Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

November 23, 2014

I'm Not a Drummer, But I Do Play One on TV

Last week's epiphany: my drum tracks are terrible. No, not my playing; that's fine. It's the sounds themselves, the 20-plus-year-old keyboard patches I'm using, that are causing the problem.

Solution: rent a decent electronic drum kit and redo all the drums. After trying it out in the store, I opted for the Roland TD-11K, a solid mid-level apparatus with just about everything I need. Day 1 consisted of lugging the thing home on public transit. Day 2, putting it together. Day 3, choosing sounds and customizing my own kit, which I called "Folk/Rock Dry." And now, ladies and gentlemen, I am playing the drums ... kind of.

See, I'm really a bassist. I've learned to impersonate a guitarist, keyboardist, mandolin player and what have you, but drums are a different animal. I can play them adequately, as long as I record one piece at a time. For a typical song, that requires nine passes on nine tracks: kick, snare, hi-hat, two rack toms, floor tom, ride, crash and splash cymbals.

How real drummers play all these simultaneously, in time, I've no idea. To me, coordinating two hands and two feet is like patting your head, rubbing your stomach and twitching your leg while reciting pi to 700 digits. But even though I can't play like a drummer, I know how to think like one. That's where my bass-playing pedigree comes in, because the bass—generally; not always—locks in with the kick and sometimes the snare, and I've spent years doing that. And for any given song, if you can figure out what the kick and snare do, the rest of the kit easily falls into place.

Now, this Roland kit plays and feels a lot like real drums. This is not necessarily an advantage for someone who's used to "drumming" on a keyboard. I'm not bad with my hands—other than the fills, which I have to do in pieces if they're too fast—but getting the kick pedal down has taken a healthy dose of (gasp) practice.

Anyway, once I've recorded the tracks I compare them to my previous parts which, hideous sounds aside, were in time. A little cut here, a little paste there and I can make the new tracks match. I'm happy to report that my timing, though not flawless, is reasonably decent. I actually have quite a few sections that are dead-on with the existing track.

The TD-11K has 25 preset kits, and in the hunt for sounds I realized that each kit—not each sound within it—comes with its own processing (reverb and EQ). Most of their kits sounded great, but when creating my own I ditched all the processing, because had I recorded the drums wet the processing couldn't be removed if I decided later I didn't like it or there was too much of it. Hence the "dry" appellation for my Folk/Rock custom kit. Reverb and EQ, if necessary, will be applied during mixdown.

In the quest to approximate real drums, two more considerations were in play. First, I stuck with one kit despite the plethora of sounds available. Why? Well, real drummers in real bands don't say, "Oh, we're recording a ballad today? Let me run home and get my ballad kit." One kit, one drummer, one sound is the way it's done. Any variance is accomplished stylistically, by the way the drummer plays. I'm not that sophisticated, but I can at least get half the equation right by playing just the one kit. Second, I'm hoping to simulate the manner in which real drums are recorded. Standard practice entails using separate mics for the snare, kick, each tom and possibly hi-hat, with two overhead mics to capture the cymbals and overall kit. Obviously with real drums, sound from the entire set bleeds into each mic, and that I can't simulate as I'm recording direct. But I'm hoping that slapping a nice room reverb onto a stereo mix of the drums—with the dry signal mixed out—will create a passable version of the two overheads.

Yes, slogging my way through these tracks has brought home that I am most definitely not a drummer, and at times this causes vexation and insecurity. But you know what? I remain mindful of the fact that I'm a singer-songwriter making a folk/rock album, not Buddy Rich Plays His Hottest Licks at Lightning Speed, and that eases my stress.

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