Learning backwards

All musicians go through different phases of artistic development; you start by going through a phase where you believe that technique is the most important aspect to shape a good musician. As time goes by, you get musically mature and you finally start to understand what music really is about. I’ve always been interested in music in general, and not only on the drums!  For that reason, I’ve always watched instructional videos of all instruments to get inspired and to learn general ideas. One of the videos that I watched was by the legendary bassist Victor Wooten. In the video, he presented a musical philosophy that was very different than I’ve heard from other musicians, but it was exactly the same philosophy that I believed in myself. I will describe a few points of that philosophy and hopefully it will help you to see things differently going forward.

Forget all the techniques, terminologies and other tools you might know for a moment. Now ask yourself: What is music? Essentially, music is nothing more than a language, just like any other language. And, what is the purpose of a language? Basically, a language is a way to communicate ideas to other individuals; it’s a way to make other people understand things that are inside your head. Once you understand this concept, you realize that the language is nothing more than a tool, but the most important thing is to actually have something to say. You can learn all languages you want, but if you don’t have anything to say, they are all useless to you. With music, it works in a similar way, but you must first have something to say. 

Now, knowing that music is a language, think for a second about the first language you’ve ever learned in your life. When you were about two or three years old, you were already speaking that language, you knew how to improvise, nobody had to say the words so you could repeat them, you already had a small vocabulary and you could use it on your own. You didn’t know how to read or write before you learn how to speak, therefore you learned how to speak a whole language before you were taught how to read or write that language.

This concept is important because, in music, we go through this process backwards. In most music schools, you first learn how to write and read music, then you learn the rules of music theory, then finally you learn how to play an instrument and start to make music. It’s the equivalent of learning grammar before learning how to speak. This happens to many musicians once they start their journey and, unfortunately, it also became a standard in many music schools around the world. This fact also created a culture where the musicians themselves believe that your work is more valid if you know exactly what you’re doing. In the same sense, you’d expect a surgeon to know what he’s doing before operating on somebody’s brain. That’s very harming because music is an art form and if you start to rationalize art it becomes science. Once this happens, things like emotions and other abstract concepts have less value.

Think about this: You’ve been reading this text so far with no difficulties; you didn’t need to stop and think about the language and grammar rules that make the letters connect and turn into something that you can actually understand. You also know that you are reading a text in English, but you don’t know that because you analyzed it, you simply know it because you can understand it; therefore it’s a familiar language, in this case English. You are probably not even thinking about the instrument that I’m using to pass these ideas on, I could be speaking to you about this concepts and it would make no difference, because the message is all that matters.
Now think about the learning process that you went through when you first started to speak. I bet you didn’t lock yourself in a room and practice for years until you got to the point that you are today. You learned because you were surrounded by people speaking that language and you wanted to communicate. Think about the adult people as “idiom professionals”, whom were speaking the language for decades before you were even born, When you were just starting to learn,  others were already good at for year and years. Time passed by and now you are one of the “idiom professionals”, you don’t even think to speak, and it’s all natural to you now.

There is a natural way to learn the musical language too, but it’s not through books, music theory and so forth. The natural way of learning that language is by speaking it daily, playing with the professionals, and learning from people that were speaking that language for years before you even began to learn it. Another important point is that nobody told you that you were a beginner when you were a baby learning how to speak and nobody told you that the noises you made by trying to speak were wrong. Instead, they actually thought it was cute and tried to repeat the same noises. 

When you start your music journey people tell you that you are a beginner, they put you in beginner classes and you don’t have access to the professional until much later. The whole process is the reverse of what a natural learning process would be. This is a very simple concept but it has a lot of depth and can be applied to anyone. Think about that from now on, especially when you prepare your next practice session or when you learn a new song. As time passes by, you will notice yourself playing more naturally and people connect to that instinctively. Face everything you do as a learning process. When learning new information, learn everything you can, in every situation you might encounter.

Studio secrets

People always ask me how to get that fat drum sound, with lots of punch. Ultimately, this means finding that desired “in your face” sound. This time I will share a few secrets that might help you find your own way to tracking songs that you will feel proud of later on. I will not write a lot about the strictly technical side of things, but I will try to explain a few general concepts that can help you to find your own sound. Before you venture into the music production universe you need to be aware that it’s an extremely vast place, just as vast and challenging as the drumming universe. There are a number of ways to get to the same result, so it’s important to know that the ideas I’m about to share work for me 99% of the time. These tips might not work for every single situation, so always use your creativity to find solutions for your studio challenges. Another important thing to mention is that these ideas are most helpful if you’re tracking your own work. If you are working on a project with a producer, just listen to the producer and he or she will probably bring some of these ideas up anyway.

Before starting any recording session, it’s extremely important that you record samples of each separate piece of your drum set, so if you have any problems they’re available for you to use during the mix. Almost all modern productions are recorded in this manner; they are all compilations of several takes, with elements layered in dozens of audio layers. You should use technology to spend less time in studio and get better results. Imagine that you just finished recording a part that was extremely hard to play and it took you several takes to be able to make that groove breathe the way you wanted. When you play it back and realize that one of your rimshots didn’t quite hit the spot, if you had recorded samples of rimshot prior to start tracking, then you can simply copy and paste that rimshot sample to solve the problem in seconds. Remember that recording is all about transmitting a message to the listener, so it’s very important that the message is as clear as possible. If you need to record a part twenty times to get it just right and to bring out the atmosphere that you were aiming for… then so be it.

If you play Rock, Metal, Pop or any other style where the drums are mixed in front of the song, nearly as prominent as the vocals, then you will need to mic each piece of your set. It will give you more control over separate elements during the mix, making things much easier and more interesting. However, if the mic placement is not properly done, you will end up creating more problems than solutions, so beware! Talking about tone, in general terms, if you point the mic towards the edge of the drumhead, you will get a softer attack and more overtones. If you point the mic towards the center of the drumhead, you will get more attack and fewer overtones. On specific cymbals, like the hi-hats for example, the closer to the edge the more metallic sound you will get in the mic. I usually point the mic between the edge and the bell of the cymbal and raise it about 3 inches from the cymbal surface, this way I get a less metallic sound and the tone is a bit brighter. To capture the room sound, I usually position a condenser microphone about 5 feet in front of the drums and raise about 2 feet from the floor. This allows me to capture a fat low frequency that comes from the kicks and I can use that to fatten the drum sound later on during the mix. I use the overheads as spot mics for the cymbals, I try to isolate them as much as possible and avoid picking the room sound through those mics. It’s also important to make sure that no mic is capturing exactly the same elements of the sound. The only exception for that rule are the snare mics, because I usually put a mic on the top and the bottom of the snare, so they will inevitably pick a lot of the same elements of the sound and I will have a few phase problems. To help solve that, I simply invert the phase of the bottom mic in the DAW during the mix and that helps to fatten the sound of those mics a bit.

It’s unbelievable the difference that it makes to use new drumheads in a recording session. Because they’re new, the drumheads vibrate the way they were designed to, and that helps the mics to pick much more detail of the sound. Keep in mind that your ears only perceive certain frequencies, and they’re different from what the mics capture. Some mics capture frequencies that the human ears can’t hear, but you can definitely feel them. A good example of that are the frequencies of the kick drums, especially in pop music. You can definitely feel where the kicks are hitting, but you can’t hear them as clear as you can hear the snare, for example. This is because the fundamental frequencies of the kicks, which lie around 50hz – 80hz. Those frequencies are close to the lowest frequencies that the human ear can perceive, so you actually feel those frequencies more than you actually hear them. Fresh drumheads vibrate more freely and allowing  such frequencies have more energy and the mics pick them up with much more detail.

When I finish a new work and I listen to the results a few weeks later, I invariably find things that I would of done differently if I had a chance to re-do them. This is essential for the development of your abilities. It’s also a sign that your creativity has doesn’t cease to work and that you are always looking to improve the quality of what you do. With every aspect of your work, you need to learn the right dosage of self-criticism. You have to learn when it’s time to leave the project exactly as it is and deliver the results so that the other processes can begin. It might take you a few years to learn how to understand what a song needs and when it’s time to “abandon” the project as it is, because it doesn’t need any more elements added or removed from it.

These are just a few ideas to help you get in and out of the studio with a final result that is as close as possible to what you had imagined. Even though the universe of music production is much more technical in nature than the musical creation processes, it’s still very abstract, and that makes it much more interesting. Just like in music creation, there’s not only one way to do things, and certainly there is no “right” or “wrong” way. Instead, you just need to trust your instincts and your ears to achieve the results that you desire.