Drummer Tips: Practicing Before the Studio

Getting your playing up to snuff for the big day can and should be a humbling experience. It’s your responsibility to seek out flaws in your songs, sound, and playing so that they can be addressed and corrected before they’re forever immortalized on the record.

If you approach the rehearsal process with positivity and enthusiasm, you’ll not only end up a better drummer, bandmate and musician, but you’ll make better records, too.

Practice with a metronome – even if you’re not recording to one.

A metronome is a relatively inexpensive and absolutely essential tool for the modern musician. Though human beings have a natural sense of rhythm, it isn’t always perfect – the more you practice with a metronome, the easier it is to stay on tempo without one.

Your band may prefer multi-tracking their parts individually to a click in the studio, or perhaps you’re all in the same room live recording together with no rhythmic referee. It all depends on the vibe you’re going for. But whatever the case, rehearsing with a click is imperative for every band member. Encourage your bandmates to use metronomes in their solo practice sessions, and I guarantee that things will come together much easier once you’re in the studio for the real thing.

Practice consistency.

In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to let seemingly minor things like playing and striking position slide. When you’re in your practice space surrounded by a wall of noise, that snare backbeat an inch off of center or unintentional ride cymbal bell hit might not seem like much, but these inconsistencies can mean wasted time and an unpolished final product when they inevitably carry over to the studio session you’re paying for.

Plus, if you’re “comping” together different takes for a final mix, these subtle differences can make an engineer’s life hell – trying to get two halves of a verse with audibly inconsistent snare drum sounds to blend together is next to impossible. Worst case, you may end up with a record full of sample replacement and editing, which is often necessary to achieve a punchy, commercial sound if the drummer isn’t hitting consistently.

When you’re practicing, pay attention to where you’re hitting the drums and how hard. Which limb is the first to tire? Does your hi-hat hand have a tendency to change playing position during a certain section? Is your bass drum foot maintaining the same level of “punch” during the whole tune? These can be big indicators of what you should be focusing on – don’t be afraid to take things back to the rudimental level to shore up these problem areas.

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Learn every song, all the way through.

It seems obvious, but wasting studio time trying to learn a part or nail down the form of a song can cost you more money, slow things down, and bring down the vibe of a session in general. There’s nothing wrong with improvisation – certain genres of music will naturally be more improvisational than others – but it's still important to go into the studio with a concrete outline of what you're going to be playing.

Even if part of that outline includes room to work out some of the details in the moment, knowing what sort of vibe you're going for with that big intro fill and having a couple of basic building blocks ready to go will keep you focused and ready. This way, you're slate won't be totally blank when that infamous red light comes on.

Record yourself ahead of time.

There’s no better way to objectively analyze your playing than to record practice sessions. In the past, having the gear necessary to do this was prohibitively expensive for a lot of drummers. Fortunately, products like the Sabian Soundkit and Zoom H4n make it easy to document your rehearsal efforts for relatively little cash.

These practice recordings make digging into your playing to weed out those problematic areas a whole lot easier. While it may seem like a lot of extra work just to find problems, it can also help you make essential creative choices about what you want to hear on your final product. How can you expect to make informed, executive decisions about your drum parts if you never really spend the necessary time listening to them?

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Change can be a good thing.

What works live doesn’t always translate into a studio setting. Be mindful and open to this, and you'll often find yourself coming up with new and interesting ways to serve the song. Try out some hand percussion, different sticks/mallets/brushes, or simply try switching up a groove. Demo each song with a couple of different approaches so you can decide what works best.

Once you’re in the studio, listen to the playback in between takes and pay attention to how the different elements of the kit are interacting with the other instruments. If the drums are getting in the way of the melody or feel of the tune, it’s probably time to go back to the drawing board.

Drummers (and musicians in general) can be very protective of their ideas. We spend hours pouring our sweat and tears into patterns and exercises, so it can be understandably disheartening when that ultra-hip 7/8 over 4 linear groove you just showed off to your bandmates is met with looks of confusion or disapproval. But it’s imperative to remember that in any musical collective, everyone’s opinion matters. If something isn’t gelling with the vibe of a song, it really shouldn’t be there.

If you have demos recorded ahead of time, sit down with your producer and bandmates and talk through any potential changes so everyone is on the same page. Their non-drummer perspective and fresh sets of ears can help you breathe new life into a song that just isn’t feeling right.

That said, don’t be afraid to stick to your guns if you feel the overall artistic value of a song is being compromised. But even in doing so, always keep in mind that you are all working on this project together, and the end result should be something everyone is happy with.

Take responsibility for your playing.

It’s on you to own your parts and make sure that you’re ready to perform when recording begins. Drums are often the first element to be captured during the recording process, and your performance will provide the foundation for the entire project.

Preparing for your first recording session is a lot of work. Aside from rehearsing with your group, personal practice time is some of your most valuable and integral prep work. Investing in your performance will ensure a great studio experience and a recording you can be proud of.

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