From DRUM! Magazine’s February 2018 Issue | By Lily Moayeri | Photos By Robert Downs
What are your options when you’ve spent most of your professional music career as a touring drummer for the likes of Alanis Morrissette, Annie Lennox, and Stevie Nicks, to name just a few, but are now a 43-year-old family man who would rather be at home than on the road? This is the situation in which Blair Sinta found himself in recent years.
Sinta, an accomplished classically trained drummer who has been actively working for more than 20 years, made the move to Los Angeles in 1996 after graduating from the University Of North Texas College Of Music. It took three years of playing local gigs, meeting people, and getting on famed music matchmaker Barry Squire’s list alerting him to auditions before Sinta landed his first legitimate paying job with singer/songwriter Jude. He went on to play for Michelle Branch, Melissa Etheridge, Josh Groban, and Chris Cornell, among others.
“There’s not as many of those kind of cattle calls as there used to be,” Sinta says, sitting in his two-car-garage-turned-home-studio in the city of Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles. “There’s no label funding the development of a solo artist with the aim of selling 200,000 records to justify the support. In this day and age, a label can’t even put someone on the road with the hope of selling 5,000 records.
“I’ve been through the tour cycle a lot,” he continues. “A tour means a certain amount of work for a certain amount of time, then back to square one. I enjoy it while I’m doing it, but do I want to do this for the rest of my life? In a certain sense, I do, but I don’t want to be 63 wondering, ‘Is someone going to hire me to go on the road?’ It’s only going to get harder as I get older. Hopefully, if you’re touring at 22, you’re a better musician at 42, but a lot of calls now are: ‘We need someone under 32 years of age.’ Artists are younger. They want peers as opposed to older guys.”
Plenty of drummers play in bands both onstage and in the studio, but many others earn their living on the road without ever getting called for coveted session gigs. Sinta’s home studio — formally named Donkey Den and comparable in quality to any professional recording facility — was created in part because he wanted to expand his palette by playing guitar, singing, and recording songs. Once the studio space was built and fully soundproofed, and the gear acquired and installed, he was also able to record drum tracks, and in the process became a proficient self-taught engineer and producer. He began to pick up clients looking to overdub pro-level drum parts onto their music, and his business was born.
“Before, an engineer and producer would guide the drum session,” Sinta says. “Now, you’re on your own and expected to turn the drum track around and make it sound great. A lot of times I’m sent tracks that are just a vocal and acoustic guitar and my drum sound is the first input, informing the direction the song is going to go. As a drummer building a track by yourself, [you’re] contributing something creative that helps define the song, but it isn’t given credit as such — you’re just the drummer.”
Sinta’s one-stop shop features two spaces: a control room with a view of the drum kit and a tracking room with fiberglass sound diffusers strategically located on the walls. “I needed a room that had some ambience in it, but not reflections,” he explains. “I can do different things to the room to have it not be dry. The room is small in size, but it sounds like a medium room. There’s a cement floor and the ceiling is 12 feet. I put the room microphones through SPL Transient Designer (1) to make it sound bigger. To make drums sound smaller, I put a baffle or two around the room.”
Sinta’s tracking room resembles an old-school drum shop packed with both new and vintage gear. His studio kit is comprised of DW Classics and Jazz Series drums, Istanbul Agop cymbals, and ’50s and ’60s Zildjians (2). Shelf upon shelf houses stacks of individual pieces such as ’30s era Slingerland RadioKings, Ludwig ’65 Clubdates and Super Classics,’78 Vistalites, and ’70s Gretsch (3). Also peeking out here and there between the snares, toms, and bass drums are unique items like a Japanese toy drum he collected while on the road. Who knows when or how he ever used it.
The main microphones in Sinta’s arsenal are Beyerdynamic models, which are his first choice whenever he needs super modern sounds. But he gladly dives deep into his collection to find the perfect combination for each particular session. Sometimes he chooses an AKG D12 for a vintage kick sound, and tells us that an Electro-Voice 635A is appropriate for lo-fi sounds practically anywhere on the kit (4). Besides having the ubiquitous Shure SM57 handy for the snare and Sennheiser MD 441-U and MD 421-II for toms, he’s been known to reach for Coles 4038 ribbon microphones as main room mikes, Soundelux U99 tube microphones (5) for overheads and vocals, and an Audio-Technica ATM25 for bass drum.
On the day we visited, he had three microphones positioned in front of the bass drum: a Soundelux FET 47 (6) picking up resonant sounds of the front head, a Beyerdynamic M88 (7) poking its capsule through a porthole in the front head to grab beater attack, and a reverse-wired Yamaha NS10 speaker (8) to capture lower frequencies. A Beyerdynamic M201 (9) served as the main snare microphone, M160s were used as either mono or stereo overheads, and a TG D57c (10) was trained on the mounted tom batter. A Sennheiser 421 (11) pointing at the floor tom batter head rounded off the close mikes.
Sinta didn’t have a hi-hat microphone set up when we arrived, but he normally prefers a Beyerdynamic MC 950, AKG 451, or a Shure SM57. When there’s an opportunity to use fewer microphones for a vintage sound or when there’s just no need to isolate each instrument, Sinta occasionally scales down to more minimal miking, using as few as three microphones.
In the control room, Sinta has a series of mike preamps: Chandler LTD1 EQ/preamp (12), Daking preamp (13) (which are used on everything), Chandler TG2 preamp (14), Brent Averill API mike pre (15), Telefunken V78 tube mike preamp (16); and a series of compressors and EQs, including an Orban 674A stereo equalizer (17), dbx 164 compressor (18), Compex F760x-RS compressor/limiter (19), Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor compressor (20), dbx 161 compressor (21), and a Chandler LTD2 compressor (22). In-the-box plug-ins are Steven Slate Everything Bundle for EQ and compression and Soundtoys 5 for effects. Tucked beneath the rack of compressors is an API 500 Series Lunchbox (23), which is essentially a chassis that houses two API 560 graphic EQs, two Alta Moda AM-20 EQs, and a Radial EXTC preamp.
He has two sets of speakers for checking mixes: a pair of Adam Audio A7X powered studio monitors (25), and the time-tested studio standard Yamaha NS-10s (24), which are powered by a Yamaha P2200 power amp (26).
Sinta uses a PreSonus Central Station Plus (27) to switch between both sets of monitors, and keeps his patch bay (28) within arm’s reach.
Sinta is also set up to record guitar and bass. Guitars go through a Fender Princeton Silverface ‘74 Reverb and are miked with Shure SM57 or Beyerdynamic M88 microphones. These go through either the API mike preamp or a Marshall One Watt ’60s-style head through a Suhr Reactive Load box. The speaker simulation becomes an impulse response on Sinta’s computer, which is like having digital pictures of an analog sound. In Sinta’s case, it’s a guitar speaker using the OwnHammer Impulse Response Library, which runs in the box from a plug-in after the guitar signal chain. Bass is either direct input through the API or Daking, and otherwise is miked with the Soundelux FET if it’s through an amp.
“It’s pretty convincing,” Sinta says. “It’s not dissimilar to great drum samples — you can choose the speaker or desired tone digitally, yet someone is playing it. If I have both a guitar player and bass player in the studio and the bass player wants to use an amp, I can put the amp in the bathroom, shut the door, the guitar can go through the computer. We can track bass, guitar, and drums at the same time.”
Getting It Right
Good communication is essential whenever he works remotely with clients. Sometimes Sinta receives a mini-template or demo with a programmed example of the drum track. Other times he just gets a generic drum machine beat. If it’s the former, he provides two takes: one pass that replicates the template and another that is his interpretation. Either way, the dialog takes place through phone calls, emails, and file transfers until he and his client converge on an approach.
“I choose the correct bass drum. I tune it properly, get the right dampening or [keep it] wide open. I choose the correct snare, choose the correct cymbals, and build it up,” says Sinta. “I won’t go too far. I’ll just get a basic thing up. Sometimes I’ll send an MP3 asking: ‘Is this about right? Is this cool? Is this what we’re going for? Maybe this could change?’ Then I’ll dive in deeper.”
Sometimes Sinta receives just a shell of the song — an acoustic guitar, for example, with no drums at all. In that case, he asks the client to recommend a reference song to give him some sense of direction. “Even if it’s a ‘do what you want’ situation, I will still discuss it with the client,” he says. “I’ll have two ideas and ask which direction they want to go in, try and gauge if it’s a big rock thing or a super-tight, dry thing.
What kind of instrumentation do they hear coming on this later? If it’s a bare bones track, I try to ask questions that can inform me what’s going to happen down the line.”
His favorite method is to have the client come to his studio so they can work on the drum track together. “It can get tricky with a client who may be unsure of things like whether to use ride cymbal or open hat in the chorus,” Sinta says. “You may not hear from them for 24 hours and wouldn’t want to change the drum sound while waiting, whereas if the client were in the studio with me, it would take three minutes to figure it out.”
Down To Business
Communication is key in any business, and can be the difference between success and failure when work arrives remotely. However, nothing requires more finesse than how Sinta sets his rates. “You have to offer more for less money,” he says. “People don’t want to pay what they did for a drum track five or ten years ago. Instead of giving clients a rate, I ask them what their budget is. I try to find out what the project is, where it’s going. Is there a label paying for it or is it an independent artist — where is the money coming from? It’s easy for people to see a number and say, ‘Forget it.’ If the budget is small, I make an hourly deal with myself on how much time I spend on a project. I can get it done, but I have to put a time limit on myself that makes sense for me.”
Sinta communicates his ideas with equal clarity on his YouTube channel, which is rich with drumming-related resources. These include drum lessons and studio tips recorded at Donkey Den, as well as live videos and interviews. He also offers lessons in person, via Skype, and as part of Drumeo.
“One of the things I talk about [in lessons] is creating a style,” he says. “How do you become unique, which is tough. Some people are born with a voice, like Tony Williams who was playing with Miles Davis when he was 17. Or they know what they want to sound like when they’re young and know how to develop it. It took me a long time to figure out who I was musically, partially because I liked so many styles of music and I didn’t know how to pinpoint one thing. I was clouded in drum chops and licks, which is how I thought players defined themselves. Eventually I discovered, for me, my style is more about sound.”
Sinta developed an ear for diverse drum sounds and a knowledge of when and how to apply them — skills that contributed greatly to the success of Donkey Den. “There are so many ways to play the drums when you’re creating a sound,” he says. “When you hear great players, if they’re not playing a lick, how do you know it’s them within one bar? What is it that makes them sound like that?
“I’ve thought a lot about, ‘How do I develop a style?’ You may not be the most technically gifted drummer or the fastest, but you can become unique by deciding what you want to sound like. How are you going to play a backbeat? Where are you putting the beat? Do you play rimshots? Do you play the center of the snare? How do you tune your snare? How do you tune your bass drum? What cymbals are you using? What sticks are you using? How do all these things fit together? Are you mixing and matching things that are maybe unusual? Or maybe they’re very homogeneous. There are so many ways to go about it. I talk to people about figuring out what it is they like in their favorite players and taking those moments from them.”
Digital beat-making technology also plays an important role in Sinta’s mission to match appropriate drum sounds to diverse music projects. A fan of Native Instruments Battery (for samples) as well as Ableton (for programming) and Pro Tools (for recording, currently using version 12), Sinta looks for creative ways to combine acoustic and electronic percussion.
“You can get things with programming that you could never get playing the instrument,” he says. “There are really cool ways of taking acoustic drums and modifying them, whether from the drums or in the box, and making them fit into an electronic track or make them sound electronic. If I can make something that has a personal feel as opposed to something that’s gridded a certain way, or even mix and match them by programming some and recording others, and putting them together, that’s a cool mash-up.
But, there are less happy accidents, because you can always go back and fix it. If there are two people in a room and somebody makes a mistake, the other person might say, ‘That was cool, let’s use that.’
“I just want people to make music together,” he continues. “That’s what it comes down to. You go out with your friends in large crowds of people to experience music. In the history of man, people get in drum circles, four guys sitting around playing banjo, a piano with everyone singing around it. It’s one thing to sit in a room and write all by yourself, but I talk to my friends and ask, ‘What did you do today?’ Everyone says, ‘I worked on a track.’ Wouldn’t it be great if we did that together? There’s a bunch of people sitting in their room by themselves that are incredibly skilled at what they do, except they’re isolated. The best bands are where there are a few writers and there’s tension in the band. Great music comes from people collaborating together.”