and I think I get called for 2 reasons. I don’t overplay and I am easy to get along with. Iv’e seen too many situations where the drummer insists that he was playing what he (or she) thought sounded the best for the song. Don’t get me wrong, having some good chops always is a good thing but save them for the right time. I like have the element of surprise and watching a guitar play get that big smile on his face when you throw in a part that matches one of his guitar lines exactly.
Bob, thanks for posting this. As a bassist, I can personally relate to the drummer.
I saw it mentioned in a few of the comments, but I’ll repeat. I think it would be helpful to have a little mini-series of these types of posts for various instruments within the worship setting (acoustic gtr., electric gtr., bass gtr., keyboards (“pads”), piano, vocalists, aux instruments (violin, trumpet, etc.). Just an idea.
Really great article, from my experience in the studio and live these are really fantastic tips.
Might be worth noting the all important ‘rim shot’: if you want that killer snare sound that really cuts you’ve gotta hit the rim and the head at the same time.
Consistency is the key, a lot of time in Church the main drum sound is actually coming from the stage… give the sound engineer a great starting point so they can re-inforce an already good sound rather than trying to rescue and re-balance bad playing with compression, EQ and gates!
as a drummer turned pastor, here are my thoughts:
– learn to play sensitively, which may mean quieter if your setting is smaller. 7a sticks may take some getting used to, but others will thank you for it. you don’t have to smash a drum to make it sing, learn how to play a drum and let it do the work for you, same with cymbals
– keep your eyes open. watch the worship leader as much as poss, especially during transitions. if your worship style is more free-flowing, he may want to go accapella, or finish the song, and you need to be clued in to that.
– keep your ears open. listen to other musicians and try to make them sound as good as possible. if someone is playing something unusual, think and talk about how you both can serve the song best. Not everyone has to play everything.
– remember: you are there to serve the worship leader, the pastor and the congregation. Your playing should help people participate in corporate worship, not dazzle them with polyrythms or confuse them with syncopation. Don’t draw attention to yourself.
Johnathon Moffett, on Michael Jackson’s last tour, during the recording/video they made of it (This is it) – there’s one song where Jackson does freestyle dancing – just him and the drums (might be Billy Jean, not sure). Moffett plays eights on the Hi Hat, 1 and 3 on the bass and 2 and 4 on the snare – for what seems like 10 minutes and he grooves the heck out of it.
The discipline that takes is amazing and correct for the moment.
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Great article! Thanks for sharing this. Got a lot of tips, and from the comments as well!
Hi Bob, great work you are doing here. Thumps up.