Listen up, drummers! Here’s a fantastic article by the percussionist producer in our new Artist In Residence, Mason Jar Music.
Recently, Mason Jar Music was asked to produce and arrange three tracks for the Portland-based artist Josh Garrels’ newest record, Love & War & the Sea Between. One of the tracks we worked on, “White Owl,” was particularly percussion intensive. As a session drummer, I am often told what and where to play, but for this song those decisions were left up to me. Crafting a solid musical foundation for a song you’re not very familiar with can seem a daunting task, and I find the best way to approach this challenge is to think like a producer: open up your ears to all of the musical elements of the demo and the references and let them directly inform your playing.
I started by listening to the demo and based of the movement of the guitar lines and the drum beat, I constructed the basic groove for the song. I knew I needed a strong kick pattern and snare backbeat, but instead of opting for a basic hi-hat pattern, I felt this track required me to be more deliberate and thoughtful about my choice of colors. Several of the reference tracks Josh provided had an electronic feel to them, so with that in mind, I chose my sounds and played beats with specific, minimal variations. Always mindful of supporting the song, I tried to imitate the drum programming I had heard in the references while making sure that the foundation of the track had an organic, human feel.
The driving undercurrent of the verses was created by a string of ghungroo bells that I placed on a trap table and played with the palm of my right hand, while playing the snare drum with a mallet in my left hand to achieve a deeper, thicker backbeat. The pattern is very repetitive throughout the verse sections, except for a couple moments of variation to accentuate the melodic phrases (ex: 1:03) I tracked both hands together with bass drum for the verses, and overdubbed a vari-speeded hi-hat, recorded at a faster tempo as to create a deeper sound when played back at normal speed, to thicken things up with another texture. To add some tension and “snap” to the drum track, and bring more of a “programmed vibe” to the groove, we used Sound Replacer to accentuate all of the backbeats on the verses with a sample of me playing a “swish and swat” or “whoosh pop” backbeat on brushes. The resulting effect feels like the snare drum tumbles backward into each backbeat; I think it really ties the drum track together. Finally, I tracked a couple of passes of claps, accenting different parts of the beat to add syncopation and buoyancy to the groove.
I believe that the best drum tracks are the ones that capture and support the arc of the song dynamically and emotionally. To achieve this, the drummer has to have a distinct idea of where he or she is coming from and where they are headed, musically speaking. I wanted the drums to feel jagged and dry in the verses to create contrast and a sense of tension and release when the chorus arrived. I decided to open it up with a sweet sounding, riveted ride cymbal to reflect the soaring, legato vocal melody; the chorus needed to feel triumphant, so I wanted to help lift the listener up.
My hope is that by carefully analyzing every musical decision that I make in the studio, I can create a unique and cohesive musical statement that the listener doesn’t have to think about – the music should simply feel great and affect the listener emotionally without presenting intellectual distractions. To me, a great producer is one who can coax these kinds of performances out of all their musicians, doing all they can to create the perfect platform for the artist and the song. In the case of “White Owl,” I did my best to provide such a platform.
Drummers and producers, what techniques or approaches do you use to tastefully support a song or artist without calling attention to your own playing?
By Jason Burger of Mason Jar Music