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On March 14 I received an invitation to play in Ben Rector‘s band for his slot on leg one of NeedtoBreathe’s Tour De Compadres, which ran from April 16 – May 16. I had never heard Ben’s music or even met any of the guys in his band or the other bands (NTB, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, Colony House), but the experience proved again why the music world is so rad: I really loved playing music with Ben and his band (Cody Fry on guitar, Kevin MacIntire on bass). They are all great players/vocalists, and Ben is a masterful songwriter and front man. On top of that, the hang was incredible… not just with Ben but with all 4 of the bands. I got home from the tour a week ago and I’m bummed it’s over!

But this post is about gear, because I love giving credit where it’s due. Risen Drums, Paiste Cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Remo drumheads… theses companies all make fantastic stuff that makes playing music so gratifying. I remember when I had to always fight my gear in order to get it to sound good, and those days are over now.

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For Ben’s music I decided to use the same physical setup that I’ve had on recent Sara B tours: kick/snare/rack/floor, SPD in a second rack tom position, and hats/crash/ride. My laptop provided Ableton goodness but only for click purposes, and I kept a swap option snare off to the right.

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The drums were the Risen “vintage mahogany” shells with triple flange hoops (8×12, 14×16, and 14×22). The finish is a paint (not a wrap) and has been dubbed “Steve Gold Sparkle.”

I used my workhorse 6.5×14 black brass tube lug snare (tuned mid-low-ish) on most of the set, supplemented by my 5.5×15 Canopus Ash snare as the tight and high alternative. The BFSD muffles (Donut and Original) showed up as well a few times throughout the set.

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I brought two cymbal rigs on the tour, one for large outdoor spaces and one for theaters or enclosed bandshells. The outdoor rig is pictured above, L to R (all Paiste): 602 Modern Essential 16″ crash hats, 20″ Masters Dark crash, 22″ 602 Modern Essential 22″ ride. They’re full and rich, with some brightness and presence, but not overbearing.

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The indoor rig had the same 20″ Masters Dark crash, but the 16″ crash hats and 22″ ride were Masters Dark as well. That series is somewhat new to the Paiste world, and I got a set back in February. Wow. I love them. The tone is dark and the pitch is deep, but there’s no trashy or flimsy presence. The ride really surprised me – unique, full of character, and different than I expected – but I love it. I’ve used it on jazz gigs, in sessions, and now out on tour with Ben.

Below is a drumcam video I made at one of our Florida gigs, and it features the Masters Dark rig. It also features the always-boss stage moves of Kevin MacIntire, who I played disc golf with literally every day of the entire tour. #winning

As always, comment here or message me if you have any questions!

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I do “one-off” gigs with little or no rehearsal on a pretty regular basis. I’m a huge proponent of memorization wherever possible, but the fact remains that it’s not always possible, and the one-off gig with no rehearsal is usually my top contender for an unmemorizable situation.

That’s where charts come in. “Chart” is the musician slang term for sheet music, but where proper sheet music involves notes and rests on staff paper, charts are more broad and can include laymen elements like lead sheets or personal notes. That’s what my charts are: just a combination of a lead sheet and a form map with personal notes. I don’t use classical notation at all, ever. I make my charts as word documents composed entirely of typed characters. It’s something of a code that I’ve developed for myself. I keep all my charts on my laptop (I don’t even print them) and then I just bring the laptop to my gigs, which means they’re even backlit.

This is all fine and good, and today’s post is not meant to convince anyone that my personal charting method is BETTER than anyone else’s. I’m simply sharing it with you, but the thing I’m most interested in sharing is how I go about making the chart. The process revolves around repeated listens of the song I’m making a chart for, and over the years this has turned into a steady and consistent system for me.

I break the listens down into 3 passes, and the chart has 3 sections correspnding to these listens:

1. Vibe
2. Form
3. Parts

Clarification: I needed more than one listen per section early on in my chart-making, so the whole thing really revolves more around these sections than how many listens are required to get each section diagramed.

Vibe

My first listen through a song that I’m charting involves no note-taking at all. I focus on listening carefully to the song and I try to take it in for what it is. I call this “vibe” because in my mind this is where the DNA or “essence” of a song is found. Is the song upbeat or slow? Is it happy or sad? Is it a rocker or a ballad? More specifically, is it indie-rock, country, gospel, or something else? I spend the first listen asking myself these questions. I also pay attention to the lyric and let that inform my perception of the overall point of the song. Why did the songwriter create this song? What’s the main message, and what should I as a listener take away from the song?

These observations are critical to any instrumentalist who accompanies a song. At last year’s Drumset and the Kingdom conference, Matt Tobias made the brilliant point that when a musician plays along with a tune, he/she either DISables the song or ENables the song. There is no neutrality. Along these lines I’ve found that my first listen, in which I find the overarching purpose and intention in a tune, ends up being the most important step in my process. After identifying a song’s vibe I am prepared to the contribute to it in the best way possible.

I should also mention that I have my phrasing radar on during the first listen. This isn’t a vibe issue but instead has to do with measure numbers and whether or not they’re phrased in standard symmetry – groups of four or eight. 99.9% of all melodies and chord progressions are constructed within four or eight measure phrases, which makes the music feel “natural” and easy for listeners to follow along with. Unsymmetrical measure groups (5 or 7 or 3) make the music seem disjointed and unpredictable (which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s something a drummer needs to be aware of). If something like this jumps out at me during the first listen, I make a quick mental note and then I know to look for it during the 2nd listen.

Form

The second listen is when I start taking notes, and the notes begin with the road map of the song, also called the “form.” This is a measure count and song section map. A typical example of my song form note-taking looks like this…

INTRO (4)
VERSE (8)
PRE (4)
CHORUS (8)
TURN (4)
VERSE (8)
PRE (4)
DBL. CHORUS (16)
BRIDGE (9, 7+2)
PRE (4)
DBL CHORUS (8)
OUTRO (4)

“Pre” refers to a pre-chorus, and “turn” refers to a turn-around (which is like a pre-verse, the section that connects a chorus with the following verse)… and so on. These particular song sections aren’t found in every song, and some songs have additional sections not listed above. The point here is that I want to identify EVERY MEASURE in the song, and build it into my mind as being part of a larger section in the form. That way I have a solid understanding of the song’s trajectory, and I can easily see where to place fills and setups. This requires a very specific kind of listening which is very focused and constantly counting. It’s not a very “fun” way to listen to music, but wow is it helpful.

One more note about my form mapping: The measure numbers above, aside from the bridge, reflect the symmetrical 4-bar phrasing I mentioned earlier. In the case of an odd-numbered phrase, I always break down the measures according to how the phrasing is composed. Meaning, a group of nine bars is going to have division within it which probably follows the chord progression, and is probably also reinforced by the melodic contour. So the 9 bars are going to feel like 4+5, or 7+2, or any other possible breakdown.I pay attention to how the 9 bars feel and notate this in parentheses. This helps me to, at a glance, know where to place fills and resolution points in my playing.

Parts

My 3rd and final listen focuses on the actual drum parts – the specifics of what I’m doing on the instrument. Interestingly, this is probably the least important section of my notes… meaning, I could probably do a pretty good job of playing the song without any “parts” information at all. Having already listened to the song twice through while paying attention to the vibe and taking detailed notes on the form and measure numbers leaves me ready to take a crack at the tune and let my instincts determine the specific parts (in fact, this is what I do in sessions, where the song’s parts haven’t been determined yet anyway). But in the case of a live performance with a band that I’m subbing for I want to have ALL the details in place (not just the broad ones but the nuanced ones as well), so this is where the parts descriptions come in.

Here’s what my final chart often looks like, complete with parts…

INTRO (4) out
VERSE (8) in with kick only, 4 on floor
PRE (4) add tight hats and full backbeats on snare… hits on “2-3-4” in bar 4
CHORUS (8) slosh hats rock groove bars 1-6, sync #3 bars 7-8
TURN (4) slosh hats rock groove, cut on bar 4
VERSE (8) full 4 on floor groove with tight hats
PRE (4) continue 4 on floor groove… hits on “2-3-4” in bar 4
DBL. CHORUS (16) slosh hats rock groove, insert sync #3 in bars 7-8 and 15-16
BRIDGE (9, 7+2) out 1-4, kick only 4 on floor bars 5-7, build 8ths bars 8-9
DBL CHORUS (16) slosh hats rock groove, sync #3 in bars 7-8 and 15-16
OUTRO (4) slosh hats rock groove, dotted quarter hits in bar 4 to end

I always put the parts in italics so as to draw my eye during a quick glance. And you might notice that there could be a lot more detail in my descriptions of my parts, but that’s where the personal language I’ve developed over time comes in. The words above have more detail to my eye than they might to someone else. Additionally, my entire charting system revolves around multiple listens to the song ahead of time, and many of the details get filled in by my memory.

The memory element I just mentioned is the final and most important reason that I’ve designed my charting system in this way. The listens and the various stages of detail really push my mind toward memorization without me even trying to memorize. After making a chart like this I often times end up only glancing at it here and there during the performance, instead of burying my face in it for the entire tune.

SUMMARY: Ultimately, memorization is always my goal. When memorizing isn’t possible I meet it halfway with a chart system engineered to encourage memorization. The important thing is that I need to have a clear vision of how the song will go and what I will do. Hopefully my charting system can be helpful in some way toward developing your own gig preparation! If not then no big deal, but don’t tell me because I will take it personally and feel bad.

Geek alert…

I would’ve posted this on my Tumblr page since it has to do with gig stuff that I’m doing, but for some reason I’m unable to post multiple photos there and still have visible text. Lame.

This… is… my current setup for Owl City. I’ll try to be as detailed as possible, for those who have been asking.

Risen Drums – acrylic – diecast hoops – internal LEDs
16×24 kick
14×16 floor (left side)
14×18 floor
8×15 snare
5×10 “trigger” snare (above left floor)

Paiste Traditional cymbals
16″ thin crash (hihat top… with 3 strips of gaff tape)
16″ Twenty medium light hat (hihat bottom)
22″ light ride (left side crash)
22″ medium light ride (ride position)
20″ thin ride (right side crash)

DW Hardware
9000 series boom stands (4)
9000 series hihat stand
9000 series single kick pedal (active and backup)
5000 series snare stand
5000 series throne

Remo heads
Coated Powerstroke 3 kick (both batter and reso sides… falam pad on batter)
Coated Emperor CS snare (w/ Ambassador hazy bottom)
Coated Emperor toms (w/ Ambassador coated bottom)
Coated Emperor trigger snare (heavily muffled… w/ Ambassador coated bottom)

Roland Octapad/404 sampler (with Rt10-s trigger to side snare)
Original sample library… no Roland sounds

Vic Firth sticks/mallets (w/ Mono Cases stick bag)
Dave Weckl Signature sticks
Extreme 5A sticks
CT1 General mallets

I’m really enjoying not having a rack tom anymore. Not that I won’t ever use one… but this particular gig just doesn’t need it. Additionally, I use the electronic pad so heavily that having it in the rack tom position is just perfect, with the triggered side snare to top it off. I’ve got a million new sound and sticking choices for things that way.

The other major changes from my past rigs include the 22″ light ride as my main crash (instead of a 20″) and the 15″ acrylic snare (instead of a 14″ black brass… which is hiding under the 18″ floor as a backup… I’ve only had to use it once when the snare wires broke during a set). The bigger snare is super versatile with both tight and loose tones (which I alternate between during the show). I’m loving that, though the main reason I’m using it is for the internal LEDs. As for the 22″ crash… man, I think I’m hooked for that permanently. So huge, so full… it has all the wash I want from a crash but with the depth and power of a 22″ ride.

Also… I’ve been using two different home-made drum head mufflers… a full one and one with a 4″ diameter hole in the middle (pictured on the main snare). The full gives me the deep and loose tone that newspaper normally has in the studio, and the cut one has a super dry and tight sound. Between those and a totally open no-muffle option I’ve got a cool range of sounds to choose from.

Lastly, I’ve been using the Weckl sticks for decades (literally), but I’m thinking about switching over to the Extreme 5A’s. The difference is an added 1/4 inch of length on the x-5A, and a slightly different tip shape. Vic Firth just sent me a brick of them to try out and I might officially make the switch… if for no other reason than to get rid of those red marks all over the drums.

Aaaand I use ONE moon gel on the 18″ floor tom…

GEEK ALERT.

I just posted a video/description of my Go Fish rig over at my Tumblr page. Check it out.

I was out all week with Go Fish doing some fly dates, so I posted a few pics over at my Tumblr page. 60’s Ludwig 13/16/24 in California! What the…

No posts for the past couple weeks = Steve’s busy with stuff. I actually have a TON on my plate right now, and some of it is relevant to the conversations we have here.

1. I took a gig as drummer and musical director for a Christian vocal trio called Go Fish. They started as an a capella group and have moved through a few stages of artistic approach since then, and about 5 years ago landed where they currently are at: children’s music. Their past few records are all targeted at kids, but less like Barney and more like the Jonas Brothers. Needless to say, it’s not the most artistically satisfying gig I’ve done, but I’m really loving it nonetheless. I’ve realized lately that I almost don’t care what style/genre of gig I’m doing, as long as everybody on the gig is taking it seriously and striving for excellence. Go Fish puts on a killer show, and the musical/production/entertainment value of it is through the roof. We’ve got a couple dozen dates over the summer that we’re prepping for right now, and I’m spending A LOT of my time sifting through the pretty extensive audio tracks we’re running for the show. As I mentioned, Go Fish is a 3-pc vocal group, and the live band is just a drums/bass/guitar power trio, but then the additional audio tracks really push the audio to the huge level that the live show reaches. Strings, loops, keys, vocal effects… tons of stuff. I recently upgraded to Ableton’s Live8 software, and I’m getting a great functional lesson on using that software as I organize all the tracks and construct the show. I also picked up a MOTU Ultralite MK3 interface. I must say, it’s a pretty killer rig.

2. I’m doing a ton of reading these days. I finished up John Piper’s Desiring God a few weeks ago, and I also just got through Rob Bell’s controversial new book. Then I got a free copy of ND Wilson’s Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl from a friend and read that (such a killer book), and I’m halfway through Jim Putman’s Real Life Discipleship with my Bible study guys at church. Also, for the past year or so, I’ve been spending a little time each week continuing to work through Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin.  I’m saying all this not to boast about how much I read, but just to reiterate to those of you who regularly read this blog that my daily thoughts don’t revole solely around music.  In fact, I’m partnering with a couple of the pastors at my church in launching a faith/church-related blog in June.  I’ll keep you posted on when that gets off the ground.

3. Related to my thoughts/reading on my faith as a Christian are my efforts to use my time/resources in “ministry.”  You may remember the trip to Romania I took last year with Jason Harms.  As has been the pattern for that group for the past few years, we have another opportunity to take Jason’s music abroad this summer… this time to the country of Scotland.  You can see the details on that trip over at the Jason Harms Quintet blog.  Prepping for that trip has been the other thing keeping me busy lately, specifically the issue of fundraising.  I’ve invited you, my blog readers, to join me in that fundraising in the past, and I’d like to ask again this year.  In fact, I’m going to lay it on kinda thick this time, because many of you have expressed to me your appreciation for what I write and the fact that I do clinics at churches and what not.  Can I be so bold as to ask those of you who feel that way to express your gratitude tangibly in financially supporting Jason’s ministry?  I would greatly value your partnership with me in this area.  We have a somewhat more difficult fundraising challenge with this years trip because of the weakness of the Dollar vs the British Pound.  I have a vision of my blog readers not only helping with the fundraising, but additionally spreading the word to others so they can help.  I really really really believe in what Jason is doing with his music, and I’m so thankful to be a part of it.  I want more people in the Christian music world to know about.  Can you help me with this?

Recap:  I am crazy busy right now.  Lots going on.  Thanks for your loyal readership and interest in my blog.  More posts coming soon!

Lots of gigs is a good problem to have, and frankly, I wish it was a problem I had more often.

Every now and then I have a real busy weekend on the gig calendar, and this past Easter weekend was one of those.  Lots of gigs.  However, last weekend felt even busier than normal even though there were only four gigs.  I realized the weekend felt busy probably because all the gigs were “uploading” gigs.  Here’s what I mean…

When I play a gig with Jeremy Sanoski or Elizabeth Hunnicutt, I’m playing music that I’ve played many times before.  We often don’t have a rehearsal before hand, and there’s no reason for me to have charts or notes or anything.  I have all the songs for those artists totally memorized and internalized.  But then there are the gigs where I’m playing with a band that I’ve never played with before, or playing at a church or special event where the music is unfamiliar and new.  That kind of gig is what I call an “uploading” situation – a performance that I have to basically cram for.  I have to “upload” the songs and parts for the gig into my brain before I can play well, because I don’t have anything memorized or internalized.  All four of my gigs last weekend were uploading gigs.

I spent Friday afternoon prepping for the Good Friday service at my church, with a short rehearsal before hand and then the service that evening.  Then Friday night and Saturday morning I prepped for my Saturday evening gig with Vicky Emerson (I play with her once a year, so her stuff is by no means memorized).  When I got home on Saturday night I spent a few hours preping for Sunday morning’s Easter services at my church, followed by a short rehearsal Sunday morning.  I then went directly to a rehearsal Sunday afternoon for an Easter service gig with Joel Hanson that evening.  So over a period of about 48 hours I uploaded 4 completely different sets of music… and my brain was definitely a little tired on Sunday night.

My point is this: I think I made it through the weekend successfully because of some helpful habits that I’ve developed over the years as I do more and more uploading gigs.  Here are a few aspects of my strategy for the uploading situations…

1. Play through the songs mentally
My gig prep almost always includes me sitting at my kitchen table at home and running the songs from top to bottom in my head and just imagining myself playing them.  Like how my grandpa used to tell me to “visualize yourself making this” when I was about to go for a putt.  I seriously just sit there in silence and run the whole set, which helps me to familiarize myself with not only the songs but also the transitions.  Sometimes I even do this in the car on the way to the gig.

2. Make notes
I always use my computer as a “cheat sheet” when I’m doing an uploading gig.  I try to get as familiar with the tunes as possible ahead of time by listening and what not, but then I write all my thoughts down and condense them.  Song form, bpm, who starts and how it ends, etc… I write it all down in a Word document and have my laptop open next to me at the gig.

3. Use a click
Even if no one else in the band has in-ear monitoring, I use my in-ears and plug them directly into a click track for each tune.  I will often turn the click off once the song gets going, but at least I have the official tempo for each tune when I count off the songs.

4. Prep at the last minute
I don’t want this to be misunderstood: I don’t mean that you shouldn’t give yourself adequate time for adequate preparation.  What I mean is that I don’t do prep for a Saturday night gig on Tuesday.  This is partially so that I don’t forget over the days between prep time and gig, but mostly because I probably have different gigs on Thursday and Friday and I don’t want to cross the wires on the gigs.  So, for example, I intentionally waited to do my Easter morning gig prep until after Saturday evening’s gig, even though I got home late on Saturday night.  As soon as I got in the car after the gig I began listening to the music for the next morning, and spent time “visualizing” the set once I got home.  It’s definitely “last minute,” but it leaves the set freshly uploaded with nothing else getting in the way.

Finally, let me say that uploading gigs are a ton of work but REALLY worth it.  A cool quote I read from a noteworthy author the other day: “The brain is not a shoebox that “gets full,” but is rather a muscle that expands its capacity with increased use. The more you know the more you can know.” While multiple uploads over one weekend might make my brain tired, it will ultimately stretch my mind so that the next time a weekend like this comes along I’ll have a little more of the mental stamina needed to handle it well.

Dave Stanoch is a working freelance player in the Twin Cities much like myself, but Dave is 3 or 4 rungs past me on the ladder as far as gigs go. I just got done reading an article of his from Drummer Cafe where he chronicles a show gig he did when Regis Philbin came to MN this past Fall. He provides a great look into the reality of being a freelance drummer and what kind of skills are necessary to make it.

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Had a long rehearsal with Jesse Langseth last night.  Long, as in, 5 hours.  Whew.  It was cool, though.

Jesse made it a good way into this season of American Idol, and is having her official Twin Cities homecoming next Wednesday at the Fineline. The stuff she’s doing now is different than what we used to play in her band, although some of the songs are the same. Our set for the gig will include re-worked versions of her originals and some cool covers – think Al Green meets Missy Higgins.

The show, like I said, is next Wednesday. We play at 9pm or something. Everybody should come down… I think it will be very cool.

PS.  Jesse’s had a little bad press lately, which is funny because I think that means the show will probably be packed, although it’s a bummer for her to be in the tabloids.  She posted a blog about it at her myspace if you want to check that out.

I’m playing a couple cool gigs next week that I want to make sure everybody knows about…

1) 18+ Bill Mike Band show on Thursday (3/26) at The Whole in Coffman Student Union. This is the first local BMB show since the Truce release last November, and this show is FREE.

2) Friday (3/27) is the release show for Elizabeth Hunnicutt’s new record, On The Way. The show will be at Church Of The Open Door in Maple Grove. Tickets are $8 in advance, and $10 the night of. You can hear some of the tracks from this record on Liz’s myspace page and on her new website.

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