Drums are resonators that send out sound waves into the surrounding air. The way drums acoustically react to the space they are in highlights how crucial the recording space is. Any drummer adjusting to performing in various acoustic environments already knows this.
Whether a studio chooses reflective surfaces, sound-absorbing surfaces, or a combination of both, the choice will influence how the drums ultimately sound on the finished product. Also, room size has a huge bearing on the sound.
Allied with this, the session drummer needs to have an aesthetic environment around him/ her that puts them at ease, enabling their best creativity to emerge.
When we examine the great session drummers, we can observe that often; they have developed a recognisable signature sound. Whilst the studio environment has some role to play, also think about their particular touch on the instrument, choice of tuning, drum shell construction, head choice, stick choice etc.
In Stick Figures, Darryn Farrugia mentions how he once recorded in a house that was too cold, which had the potential to adversely affect his performance.
“The Venice Beach album was recorded in a home studio — the ‘drum room’ was bare and cold. I never felt comfortable, shivering the whole time I was playing … anyway, sonically, I’m happy with it; it’s got a big, pleasant sound to the ear.”
In another chapter of Stick Figures, John “Watto” Watson expressed some disdain about some studios he would prefer not to work in again because they reduced his monster drum sound to a boxy, lifeless product; something I can sympathise with –
“I did a few sessions where they wanted some Whitney Houston-type feels; all sequenced up because their whole life has been that sequenced type of music and sounds. They had no idea about organic sounds or playing. The whole thing just ended up in tears. Another factor against it was that the engineer was pulling such a flat sound. Even though initially it was good, it got worse the longer we went on. There’s nothing that kills the vibe more than coming in from doing your best on a take to hear a sound like bits of paper rustling! “
Here is a more positive recommendation –
“I always found John French to be really organic. He comes from the era when drums had an impact and he likes to get the drums sounding good. I mean, drums still do have an impact, but there are too many anal-retentive no, talent bums in control of playbacks these days. It annoys the hell out of me to hear my performances being ‘nobbled’.”
Also, in Stick Figures, Andrew Gander had a positive experience, singling out Ross Ahearn at Sony Music Studios, Sydney –
“… Sony Music Studios, Sydney, is great — and I like the ‘non-corporate’ feel of the place. A plain room combined with really good equipment. The engineer needs to be level-headed and talk to you with an unassuming attitude. Ross knows the right thing to suggest without trying to tell you what music to play.”
“I did a thing for Graham Jesse once — ‘Especially For You’ — where I did the tracks at Sony Studios with just some sequenced bass and keyboard guide parts. The playbacks were very dry, and I was thinking — even though I played pretty well — ‘I don’t know if they’ll even use these’. When I heard the finished record, it sounded totally different! Really amazing! The mix and production were good, it had horn arrangements and keyboard parts, good bass playing. I couldn’t believe it. I heard it won an award for the best drum sound that year.”
In conclusion, I would consider the studio environment one of many important factors conducive to good results. Putting aside ‘cost’ for a moment, “Studio environment” includes multiple aesthetic, technical, and human factors.
For example, aesthetic considerations would include the perceived comfort level, colours, textures, lighting, even down to providing a clean kitchen and so on.
Technical might include ease of loading equipment, recording equipment (including digital operating system), interfaces between each piece, choice of microphones, outboard gear, extra-musical equipment provided onsite, and so on.
Human factors could include input from any or all of:- a studio manager, a contractor facilitating the musicians to be employed for a session, an engineer, a producer, composer. Overriding everything is the “time is money” ethic. In most freelance sessions, there is either real or perceived pressure from the hirer to finish the task in as short an amount of time as possible due to the high cost of hiring the studio and personnel.
I hope you have gained some insight from this article. If you want to know more behind-the-scenes info from Australian session drummers, including transcriptions of their ’hits’, Stick Figures can be purchased here
Good luck with your next recording project!