The Drum Microscope Reveals Inconsistencies in my Playing

Posted on July 31, 2011

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I’m in the middle of an extended run of recording sessions right now. Last week was a full four days at Light Rail Studios in SF laying down basics for Simon Kurth’s new project, “Huckle,” with Simon on various guitars and Mark Murphy on bass. Next week I continue with Huckle and then jump right into my own sessions at Mission Bells, working on tracks for a “drum-centric” EP. The week after that ALO will join me at Bells to continue work on our next album.

So, while I haven’t had as much time as I’d like in the practice room lately, working in the studio always reminds me of the real-world challenges of drumming. It also reinforces in me the need to make recording a central part of any practice regimen. Here is one thing that came up that last week that I’ll be working on for a while.

For the Huckle song “Oceans” I was asked to play the following beat underneath a bass solo:

(the line above the last hi hat represents an open hat)

This beat seems simple enough, and my playing of it sounded fine on the live recordings we made in pre-production. However, when I got under the high-power microscope of a multi-track digital audio workstation, I found that I had to be very conscious to make it groove. There are three elements at play here that I find challenging: the two 16ths in the hi hat at the beginning of the phrase; the naked 16th in the bass drum on the “e” of 3; and the open hi hat on the “and” of 4 with a 16th subdivision underneath it in another voice- in this case, the snare.

For me, the 16ths in the hi hat threaten the evenness of the 8ths that should dominate the feel, and could lead to playing the first backbeat early. Doubling up on the hi hat is a stylistic habit I’ve recently identified. It’s a little “Purdie Shuffle” tic that I have and it often leads to rushing the backbeat and closing the pocket. No f-in’ bueno!

The naked 16th on 3-“e” in the kick requires a lot of foot control. It’s Hung out there on its own and if it doesn’t fall right between the hi hat notes around it will be obvious. Low frequencies carry a lot of weight and, by their very nature, stick out. It’s like the elephant in the room- that doesn’t groove!

An open hi hat at the end of a bar is very common and, consequently, a common place for rushing. Many players, myself included, forget that an open hi hat closing on, or around, a bass drum hit is a foot move that requires co-ordination of the lower limbs. Add a note in another voice, like the snare here on 4-“a,” and even more coordination and concentration is required. It’s easy enough to rush back into the 1 with the syncopated snare hit alone. It’s not that simple!

I finally got this beat to groove, but not without hearing it not-groove first, which is never fun. I made a note to further examine this odd specimen in the practice room, which I did the next day. I also decided I better get out the click and Pro Tools to further identify what needed nudging.

Another thing about this pattern you might notice is that it’s loaded up with syncopation on the backend (beats 3 and 4). You might say it’s a little square up top with funky behind. He he. Anyway, I think that adds to the challenge, because the drummer has to constantly switch his balance from on-beat to off.

I practiced this beat with a click generated by Pro Tools and recorded “on the grid” with a single mic so I could zoom in and see where I was hitting early, late, or  right on. I also came with some variations to expand on the challenging elements of the pattern that I listed previously.

On this variation I moved the last snare hit on the “a” of 4 down to the kick. This adds difficulty in foot coordination, balance and speed (double 16ths in the right foot going from 4-“a” back to 1).

This is a variation of the original pattern that I played on the actual track. It adds another dangled “e” in the kick right after the second backbeat.

This pattern shifts the second and third bass drum notes from the original beat one 16th to the right. It gives you a dangled kick 16th on an “a” and changes up the balance overall, moving from an “a” to an “and” to an “e” in the right foot. That’s groupings of 16ths in threes.

Finally, another balance shift. I also wanted to practice a 16th in the kick leading into a backbeat. The 8th note kick underneath the open hi hat slightly alters the challenge to not rush back to the “one.”

As you can see, the hi hat part doesn’t change, and the snare barely does, between these four variations. In a way these are bass drum control exercises with a couple of hi hat and snare elements thrown in on top to add difficulty. In practicing foot control, it’s easy to grab an etude out of a book and play it on the bass drum while doing the default even 8th rock beat in the hands. A pattern like this is a little more “real-world” for me because a producer often wants a little more spice on the beat, and I like to add some filigree on my own, too (i.e.: the Purdie habit).

If you’re a drummer, try out this series of beats and tell me what you think. I highly recommend recording yourself playing against a click while doing so. The ear always seems more refined on playback when the rest of the brain isn’t preoccupied with controlling four limbs. Just to mix it up I like to record myself playing without a click. I also sometimes play to a click but also have some music in another tempo playing in the background in order to work on concentration and solidity.

What I’m going for in practicing these beats is spot on timing of ALL hits (or at least control and awareness if I am hitting early or late on purpose) and keeping each voice (hi hat, snare and kick) sounding consistent from beat to beat and measure to measure. Speaking of consistency, there is a good article by Jeremy Colson, Billy Idol’s drummer, on the subject in the May / June issue of Drumhead magazine. It’s another one of those unglamorous skills that separates the pros from the joes.

As always, thanks for reading.

Dave