This week I’ve got another RD player on the hot seat.  Matthew Tobias is the owner/operator of Emtpy House Studio in Omaha, NE where he plays on AND engineers/produces records for artists all over the country.  Matt also currently plays with Nashville CCM artist Geoff Moore.  He brings some cool insight to the SIS because of his combo player/engineer perspective.

What kind of heads do you normally use in the studio? Do you use different heads for live playing? I always play 2-ply coated heads on snares – both live and for sessions. A little 10” or 12” aux snare might get a single-ply coated. Toms will vary based on the amount of cut and point I need from them. Obviously, a clear head has a bit more point than a coated. On any given day, my preference is probably coated 2-ply all the way around.

It’s pretty common knowlege that a different snare can bring a different vibe from one track to another, but how often do you switch out your kick/toms in a session? If I am doing a full-length record, I will listen through and try to group the songs into similar “vibes.”  That way, I can maybe knock out 2 or 3 songs with the same kick and toms if it’s appropriate. But, I am totally OK with tearing everything down after each song as well. Not only can different drums sound more appropriate for a given tune, but they will also really impact how I play. I guarantee you I will play fewer notes on 26” kick with 13” and 16” toms, vs. a 20” kick with 10” and 14” toms.

Have you found different woods to have much effect in creating a snare sound? Mahogany vs. Birch vs. Maple vs. “exotic brazilian black bubinga whatever”… does it really matter? For kicks and toms, yes. For snare drums, it’s probably a bit harder to get a handle on a real difference. Colors and amount/type of overtone can vary, but the snares underneath seem to level the playing field a bit. In the same wood, obviously, depth and diameter will help determine a shell’s inherent sound, but what I have found to be big factors are the number of plies and the bearing edges. Shell thickness and what type of edge the head is resting on are major influences on a snare’s sound.

How many snare sounds are there? Do they fall into predictable categories, or does EVERY drum bring something different that’s maybe worth having at some point? I’ve got to go with every drum having something unique to say. I have an 8×15” Ludwig snare from the 40’s that gets mic’d up maybe once a year, but man, when it does…

Can you weigh in on the kick drum depth issue? What has been your experience with kick/tom dimensions… what works best? I read your post on that topic and couldn’t agree more. I have kicks ranging in diameter from 18” to 26”- all of which are 14” deep (except one that’s 15” deep). The front head can’t resonate and give any tone if it’s a mile away, or if the kick is too stuffed with stuff. I also like that, at least on a larger diameter drum, the shallower depth seems to improve the action of the beater a bit. On any given day, I might be jumping quickly from a 20” to a 26″ kick.  One feels like a brick and the other a pillow, so I’ll take any “feel” help I can get. Same principles apply to tom depth.  Having said that, I do love taking the front/bottom heads off the drums when it’s appropriate.

Do you have a formula or system for determining which drums to use for which tracks, or do you just know your own personal gear really well? I look for the tuning where each of my drums (particularly snares) want to “live” and then leave them there. Since none of my stuff gets tuned too far away from that zone, I tend to know pretty quickly which drums to grab for. Songs are really great about telling you which colors and textures to pick. For instance, what’s the primary instrument… a bright acoustic playing very rhythmically, or a vibey, laid-back Rhodes part? Is the bass throbbing big eighth notes or playing a tight, syncopated pattern? Stuff like that will determine the textures I go for.

What’s your perspective on Protools and the advent of digital recording? Is it a good thing or a bad thing for the art form? I record to Protools because all the projects I do seem to come in on that platform, but I don’t even know how to open up Beat Detective. If it’s not in time (or in tune) or played up to someone’s potential, my go-to editing tool is the “punch in”. Just do it again.  Music is art, not science, so I’m not looking for calculated perfection. I certainly do my fair share of “cleaning up” sessions, but I won’t fix something that I could just replay, nor will I create a part on the screen that I couldn’t play in the room. You won’t get less than my best, but you won’t get a massively edited misrepresentation of what that is either.

What can a drummer do to practice being a better studio player? Any specific exercises or concepts that you can share? Time, time, time! Have your time/groove together. Play to a click as often as you can. I’ve tried to come up with a time concept that is not attached to the notes I’m playing. To help with this, when practicing I like to listen to a 16th note click (for a normal 4/4 groove) so that I am hearing all (or at least most) of the moments in time that are related to the tempo I am playing at. I try to think of the notes I am playing then as simply marking some of those moments rather than those notes being the entirety of my time awareness. That way, if the chorus groove I’m playing is a really busy syncopated thing, then to signal the fact that the bridge is about to bail, I can play that measure-long fill with only 5 notes in it without going off the rails. My awareness of the space between my notes is as important to that fill as the notes I choose to play. I really feel like this will help so many of the typical issues drummers deal with. I think the next thing is just learning how to “get” a song. Songs are journeys – they start somewhere and end up somewhere having been a few places along the way. If we can figure out how to get the band (and listener) to those places, then we’re playing MUSIC, not just drums. The color/texture/width of our parts are just as important as rhythm.

Who are your favorite studio guys? What are the best records to hear them on? Anything with Steve Jordan, Abe Laboriel, Jr. and Shawn Pelton. I really like Matt Chamberlain – his playing on the new Missy Higgins record “On A Clear Night” is fantastic… just perfect. He plays with an interesting band called Critters Buggin – their first 2 CD’s (“Guest” and “Host”) are pretty great… he stretches WAY out on those. Josh Freese makes the “this all sounds the same” radio rock pretty great when he’s on it. Poe’s “Haunted” and Abandoned Pools’ “Humanistic” are great records that he played on. Jay Bellerose, Jim Keltner, Charley Drayton, JJ Johnson… man, there are so many great players!

Tell me some more about your upcoming video series. What can we expect from that? Later this Spring I’m doing a series for Risen Drums that will focus on the various factors in a shell’s sound (all the stuff we talked about… plies, depth, edges, etc). We want to help guys pick out just the right drums for the music they’re playing, and help them realize they can order more than just “a drumset” from Risen. The guys at Risen have been really cool in helping me find some great sounds – some of which have been a little off the beaten path, so we just want to let people know about the options they provide. The format will be in a studio with different artists I play with- playing through tunes and talking not only about what drums I chose for a particular song and why, but also about the parts I chose to play. I would love to see players considering the music they’re involved in when they are deciding what drums to play and how to play them.

Big thanks to Matt for sharing all this wisdom, and his artist profile at has more good info to check out.