I worked in a recording studio for the first time at the age of 16. Looking back, it’s clear to me that this experience, which I shared with my band, was a highly formative one – though not in a positive sense. My snare wires rustled every time I hit the bass drum. A screw loosened in one of my toms during the second song, completely spoiling the drum sound. No matter how much effort I made, it was as if I was jinxed: nothing seemed to work the way I had envisioned. I’d thought that recording in the studio would be relatively easy, but it turned out that neither I nor my equipment were sufficiently prepared for this costly adventure. I had disappointed my bandmates, annoyed the studio owner and, on top of all that, was annoyed with myself for having been so naive. I received the recording after ten days and, inevitably, I couldn’t have been more disappointed.
The right preparation
Luckily, a few years later, I was able to start afresh: I participated in studio work with several well-known producers, and had the chance to prove my worth as a drummer. The home recording field had evolved rapidly in the intervening period, which meant that suddenly, I had the opportunity to prepare for studio visits in a very different way than six years ago. I used test recordings to analyse every aspect of my playing, right down to the smallest detail, and was able to see exactly where I was going right and wrong.
Then, as now, I recommend that if you take your own equipment to the studio, you should make sure everything is working properly and nothing is clattering or squeaking. Now would be the time to put on new skins, tighten all your screws and check your cymbal stands.
If you want to work in a recording studio, you should be familiar with as many different styles of music as possible; that is, you should be able to adapt to them and offer the producer a wide range of sounds and beats. It’s a big plus if you’re capable of sight-reading (classical music study is helpful in this regard) and if you know how to write lead sheets. Drummers who are skilled in sight-reading always read a few bars ahead and, as a result, are rarely thrown off by difficult passages. In my experience, a drummer’s ability to read notes and sheets is most important in big band, jazz, fusion and serious symphonic music. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the ensemble, the higher the likelihood that you’ll have to play from the sheet.
What kind of work awaits you?
Looking back, the golden years for studio musicians were the 60s, 70s and 80s. Today, it’s virtually impossible to earn a living from studio work alone, which is why many drummers combine studio work with touring and live concerts. The benefits of this are twofold: firstly, it maintains a stable level of personal income, and secondly, it offers the drummer more opportunities for musical expression (studio work tends to offer rather less variety). At a basic level, there are four different types of recording sessions:
The aim of such projects is that the artist and/or record company holds a finished and publishable product in their hands at the end of the production process. In order to be successful in this environment, it is incredibly important to be able to listen very well. After just a short time, you should be able to intuitively interpret a given song in a form that is agreeable to both producer and artist.
Jingles and advertising music are now produced all over the world. In most cases, advertising agencies outsource “music production” to independent producers, and musicians are hired directly by the producer or composer to carry out the work. As such, it doesn’t hurt to have a well-maintained network in this area of the industry, too. Since advertising work is ruled by the mantra “time is money” (and because most jingles being recorded today should already have been finished yesterday), producers expect a very rapid pace of work with minimal errors. If you take too long, this will cost them unnecessary money, and you’ll be left in no doubt that you’ve worked with them for the last time. In general, I recommend you think hard about whether you’re cut out for the music industry in general, because the pressure here is enormous. I consider it to be one of the hardest and most challenging fields of work there is.
- Film and TV
Still today, most of the work for film and series music can be found in Los Angeles. Since I’ve never worked in that part of the world, I can only share the impressions I’ve gleaned – which are, first and foremost, that there’s plenty of money to be made. That’s why these kinds of jobs are typically in high demand among session musicians, and why the drummers who work in this field are usually among the best in the world (names worthy of special mention here include John “JR” Robinson, Jim Keltner and Vinnie Colaiuta). Essentially, if you want to work in film and TV music, there are two key points to remember. The first is that this type of work places extremely high demands on the abilities of each musician – ones that only a few drummers are able to fulfil. The second is that opportunities for drummers are passed around only among a small, selected circle of musicians. If you’re one of them, you might get lucky. Overall, I think the pressure here is even greater than in the field of ad music and jingles. Film and TV music is almost always recorded with a large orchestra, which leaves no scope for error at all.
To facilitate your entry into the world of session playing, I recommend you get involved in production sessions for demo songs. Sure, it’s not the most glamorous thing – but you can learn a lot, as well as making yourself known to producers for consideration on future projects. These types of recording sessions will also give you the chance to meet different musicians, some of whom will have already made good names for themselves. It never hurts to maintain a good relationship with colleagues and to collaborate as often as you can going forward, since this will often open the door to work with established artists and record companies.
12 rules for working in the studio
Regardless of which area you’re interested in, I’d advise you always to observe the following rules:
- Treat your fellow musicians, producers and sound engineers with respect. Try and make their lives as easy as possible.
- Suppress your ego and always be flexible – no matter what’s going on around you.
- Unless you are asked to evaluate or comment on a decision, don’t. After all, your job to is bring to life the musical visions of others.
- Play consistently and never with more or less energy than during an actual recording.
- Always be able to repeat exactly what you played in the take before – without rhythmic or dynamic variations and with the same tone.
- Only accept work that you believe you can do perfectly.
- Always make sure your equipment is in perfect working order and that nothing is squeaking or rustling.
- Bring a variety of drumsticks and skins with you to each recording session.
- Once the sound engineer has positioned the microphones, don’t alter them further.
- Turn off your phone – a simple tip, but one that’s too often forgotten. Nothing is more annoying than the perfect recording being ruined by a ring tone or message tone.
- Bring something to eat and drink. Most of the time, recording sessions take longer than planned. Take responsibility for your own sustenance – you can’t necessarily assume that someone else will do it for you.
- Concentrate on the music without being tense or nervous. Enjoy your work! It’s one of the most pleasurable types of work there is.
Obtaining studio experience
Keep in the mind that in the past, recording studios occupied their own exclusive corner of the music industry. Thanks to digitalisation, however, it’s now no longer necessary to rent out a recording studio for tens of millions of euros in order to produce music. All over the world, “bedroom producers” are publishing professional-sounding recordings with limited resources. This has its own pros and cons. Although it means that anyone who wants to get involved in the music industry has the opportunity to produce and publish music, it also means that an already very chaotic market is flooded with music that would once never have seen the light of day. Nevertheless, technological advances and the emergence of smaller studios is giving younger musicians, in particular, the chance to learn in a quieter environment and to gain the experience they need to become a skilled and valued session musician.
Even well-recognised musicians, some of whom have been working in the business for decades, are benefiting from these new developments. A lot of work has shifted from the big sound studios to their own private recording rooms, where complete project files are sent to customers worldwide via the internet. This gives them the opportunity to work with any musician around the world who is willing to pay them for their work. Particularly for musicians who are interested in studio and recording technology, this is a fantastic option.
Tips for working with producers
If you’re sure that you want to work with producers, I would advise the following:
- Take a look at Google to see which music is currently doing well in the charts.
- Find out who has produced the songs. Think about:
- Where does the producer live?
- What are the studios they prefer to work in?
- Which record companies do they have contracts with?
Try to get in touch with them – but be polite and never intrusive. Master your craft, because nothing is worse than a great opportunity wasted due to insufficient preparation. Despite what you may think, the music industry is still a “who-you-know” business where personal relationships are worth gold. Nobody will hire you because you have a cool demo or great videos on YouTube. Why? Well, because this does not say anything about how long it took you to record the song, how creative and versatile you are, or how easy you are to work with.
Networking in the music business
So, in conclusion: go out and build your network! Play live! Go to jam sessions and concerts and find out where the musicians in your region hang out. You need to meet new people and make friends to make music, which will in turn allow you to be heard by the people with the power to boost your drumming career. In addition to knowing your craft, it’s vital to be a good networker. Usually, as an unknown musician, you will be recommended by someone whom producers or established musicians trust. If you don’t work on your soft skills as much as you do your instrumental ones, you might go your whole life without your talent being picked up.
Now, I want to know about your experiences. Which studios have you worked in? Do you have any interest in being a session drummer, or would you rather be a sideman on tour? What would you add to my rules for work in the studio? I look forward to hearing from you!