Geoff Nicholls' drum column batters ahead and considers the skills behind timing.
Geoff Nicholls, a deeply fab drummer and percussion personality for 'Rockschool' writes on drummist type things every month in MAKING MUSIC including playing, maintenance, tips, techniques and winning arguments with the bass player. This month he gets other well known thumpers' views on ti-ming (ancient Chinese pottery.)
I suggested last month that drummers don't have to struggle with melody or harmony, and yet have difficulty with the one thing they're supposed to do: keep time. No wonder drummers are often derided as 'non-musicians'!
But this is a naive oversimplification. Drummers have to overcome unique control problems with regard to timing - problems not experienced in playing other instruments.
Drummers pushing the tempo or fluffing a fill don't necessarily betray a poor sense of time. Their time is generally at least as good as that of other musicians. Often it's a lack of control. The level of control required is more subtle than generally realised, even by drummers themselves.
This month we can approach the development which has really brought the subject of keeping time to the fore: the advent of drum machines.
Other than constant practice, what's the knack of coinciding precisely with a machine-played rhythmic pattern, or 'click'? Since I don't claim to be all-knowing on this or any of the coming months' subjects I'd like now to introduce three great drummers I've had long talks with recently.
Dave Mattacks has recorded with everybody - from McCartney to Alison Moyet. Mark Brzezicki is a member of Big Country and has recorded with Pete Townshend and Nils Lofgren among many others. And Richard Bailey has long been renowned for his inspired playing on Jeff Beck's "Blow By Blow" - more recently you may have seen him on TOTP with Billy Ocean, for example.
All three suggest that you treat the drum machine and click as an ally, not a threat. Mark says, "It's like going into an exam and they've given me all the answers"... "the best way is to make the click 'groove', so you almost don't 'hear' it." And Richard: "You feel the machine pattern rather than hear it. If you hear it and apply it to your playing, you're late already!"
How do you program this mysterious 'groove'? At medium tempos, Dave goes for eight-to-the-bar hi-hat, which, he says, "removes any ambiguity - you can hear if your eighths are out pretty quickly". And a cross-stick on beats two and four tells you where you are, he adds. His aim is for the machine and real hi-hats to be indistinguishable. Before you break out in a cold sweat, Dave, who's known for his meticulous approach, readily admits he's not always able to achieve this. But playing for machine-sequenced tracks increasingly implies this level of precision. Richard programs "the most basic pattern that goes with the song" - in other words something similar to what he might play, but not so crowded he can't hear what he's going to do. Mark, by contrast, prefers four-to-the bar handclaps, and sometimes these handclaps are used in the final mix. For good measure here, I'll throw in a fourth voice. Gerry Brown (Lionel Ritchie's drummer) over here a month or two back, told me he likes to program a complimentary groove to the one he's going to record so that he has something to play off.
Having programmed your pattern, you go for a take. Maybe the bass player and guitarist will play along, with the vocalist giving you a guide. All that's wanted at this stage is a 'great' drum track. So wha happens if the others go out of time, which they regularly do?
As Dave points out, it's essential to establish categorically what is required of you. If extra instruments are later to be sync'd with the drum machine pulse you have to stay with the click. Otherwise, when the guides are scrubbed you're left with a duf drum track. Dave: "Make sure the click's really loud, and stick with it at all costs."
This can be a problem in small studio: when there's only one headphone mix. Have as few people playing as possible so the click's not obscured. Mark reckons it doesn't require everybody to be playing in order to get a good feeling drum track, though many people seem to believe the opposite.
Another headache comes from musicians playing a 'slack' guide because they know they're going to re-do the parts later. As Richard observes: "They don't go for it. They play loose and expect you to play tight. Furthermore, he's experienced the resulting situation where you have a good drum track but because everyone else was only half hearted, when they later do their parts 'for real' they decide the drums no longer fit. So Richard has to return and re-do them: a waste of time and money. "Musicians should always play as though they mean it," he says. Amen!
One more thing this month. There's an increasingly common occurence where the drummer replaces or adds to the drum machine at the end of the recording. Accuracy here is of course vital. But as Dave points out, at least you can carefully specify your headphone mix. His advice: make sure the parts which are overtly rhythmic - bass sequenced keyboard, rhythm guitar or what ever - are prominent, and lock in with these. At least in these situations you have the luxury other musicians have always had because of the metronomic track, you can always drop-in...
See you next month.
Feature by Geoff Nicholls
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