Working with others on original music compositions is a facet of my profession I hold close to my heart. These efforts usually result in studio recording time where a playback will reveal the smallest nuances of a percussionist's voice - moreso than to a listener in a live performance.
Using the drum set as an example, one subtlety of my voice is how I choose to tune my kit for a specific song or style. Should the drums ring more? Or less? What intervals are needed between each tom (separation of pitch)? Would tuning the drums to the key of the song help? Should I use coated, clear or a fiber type drum head? Should these types of heads be mixed or matched? Single- or double-ply?
Another inflection could be my choice of cymbals. Should I select a 24-inch Ping ride? A 20-inch medium ride? An "A" custom ride to obtain a "glassier" type of sound? Thirteen- or 14-inch hi-hats? Darker or brighter crash cymbals? Do I need China type, splash cymbals or other types of special effects cymbals?
What about using digital electronic percussion "samples" to embellish the acoustic drum set sounds?
The list of equipment items to use or tweak is infinite.
Most importantly, the instruments I select should sound integrated and "work" within the song. Experimentation is key. I generally try a few takes using various cymbals, snare drums or drum tunings/dampenings, and try to discern what combination grabs the heart and brings smiles.
Do I want to use ghost notes within my groove? (They're very quiet hits between louder accented hits that help add a certain feel.) What if I omit the hi-hat when striking the snare (ala Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones)? Does the music call for a more linear approach to the groove, meaning notes are played successively, rather than "stacked" and hit concurrently?
Stylistically, would playing on top of the beat, dead center or slightly behind the beat serve the song best? How about dead center on the beat with the hi-hats, but at the same time, ever-so-slightly ahead of the beat on the snare drum back beat?
These different note placements all help to set the tone and make a song feel more lively/brighter, fatter/heavier, or somewhere in between.
How about using the approach of "tempo mapping?" This is where a song is played at a selected tempo during a verse, but maybe a couple beats per minute faster during the choruses to enliven them, then back to the original tempo for the second verse. If the song has a bridge, it could be played at yet another tempo.
The mapping part is done in a drum machine or computer. Each section of the song is fixed at the chosen tempo (verse, chorus, bridge), then the program will play a click track back with all the changes in place, in succession. The drummer then plays to this click track, knowing to "push" or "pull" the beat when these changes take place.
These changes are usually subtle - almost unnoticed. However, the slight tempo changes do help elicit a desired emotional connection to the music. Without the adjustments, a song could feel flat.
All the above considerations are simply part of the studio environment (mercifully, we're not discussing mic choice or placement at this time). One of my favorite moments - and one I share with many studio drummers - is the first playback. You finally get to listen and really hear what you've chosen to play and how well it works within the composition.
You see, no one else in the universe plays exactly like anyone else, thinks like another, or would choose exactly the same instrumentation. Phrasing will always differ - as will accent, ghost note and dynamic placements.
Also, not a single other person - anywhere - will have the same emotional "signature" as another's playing style. (Just like no two people's voices sound exactly the same, and they use different vocabulary, phrasing, and intonation when speaking.) A drummer's signature is his or her musical voice, and it can be developed by using some of the methods listed above. Be creative; strive to be different. I encourage my students to find their own voice.
We can pride ourselves in practicing and accomplishing something Buddy Rich, Neil Peart, Dave Weckl or Travis Barker has played. That's fun (and necessary) for a bit, because we're finding understanding in the history of our instrument, and this helps us make the initial connection to it.
But after a while, musicians need to find and enhance the individual voice within their playing. This enables us to be creative so we can add emotion to our art.
When folks find out I'm a musician, they often ask, "Are drums one of the easier instruments to get started on?" I answer, "Yes, but with a qualifier."
Drums may be one of the easier instruments to start with. However, it is definitely one of the hardest instruments to integrate into a song. We're putting rhythm to melody with an instrument that has the power to stomp on the entire band. A drummer must figure out how to blend with a melody - spice it up. Usually, this helps to add emotion to a composition. This is where the art lies in the world of percussion. I believe ultimately, that drums can be one of the most difficult instruments to play well.
I'm currently working on a project with local musician Rob Wessel. The band's name is Eden Concept. While recording the parts I'd composed for his songs, almost all of the above approaches (and others) were used on the drum tracks.
Please take a listen to his song, "Limitless." You may recognize some of the techniques I'd mentioned above in my playing or tunings. If you have a question about anything you may hear in the recording, please leave a comment below this post, and I will respond.
Or, simply throw some headphones on and enjoy. By doing so, you'll be supporting local music.
Check it out here.
Thanks for your time in listening. It's truly appreciated!
Please visit my studio's Facebook page to find other interesting studio information at www.facebook.com/JimKubesPercussionStudio. Hit the "like" button to let me know you've visited. Thanks!
My studio can also be followed on Twitter: @JimKubeDrums.