First of all, I’m really excited to be writing this series! I think it’s going to be very beneficial for a lot of my readers, so please feel free to spread the word! I grew up as a guitar player, and when I first started producing all I ever focused on were the chords. I mean drums, really? Are they even that important? When I was 16 I remember saying that a good song is always going to be a good song regardless of what the drummer is doing. (I also thought Bulbasaur was the best Pokemon.) But guess what… I’m not 16 anymore. I grew up. I learned a LOT about music. Drums can absolutely make or break a song… and more importantly Charizard would obliterate Bulbasaur in a battle. Here are a few non Pokemon related tips to help you out when you’re looking to produce drums.
The first thing to bear in mind is that you are the conductor. You’re leading the sessions. But you’re not a dictator. Your word is not gold. You give advice, and the band will either take it or leave it. Certain changes may sound weird to a band initially, (especially when they’ve only ever played their songs one way), but if the advice is good, and the band is open to great ideas, you’ll win them over sooner rather than later.
This is easier said than done when you’re dealing with some drummers. My ear is always instantly drawn to the kick drum. When I hear a complicated bass drum pattern that doesn’t match the song, I’m trying to figure out why. I’ll ask the drummer why he has so many kicks, and most of the time he didn’t even realize it. Some other band members are just like a younger me, in the sense that they weren’t overly concerned with what the kick drum was doing. But on a record, these things are important. You’d be amazed at how much a simple 4 to the floor can improve the overall feel of a chorus.
Listen for Dynamics
Again, sometimes drummers have a tendency to get lost in their playing. (Other instrumentalists do too, but when the drummer does it, it stands out so much more.) Listen to the drums in context of the song. Should the drummer be playing on his crash cymbal during a palm muted, vocally driven verse? Or might it sound better if he switches to a closed hi-hat? Sure the ride cymbal sounds cool during the the bridge where the guitar rings outs, but wouldn’t it feel warmer if the drums had more space, maybe half time on the floor toms? Don’t be afraid to experiment with different feels making the drums bigger and smaller as the song opens up and gets softer.
Think of the Listener
This is a pretty interesting idea. Assume you’re writing the record for people who don’t fully understand music the way you and I do. You need to tell the audience what they’re listening to. Make it blatantly obvious. If you’re playing your verses on a hi-hat, switch to an open hi-hat for the pre chorus. Then really open things up with a crash cymbal for the chorus. Not only does it make the songs sound more coherent, but the audience will feel the changes and follow the songs easier. Engaging the audience in such a way will lead to more people grooving to music at live shows. Try it out, you’ll be surprised, and your bands will be highly impressed with this simple piece of advice.
Don’t Be Busy
Stop the drummer from trying to be the center of attention. He’s a supporting character. On drum solos he can go as bananas as he wants, but when the vocalist is singing an intimate lyric, the audience should be focusing on his words. I don’t want to be drawn into a powerful verse, then have it ripped away by a drummer who insists on playing a fill that is completely out of place. This goes for crash cymbals as well. They don’t have to play crashes on every down beat in the chorus, sometimes it works, but usually it’s just overkill.
Transitions are Key
A beautiful transition can lift a verse, make a chorus pop, and improve certain parts of the song. If moving from a verse to a chorus feels awkward, consider changing the drums around. Hitting a stop at the end of a verse is a nice trick that can make a chorus hit hard. Building up to a chorus can really lift it, and sometimes the perfect fill can really solidify select parts of the song. Try out a bunch of different ideas, and always keep in mind, it all starts with the drums. All of the other instruments will build off of what they’re doing.
I really hope you take this advice into account next time you’re looking to produce drums. I’d love to hear some of your experiences, so definitely write a comment. What have you found works when you’re recording drums? I’d love to hear from you. Thanks for reading, and be on the lookout for next weeks article on guitars. Peace and rock on.