What to look for in an online session drummer

Find the perfect remote session drummer for your track

So you’ve got a track that needs some live drums? You’d love to get Steve Gadd on it, or maybe Vinnie Colaiuta would be perfect, or maybe Josh Freese is your man. Maybe you’d really love Ralph Salmins, Ash Soan, Karl Brazil, Neil Wilkinson, John Robinson, Ian Thomas….the list goes on. Maybe you’d love to go to Abbey Road, British Groove, Metropolis, Westlake, etc.

But of course, these scenarios come with a huge price tag that many artists can’t afford. Luckily affordable recording technology means that many drummers are becoming online session drummers to offer recording services from their home studios. These might be in their bedroom, in their garage, or, like mine, in a dedicated building which is acoustically treated and built for recording drums.

But with so many people now offering such services it can be hard to find the right online session drummer for your project. Here are some tips and things to look out for.

Toto and session drummer, Jeff Porcaro

Timing

Obvious huh? Probably the most important aspect is great timing. As a huge majority of tracks are recorded to a click, and with remote sessions pretty much all projects are becuase musicians aren’t in the same room to play together, then the drummer needs great natural timing, as well as being very comfortable playing with the click.

Today I hear some guys talk in lazy ways where they think that Protools can solve all their sloppy playing but this just creates extra work for you and becomes a hassle. As well as that, if you have to quantise the hell out of it, you might just lose that human feel that attracted you to a live drummer over a machine in the first place.

Feel

Beyond just playing in time, check the drummers feel. Every human is different and every drummer has a different feel that might suit (or not) your track. Of course, when working with different artists every day, I get asked for many different feels. Maybe someone wants a track to sound lazy and behind the beat, someone else wants it slightly ahead, etc. So hopefully your drummer can find the appropriate feel for each track, or follow your instruction where given.

Communication

This is an important aspect of remote sessions, especially when working across different time zones as communication can waste days. Make sure your initial responses are being answered promptly and satisfactorily. You might need a track by a certain date and you want to know that your drummer will deliver by that date.

Beyond just replying quickly it is important to find communication easy when it does occur. Often different people will have different ways of explaining drum parts, whether it’s describing a fill as, “shlack-a-tack-tack,” or by saying, “It’s a drag leading into two semiquavers, a quaver and a crotchet,” or maybe even as ambiguous as saying, ” I need the fill to sound a little bit industrial,” or, “A little bit blue.” Basically, whatever the idea, colour, flavour or rhythm that the client has in their head, the drummer needs to decode that description and play something that matches the idea, or maybe even bring something better to the table where appropriate.

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]Steve Gadd played so consistently and with the right level of relative power between all the voices of the drum set that he delivered the finished product straight off. He basically mixed himself which saved the producer lots of time.[/pullquote]

Speed at working

This may or may not be of concern but if you do need the track by a certain time, it’s important to know if that’s realistically achievable or not. Some people are great at sticking to a schedule, and some are not. Sometimes I get asked if I can do a track TODAY and I have to be honest about whether I can rearrange priorities of recording projects to make that happen. Other times people need it in a week, two weeks, or more so it’s easy to juggle. But either way you want to know when it will be ready.

Creativity and playing for the song

Again, listening to the samples will help here. Playing live is very different to playing in the studio. Live allows a little more room for letting loose. In the studio 99% of the time the simple option works best for the track. If your drummer has sound examples with him shredding all over a song, then he might not be the right guy for your three minute pop ballad.

But creativity is harder to gauge. Sometimes an artist has programmed or notated a drum part and wants me to play it verbatim. That’s great. But often people need me, as the drummer, to come up with a drum part. That is also great. This is where you will want someone with a little creativity to bring ideas to the track that you wouldn’t have thought of.

Knowledge of styles

Any session drummer should have a great depth in knowledge about an array of popular music styles, associated drum grooves, the types of sounds and playing conventions in those styles, and the main players in those styles. This should be the case purely because someone who is really interested in music should have built up that library of knowledge in their mind just because that’s their passion. But more than that, most drummers that work as a drummer would have made the effort to be au fait with those styles and playing techniques because they are called upon to play them regularly.

In any given week I am asked to play in several different styles and that means knowing how to play the right grooves and fills, making the right stylistic decisions, and also knowing how to achieve the right sounds via drum/cymbal choices and tuning.

Sound consistency

This is a crucial aspect of being a recording drummer. Although a human isn’t as consistent as a machine, and that’s part of the charm, there still needs to be a high level of consistency. Every snare back beat should hit the same part of the snare head at the same velocity. Of course, there will be ghost notes and changes in dynamics, but the standard backbeats need to sound the same. If they are not, you will spend a long time editing your drum track later to achieve the desired quality of sound that you expect.

I once read an engineer or producer talking about the great Steve Gadd and saying how he basically mixed himself so there was no work needed on him. He played so consistently and with the right level of relative power between all the voices of the drum set that he delivered the finished product straight off.

Drum tuning/Sounds

This was touched upon with the stylistic knowledge but it really is an area that inexperienced drummers overlook. You might have the best drummer in the world recording for you but if he can’t tune drums then the resulting drum part will sound bad. If you then need to start heavy sample replacement it will take you time and brings you back to wondering why you hired a human drummer in the first place. If they can tune to get the right sounds, and also know how to play the drums in such a way that it brings the fullest tone out of the drum, then you will be sent a pleasing drum track.

Remote Session Drummer at Prism Studio

Attitude and taking direction

Being an online session drummer is obviously not a role to take on if you carry a big ego. Here the drummer should be well aware that his job is to enhance other people’s music. At the stage of the drums being recorded, often the track is nowhere close to the finished result. The drummer is likely not to know what the vision is for the finished track so he needs to follow the instructions carefully. Hopefully the drummer you choose will be good at taking instructions and won’t be too sensitive when you have to tell them that they didn’t nail it first time. That way they can work with you to quickly find the right drum part rather than having a tantrum and throwing their drum sticks at the wall.

Of course a lot of these things are not always easy to gauge when you haven’t worked with someone before, but by listening to their samples, having a phone conversation or exchange of emails, and asking the right questions, hopefully you can satisfy yourself that you have the right drummer.

Another great aspect that many online session drummers, including myself, offer is the chance to have a track demo recorded for free when you first work with them. This allows you to hear their playing on your song without any risk of losing money as you can hear the results before parting with your money. If you like it then you can pay for it. If you don’t then you can politely decline.

Get in touch to discuss your project if you need live drums.

What are your experiences of working with drummers and what do you think are the most important aspects? Add to the discussion below.