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Recently I've learned some of the most important lessons ever in my musical life.

Music Vacation

About 7 days ago what began as an impromptu conversation and wish for me maybe laying

down a drum track for friends' material turned into a plan for one of my songs being recorded.

I wasn't entirely sure until mid-week beforehand that it would actually go down, but I began the

prep early in the week anyway. Another big chunk - guitar, drums and vocals.

This is an account mainly about a successful studio prep for drums.

The studio I speak of is owned by Phyllis and Stefan Johnson; some time ago in the Dahlnotes

blog I'd written about Phyllis, a former bandmate, who in the intervening years has become an

accomplished songwriter (in addition to already having been an accomplished musician and

vocalist). I may be writing a complete entry on my time with the Johnsons in Dahlnotes.

Phyllis Johnson Music

The song we'll call Dylan's Dream - as the lyric was based on a dream my son had. It is so

new that Thorny Swale (the band I'm in) had only played it a few times. As I've been doing

rhythm guitar on all my originals in rehearsal & live, I'd not given thought to drums.

As it happened, my children were away for the week, so I was free for immediate prepping.

I did not know my own song on drums, did not know what I "really" wanted - the particular

beat nor fills nor builds.

Slowing the Tempo for Studio Prep

The tempo of Dylan's Dream is between metronome settings (I'm not digital folks) so I opted for the

slower of the settings - and soon realized this was key to all of my drum prep. It coincided so

beautifully with the bulk of my practicing this summer, as the desire to leave no stone unturned in

broadening the understanding of how to swing, had me halving my speed on a regular basis.

Halving (or going down a third of the speed) in my opinion has done wonders. Part of it is purely

practical: I dislike changing metronome speeds and I have so many children and duties that it's

calming for anything to stay at the same tempo for a prolonged period. I just...halve the speed,

do the figures in triplets, double the speed, whatever is possible using the same setting.

Prepping the song in the slower tempo was agonizing, but I hung in there and did my best. The

result was that I was nailing (in understanding, then execution) the various song parts.

How and What I Prepped

In this order I discovered (and/or "wrote" but not via notation), in roughly two practice sessions:

  • Perfect Tempo
  • Main Beat
  • Basic Outline (swells, builds and overall feel)
  • Feel of the fills and figuring out what specifically could get me there (eg double stroke snare rolls, slowed drumset rolls using kick drum)

The next two practice sessions I concentrated on:

  • Creating the Fills
  • Executing the Fills
  • Transitions from Main Beat to Fills and back out to Main
  • Musically Playing Song Sections
  • All the Above at Agonizingly Slow Tempo (via metronome mic'd through the amp)

As many others do, I played in the air - the song was in my head (or it wasn't because the slowed

tempo invariably placed a Zepplin-like riff in my head I could not get rid of). I was getting anxious

because firstly I recalled how long it can take to learn a song -- by a good drummer with their

nuances. But I was writing this song! I needed more time, but didn't have it, as by the 4th practice

session the road trip to Phyllis and her studio was a for sure thing.

The Final Preparation

The last two practice sessions:

  • Recording via the 4-Track
  • Listening to result then repeat recording
  • Even if recording solid, do again -- being able to "do it again" is important
  • Bpm up to original tempo via 4-Track
  • Continue Learning/Remembering Song/Fills

The drum prep went hand in hand with guitar, though they were separate. The bulk

of time and focus was drums. The last session was a short one, I took it easy and

spent most of the day relaxing or sleeping. By this time, and maybe because of

the focused drum practicing I've been doing all summer which seems to carry

over favorably to guitar and vox, I realized this was the most complete, focused

prep I'd probably ever done...and somehow I knew exactly how and what to prep.

I also realized I'd fallen short of this in the past (eg w/ Dan who I've been working

with). But mostly I felt grateful for the knowledge of my abilities and the ability to

create and execute a plan which worked.

The day of the session I did not play at all, and only sung for about 20 minutes, about 2 hours prior to the recording.

The Result

Maybe we got lucky - it was a reunion, after all, of 2 very-like minded musicians, it

was out in the country (blessed change) and in their good-vibed home, with their

son and the whole family atmosphere. I played Phyllis' kit and had an issue with

the kick pedal tension...but after the 2nd take and I wanted to try again, Stefan

was listening and made a comment, but it was the way he was listening, that made

me listen to him, and take it to heart. I'm not sure what decided things...I did

find out then that each part of the kit took up a separate track, and there was a

question of whether or not the space might be needed...yet then Phyllis listened

and confirmed. It was not perfect, but "you're a human being!" It should not be

THAT perfect that something's thrown out if 2 notes are a smidgen off with an

otherwise great-feeling take.

The more we listened to it, the more we liked it. Sadly, each fill I wanted was not

realized - but what I did instead did work, and all the general things were included.

But what really rammed things home for me was what Phyllis said: that out

of all the drummers they've worked with, none had done what I had...that when I

outlined to her the prep I was doing, she was so happy that a drummer would prepare

via a click. And that a drummer followed through, in the transitions to fills and out again, in

time, and especially that a drummer played the song. That a drummer would also

practice a song, because previous drummers were convinced it wasn't necessary

to learn material beforehand, and would instead listen a few times at the session.

Phyllis further said that she had had to go back and re-do drums (and she is not a

drummer) because at least she could play in the pocket (and she can - and did,

I heard some of the recordings that night). "These are excellent drummers I'm

talking about - excellent! Great live...but the studio?"

There was nothing flowery about her praise, it was matter of fact and one peer

to another. I knew I'd done right in prep, but couldn't have imagined how

grateful the engineer/fellow musicians would be, the excitement with which

they would now approach the work, and the trust they now placed in me.


Metronome me & Slow me...

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Exactly! I rather forgot my pedal (sticks & shoes I was good).

But lemonade happened I think because of it, more hand rolls, that is - and they are a lovely part of drumming.


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