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Do You Hear What I Hear?

Article by Jayson Brinkworth // September 02 2008
Do You Hear What I Hear?

This month's article is on a subject that is overlooked all too often by drummers: the benefits of recording ourselves and listening to our own playing. When I say recording, I don’t mean it has to be in a recording studio—it is better if it isn’t. And when I say listening, I don’t mean just simply hearing; I mean paying attention to all of the detail in our playing. I know from experience how painful and harsh recording yourself can be, but I also know how beneficial it is to our own improvement. I remember listening back to myself, playing and reflecting on how my part seemed right to me at the time I was playing it, but when I listened back to the tape, it sounded nothing like what I had heard live. One important thing to remember: the tape doesn’t lie.


I know I am going to date myself (again) here, but when I started playing drums, cassettes were the popular and portable means of listening to and recording music. Nowadays we have portable devices such as iPods and MP3 players that we use. To start using recording as a practice tool, all we need is a device that can record. Back in the day, I had a cheap cassette player with a built-in microphone that I used for years. I would record myself playing exercises I was working on, grooves I was trying to emulate, or new techniques I had heard. As I said, some of this listening back was painful and humbling to say the least. I would set up the recorder away from the drums, as I didn’t want the signal to be distorted, and I would play through the chosen patterns. Evidently, I would have to move the recorder around to find a spot where it picked up the whole kit and not just bass drum or cymbals. I remember seeing Tom Brechtlein in clinic and hanging out with him afterwards. The topic of recording ourselves came up, and he had a great observation on the subject. He said that he records his performance a lot, and only uses an inexpensive recording device. His take was if his playing sounded good on this recording, it would sound great using more expensive equipment at home or in the studio. I have never forgotten this statement, and totally agree with this idea.


Once we have our material recorded, what do we do? I know some players view this as quite a vain exercise—recording ourselves to listen to ourselves, how selfish. This would be selfish if we recorded ourselves and played it for our friends, thinking we were great, but this is meant for our own personal pleasure and/or punishment. What are we listening for? Is it the sound of our drums? Is it the notes we played? Is it our tempo? Our dynamics? Actually, it is all of the above and more. Our drums aren’t going to sound amazing if we are using an inexpensive recorder, but they should sound like drums and be musical. The notes or pattern we are playing should be audible and have clarity and musicality. We should be able to hear a dynamic balance in our playing, and it should groove and feel great. These are elements we always want in our drumming whether we are being recorded or not.

My friend Billy Ward thinks of every performance as being recorded and puts himself in a very focused and disciplined state of mind. When we listen back, we have to be very honest with ourselves. If it sounds half decent, we are on the right track, but we should work towards it sounding spectacular. If it sucks, well, we need to figure out why and work on those areas. My own playing is on the border of sucking and sounding half decent when I hear it back, but playing music is a journey and not a destination, right? We can’t make excuses for our playing. It’s all in our control. When I finally decided to be brutally honest with myself about my playing, I was able to dig deeper and get inside what I needed to do to improve. I would blame my gear, my method of recording and many other elements to divert attention away from my short-comings as a player. I also became very aware of hearing the detail in my drumming, and I realized that this is where the beauty and magic is in this instrument.


One of the other elements I have found helpful is the use of video. This seems even vainer than the audio recording, but we want to improve, right? I would videotape practice sessions and even take the camera to live shows and record myself playing. When reviewing these tapes, I listened to the audio with the same ears as above, but the visual helped with this as well. I found that I was struggling with the way I had certain drums and cymbals placed, I was able to see myself hold my breath, preventing an even-flowing groove. I also noticed my seat height needed to change because I was playing into the drums rather than playing off of the drums. These are only a few observations made, but were things that I corrected instantly, and I found my drumming audio to benefit in a big way. With drumming being such a physical instrument, we always need to be aware of our physical movements. It is impossible to observe all that is needed as we are playing music; our mind needs to be in a different place then. If you have a video camera, I highly recommend trying this, and, again, honesty is very important while reviewing.


When I was nineteen, I had my first experience in a recording studio, and this became the catalyst behind recording myself. Not only was I hearing myself play, but I was able to hear how the drums were feeling within the music. Needless to say, it was quite eye-opening and humbling at the same time (even though the song we tracked became a single on radio). After my time spent in the studio, I knew I had to keep recording my playing and focus on the important elements of drumming: consistency, dynamic control, emotional control, breathing, “less is more,” and “simplicity equals clarity.” Fortunately for myself, I was able to work with older more-experienced players who taught me a lot. Also, I wasn’t afraid to ask questions and really pay attention to the answers and how they worked in this situation. Even though I have had many opportunities to record for a lot of artists, I still focus on all of the basics listed above. Despite the fact that today’s recording process has changed, with pro-tools and other recording software, I still want to go for a perfect take every time, no excuses. If you don’t have the chance to record in a studio, here is an idea that will help your playing as well. Find out if there is a recording studio close to where you live and let them know that you are a musician wanting to learn more about the recording process. Ask if they have any upcoming sessions that you could maybe sit in on and observe. In some cases, they may not be open to the idea, but most times, they are quite receptive. I have learned that if I want to know something, all I have to do is ask.

By observing a band tracking in a professional studio environment, you can see how the elements all work together. You can also watch the drummer and learn how he or she approaches the session. This is very valuable if the musicians are seasoned players that have worked in the studio a lot and are comfortable in the setting. I have invited students out to sessions (with the artists permission, of course), to see how the process works. It has been valuable to them, as they are able to follow up with questions and have a listen to the final mixed and mastered product.


Does it ever come to a point where I don’t have to record myself to keep improving? The answer is “no” because the tape doesn’t lie. I have recorded my practice sessions and listened back for countless hours, even though I have recorded albums with artists and live shows to radio and television. Learning and improving never stops. On my current gig with Aaron Pritchett, we record and review every live show that we can. All of us carry our memory sticks or flash drives and get copies after the show. It has been a huge help for tightening up parts on the live show and keeping consistency. We also just did a day rehearsal in a studio. We went in and setup our gear, as it was a live show, and played through all of our tunes. We then sat down and reviewed the material collectively to observe any issues that needed attention. This is tough for some players as their ego might get in the way of having, say, a guitar player suggesting ideas to a drummer. Ouch! Luckily in this situation, everyone has equal respect and trust in the other’s musical abilities, and we can communicate easily. It was a super productive day, as each of us benefited from the session.


If you haven’t been recording yourself, don’t wait any longer. This is a necessary element that you will need for continued improvement. Get your hands on a cheap tape recorder, buy a handful of cassettes from your local dollar store and get down to business. Here’s one last tip for you. If you play another instrument such as guitar or bass, try this. Record yourself playing a straight eighth note rock groove for a minute or two. Play this groove back and play the other instrument along, how does it feel? This will give you an idea of what the other musicians are experiencing as you play together. Have fun and stay groovy.



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About the Author
Jayson  Brinkworth

Jayson Brinkworth is an accomplished drummer, percussionist, vocalist, educator and writer based out of Canada. He is co-owner of the Saskatchewan music school Music In The House, as well as the founder of both the Regina Drum Festival and The Stickman Drum Experience.

Jayson proudly endorses Yamaha drums, Sabian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Evans heads, Impact cases, Kickport, Flix, Future Sonics and Mountain Rhythm. Visit Jayson online at www.jaysonbrinkworth.com.

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