Geoff Nicholls calms down the fight between the drum machine and the real drummer.
Geoff Nicholls of 'Rockschool' and drumming fame continues to referee the fight between the drum machine and the real, breathing drummer. In the left corner (below) the machine that started it all, and in the right corner (over there) Big Country's Mark Brzezicki. Seconds out...
Last month Mark Brzezicki, Richard Bailey, and Dave Mattacks gave us some insight into how they approach playing with drum-machine tracks. This time we'll go further with drummers and drum machines - examining how the drummer drops in over part of the machine track, and preparing for recording with machine tracks by isolating and working on problem areas.
The fact that a machine guide is metronomic means it's more feasible to drop in when playing your acoustic kit. Big Country's Mark Brzezicki reckons this allows him the freedom (say on a 12in version) to go for more way-out fills. If he goes out of time, it doesn't matter, as he can drop in for another shot.
Recording parts of the acoustic kit separately, or mixing acoustic and drum machine parts, offers infinite possibilities. With the acoustic or machine snare on beats two and four, you can overdub a tom tom pattern, or maybe a fill between the snare beats. If you plan carefully, you can miss out certain snare beats and then overdub tom tom fills to sound as though the whole kit was played in one take. You become a sort of 'human computer', says Mark, requiring new co-ordinations and exact timing to make it feel right.
Replacing machine hi-hats with real ones is another common pastime. Be warned though: once, while intently replacing several tracks of Linn hi-hat, I was thrashing two and four on my thigh to nail the beat. Afterwards I could barely stand up and my thigh was black for a week! Do what Mark does: gaffer some foam and a towel round your leg, and then lay into the groove.
But lay into the groove you must.
Richard Bailey told me that if you're in the studio to replace the machine with real drums you're there to supply the dynamics and feel the machine doesn't have. But you must do it without shifting the pulse about at all. All three drummers claimed they've always had a strong belief in their own sense of time. But to develop the ability to lay that time down, they've played in every conceivable situation. Lesson number one: play anything and everything, and make every experience positive. Even when your rock group's inexplicably booked into a Chinese restaurant in Croydon. (Yes, it was, and we played the whole set at half tempo with no vocals.)
The ability to perform alongside machines can be improved by spotting the dodgy areas. Leaving aside dropping-in (as above), there are two areas where timing is critical when laying down a complete track: (a) at section changes, where there's often a fill or change of beat, or both (including stops, starts, beginnings and endings); and (b) within the rhythm itself - are you locked in with the machine, "in the pocket" as American musicians would say?
Problems in (a) take us back to the subject of April's column: control. Do a fill, and the increased dynamic and stick bounce do their damnedest to speed you up. Playing live you may speed that fill by a hair's breadth and go into the chorus a gnat's proboscis up in tempo; probably very exciting. Do this across a drum machine and you find yourself having to slow down the first bar of the chorus, thereby killing the song stone-dead. So spend a while playing rhythm interspersed with your fills against a drum box (preferably with headphones). Various triplets and syncopations, even straight rolls, may need conscious adjustment in order to come back in on 'one' with complete conviction. If Simon Philips can do it, so can the rest of us!
The other hard bit I find is starting. The red light's on, and the machine's tapping away, and you're supposed to count "one, two, three, four" and roar in as though you'd been playing that rhythm all your life. Again, it makes sense to practise precisely that - set the metronome going, count in (include a fill?), and concentrate on getting the first bar spot on "in the pocket". All with different rhythms and all at different tempos.
Likewise with area (b). The chief thing is to listen with ruthless honesty. Dave Mattacks points out that no amount of practise will help if you can't hear when you're in sync or not. To develop that ear, set up at home so that you can tap along with a drum box, wearing headphones, and record different grooves on a portable cassette. Start with the simplest rhythm: four on the floor and two and four on the snare. As Dave says, it can be the hardest thing to get this absolutely solid, without the slightest hint of a flam.
Feature by Geoff Nicholls
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