BY JAKE WOOD
There’s a joke floating around about Kenny Aronoff. Some of his friends, like Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, like to call him “Can-he Earn-enough.” As one of the busiest session drummers in the world, playing with the likes of John Mellencamp, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, The Smashing Pumpkins (the list goes on and on), it’s a fitting tribute to his crowded schedule. Oh, and he’s also a motivational speaker and best-selling author.
Way before we were asked to shelter-in-place and social distance (phrases we’re all too ready to never hear again after this COVID-19 pandemic is over), Aronoff had built a studio to track most of his session work. We caught up with him to discuss the new world of session drumming, including his process, gear, and working with clients you may never see in person.
DRUM!: As one of the busiest session drummers out there, do you end up recording mostly from your own studio or from other studios?
Kenny Aronoff: 95–97% is in my studio now because there are no budgets. I’ll give you an example of how it used to be. Monday I’m playing with B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt in what is now called Eastwest Studios. Tuesday and Wednesday, I’m at the same studio, different room, and I’m doing a box set for Elton John. Then Thursday through Sunday, same room and I’m doing a Bob Seger record. This is all in L.A. Then I fly to Athens, Georgia and spend a week recording with the Indigo Girls. Then I fly back to L.A., and the next day after landing I’m recording with Willie Nelson in some studio. And it goes on and on and on. People would fly me all over the world to record one song. I had two drum sets in Nashville, two drum sets in L.A., two drum sets in New York, and obviously a lot in Indiana. I was non-stop recording.
When I heard the budgets were going, I immediately got an apartment in L.A. Then the budgets got worse, so I created my own studio. Then the budgets got worse and worse and worse, and now I’d say 85–95% of the time the artist isn’t even there at the recording session; they just send me the files.
Can you explain the process by which a client hires you to record?
On my website there’s a form for them to fill out. They introduce themselves. I have a form I send back that has my rates. One song costs a certain amount, two songs there’s a discount, three or more you get another discount. I ask them to send me an MP3 with the programmed drums as well as an MP3 without the drums, since that’s what I’ll be tracking with. I also ask for an MP3 of the click.
After receiving the song files, what’s your process for learning the tune and running takes?
I make a very detailed chart of each song. Everybody knows I’m the most anal chart writer. I write out every note—every single note. It takes about a half hour, maybe 45 minutes, but the beauty is that once I go in there, I’m ready to perform. I’m ready to kick ass immediately. I run through it once and then I record three or four takes and I’m done. I give them three takes: One take is exactly the way they programmed the drums; second take I make some musical decisions and embellish a little bit; and third take I step out of the box a little bit and I give them a little bit more.
Do the files that clients send typically have programmed drum parts?
Most of the time, yes. Sometimes I’ll get acoustic guitar, vocals, and a click. But the other question I ask them is, “Are you keeping anything that I’m playing to?” Because if I am playing to anything that’s not with the click, and they’re keeping it, then I play with them, I move to them. On the other hand, if they’re going to replace everything, and what they’re playing isn’t with the click, then I ignore what they’re doing and stay strict to the click.
When you’re working with a remote client, is there any realtime communication happening during the recording process?
No. I move very fast, and usually they don’t ask to be involved like that. In some ways that makes it go way faster—fewer words going back and forth, and I also like to do complete takes. I’m like a pit bull in there. I’ve recorded as many as 12 songs in one day—I prefer not to, but I can do that. Now, if a client says to disregard the programmed drum part, I can’t do that. I’ve noticed that 95% of the time they don’t mean what they’re saying. They just spent all this time recording to this programmed drum part, so they’re used to that. So, unless they give me specific drum ideas over the phone, I start with the programmed part.
Are you sending completely dry tracks to the client, or is there any mixing involved?
I don’t give them completely raw tracks. I have all this BAE equipment, including 1073s, 1084s, and 312s. We do a little bit of EQ. What we’re trying to do is get the drums to sound absolutely amazing—and they do, but there’s also still a lot of room for the clients to mix how they want. This is also why I have David Jenkins work with me as the engineer. He’s as good at what he does as I am at what I do. It saves time to have that guy here, and also to have another set of ears. We might also add a little compression to the kick and the snare, but not much so that they can add more if they want to. Just a little bit of presence. The bottom line is we give clients room to do whatever they want with drums that sound amazing to start with.
Aronoff uses the BAE 312A 500-series preamp on his snare and inside the bass drum, and BAE 1073MPL 500-series preamps for overhead and room mics, adjusting the latter for tighter or airier sounds as needed. To celebrate the company’s decade-long relationship with Aronoff, BAE is currently offering a “Kenny Aronoff bundle” through its website.