From The June 2017 Issue Of DRUM! Magazine | By John Payne | Photography by Robert Downs
We’ve written many times in these pages about how important it is for drummers to expand their profit earning potential beyond simply playing beats and fills in order to enjoy a long career in the music business. These extracurricular skills run the gamut from leading bands to songwriting, teaching lessons, and even working behind the counter at your local drum shop. However, we rarely consider record production as a viable side job to supplement drumming earnings. We’re used to producers being on one side of the glass while we’re on the other.
Although that is often the case, history shows that a number of successful producers began their lives as working drummers. So in planning this special issue, we could think of no better experts to comment on the process of recording drums than a panel of producers who also happened to be professional drummers.
We assembled a trio of candidates who had contributed to pop and rock music’s evolution in both roles: Peter Bunetta (Smokey Robinson, New Edition, Donna Summer, One Direction), Tony Braunagel (Bonnie Raitt, Keb Mo, Ricky Lee Jones, Eric Burdon), and Roy Mayorga (Stone Sour, Soulfly, Sepultura).
We met at Bunetta’s Malibu studio ranch, took seats in a control room, and began tossing around ideas and anecdotes about recording drums in the studio. As you already know, drummers like to talk.
DRUM! You were all successful drummers first. What made you decide to get into recording?
Braunagel: I got to the point where I had to do two things: I started walking around town saying to people, “I’m going to start producing.” And they’d go, “Yeah, right.” And I’d be, “No, I’m going to produce records.” And I made every little silly move there was, embarrassed myself, to finally get the first opportunity — bam!
Mayorga: Just do it.
Braunagel: So then eventually I’m in the studio with somebody, and we’ve got a song, and I’m going, “What do I do now? Well, let’s see.” Like Roy says, just do it. At a certain point, you realize it isn’t just going to be drums in your life; you’re going to continue to play, but I just decided that I was well-qualified.
As drummers, you’re uniquely qualified to bring out another drummer’s best in the studio.
Braunagel Aside from being the guy that turns on the light and starts the session in the studio, drummers always start everything: we count it off, we start the song, we pace the song, the cadence, we end the song; we play fills that tell everybody where to go. We’ve always been the leaders behind the drum kit. And when you get into the producing side of it …
Mayorga You have a solid foundation.
Braunagel Right. Then you learn all the other stuff, like developing songs, finding artists, getting along with the artist, getting performances, turning it all into something that seems like a finished product, getting it out the door.
Do business skills come naturally to drummers?
Braunagel: The organizational skills have to develop, even if you didn’t have them before. And that’s kind of what happened to me. I had an opportunity in 1999 that I jumped on. A hole was left when a producer who was supposed to do this live record I played on left the project. I said, I’ve been doing all the organizing for this project anyway, so I took over the producing job, finished the record, and — though it took me a few months to actually turn in something really nice — it won a Grammy in 2000.
What’s your best advice for drummers who are about to record in a professional studio for the first time?
Bunetta: First of all, every young drummer needs to know how to compose. My father told me, look, you don’t want to be either a 40-year-old model or a 40-year-old musician who doesn’t know his biz. And it resonated: Yeah, I don’t really know how it all works. I know microphones and how to get the takes — but I didn’t know the business.
Braunagel: What move did you make? For me, I said, I gotta be a songwriter. I’m not a great songwriter, but I can collaborate and put ideas together. At that point, I pulled my guitar out and I would just sit down every day and play until I found something, until I found a melody. And when I lived in London and work was slow, I would write songs for a publishing company and they would give me an advance — sometimes I’d pay my rent that month off of writing six songs. They weren’t great songs, but I was doing my craft. When I produce a project now, they send me the songs and I go, “Hey, we gotta fix this chorus, fix this bridge, you’re not saying it right here, you’re the wrong personality in this love affair,” whatever.
Is it best to talk to the drummer prior to a session about how his or her playing is going to best support the songs?
Braunagel: As you get older, you gain an understanding of what communicates to people in a conversation. Producers learn to get that conversation going in songs, so that the characters in the songs have something to say and what comes out of their mouths is important, as opposed to moon/June/bloom kind of stuff; you’re actually saying something to the other person, then that comes back to you.
Bunetta: Anybody that plays any instrument should know the story they’re playing behind. There are a lot of drummers I’ve met that don’t even listen to the lyrics. Well, everybody that plays a session should know what’s going on with the story in the song.
Mayorga: Right, whether you’re mad or whatever else is going on.
Braunagel: I ask singers all the time, “Who are you in this song? Look at your lyrics. Who is this personality, what are you trying to get across here? Are you sad? Are you suspicious? What is it? I don’t hear that in your voice. You’re just saying these words and putting your voice to these words. Why don’t you put that into your heart and then put that voice to those words and interpret it?”
Mayorga: And the players, including drummers, have to make room for the vocals. Sometimes guitar players noodle about throughout the verses, but you can’t be just doodling back there while some dude’s pouring his heart out [laughs]. You give ’em the stink-eye: Calm it down!
Bunetta: The great producers I learned from, whether Arif Mardin or Quincy Jones, or the Lenny Waronkers and Russ Titelmans, they listened to everybody in the room. A great producer gets the dialog going and all of a sudden somebody says, “I got a great intro, check this out!” And the drummer says, “Yeah, I can do this!”
Is there a common trait among drummers that allows you to easily make them comfortable and achieve good performances in the studio?
Braunagel: As a drummer, you have to get up inside the music, and that’s what Peter and Roy were hitting on: the producer has to make everything in the room feel good so the drummer can get to that special place. Primarily, you and the drummer have to really know that song, and, believe me, drummers who play to the songs are the best drummers. That pocket and those drum fills that deal with the arc of the emotion of the song are the most important thing for the drummer to know.
Mayorga: Keep it simple, keep it to the point. Don’t flash throughout the whole tune.
What are some common mistakes drummers make in their first recording sessions?
Braunagel: Worrying about whether your gear is going to get you the sound you got on your demo. Well, your equipment isn’t the issue. I tell a lot of young kids in the studio, “Give me whatever you got, we’ll make it work — you got a snare drum, a kick drum, a hi-hat, and some [Promark] Hot Rods, we’ll make it work. We’ll make music out of that.”
Bunetta: That’s the attitude. Good drummers can actually show up and play with what’s there.
Braunagel: I recently produced sessions by a young band who were pretty set in their ways about how they wanted stuff, but their way of doing things didn’t sound good in the studio. Drummer: “I like these drumheads.” I said, “These drumheads don’t really resonate with the drum. You’re choking the drum down, and all three snare drums you showed me sound the same. I’m not getting any character out of them.” At first, he grumbled, and I said, “Well, if you’ll let me get your drum sound for you the way I’d like to have them sound, you’re going enjoy playing them and I’ll turn them up in the mix.” He thought about it and came back and said, “Let’s do what you want to do.” [laughs]
Mayorga: You taught him how to leave his ego at the door.
Braunagel: By the same token, when I call a session together, I know the song, I know the players, I know what all of them do, so I plan out the personalities I want. I bring a song in and I let everybody little by little start to get their head in it, and then you don’t have to tell anybody what to play.
How often do you need to work with the drummer on tuning during a session?
Braunagel: Well, I always tune up my own stuff when I’m playing the session.
Bunetta: He always has great-sounding drums.
Braunagel: Every session has different needs for miking and effects and instrumentation, and same goes for the drum tuning. I have different tunings for different things, different heads for different drum kits for different applications. If I want to go really dark and low, I’ll use a certain type of drumhead that’s got a lower fundamental tone. I’ve got some mahogany maples, and they sing like maples, but the fundamentals are really quite low. So, I change the heads.
What’s your idea of a good take?
Braunagel: It’s when I say, “I don’t want it to sound like a demo, so don’t try to copy the demo.” And that’s where I will put my direction in: See how this demo sounds like this? Instead, I want this groove to go a little bit more like a nuevo hip-hop groove, but then we’re going to have all the other tones — solos, B3, and everything with it — and everybody gets with that and moves in that direction. And if I’m the drummer on the session, I’m just smiling, because it’s coming together, and all I have to do is count it off and play it right a few times, and then we’ve got something.
Why do drummers and producers bring so many snare drums to recording sessions?
Braunagel: Before a session, I ask myself, what drums do I hear on this? I bring about six snares, easily.
Bunetta: I have 13 in my studio.
Mayorga: Because every song’s different, and every song needs a different kind of snare drum. I hate listening to records that have the same snare drum every song.
Braunagel: I’ve brought as many as 30 to the studio.
Mayorga: You do the shoot-out. Whatever sounds best.
Braunagel: Drums have a voice, and the drum voice has to go with the voice and atmosphere of the song. I’d rather not take this one drum and try to make it sound like it fits with everything; I want it to fit organically right away. So when I hit this drum and I hear the singer’s voice, I want those things to go together, because the most important thing in a mix of this type of music is, you’re going to hear the vocal, right here, completely understandable, every phrase and nuance.
Have any of you ever had the experience of replacing a session drummer’s tracks with your own?
Bunetta: You don’t always know if the guy you hired is the guy. And what if it’s a well-known guy and it just doesn’t happen? Sometimes the person you hired starts carving the road there and opens up an idea that you didn’t think about — but doesn’t quite give you the home run. He gets to second base, he hits a double, and you have to bring it home. So, you use a little of what they did and finish it yourself — in some instances, on their own drum kits.
Braunagel: lnsult to injury, you played it on his kit! [laughs]
Bunetta: But he got paid! And drummers being who they are, when I say, “Hey, I didn’t use your drum track but I used your drums,” they’ll go, “That’s cool,” because they’re such pros that there was no ego involved, and they’re moving on to another session.
Do you use a basic drum miking template in the studio?
Mayorga: That depends on the kind of music I’m doing, or the particular drum setup. In my studio, I’ll just throw 12 channels up, everything’s pre-EQ’d and ready to go — a “set it and forget it” system. I know in advance how the drums are going to react with the EQs. A little bit of top, a bit of bottom — I don’t go too crazy with EQ, just use it to crunch the sound a little bit. It’s pretty simple, and I use the same template for everything. For the mikes, I was just introduced to the awesome Josephson mikes at Sphere Studios for our new Stone Sour record. They’re medium-diaphragm mikes that are really long and have this little circular thing at the top that really captures the full spectrum. I used to prefer the 67s, but then I heard these and they have a little more focus and punch to them, and not too much bleed, if you don’t want bleed. I’ve also started using the Audix D6 on the inside of the kicks, which sounds phenomenal, a very natural curve to it so you don’t have to put much EQ on it, either. I like to use that with a pair of RE 20s on the holes, and 47s on the front skin of the kicks. Then it’s Telefunken 251s for overheads — which sound amazing for the meat of the kit — and a few spot mikes for the cymbals.
Is the simplest miking technique the best technique?
Braunagel: A favorite of mine is the simplest setup, which is the classic way Glyn Johns did it at Olympic Studios in the ’70s. He’d use an old AKG D12 in front of the bass drum, a Neumann U 67 over the top of the drum kit, and then, equidistant behind the drums, another 67, and that’s how he would make stereo. Basically, the snare would be in the middle. The ambience of the room is going to come back in a better way because there are fewer microphones, thus less confusion of sounds crisscrossing and phasing. All of this makes the drums sound bigger because of the simplicity of the miking.
Mayorga: Simplicity is what I learned from listening to the bands I loved growing up. And producers will always tell you, keep it simple: You just have to hit the drum just right, with the right mike, and it’s all there.
What’s your favorite drum sound on a record you produced?
Bunetta: I had the pleasure of producing Smoky Robinson’s “Just To See Her” [from One Heartbeat], where I hired drummer John Robinson. Initially I had the demo of the song, which was done on one of the earlier Linn drum machines. We put up the demo, made charts for the chord changes, then put up the sounds with Mick Guzauski, our engineer — one of the most brilliant mixer-engineers that ever walked the earth in our popular music, and who taught me so much. So, Mick’s on the faders, and John’s cross sticks, his toms, and his kick drum, it was like the perfect kit. It sounded amazing. And in a friendly way, John Robinson, if he knew you as a player, he’d show you how great he was.
Do you always work with click tracks? What makes you decide when to use them and when not to?
Mayorga: Over the years I’ve learned how to play around the click, but I prefer not to have it at all. But you basically can’t make records without the new technology. Like, you couldn’t really make a record direct to tape — that would eat up your budget. Using click tracks is just a standard part of the game now, to keep the drummer and everyone else on track. I use click 80 percent of the time, I’d say. Even so, on the new Stone Sour album, I recorded without the click, for the first time in maybe 20 years — all live, six or seven takes. I personally like it better without the click, because I like the push and pull of the song you get without it.
How is digitally tracking or programming drums changing the game for you?
Mayorga: For the kind of music I do, it saved my ass. You just have to keep up with it.
Would you advise readers to learn more about recording technology? Will it help their drumming?
Mayorga: It’s crucial. You can’t be like, “I’m not going to learn Pro Tools.” I went through that in the beginning of the 2000s — I refused. But it became an industry standard, and I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got to wise up and get with the times.” That goes for all kinds of music, not just electronic. I do think the new software plug-ins are great, especially when you can’t acquire actual hardware. I like to try to at least mix the two, analog and digital, at least run the signal path through hardware, and mix in the box. But I feel bad for the kids who’ll never appreciate turning a knob or moving a fader. Most kids know synthesizers as something on the screen, so when they come to my studio and see my big modular synth, they’re like, holy sh*t! I’m like, “That’s a synthesizer. Have at it!”
For more, check out Drum Magazine’s New Orleans Drummers Roundtable from 2011.