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?