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Recording Great Drums (The Hard Way)
Lessons from a difficult project...
By Jon Bare

Every now and then you have one of those really difficult sessions in the studio. You know what I’m talking about—sessions where pleasing the artist, the producer and the hired talent all at the same time is not easy to do. I recently had one of those sessions and learned a few things that I would like to pass along to you. And if you ever have an experience like mine, maybe you will be that much better prepared. (Note to self: Always be prepared.)

Setting the stage

First, I would like to introduce Chet McCracken, who is my first-call session drummer and, when available, band member at live gigs. It is only natural for me to want to include him in any musical opportunities that come my way. By all accounts, he is a world-class drummer with a great “feel.” He can also write and read charts, which proved to be an enormous benefit to our session. It also made things somewhat boring and tedious at times. (Note to self: Never do this to Chet again.)

Next, I would like to introduce my friend Derin Dow, an accomplished singer-songwriter-guitarist. Four years ago, I recommended Chet as the drummer for Derin’s CD project. He sent Chet some demos but after that nothing happened for a long time.

Recently, however, Derin made arrangements to hire Chet and book my studio for four days. In the weeks prior to this, Derin sent Chet some additional demos to listen to. Chet now had 24 songs to learn. At this point I was completely out of the loop. (Note to self: Never be out of the loop.)

Unfortunately, the dates that Derin wanted to book in the studio were dates for which Chet was unavailable. The following week was booked, dangerously close to when Derin had to leave town to take his kids back to see the grandparents. Hey, he already had the tickets.

We had four days to record: Friday and Saturday—Sunday was a day off—then Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday morning Derin flew back to Indiana. In that time we agonized for four days and somehow managed to get enough drum tracks for a CD. It was fewer tracks than Derin—who was the producer—had expected. Perhaps it was my fault. (Note to self: Never admit it was your fault.)

When I had first told Derin about Chet I mentioned that he usually came over prepared to play my songs, with charts that he had written at home. No doubt, that is what Derin expected from Chet this time around.

The problem was, I do eleven relatively easy songs in a 2-day session. Derin had 24 songs, some of which were very difficult. Most people write songs that have an A part and a B part, with some kind of bridge or C part, and maybe a tag. Some of Derin’s songs go out to J, K, L, with a tag. Oh yeah, and they have tempo changes, too.

There’s no way anybody could memorize this much music before a session without, as Chet suggested, “two weeks of rehearsal—paid rehearsal.” I think Chet knew from the demos that recording these songs was going to be difficult at best, with most songs requiring an elaborate chart—which is extremely time-consuming to create and not really part of the deal that he had made with Derin.

Disclaimer

I am not a drummer. I can play drums and program a drum machine, but that doesn’t make me a drummer. Derin also is not a drummer. The difference between Derin and myself is that I usually encourage Chet to play whatever he feels like playing, and then guide him from there, whereas Derin prefers to have Chet learn and play his programmed drum parts as closely as possible.

I don’t want to be judgmental. Both methods work. But one method requires considerably more advance planning than the other, as we were about to find out—the hard way.

Day 1: Tuesday

Up to this point I had encouraged Derin to do as much advance-preparation for his sessions as possible. I wanted everything to be in place when the talent walked in the door so that we could concentrate on the music and not on technical issues.

Derin had been advised by a friend to be sure the tape deck was properly aligned before his session so he drove up to Hollywood to borrow a 2" alignment tape. Mine had succumbed to sticky-tape-shed syndrome long ago but I don’t really miss it. My MCI JH-16 24-track deck doesn’t drift more than a dB, which is easily addressed during normal playback. Most projects that start over here get mixed over here, so it’s not really an issue. If the client wants to take his tape elsewhere to mix, we just print some tones.

We goofed around a little but we got the job done. My tape deck hadn’t drifted very much, but at least we verified that everything was working. Then we printed 30 seconds of a 1 kHz tone on all 24 channels at the head of reel 1. No charge.

Derin had accumulated some 14 hours of free studio time by helping me record voice-overs on my CD/book Recording The Electric Guitar as well as various piano overdubs on my CD Orcastra. He planned to use that free time recording drums on his new CD.

Now, most people could record drums for two 7-hour days and get enough for an album. I’ve done that with Chet four times. Derin had a broader plan. He wanted to get as many drum tracks down at one time as he could in his four days. That’s why he sent 24 demos to Chet.

Day 2: Wednesday

Derin came over at 4 PM with four reels of 2" tape, enough for two albums. He had decided to stripe SMPTE time-code on all four reels, so we began that process. He wanted reel 1 to start at 1 hour (1:00:00:00), reel 2 to start at 2 hours, etc. That will help keep things organized for sequencing and digital editing later in ProTools. What? Derin is not really sure yet how he is going to record all of his tracks and mix the album. He may use some of his budget to buy a digital 8-track and do some of the overdubs at home. For now, all I care about is timecode.

It took us as long to find the user manual for my SP-1200 drum machine as it did to learn how to dial in the SMPTE starting points. Then we printed timecode on track 24. At roughly 32 minutes a reel on Quantegy 456, that took us about three hours.

We used this time to connect mic sends from the room to my board in a way that made the most sense and allowed the greatest flexibility during tracking. In my studio, knowing in advance which mic send goes into which board channel is a huge benefit when setting up. Crawling under the console to plug in snake cables is never any fun. I prefer to do it once and get it over with. Down I go.

After striping SMPTE on four reels, Derin wanted to print his demos of the 24 songs on the four reels of tape. We chose tracks 21 and 22, leaving a guard track on 23 (to prevent bleed of the track-24 SMPTE into the music).

Derin had burned his 8-track cassette demos to CDs and brought with him a CD player capable of playing them back at variable speed. We used it to adjust the tempo of the songs while recording them to the 24-track. Most songs got an increase in tempo over the original demo speed. Sometimes the increase was radical—to improve the groove.

Now, “groove”—for those of you who are not drummers—is the term used to describe a tempo that just feels right. A little faster or slower doesn’t feel as good, so a drummer naturally settles into the groove, or pocket. A tenth of a BPM (beat-per-minute) can make a difference in how well the music sits in the groove.

The thing is, there’s more than just one groove. There are grooves on each side of the groove you decide to record at—faster grooves and slower grooves. Picking the right groove is as important as being able to settle into it.

Finding the perfect groove while playing back a CD demo is not always an easy thing to do, especially when the demo speed is not that steady. We agonized over the tempos, which had to be adjusted on the fly in some songs.

I would go out to the studio and play drums to the track while listening to it on headphones. Derin would adjust the speed up and down to see where he liked it. When I felt it was easy to play to—that a groove had been found—I stopped playing and went back into the control-room. Then we would print the demo to tape.

We put 24 demos on four reels of tape, six songs per reel. We stopped at midnight. We had burned eight of Derin’s 14 free hours and we hadn’t even recorded drums yet.

Day 3: Thursday

After further consultation with his friend, Derin came over to reprint several demos at a faster tempo. We labored over them as usual. In a couple of songs we were no longer listening to a drum program, but his friend Dave playing electronic drums. Timing fluctuations caused us some problems but we did the best we could. After an hour and a half we were done.

We relaxed a little and began talking about what was going to happen in the first session with Chet on Friday. We both knew that there was no way we were going to get through 24 songs in four days. I encouraged Derin to prioritize his tunes so that we could get the most important ones done no matter what. We plugged in a few last remaining cables and got things prepared for the session.

Day 4: Friday

I’m feeling good about myself. Everything is set up and ready. I’m in the kitchen making breakfast when Derin calls. He’s having a rental company deliver eight channels of API mic preamps to the studio at 1 PM, the same time that the session is supposed to start. Is that OK?

No, it’s not OK. Can the balanced XLR outputs of the mic pres interface with my patch bay? And even if it is OK, is this really necessary? I was under the impression that the client liked the drum sounds I record over here, which is why he booked the room.

I admitted to him over the phone that it probably would make a slight difference. But unfortunately, we wouldn’t have time to A/B them with my usual signal-to-tape to determine if he would be getting his money’s worth. He rented them for a week. One day might have been enough if we just had time to evaluate it. (Note to self: Never let the client rent gear unassisted.)

Does the rental company have the proper cables? We’ll need an 8-channel snake from balanced XLR output to TT (Tiny Telephone), to interface with my patchbay. We’ll also need eight extra mic cables so that my existing mic snake will reach the rack of mic pres wherever we decide to put it. Derin called the rental company and then called me back to say that the necessary cables would be coming. Of course, all of this should have been set up well in advance so that this engineer could enjoy his breakfast.

Ground zero

The gear arrived at 1:00 and we began plugging it in. Chet arrived shortly thereafter and began setting up his drums. He put on new heads for the session, which I thought showed some class. His toms have mics mounted inside the shells which saves a little time setting up mics and stands. It also reduces clutter around his kit and produces a reliable and repeatable sound.

We ran the mic sends to the APIs and patched their outputs into the line inputs of my board so we could eq them to tape. We used no compression, preferring to let the natural compression of the tape work its magic.

I like to see the needle slamming the peg on snare drum, and occasionally on kick drum tracks. Toms can hit the peg but should not stay there. Overheads should not peg out because distortion on crash cymbals is obnoxious. Room mics can hit the peg occasionally, but only on loud snare hits.

Sometimes snare tracks actually sound the fattest when they clip the board a little on their way to tape. Not every board is as forgiving as mine, so if you use this trick you have to dial it in by feel and because it sounds right, not just because I told you to.

Here’s how we set up to record drums:

Normally I print overheads and room mics on a single stereo pair, but only when there is a band playing and I can make that critical balance decision hearing all of the instrumentation. This time we had only drums and a demo track, or drums and a scratch guitar. Better to save that decision for later.

One decision you need to make when setting up drum overheads is where to put the mics. Sometimes they sound best when set up as a crossed pair above the drummer’s head, pointing at the cymbals. Other times, as we did in this case, you can get a little more stereo by separating the mics a few feet and pointing them slightly away from each other. A lot depends on the drum kit and how the drums and cymbals are laid out.

I used two Neumann U 87s for room mics, although I suppose I could have swapped them with the Fender P-2 condensers and used them as drum overheads. I placed the room mics about eight feet in front of the kit and about ten feet apart. I left them in cardioid mode, aimed at the drum kit. If I had wanted more room sound I could have switched them to omni, but they sounded fine. You have to make sure you don’t put your room mics too far away or you’ll hear flamming.

We went through the drum tracks one at a time, dialing in their eq settings. We made sure everything sounded good when all the faders were up and the whole kit was balanced. We checked to make sure all our levels were good. We set up an amp for Derin in another room and miked it. Then we set up his talkback mic. About two hours later we had everything ready to go.

Ready, set, stop!

We listened to the demo of the first song that Derin wanted to do. It was pretty complicated. And Derin had very fixed ideas about where he wanted certain fills and crashes to be, as we soon found out. Chet went for his staff paper immediately and sat down to make a chart of the tune. It was clear that Derin had purposefully chosen one of the more difficult songs to start the session.

I prefer to start a session with something easy, in order to build everyone’s confidence and get them to the place where they like what they hear on playback in the control room, as soon as possible. Then we can tackle something more difficult. But hey, I’m not the producer.

Writing this first chart was no easy task. I would roll tape playing a few bars of the demo and then stop. Chet would make some marks on his chart, occasionally erasing a previous notation. Then I’d rewind the tape and play it for him again. We looped on short sections until Chet was satisfied, then we would mark a new spot and move on.

During these loops, Chet would listen to each drum and cymbal one at a time, writing out its pattern on his chart. Transcribing kick, snare, and hi hat patterns is tedious enough, let alone the exact tom fills, odd accents and unpredictable tempo changes that Derin had in his programmed drum tracks.

In one song his programmed pattern was extremely difficult to play. It sounded cool, but unfortunately, difficult to play also means difficult to write—and read. I sure couldn’t play that part. It was a real tongue-twister of a riff. Somehow Chet made it through that section alive, but I later challenged Derin to play that pattern himself when he told me he thought it was “not that hard.”

I said, “Get your foot to do the kick part and your left hand to do the snare part.” With a little practice, he could keep it going, because the kick and snare hits alternated in rhythm with the syncopated guitar track that he had memorized.

Then I said, “Now keep doing that while you play a consistent eighth-note pattern on the hi-hat with your right hand.” He couldn’t do it. I can’t do it. Somehow, we got through it but it wasn’t easy.

After a good four hours it was 8 PM and we had recorded only one song on the first day. (Note to self: Stop writing notes to yourself.)

Break time

We took a much-needed 45-minute break to clear our heads and feed our tummies. At least, the artist and the engineer needed the break. Chet probably would have been ready to continue. I think we all realized that one song was not enough for one day of tracking, and even though Chet and Derin had agreed to do 7-hour days, we all wanted to press on to get another song or two.

This time Derin chose a relatively easy tune—one that had only A, B and C parts. We made the chart and then recorded drums while Chet played along to the demo. That song was probably the quickest one we recorded. We got a three-minute song down in about three minutes.

Of course, after listening to it the producer had a few suggestions as to where the crashes should be and when to play the ride cymbal. Some of these ideas had not been fully communicated to Chet before rolling tape. Oh, well. It happens. That track was slammin’. Too bad we can’t keep it. After a few more takes and critical playbacks, we had a keeper.

Then it was back into the control-room for another chart, and back out to the studio for another track. Derin picked up his guitar and started strumming a funky riff that Chet could groove along to.

By 1 AM we had drums on three songs. Derin had used up all his free studio time and was now on the clock at my lowest “friends-only” rate. Even so, his budget and financial plan did not anticipate such slow progress in the studio. Which only goes to show, you should make your best estimate of how long you think it will take in the studio and then double it.

Day 5: Saturday

All I remember about Saturday is that we discovered early on that we were never going to learn these long, complicated songs in a reasonable amount of time, so we resorted to the next best thing—a sound engineer’s nightmare—punching drums.

Now, I can punch drums with the best of them, but these were trying times. Tempos were ramping up and down, the drummer could hardly make heads or tails out of the reference track in his headphones, and we decided to focus on sections of each song and get them right, then move on to the following sections.

That’s a real feel-buster but it was the only way. The band Yes used to do a similar thing in the studio but they would spend all day on a section of a song, get it right, then work on some other section. Later, they razor-bladed all the parts together to make a song. Great. They had two weeks. We have two hours.

Punching in drum tracks is a three-headed monster. First, it assumes that you are going to push the button at just the right moment, like you always do. (Yeah, right.) Second, it requires that the drummer plays in exact time with his previous performance. That means he has to hear it. If he drifts a little and is late you’ll hear the dreaded “ba-bump” when “bump” is what you really want to hear.

If he’s a little early your punch will produce a rushed moment on tape. That’s even worse, because now you have to back up and find an earlier punch point. Sometimes you go backwards, not forwards, with this process.

Head number 3 (remember our metaphor?) is that even if you both nail your parts, all the ambient cymbal wash has to be the same. That means that the drummer has to play the same crash that’s on tape ten seconds before the punch point as you roll tape going into the punch. It also means that you have to switch between listening to the drummer and the tape before the punch to make sure it sounds the same. Then push the button and don’t be late. It’s a lot of work for an engineer.

Occasionally, something would sound less than pristine and we had to decide if we wanted to fix it now or move on. “Fix it in Pro Tools” became our running joke. Personally, I hate keeping anything that you have to fix later.

Chet put in a solid 8-hour day and we got four more songs. Derin and I hung out in the studio until 1 AM talking about the future of his project. After two days he had drums on seven songs. We agreed that he should get at least another seven songs in the next two days of recording, and that it was important to identify the songs that he thought had the best chance of making it to his album.

We prioritized his remaining songs focusing on the ones that he felt absolutely had to be on his CD, and the few others that were relatively easy to record should we have some extra time in the studio. We chose the hardest tracks for the beginning of the Monday and Tuesday sessions, as Derin felt they were “mission-critical” and we could not risk skipping them.

We budgeted a half-day for one song, beginning Tuesday morning because this was Derin’s opus and it had the most—uh, unusual?—parts.

Anytime you get to the end of a session and it occurs to you that all of your equipment worked—nothing crapped out on you—that was a good session. I made a comment along those lines. Perhaps that was my downfall.

Day 6: Sunday

Chet had plans to be with his family on Sunday, which was a well-deserved break after recording for three days in Dallas with Trisha Lynn Carter and our grueling two-day session. I half expected Derin to come over to print demos at improved speeds, but, not today.

Day 7: Monday

Something weird happened when I rewound the tape for the beginning of the session. The tape counter did not move backwards from zero. It moved forward when I pressed Play, but did not increment backwards when I rewound the tape. This was most distressing, but after a few attempts to jockey the tape, it began working again.

We got the most difficult song down and then did two more tunes in the seven hours between 11 AM and 6 PM. By now my tape jockeying skills are sharp—I’m able to anticipate Chet’s every need. I’m conditioned like one of Pavlov’s dogs to reach for the remote every time he moves a muscle.

At one point Derin left the room and Chet and I had to figure out what Derin might want on the chart in order to catch the most important things in his drum program. I said, “Well, you know how he is,” to which Chet replied, “Yeah. Unprepared.” Chet is a Virgo like me. Virgos like to be prepared.

Derin is a Libra. His “balanced” approach to being prepared included printing demos as reference tracks and providing Chet with written song structures identifying the various parts of the songs. Chet wanted drum charts. Derin’s beautiful laser-printed roadmaps identified the number of progressions in each section, but Chet needed bars and beats. Often a section would end with an extra measure, or half-measure.

The most important thing that happened Monday in the studio happened after the session was over. We got smart. Derin and I finally put two and two together and realized that most of our difficulties were the direct result of not having a clearly audible click track in the headphones.

What happened? Why didn’t we think of that? How could we have thought that a drummer could follow a demo tape when in places the guitars and vocals are blaring away and obliterating the drums?

So, at the proverbial eleventh hour, we printed a click track on one song—the monster we had scheduled for Tuesday morning. I wanted to print click tracks on all of the songs we had remaining but time was running short, and putting a click on this one song took forever.

We programmed my drum machine in some places and played it by hand in other places. It was far too complicated to remember, let alone describe to you here. Just know that making music involves times like this, when you are not actually making music.

Day 8: Tuesday

Tuesday morning I was pumped. We had a click track! Woo-hoo! Now we could finally provide something in the headphones that our drummer could recognize as ‘tempo.’ I was psyched, but it was short-lived. That morning the same thing happened with the tape counter as it did the day before, but the problem did not resolve itself.

I tried everything I could think of, but nothing worked. I was on my hands and knees with the tape deck open wiggling circuit boards when the client arrived. I was just about to launch into my explanation—then it began working! You have no idea how relieved I was. I was anticipating jockeying the tape for Chet manually without a working auto-locator. No fun.

We nailed Derin’s opus in a few hours, punching each section until we were satisfied with it. Well, until the producer was satisfied with it. To his credit, Derin was steadfast in his desire to have his drum parts played a certain way. That’s better than working with a producer who doesn’t really know what he wants, so he wants you to play it a bunch of different ways so he can see how it sounds.

It wasn’t always easy, but we continually moved in a consistent direction toward our goal. And at the end of the day, the client was happy. We got four more songs that day, for a total of 14.

Epilogue

What did we learn? We learned that Derin (a guitarist) should have had all of his drum charts written out well in advance of the session. We learned that printing click tracks on all of the songs would have saved an enormous amount of time and frustration. And we learned that things always do take twice as long in the studio as you expect them to.

Chet thanked me for referring him as the drummer for Derin’s CD. He also said I was his “best friend” during the session. Now, if Derin feels the same way, I’ve walked the tightrope and made the artist and his hired talent both happy. That’s not always easy to do in the studio.

Tracking drums this way was at times so difficult that for the first time in my life I heard Chet say, “I don’t want to do this.” He was playing over a particularly obscure part where the timing in his headphones was lost, and he was just guessing as to where the meter was. He repeated his statement more than once so I would know that he was serious.

I had the client at my back. He was not going to be happy if we gave up or abandoned our plan now. I said politely in Chet’s headphones, “Chet, unfortunately, sometimes we have to do things that we don’t want to do.” “Boy, ain’t that the truth,” was his reply. We released a little stress, and somehow got through the track.

We all worked hard in the studio. Chet worked hard on the charts and just as hard trying to keep his performance in sync with the demos. I worked the tape machine harder than it likes and punched drums more often than I have ever done before (and more than once with disastrous results). Derin worked hard listening critically and communicating his instructions to the drummer. I worked hard to make sure Derin got everything he wanted out of the drum tracks without alienating the talent.

Derin was cool enough to give Chet a generous tip after the last session as a gesture of goodwill. We all know Chet deserves a whole lot more for services rendered beyond the call of duty—but then like most of us, Derin isn’t exactly made of money. The gesture was the thing.

Jon Bare (talkback@recordingmag.com) is, among many other things, the author of the Playback Platinum CD/book Recording The Electric Guitar.

 

 

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