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I was back in Two Pillars studio again today (Mon), this time working on a Christmas track for a vocalist named Brian Bates. My friend Nate Sabin was producing the track, and he’s a great guy that up until now I have not had the pleasure of working with. Aaron Fabrinni was also there on bass, and Ben Gowell on guitar.

Have I ever mentioned how much I enjoy being in the studio? Love it.

The most fascinating aspect of studio work for me (right now at least) is the HUGE difference that one little change will make. Like… a fill for instance. The placement of one note, just a little behind the beat, makes all the difference. Suddenly the whole fill is cooler – just because one note is played slightly different. Being in the studio always makes me pay way more attention to my live playing, so as to capture those nuances and make that big difference in my live performances too.

It is important to acknowledge the difference between sitting behind the drumset and sitting in the audience. Often the evaluation of what you’re playing and how it sounds will vary significantly between your perspective as the performer and the perspective of the listener. Consider these scenarios:

1) The groove you’re playing is a new groove to you. It’s one that you just learned and you’re excited to find an opportunity to use it. The song you’re playing feels like the right tempo for the groove, so you play it and it’s tons of fun. BUT… the cool new groove doesn’t really fit the vibe of the song, and a more standard groove would have been a much better choice. You, however, are not able to realize this because you’re the person playing the groove and you’re biased.

2) The song you’re playing is slow, maybe 72bpm quarter note. The intensity builds as you move through the end of the verse and approach the chorus, and you start getting excited for what you know is coming next. As a result, you start speeding up… and you don’t know it. The tempo increase feels natural to you in the moment of excitement, and you’re unaware of this because you’re the person playing the groove and you’re biased.

3) Same scenario as #2, but this time you’re doing a great job of controlling your excitement and keeping a steady tempo. Nice. Now comes the fill that transitions into the awesome chorus that you’re so excited about, and you dive into the fill with a descending 16th pattern that seems appropriate. However, at 72 bpm, the 16ths feel very slow and exposed, so you switch to 32nd notes to fill up the space that you think needs to be filled up. But the 16ths actually felt great in the moment, and the new 32nd pattern – as opposed to filling up space – instead feels busy and convoluted. You are the only person in the room that doesn’t know this, because you’re the person playing the pattern and you’re biased.

This perspective thing is a lesson that I’ve learned the hard way, as I’ve found myself in situations where I am afforded the bias-breaking luxury of listening back to a recording of myself. A musical moment that felt great to me when I played it ends up feeling not so great as I listen. When we are stripped of the warped perspective that we have as performers, the reality of how things actually sound becomes so much clearer. As a result of hearing playbacks of myself, I’ve learned to create somewhat of a dual-existence while I play… or at least I try to do this. The one side of me is playing musically as a performer in the moment, and the other side of me is trying as hard as possible to step out of the performer perspective and listen critically as an audience member. I think it’s helped a ton.

Man… Brian Blade is definitely one of my favorite drummers right now. He has so much control, his ideas are so musical, and his groove is so comfortable. Love it.

Brian Blade is on my mind today because I’ve been listening to Danial Lanois’ “Shine” quite a bit. Blade just destroys that record. His feel, his comfort and vocabulary… unbelievable. The album is a singer-songwriter style, and so Blade is of course playing appropriately within that realm. BUT, he is also a widely respected jazz player. THAT is the main point of this post.

I’ve had more than a few musicians whom I respect tell me that my best bet is to pigeon-hole my efforts on the drums into one genre/sound, and just try to make that as killing as I can. I understand the logic: don’t waste time trying to improve your weaknesses, just focus on making your strengths even stronger and soon you will be the only fish in the pond that anyone wants to work with, when it comes to those strengths. This idea is big in the business world, and it makes sense to a degree… but I’m not sure it applies to Art.

I studied jazz music extensively in college, and I’ve also spent a lot of time in pop/rock settings. In fact, I’ve done quite a bit of gospel lately, and some alt-country, and even some electronica/drum-n-bass. Therefore, I’m obviously in danger of spreading myself too thin according to the “ignore-your-weakness-promote-your-strength” mantra, but I don’t see it that way. I feel like I have learned concepts in studying jazz that I can apply to rock… things that make my rock playing different from another rock drummer who has never studied jazz. Conversely, I can bring rock elements into my jazz that sound hopefully make my jazz playing unique. Of course, I have to have a solid understanding of the difference between rock and jazz, but having a presence in both worlds is a challenge that I enjoy taking on.

Actually, I believe learning about and participating in many different styles/genres is an essential element to feeding creativity in your playing. I guess I just disagree with the advice I’ve been given. Maybe I’ll recant in a few years when I am wiser, but for now, I encourage every musician who reads this blog to surround yourself with as many different-sounding records as you can find, and soak them all in.

I’ve already posted a couple times this week about this record I’m doing right now. It’s a jazz record (if you didn’t figure that out already from the pictures in the previous post). I don’t play nearly as much jazz these days as I used to – and I am feeling that. In college I played jazz almost exclusively, but that was six years ago. I still love listening to it (which I do frequently), but playing it… well, let’s just say my chops aren’t quite what they were.

The biggest problem I’m noticing is the influence of all the rock playing I’ve done since college. Over the past few years I’ve taken all the effort that I was pouring into studying jazz and shifted it to rock/pop, and it’s made a big difference in that part of my playing for sure. BUT, the recent rock emphasis makes it hard for me to shift gears back into jazz mode, especially for an intensive, week-long studio session. The point here is that this “gear shift” I just mentioned, however difficult, is CRITICAL to playing jazz well.

The rock approach to the drumset stands in total opposition to the jazz approach. In fact, they are mortal enemies. This means that you cannot allow ANY rock instincts to influence your playing when you sit down to a jazz gig. I can’t stand listening to a rock drummer trying to play jazz when it’s obvious that he’s trying to do so while still operating in the rock mindset. Jazz drummers trying to play rock is equally annoying. So… I’ve tried to develop a multiple personality “disorder” of sorts, in an effort to successfully exist as both a rock musician AND a jazz musician. This mainly revolves around my mentality while I’m playing rock or jazz, but there are a few concrete/tangible things that I’ve done to aid the dual existence:

1) I use different sticks for jazz than I do when playing rock. They are different in all respects: size, shape, weight… everything. This makes it a little easier to get into the right frame of mind, because even when I simply pick up the sticks the feel of them puts my muscle memory into the correct mode.

2) Kick pedal – same issue as the sticks. I’ve got an old soft-beater pedal with a leather strap drive for jazz, and a newer DW pedal with a firm beater and a chain drive for rock.

3) Tuning is obviously a big part of your sound no matter what style you’re playing, but I always try to take a REALLY different approach for jazz tuning and rock tuning in order to inspire myself in the right direction sonically. This would of course also apply to cymbals.

These are just a few small things that I’ve found helpful for me. Again, the main point here is not for you to go out and buy a totally new rig if you want to learn to play jazz, but rather for you to keep in mind that in order to play jazz correctly, you MUST leave your rock mindset out of the picture entirely, and vice-versa.

There’s nothing wrong with double-kick. I had a double pedal in high school and I practiced it a ton and it sounded cool. However, I sold it many years ago and I have not missed it. Here’s 5 reasons why:

1) My left foot is very busy on the hihat. For me to sacrifice the hihat stuff and instead use that limb on the kick drum, when my right foot is already committed to the kick, seems more costly than it is helpful.

2) The double pedal really only has one sound: lots of kick hits… really fast. Think about it. Most of us can play lots of kick hits at a slow or medium tempo, and many of us can play two (or maybe three) consecutive kick hits at a fast tempo. So… the only thing you can do with a double pedal that you can’t do with a single pedal is lots of kick hits at a fast tempo. That sound, while cool in the context of certain styles of music, is rarely appropriate outside of those styles – and those are styles that I rarely play.

3) Spending time practicing double pedal is not nearly as beneficial as spending time practicing other things (like rudiments, independence exercises, grooving with a click, or improvising). Once you have a double pedal, it’s hard to resist the urge to practice it a ton and build up your chops. I have seen many drummers who could shred on a double pedal but could barely do anything else. This is obviously problematic given that 99% of drumming, in any style, has nothing to do with double-kick chops.

4) The size and weight of my set-up is important to me. Seriously, I drag my drums all over town and load them in/out of venues/studios numerous times each week. I don’t want to bog down my hardware case with a piece of gear I don’t really need… and a double-pedal is not something that I really NEED.

5) I am constantly inspired by guys who rip it up with only a single pedal. For example, check out Lester Estelle or Mike Clemmons.

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.

I am just finishing up some programming for church tomorrow morning. I play every week at New Hope Church in New Hope, MN… and last year we started incorporating loops and sequences into the services. They put me in charge of that stuff, although I knew nothing about it when I started. We use Reason and Ableton Live software, and I’ve just been learning as I go… so please let me know if you have any helpful tips or anything.

I’m glad to have gotten the chance to familiarize myself with software like Reason and Ableton. Programming is becoming more and more of a staple in modern music (especially pop/rock). At this point, it’s almost a necessity that any professional player be competent at not only playing with, but also programming your own loops/sequences.

UPDATE: As of 2012 it absolutely IS a necessity that pop/rock players be familiar with at least one programming or DAW software platform.

Anyway… the aim of this post is to point out the MUSICALITY of programming. Even though programmers don’t PERFORM their music in the physical sense, there is still a deep well of art to be appreciated in the world of drum synthesis and software. In fact, I’ve noticed an interesting influence that electronic and programmed percussion has had on the drumset world. Programmers, unlike actual players, don’t have any physical limitation to their musical ideas. When they think of something cool to “play”… they just draw it out with their computer’s mouse and set the tempo wherever they want it. Things that would be impossible for any drummer to actually perform are not off limits to programmers. As a result, the ideas they come up with tend to push the envelope in comparison to the ideas that drumset players think of. It’s as if the programmers are able to cross a creative bridge that is un-crossable to physical players. The really cool thing is that, once across the bridge, programmers discover cool ideas that can be “brought back across” to the physical world and adapted to an organic drumset. So now, after a few years of prominent electronic grooves, we find drumset performers using their physical kits to replicate ideas that they have heard in the programming world. Cool stuff.

So, just because programmers don’t PLAY drums doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything to contribute to the world of rhythm. This goes along with my previous post about art being more of a mental game than a physical one. The IDEAS that programmers come up with can be very brilliant, and they are worth listening to.

Here’s a short list of some artists whose programming has influenced my playing in this way: Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Autechre, Bjork, Boards of Canada, Jon Hopkins, and Cepia

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