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A few months ago I played the first of a series of gigs I’ll be doing with my friend Ryan Plewacki (Ryan Paul and the Ardent). It’s a folk/alt-country sound, and the gigs are a ton of fun. However, an interesting thing happened at the first rehearsal.

I had to go straight to Ryan’s house from one of the colleges I teach at, and I didn’t have any Risen drums in my car so I had to grab a Premier birch kit I’ve had for many years and use that. It’s a killer sounding kit and it has a lot of sentimental value to me, so you can imagine my horror when I dropped the rack tom HARD on the Ryan’s driveway when I was loading into his garage for the rehearsal. I tried to act like it wasn’t a big deal, but I was super worried that I had just ruined the 12″ tom. Sure enough, I pulled it out of the case and hit it and it sounded totally dead. The reso side hoop was bent real bad, and the reso head was stretched out and rippled. The rims mount was also bent, but fortunately the shell and lugs seemed fine.

I still needed to do the rehearsal, and I was still trying to act like it wasn’t a big deal. So I just took the bottom hoop off and placed the bottom head so the stretched part wasn’t on the same side as the bent section of the hoop. I carefully reset the head and tightened the tension rods (as evenly as I could on a bent hoop) and set the rest of the kit up. This is where it gets weird. I sat down at the kit and hit the rack tom… and it sounded the best it has EVER sounded. It was amazing… a clear, deep pitch with an incredible long and true sustain.

So now I don’t know what to think. Everything I have learned about how to make a tom sound good (like cutting the bearing edges evenly, making sure the drum is round, making sure the heads are tuned correctly)… all of it is out the window because my rack tom’s best day was when the entire bottom head situation was out of whack.

I don’t really know what the moral of this story is… it’s just really interesting.

After my recent post about doctoring your snare sound in the studio, I feel obligated to mention something about the more important factor in studio snare sound: deciding WHEN to use a doctored sound. Like I said before, the snare tone is a crucial element in the overall feel and vibe of a track, so you don’t want to use a strange muffling technique just for the fun of it. The snare sound you choose needs to fit the song.

The main issue is context. In fact, this is true for music generally, not just studio snare tone. Context is king. A fill is not “cool” on it’s own… it is only cool when it fits well in the moment that you play it. Consequently, a fill that you hear on a record might be really cool in the song where you heard it, and not so cool in your own band’s song (especially if your song is a significantly different musical environment). The same is true of snare tone – the “coolness” of a snare sound is directly related to the context of the track you are playing.

So, how does a drummer develop a knack for picking the right snare tone for the studio? In my opinion, musical skills like this are always gained through listening. How often do you make a mental note on the kind of snare tone your favorite drummer is using on a given track? More importantly, how often do you pay attention to the characteristics of the rest of the song and how they might have impacted the decision to use a given snare tone? This kind of awareness in your listening will jump-start your ear for snare sound and context in a big way.

A good record to listen to along these lines would be John Mayer’s “Continuum.” Steve Jordan produced the album and played drums on the whole thing. The first 5 tracks all have noticeably different snare sounds, and they fit so well with the songs.

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