Say that three times quickly! This time around we are going to talk about how to best prepare and navigate a session. What can we do to help make a recording session go smoothly?
The first and most obvious thing is to prepare yourself in every way possible. Here are the things I do before I get to a session.
First I check all my “drum tools”. The equipment we take into a session is radically important to the outcome of the recording. I make sure my drum heads are brand new or very new. I don’t mind if my heads are a bit worn-in, but brand new heads are always best for me. I use Remo Coated Ambassadors on the top and Clear Diplomats on the bottoms of my DW drums, and I am always happy with the way the drums sound with that combination.
I make sure I have my GK headphones (Peltor gun muffs with Sony components inside). These permit me to hear the click at a low volume while I am banging away at the kit, and also prevents the click from bleeding into the mics. A well-stocked Vic Firth stick bag with my SD9 sticks and an assortment of brushes, Rutes, and mallets is essential. In that same stick bag are a few shakers, a tambourine, and assorted replacement parts (an extra bass drum chain and spring, drum lugs, and felt pads, etc.) for if something goes awry.
Having your drums tuned properly is mandatory BEFORE you get to the session. You can always tweak things as you go, but your drums should sound great right out of the cases. I like my toms to be wide open with no tape on them to start with, but I always have a few things with me if the producer or engineer want the drums more muted. I have gaff tape with me so I don’t have to go looking for some. I have Big Fat Snare Drum muting rings for my snare and all my toms. I have a few small rags if they want a really muted sound. And since my floor toms have a tendency to sustain forever in certain rooms I will usually turn one of the flanged legs upside down, which helps mute the sustain of the drum. I always have Lug Locks for the snare in case it is a hard-hitting session. These will keep the snare lugs from loosening and help the snare drum stay tuned the same from take to take.
I usually take 2 cymbal bags with an assortment of Zildjian cymbals. One of my favorite cymbals right now is a 22” paper-thin Constantinople ride that I use as a crash most of the time. I also have cymbal sizzlers and little percussion goodies that I use from time to time. Lately I have been experimenting with a bundle of large hollowed out seeds that I can put on top my high hat cymbals for a unique sound.
I always take a few different snare drums with me. The point is to have an assortment of sounds at your disposal just in case the producer or artist is looking for something different.
So how else can we prepare? If it is at all possible get the music and charts ahead of time and be very familiar with the material. If it is a sight reading session I always try to spend time sight reading drum charts just to keep that skill honed. Many times, when doing sight reading sessions, I can at least get a demo of the tunes the day before so I can listen before going to the session. Any preparation is helpful. If there are a lot of tempo changes and I am able to familiarize myself with them beforehand it helps the session move along much faster. The hardest thing about playing a sight reading session is nailing tempo and feel changes. Many of the Disney or Universal sessions I have done (usually parade or show music) are full of these transitions.
Now lets talk about the day of the session. Most importantly, get there early. I move my own drums, so I contact the studio to make sure someone will be there an hour and a half before downbeat. This gives me plenty of time to set up without having to rush. Generally, about 30 minutes before downbeat we are starting to get drum sounds. I try to only play the drums enough to make sure they are in tune before we start to get drum sounds. I do not “noodle” or practice licks or grooves, which can be very annoying to others setting up.
Regarding getting drum sounds for the engineer. Every engineer does it a bit different. If you don’t know the guy behind the board be very aware of what he is asking of you. If he just wants to hear the bass drum, just play the bass drum. What I do is something I saw Jeff Porcaro do years ago. He would play a fairly simple high hat groove while being asked to play different drums. This gave a groove to the usually monotonous chore of getting drum sounds. It also gives me a chance to loosen up. Once the individual sounds of each drum are dialed in it is time for the whole kit to be played. I have a few different grooves I use for this that incorporate all the drums and cymbals.
Communication is key during this time and throughout the session. My job as a session drummer is to make the producer, engineer, and artist happy.
Communication is key during this time and throughout the session. My job as a session drummer is to make the producer, engineer, and artist happy. This can be difficult because many times there is a lot of talking going on in the control room that I cannot hear unless they turn on the talkback mic. If nothing else, I am watching. Don’t ask too many questions, but speak up when something needs to be clarified.
I remember doing a very difficult piece of music at a Disney session. Every big Disney song was crammed into this 25-minute arrangement. Transitions were happening every 30 or 45 seconds. There were feel, time, and tempo changes all over the place. It was a bit over the top. The clients were in the room, and even though they kept the talkback mic off I could tell by watching the engineer that it was becoming difficult for the writer to keep the clients happy. I had many questions, and every time I started to speak up the engineer would just look at me and shake his head. He was telling me to keep my mouth shut and just play. It was a tough day of work, but we got through it without having to go into overtime, which keeps everyone happy.
This brings me to attitude. In a studio environment, or anywhere else for that matter, our egos need to be checked at the door. In fact, they need to be left in a closet at home. The best way to get asked back is to make sure everything you do, from set up to teardown, is helpful. It does not matter if you think the music is silly or poorly written. It does not matter if someone on the session is being a jerk. It does not matter if you are being asked to play something you think is sort of lame. The art of asserting yourself when you think it is necessary and humbling yourself to the will of whoever is in charge is key to a successful session.
I love this quote from Peter Erskin when asked about playing in a less than optimal situation: “Every playing opportunity informs the next one. You might learn something profound about just how to work with other musicians or what to do when a song starts to fall apart.” Every opportunity is a chance for us to learn and grow regardless of the circumstances.
I hope this is helpful the next time you are asked to do a recording.