BY JOHN PAYNE
You’re gearing up to enter the studio and record your band’s new album. You can play your ass off, that goes without saying. What’s more, you’ve got a lot of terrific ideas about how to make this upcoming project really, really slam. Luckily you’ve got an experienced, like-minded record producer who’s going to help you make your sonic-boom dream come true.
Everyone, from you to your bandmates to the producer himself/herself, has a personal stake in the utmost righteousness of the finished product. To get the most and best out of this collaborative experience you need to steel yourself for some seriously studious preproduction work and be fully ready to make the recording sessions flow without a hitch, even as you rock to your ultimate mightiest.
You know what you want, but do you know what the producer wants from you? Right — we weren’t sure, either. at’s why we turned to studio veteran Matt Hyde, who has made his mark as producer on a wide variety of projects, from Slayer, Hatebreed, and Porno For Pyros to Children Of Bodom, Deftones, and Sublime. We spent an afternoon talking about the things drummers (and producers) should bear in mind (and body) when priming for the creation of a successful recording session. Here’s his top ten.
- Be Prepared
Prior to the session in the recording studio, it’s important that drummers are really familiar with the material; they’ve practiced it and they’re ready to get it recorded. You hope that they’ve rehearsed the songs very thoroughly and know the arrangements inside and out.
You also hope that they have a lot of experience with recording with a click and with headphones in a recording studio. And hope they’re familiar with the things that are really important in a recording, which is the sound of their drums and the consistency of their striking, and that their equipment is recording-worthy.
At the recording session, if there’s something specifically a drummer needs to comfortably operate with, then he or she should show up with it. If you have some specific snare drum that you like, bring it. Bring your own sticks. If you use a certain kind of grip tape on your sticks, bring it. And if you are bringing your own equipment, show up with stuff that’s recording-ready. Show up with the pedal you’re comfortable with, or make sure you let me know so that I don’t have something there that’s uncomfortable for you to play. Don’t show up with squeaky pedals, rattly hardware on your drums, stuff that’s messed up and impossible to tune. If it’s a broken pedal, but it’s the kind you like, then tell me what it is and I’ll get the clean new mint version of it. If you have drums that you like but your drums aren’t in a condition to record, let me know and I’ll get a kit that’s recordable — a ’60s Gretsch kit, whatever [you need] — same sizes and same wood. We’ll do it like that.
- Be Flexible And Adaptable
Show up with potential alternative beats for different parts of the song. If the producer or bandmates make suggestions, be ready to try alternate parts and beats or different fills so you’re not caught off guard. Of course, I often run into drummers who barely have any solid ideas about the parts they’re going to play on a song. They just constantly change beats every take. Even so, while you want them to be consistent, you want them to have some alternate stuff available — and the ability to do it.
A drummer also always needs to be ready to deal with an arrangement change. You want them to be able to have a good enough musical memory so if you make some changes, like, “We’re only going to do this first chorus half the time now and the new intro’s going to four bars instead of eight bars,” they can deal with that change on the fly without it throwing them off.
When I first started out I would make a complete demo before the recording session. I’d set the drums up at either a rehearsal space or a cheaper place, and the band and I would go through everything. We’d rehearse for a week or two, then we would do a full preproduction recording of the whole thing before we hit the studio, so the recording process was smooth, just a rehash of what we’d already done, but with better sounds and more attention to detail.
Things have changed a lot because of budgets and technology. But the communication lines that are opened before the actual recording session are still extremely important. e producer and players then better understand each other’s individual skills and musical tastes, and, crucially, the terminology they use to get all that across. For a drummer, if you have a specific sound or tuning preference for your band — “I like my toms tuned low” or “I like these size toms,” etcetera — communicate it in advance so there’ll be no wasted time and hassle getting that sound or tuning for you during the sessions. If you need a specific piece of gear, communicate with me in advance of the session so we’re not trying to hunt something down when we get there.
For almost every recording session, one of my first conversations is with the drummer. We talk about what drums they have, what drum sounds they like, what kinds of sticks and heads they use, what other drummers they like, what kind of sounds they like. I try to get all that stuff out of the way first and really pick the drummer’s brains for what he likes to create a recording experience that’s inspiring for him. I want them to sit down in the studio and love the drum set they’re playing, be blown away by what they’re hearing.
During the recording sessions, being able to pay attention and listen to both the producer’s suggestions and to your own playing — your internal timing, your attack — and how it all sounds on playback is so important. The communication about all this is on me, too: How to figure out whether you understand what I’m trying to tell you or not. You’d be surprised how strange it can get even with some really good players. You think you told them clearly about something they need to do, and they don’t understand what you’re saying. So it’s important to make sure they get it where they can physically feel the part, and then they understand when they’re doing it right.
- Get The Right Headphone Mix
Whether you make your own headphone mix or can communicate what you want headphone wise, it’s really good if you can articulate it in a way that makes sense. It would shock you how many problems come up with that [laughs]. You’re there for like 45 minutes and the guy’s playing badly because something he never asked for isn’t turned up in the headphones, or something’s too loud in his headphones. Be very proactive if there’s something you don’t like. The earlier we fix it, the less time we waste.
- Party? Hardly!
Show up for a session well rested so you’re able to concentrate. A recording session is a physically and mentally challenging gig, so don’t show up on two hours’ sleep having partied the night before [laughs], because that’ll make life miserable for both of us.
- Don’t Forget To Have Fun
In a session for any kind of music, it’s actually critical to stay a little bit lighthearted and not too precious about the process. I realize that most of the drummers I work with are tremendously talented and respected musicians, and it’s important for them to understand that their producer respects them. Having a laugh or two between us helps make that respect feel mutual.
- Make Each other Happy
One of the big things for me in recording drummers is that I like to keep the guy’s mind pretty empty. He needs to concentrate on his playing, and I don’t like to fi ll his head up with a bunch of details about something three-quarters of the way down the song that’s going to affect how he plays and his groove through the whole song. So a lot of times I’ll get a bunch of early takes to make sure the guy knows the material and the arrangement. These are what I call good “body” takes, played with good time and feel on the verses and beats. And then we’ll concentrate later on any problems that we can change with the fills or a specific figure, like in the bridge.
You can use the recording technology available these days to your advantage and keep the drummer comfortable, and make sure that he knows that. It’s like, “Look, you don’t have to play it perfectly in one take.” It depends on the type of drummer; it’s about figuring out what it takes to ease that pressure. But then, some guys work better with pressure on them. Some drummers, you tell them specifically what you need them to do, but they don’t hear it, or they don’t understand what you’re saying. [laughs]
You have to make sure that they understand what you’re talking about and that they can approach it that way, because it’s so different for them when they’re playing — it’s such a physical experience. I can get technical with them and say, “Okay, at this point you’re playing eighth-notes and I need you to do quarter-notes,” or something. But you’ve got to get them to play it so they can feel it in their body and understand it like that.
- Check Unrealistic Expectations At The Door
Back in the day, prior to the studio recording session, bands jammed out everything in a rehearsal space, so all the parts they played in the recording session were played basically the same way. But a lot of times now drummers are presented with a song in a finished demo state done with computer drums, and they’ve got to learn the parts. So in the studio, they’ll have a tendency to dumb down the parts or change the parts to something that’s more comfortable for them, which may or may not serve the song well. On occasion a producer will get a bit of pushback when he asks the drummer to re-create the programmed beats of the demo.
At some point you have to come to an agreement with the drummer on what they and you are willing to accept with the use of technology. As a producer, all I care about is what the finished product sounds like, and if the drums serve the song properly. Whether or not the drummer is able to play a programmed drum pattern perfectly all the way through is not important. My attitude is, if there’s a way to get what we need out of them, even if that means deconstructing and/or editing the part, you have to convince them to do that.
When I’m doing some death metal or other really technical bands, with all these blastbeats, etcetera, I have run into bands where the drummer wrote the song on computer and knows exactly what the beats are. He has all these diffi cult fi lls that he’s step-recorded into a sequencer. Now he wants to execute them, but he can’t exactly play any of them [laughs], or performs it really poorly and it has to be all cut up. And that can be a real drag, too. So it goes both ways — their unrealistic expectations of what they want creates a fl awed logic of, like, “Well, if I can’t do this live I don’t want to do it on the record.” And I’ll say, “Well, how about you play what makes the song great on the record, and then maybe you can do something a little bit dumbed-down live? Eventually you’ll get to a point where you can do what you can’t do now.”
In other words, the drummer may be a little bit behind the curve ability wise in the recording session, but let’s not compromise the song because he’s not able to do it today, because there are ways we can overcome it. He or she can either play in short bursts and we can place parts and edit things, or deconstruct the parts using hands and feet separately, for example. ere’s all kinds of ways to get to the desired end result.
- Check That Big Ego At The Door
The best musicians I’ve ever worked with are the ones that try to come up with drum parts that are uniquely “them,” personality wise, while best serving the song. But it’s a tricky thing. In a recording session, it’s a sometimes painful process, getting to that uniqueness and serving the overall impact of the song itself. It’s ego-bruising for them and me both.
Musicians know that the studio is very unforgiving, though. It’s really like the ring of truth, like a boxing match: Two guys go in and one gets his ass kicked [laughs]. Sometimes that happens in the recording studio, too, where the truth is exposed and the limitations are laid bare — mine, the musicians’, everybody’s. We are serving a very strict taskmaster, and that’s called playback, where everything is there and you can hear it over and over again and it’s real obvious that something’s wrong.
Drummers need to understand that a suggestion for an alternative beat or part, or an edit of an imprecisely played part, has nothing to do with their gifts as an artist. Of course, our egos are attached to our art — we’re all artists, and we’re all trying to do our best. We’re trying to create, and we want our own personal touch on this recording of our art. I have to check my ego at the door and remember that I’m making this record for them, not for me. Even so, while I’m not going to get everything I want on a recording, most likely they’re not, either. Ultimately, it is about egos, but you try to get past that and realize that your ego is your best friend. It’s your desire. It’s what drove you to be here. At the same time, it can be your worst enemy if you hold on to your ingrained ideas too much and you’re not willing to try new things.
- Trust Your Producer
My whole life is facilitating other artists and cocreation. Something to be understood is that it’s their music and they’re giving me the honor of bringing me into their creative circle. I’m not pushing people around and telling people they’ve got to do this or that. But at the same time I’m hoping that they’re going to be open to me helping them get to the next level. It takes some openness and trust on both sides for that to happen.
There’s no set template for what a music producer is. If the band is well prepared and they know their sound and everybody’s a great player, a producer is somebody who acts like an interface and creates the right environment to capture the recording. But sometimes a producer is a cocreator, a strong voice in the creative process who comes up with specific ideas and solutions. To be a producer, you’ve got to have a great ear and attention to detail. You’ve got to be a fan of music first. And while it’s important for a producer to have a musical background and understand music theory, it’s not essential; but it helps to be able to understand music as a language. And it’s important to understand the recording technology and process; the best producers I’ve ever seen have a background as both a musician and recording engineer, they understand both sides of the glass. They played in bands and understand arrangement, songs, and notes, and what it’s like to play in a band. But they’ve also recorded music and put up mikes and understand mike signal flow processing.
One of the big things in producing is that you’ve got to understand music, the songs, the vibe of the songs, the audience of the artist, how the artists work, what their strengths and weaknesses are, where you need to prop them up, and where you need to stay out of their way and let them do what they do great. You’ve got to understand the recording process really thoroughly, all the tools that are available to you to make a great recording. You’ve got to understand that technology, how to not overuse it, or when to use it a lot — and that comes into play greatly with drums: Am I going to edit this heavily, because it needs a lot of editing, or can I let it breathe and let the feel come through because the guy’s a great player?
Producing is all of that stuff. You’re responsible for the end product, and for interpreting the artist’s vision and getting it to a finished state, and it sounds great and everybody likes it. Hopefully it’ll stand the test of time.