Friday, December 12, 2008

Preparing for the studio - writing charts.

Hey everyone,

I was in Indianapolis last week recording with local musician Mina Keohane. The session was a huge success; we met all of our goals and recorded some amazing music. This is impressive considering the multitude of problems we had.

Simply put, it seemed any piece of gear that could break or stop working properly did.

First was my kick pedal.

I always bring several different beaters - soft felt, hard felt, wood, and plastic (I want a rubber beater - anyone out there know where I can get one?). This helps me precisely manipulate the sound of my kick drum beyond simple tuning and muffling. What a lot of drummers don't realize is your kit can (and usually will) sound very different when it's recorded. Because of this, you may want to change some things after you hear the first slew of playbacks.

Anyways, I digress. Since the music we wrote was heavily groove-oriented, I wanted to make sure my kick and snare sounds matched the sound that Mina was going for. When I showed up for the session I had a soft felt beater on my kick pedal because we had been rehearsing in areas where I wanted to keep the volume down. However, after talking to the engineer (who was also a drummer) we agreed that hard felt would probably be the best choice. So, I removed the soft felt beater from the pedal and attached my hard felt beater. While tightening down the nuts that hold the beater in place, the entire casing that holds the beater stem cracked in half.

D'oh!! I didn't bring a spare pedal to the session (bad bad bad) so we had to scramble to Guitar Center and get another one. That's a whole OTHER story that I won't get into here, but suffice it to say that Guitar Center SUCKS when it comes to their 'performance guarantee plan' (read: don't waste your money on it).

Second thing was that our guitarist started having problems with his intonation, due in large part to a bad set-up he got for his guitar before the session. Luckily our producer was able to find us a local guitar tech and he gave the guitar a proper set-up.

Then Mina's Rhodes started acting up. I'm not exactly sure how they fixed it, but our engineer Gary Meilke figure it out and saved the day.

Some of the studio gear acted up as well. The headphone mixes didn't work right. We got a lot of RF signal in various places. A fuse in one of the mic preamps blew. One of the computers crashed. I thought Gary was going to slash his wrists at one point but he stayed calm, somehow fixed everything and got our songs cut.

The point of all this is I believe the most important thing that helped everyone keep their cool and remain productive was that the band was prepared. Our performances were on-point, so everyone knew that once we solved all of our technical issues we'd get this record cut smoothly and efficiently. Technical issues are relatively easy to solve...issues stemming from unprepared musicians are nearly impossible to solve.

Remember the cub scouts' motto: Be Prepared. Good drummers are ALWAYS prepared for every gig.

The #1 thing you can to do to prepare for a session is to have the songs NAILED. I mean inside out, backwards and forwards, upside-down and every other way. Know the songs like you know how to walk and you don't have to consciously think about them while performing (see my earlier articles on mastery). The best way to do this is to listen to the songs as often as possible and internalize them. Spend some time during your practice sessions and play along to the demos you've received. Band rehearsals are also VERY helpful for this endeavor.

Now, in a perfect world, we all have several weeks to learn 10 tunes followed by 2 or 3 rehearsals with the band before the studio sessions. However, in the REAL world we're rarely given these luxuries. Probably 90% of the recording sessions I'm hired for are last-minute, "Hey our drummer broke his arm can you come finish the record" type situations (this is no joke - a recent session I did was for a drummer who broke his arm while hiking and they had two tracks left to cut). In these more common situations, we need a technique that can prepare us as much as possible in a limited amount of time.

This technique is the usage of charts/sheet music.

I'll pause here and briefly get on the soapbox about the ability to read music. If you are a drummer than does not know how to read music, I URGE you to learn. Find yourself a teacher and take a few lessons (if you live in the greater Boston area, I may be able to help you out). This ability will open MANY doors for you and you will enjoy greater career success. It's true that some of the best drummers in history did not know how to read music, but those guys are the exception, not the rule. 99% of the successful drummers out there today can read music, and they can read it well.

Ok speech over.

I almost never receive sheet music from the artists who hire me, but I almost always get some sort of demo, so I've created a simple and fast way to write out my own charts. There are 2 major things I focus on when first listening to a demo: Groove and Song Form.


This often includes creating a groove from scratch. Many times I'll receive demos that only include the songwriter singing the song and playing guitar/piano. Sometimes the demo includes a simple sequenced beat and the artist will tell me to create something different. Regardless of what the demo includes, you can still gather much information that will help you determine the groove. Listen to the subdivisions. Are the rhythms eighth note based? Sixteenth note based? Use this as a guide when determining an appropriate groove. Also pay attention to any prominent hits or phrases that may call for stop time sections or more deliberate outlining from the drums. Remember to start out simple and only add when it's appropriate for the song. I always hear drummers that play way too much. Don't fall into this trap!!

You also need to determine the genre. I often ask the artist directly what they're going for. Is it a bluesy thing? Hip Hop? Rock? This will greatly assist you in creating a groove that fits the vision of the artist. Remember this - you are there to provide a drum part that helps fulfill the artist's vision.

Song Form

As a former teacher once told me, know the form and you know 90% of the tune. Also, learning the form will help you create parts that are musical, expressive, interesting, and supportive of the song. Familiarize yourself with the different sections of a song (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) and while you're listening to the song, make notes on what the form is. Some people like to use the terms A, B, C etc. to describe the different sections of a song. I like to use this method for simpler forms, but sometimes when songs have very involved arrangements I use more involved notation techniques such as 1st and 2nd endings, D.S. signs, and codas.

Once I know the groove and the form, it's time to write out the chart.

Here's a recent chart I wrote:

1: The Introduction Section ("INTRO" for short). What I did here was write out the groove and indicate that it repeats 7 times.

2: The x-stick note tells me to play the groove using a cross-stick technique. These types of notes are VERY important. If I show up and forget that I meant to play cross-stick during the sensitive intro and I come out cranking rim-shots, the artist won't be overly pleased.

3: The first verse. The V with a small 1 shorthand takes up a lot less space than "First Verse".

4 and 5: This is my usage of multi-measure notation. Simile... tells me to play the same groove as was written out in the INTRO section. Then I draw a wavy line and a number on top. This tells me the amount of bars to play said groove. These techniques save me a lot of time when writing the chart as well as saving space on the page.

6: The chorus section. I use both multi-measure notation here as well as repeat signs. The reason for this is if I need to play a rhythmic figure (i.e. "hits") I'll write out the whole phrase and use repeats instead of multi-measure notation.

7: Another note to myself about the groove. Since the chorus strayed from the original groove and involved playing specific rhythmic figures as hits, I wanted to make sure I didn't confuse myself wondering what to play during the next phrase.

8: The second verse. Again, using a V and a small 2 takes up less space than "Second Verse". Also, this song required a slightly different groove during the second verse so I wrote it out and then used multi-measure notation for efficiency.

9: The ending or outro ("OUT" for short). Notice the "ORIG GROOVE" note. Since the groove changed during the 2nd verse, I put this note in to make sure I knew what the heck to play at the end (same situation as the end of the chorus). Whenever the groove changes, you need to either write it out or make a note of it. This is soooo important.

10: The song ended on a held note that faded naturally so I wanted to add a little something special. Since this particular artist has a strong Jazz background I thought a little sizzle would tickle her whiskers (she doesn't really have whiskers, but she DID like the sizzles). So, I put a little note to myself to play the last note on the ride cymbal with the sizzles. This is the kind of thing that is easily forgotten if not noted but will make you stand out as a musical, interesting, sensitive drummer (yes, sensitivity is a GOOD quality to have guys!!).

11. The form of the song. As I said earlier in this article, for easier forms I'll just write out the sections, label them, and then specify the form at the bottom. The majority of sessions I do include pop and folk singer/songwriter genres so this type of notation suffices. However, as I said earlier in this article, the use of more advanced form notation such as 1st and 2nd endings, D.S.'s and codas is sometimes required up and as such I recommend you become familiar with those techniques.

Music notation is in and of itself an art form. I recommend picking up a good reference book. I've used The Norton Manual of Music Notation for years.

Many if not most people these days use software like Finale or Sibelius; in my experience these programs are incredible in how they can help you write music quickly and effectively. If you have the resources, I highly recommend you obtain and learn one of these programs (I'm partial to Sibelius FYI). That said, I urge you to learn music notation even if you do all of your sheet music on a computer. Why? Well, I can't tell you how often I've been somewhere without my laptop (like a plane or the subway or car) and I needed to write out a quick chart. To be honest, I still think it is sometimes easier to hand-write a quick drumset chart for a simple song that has nothing more than an intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and ending.

If you're not used to writing charts, practice. Write out charts for some songs you don't know very well. Imagine you've been hired to go into the studio and record them. What information would you need on a chart to perform it correctly and flawlessly?

Bring charts to your next session and I guarantee you'll be seen as a professional, prepared, serious drummer who needs to be hired for more work in the future. There are enough variables that we have to deal with when performing music (especially in the studio). Your preparedness of the material should not be one of them.