Now that the technology allows it, remote studio drumming is exploding. Actually, it’s not limited to studio drummers. Session playing in general is open to more musicians of all types than ever before. So, if you’ve ever daydreamed about becoming a session drummer, you should know that it IS possible. But, are you ready?
You’ll need to think this through. If you start marketing yourself as a studio drummer but don’t have the goods, you’ll be in for a rude awakening. It’s not going to work out for you unless you crush it on the job.
The worst thing you can do is play on a session before you’re ready. You don’t want to crash and burn; word travels fast and you’d be closing doors on yourself and your future studio drummer business.
So it’s really important to evaluate where you are with your skill set. Do you have what it takes? Do you have all the right training? Have you practiced the right things?
Let’s talk about the details. What are the skills that make for a world-class session Drummer?
Based on my own experience as a studio drummer and observing and studying some of the world’s best, here are the 11 skills I think you need to consider:
This is the language of music. As a drummer, you must be able to read rhythmic notation.
There are many reasons that being able to read will benefit you. However, as a session drummer, one reason stands out as the most important one: charts.
Understanding rhythmic notation will allow you to summarize the song at hand in chart form. And that means that you will be able to “learn” songs very quickly.
It’s pretty much the secret ingredient for being able to listen to a song a couple of times and then nail it on the first try when you actually sit behind your drums. The secret is your chart, and you can’t make one if you don’t know how to read rhythmic notation. This is essential. Don’t overlook it.
If you don’t have this, nothing else written here will matter. If your groove isn’t happening, it’s game over. So, next time you’re lamenting that your single stroke roll doesn’t sound like Vinnie Colaiuta’s, just remember, groove is what will make money. Focus on that.
How to get it? That is the topic of a whole other article, but you’ll need the ability to play in time with ease, and your subdivisions must be spot on and consistent. That and a lot of listening–and importantly trying to emulate what you listen to–will help.
Playing along with a lot of music is important. I remember playing along with the Zeppelin song “Houses of the Holy” and not being able to stay “back.” I got excited and always pushed the time, getting ahead of Bonham’s pocket. I worked on it until I could easily stay with him. And emulating Bonham definitely helped my pocket. A lot of your practice should be devoted to picking apart and trying to sound like the drummers you like.
I know I just told you not to worry about your single stroke roll. The truth is that–of course–technique is important. But rather than focusing on having blazing speed, the kind of technique that makes a difference here is touch. If you can develop good technique, every note you play on the drums will sound better. And if the sounds you get out of your drums aren’t stellar, your career as a studio drummer will be short-lived at best.
Focus on a loose grip, a bouncing stroke and the evaluate the sound that you are creating with different techniques. This is a massive topic, and it requires that you make a “deep dive,” but make no mistake about how important this is.
It’s pretty important that you have a depth of genres within reach if you’re going to be an online session drummer. As a studio drummer, you never know what is going to be thrown at you, so you want to be able to handle anything. So, get to work. Being versatile will pay off big time.
As discussed in #3, the basis of your sound is how you strike the drums. But additionally, you need to understand your gear. Drum brands, sizes, heads, tuning and muffling all come into play here. Your familiarity with the sounds of different types of recordings will come into play. But the most important thing is that you have good sounding equipment–both drums and cymbals–and know how to tune well. Great sound is just as important as anything else on this list. Overlook it at your own peril.
6) Musicality/Taste/Song Sense
You have to be a song drummer if you want to be successful. That takes taste and it means being ego-less in your playing. Less is more (I know, you’ve heard this a million times, but it is true). Make sure you are mature enough in your playing that you understand how to play only what is needed and how to support the structure of the song without overplaying. You also need to keep in mind that the drummer should add excitement to the time keeping. It is your job to keep the time-keeping interesting. The balance between interesting and bombastic is a fascinating one and it will come with experience. Lots of listening to the recordings of different players will help too.
This will come with time, but you DO need to be confident. Your confidence will show in your playing. A strong groove usually comes from a confident player. Tentative playing will not make it in the studio. But don’t worry, when you have the goods, you’ll know it, and confidence will follow from that.
This is important to help you get the jobs. If you are an introvert, consider how to break out of your shell. The music business in general relies on relationships. You need to be able to interact with many people and fit in. If you’re likable, you’ll work more. A positive vibe always helps. If you’re dark and complain a lot, no one will want to work with you. Make sure that your personality helps you rather than hurts you.
In musician-speak this means that you need to be a “good hang.”
As a drummer, I had a tendency to focus on only my physical playing, rather than being able to program drum tracks. Eventually, I realized that I was missing out on potential work by not learning how to program drums. It’s not that hard to learn, especially when you know how to actually play the real thing. But I implore you to learn this skill so you can get that work. Lots of drummers do both and you need to be competitive with them.
10) Audio Engineering/Production/Mixing
Oh, how I avoided learning this. Oh, what a mistake that was!
But, I finally saw the folly of my ways and dove in. I’m glad I did. The future is in this direction. If you want to be a studio drummer, it is important to have your own tracking set-up. And that means, unless you’re going to hire someone, you need to understand how to be an audio engineer yourself.
You’ll want to seriously consider learning how to mix as well. If someone wants a fully finished drum track from you and you can only provide the raw stems, you’ll be at a disadvantage.
It’s my belief that the future will favor the drummer who can play, program, audio engineer AND mix. (Can you say Aaron Sterling?)
11) Playing to a Click
I saved the best for last. It’s hard to overstate how important this is– particularly in today’s environment. There are plenty of drummers who’ve gotten fired because they can’t do this. So don’t be one of them—work on this until You can do it in your sleep.
You should be able to play to a click with only a very small amount of concentration.
The idea is that you’ll know the click is there, and you can lock in with it easily while still focusing on the other things you need to listen to.
At first this will seem like a tall order, but just practice it. Playing with a click is a skill like any other and it can be learned with practice.
You Can Do It
Yes, I do believe you can do it. I’m doing it and it’s only because I’ve worked hard and persevered. Don’t give up–just work hard and have fun. There’s nothing like playing in the studio–it can be a magical experience. The work is hard but the pay-off is worth it.