Friday, March 27, 2020

How I recorded a full album's worth of drums in two days

Recently I recorded a full album of drums. I guess these days the "album" is somewhat of a lost art.

Personally, I've always found a full album somewhat elusive. As a music writer I'm well-aware of what tends to occur during music-writing progress, particularly what happens when you aim high, and for a "full album."

An example of the charts I write out and then reference when recording drums for a song

Usually, when you continually fixate on creating a body of work such as an album, you start to lose focus on what's in front of you. My point is, you can only write one song at a time. Anyone's mind can work quite fast, and ideas may emerge at a rapid pace. You've got to adhere to a specific rule: one at a time. Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time.

How I deal with any influx of creativity is often a "make or break" moment of music creation. This extends from a mental exercise to actual on-the-spot decision making, and years of habit-forming practice. I've found with music and with painting, you have to be ready in the moment with what decisions to make, because these decisions can impact the life-span of the work. For instance, tuning your drums, or replacing your guitar strings, or being careful when touching the dials on a mixing board, and the settings on a recording device (or not touching them) will impact the results of any recording. In the same way, making sure you have enough paint to finish that painting is just as important as those artful flicks of the wrist that cascade a waterfall of enamel across your masterpiece.

With a multitude of great ideas at your disposal, you may be tempted to spread them thinly over a set of songs, rather than select only the best parts for a singular creation. With this album of drums I went for a different approach.

Once again, I'm left with the clumsiness of a music-theory based description, but I'd like to bypass this (in my opinion) egoistic formalism. Instead, how about a simpler take. The man, in the woods, who hits a stick on a downed tree stump. With a little bit of rhythm (and some imagination) we're basically listening to ACDC's "Back in Black," if we want to be, or perhaps a whimsical Hendrix tune. All it takes is the tree branch.

To record the full album of drums what I did was to create charts based off of songs I like myself. I broke down each song by counting 8-beat measures. I literally counted out loud "1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8." Once I hit 8, I would write a number down and circle it. With each new circled number I was marking down song parts, i.e. Verse, chorus, bridge, and so on.

From there I was able to figure out how the songs were structured, and it didn't feel like a chore because I was listening to stuff I actually like a lot. Typically, a 4/4 song would have four consecutive 8-beat measures to round out half of a verse or chorus. 

I went one-at-a-time. I created a chart, then brought it over to the drum set. From there, I studied the piece of paper (on the floor by my hi-hat pedal) while I performed a totally indiscernable-from-the-source-material type of different drum pattern all-together (other than the format guidelines I provided for myself), and voila! I was left with a full set of drum tracks for an album. Wasn't so tough really.

From there, I brought my guitar over and basically just went off-the-cuff. At the end of the day I tracked bass (and scratch guitar) for all 10 songs. After a day, I decided two of my cuts were weak, and shortened the length to 8. Another day passed and I was content with 4 out of the 8. And yet another day, and I was down two 3 out of the original 10. At this point in time I'm now at two tracks that I will likely attempt vocals on. When it came to the guitar, the best results were just totally free-styled (after I made sure I was in-tune). The best part is when you start to realize in the moment you're crushing the take (out of nowhere, because, you're hearing the music for the first time yourself). It's at this moment you have to make sure to exercise a bit of caution, but also flash a bit of a switch-blade of risk as well. If you make it to the end of the tape even after this, you're onto something. - Mike

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