Questions/Answers Contribution to:
"The Definitive Recording Guide ('DRG'): For Drummers By Drummers"
(Done in June 2011)
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DRG: Since the most important aspect of this recording book is "the song," I think that the drum part is its own song within the big picture. It tells a story and complements the melody and rhythms that surround it. Would you mind addressing how you compose a drum part for a song and let us know if you plan everything including fills, breaks and specific patterns that repeat consistently on purpose and become the final part or is it partially or totally improvised; which, when chosen as the final decision for the basic tracks, is it re-learned to perform as the final product? Also, do you play those parts exactly as recorded at live gigs or you give yourself a little room to change fills and improvise a little? Do band leaders, mates or producers have a hand in creating your drum parts?
Travis: Thus far in my career, I've done two types of sessions: planned and unplanned. With planned sessions, I usually receive a demo of the material that I am to compose for/eventually record. Occasionally the demo features programmed drums, which is becoming more common with the advent of drum sequencing software. I tend to treat the programmed parts as the artist conveying the general 'feel' for each section but I don't always adhere to it.
I'll listen to each nuance of each instrument; I especially appreciate it if there are vocals ('working' ideas or the final product) in place, as I enjoy complementing them at times. I'll notate all of my drum parts with a program called Guitar Pro; I can then print out charts after I'm finished to rehearse everything. GP also allows me to export these parts to MIDI so that I may send them to the artist for approval or constructive criticism. I try to not force the incorporation of fancy fill-ins or advanced rhythmic devices (metric modulation, superimposition/polymeters, displacement, etc.) but rather, I'll let the ideas come naturally and follow my muse. I prefer to let the song determine my parts; the general 'mood' of each section or a guitar solo/lick that deserves melodic accompaniment, chord progressions that I can complement, etc.
With unplanned sessions, the situations can vary. Typically, I'll get to the studio and listen to the demos of the tunes. I'll chart the arrangements and determine the tempii. Then, I'll have the engineer run a click track underneath of the demo -- if it was tracked to one -- and run through it a few times, composing parts along the way. Sometimes, I'll leave 'pockets' of sections open, in which I won't determine all of the parts and will improvise upon tracking (I've done this with planned sessions, even). After I feel confident, I'll track the tune. I have tracked tunes wherein I improvised almost entirely, but it's usually better if I composed the majority of what I play beforehand.
I haven't had to tour with any artists that I've done partially/completely improvised tracks for (yet), so I can't comment on "re-learning" parts. Pertaining to the final query, however, I've received input from both producers and artists in regards to changing my parts (in both types of sessions). Sometimes it's vague ("Try something different"), and sometimes I'll receive an updated Guitar Pro file with something else in place, note-for-note. I don't mind corresponding with people and 'dialing' in parts; it leads to a final product that is more congruent with everyone's vision. After all, when doing sessions it is of upmost importance that the artist is happy!
DRG: Regarding the advent of home studios and working via Internet - Do you find that this method lacks the energy of a traditional session playing with others in the same room or are the results negligible?
Travis: Considering that I commit to more planned sessions than unplanned, I don't mind not being in the same room. I get enough of a kick coming up with tasteful, clever playing on my own and e-mailing the parts for the artist to absorb and comment. However, it is a ton of fun when everyone's in the control room getting off on your playing, throwing ideas around and impelling you to "go for it." I prefer both!
DRG: How often do you use a click on your projects?
Travis: The click track/metronome rules the studio world! Even if all of the instruments aren't relegated to being 'airtight,' it's important to track everything to a click for a few reasons. For example, within the realm of digital recording there is much digital editing taking place; vocals are commonly 'copied and pasted' so that the vocalist only needs one or two great takes of a chorus, etc. The engineer wouldn't be able to take advantage of such a technique if the other instruments weren't aligned to the same pulse.
DRG: When using the click track, what sound do you like to hear: cowbell, woodblock, drum machine? High pitched or low? What increments do you prefer (quarters, eighths or sometimes sixteenths) for either ultra-slow tempos or odd times? Do you crank the click above the other instruments or keep it balanced? Ever try just watching the lights as a reference on a Tama rhythm watch??
Travis: My metronome sound preference is something with great attack and little sustain; on the Boss DB90 it's the first sound source and within Pro Tools I believe it's called the 'marimba click.' The terse sound -- in conjunction with a mic'ed drum set -- makes it apparent if I'm 'flamming' with the click. I prefer the click to sit above everything else in the mix.
If I'm doing the session out of my home studio, I'll program the click so that the subdivisions mirror whatever subdivision is dominant in the tune (or any specific sections). If I am working with an engineer, occasionally I'll record my own metronome onto an additional track, but usually I'll have 'em run a quarter or eighth-note value click and track to it.
DRG: When it comes to editing drums, where is the line drawn and how much is too much?
Travis: My favorite recordings tend to be the ones that aren't Beat Detected or don't feature blended samples (or a combination of both). However, I've never recorded anything I couldn't physically execute or come close to with enough takes; digital editing is regarded as a 'time-saver' in my eyes and nothing more. If you can't come close to playing it, it should not be on the record!
DRG: Do you ever try set a mood when you track with either dimming the lights, candles, incense, stage lighting or anything that provides a more 'vibey' comfortable atmosphere when recording? Does it make a difference?
Travis: A legitimate query that I've a potentially silly answer. I film nearly every session that I do, intentionally, to post on YouTube for promotion of both myself and the artist(s) involved. Because of the filming I require bright/more-than-adequate lighting; I could brighten the footage with a program, but natural light always looks better. Moreover, my eyesight is pretty poor and I'm oftentimes reading a chart, so the brighter the better!
DRG: Do you insist on warming up before a session? Will getting sounds for the engineer or learning material with a dry run suffice for the warming up process or will the first takes do it naturally?
Travis: When working with an engineer, if we have time for me to do a quick warmup it's much appreciated. I can even commit to it without playing on the kit and possibly ruining the heads/tuning by using pads or my bare hands and bare feet (no sticks or pedals). Otherwise, I'll have the engineer run a click in Pro Tools that is slower than the tune's performance tempo and I'll work my way up to said tempo, which will suffice as my warmup. If it's more of an 'off-the-cuff' kind of thing, I'll just stretch then go for it.
When working out of my home studio it's a much more critical/sterile environment, as I cannot do punch-ins (unless the drums are tacet and the cymbals stop ringing) and I do not know how to do intense editing or to blend samples - everything's gotta be near perfect. After a thorough warmup and running through the material, working my way up to the performance tempo, I'll finally track. It's a rather laborious and meticulous process but I'm usually pleased with the end result.
DRG: Do you have any studio rituals, something that you must have or do at every session? It could be an exercise, favorite food to eat before tracking, lucky foot pedal... any constant behavior that prepares you for your day in session with your band?
Travis: Black coffee!
DRG: What is your 'Achilles heel'?
Travis: I feel that my time is not nearly as good as I'd like for it to be. I spent many years practicing, doodling, improvising, etc. sans click and although I was developing my touch, identity, and all of those vague 'blueprint' aspects of my playing I felt that it probably did just as much harm. Because of my personality, I tend to harp on my weaknesses in hope of eventually turning them into strengths. I'm also having a hell of a time adjusting to my maxed-out spring tension. It's been over a year and the things that I could do before the change still do not come as easily to me. It's a good thing that practicing brings me so much joy, for there is much work to be done!