Over the last 25 years or more I have had the great pleasure and good luck to be able to record percussion in recording studios all around the world. My first recording studio experience playing percussion instruments was with my friend and first drum teacher George Terzis. George invited me to a small recording session to play some Brazilian and Afro Cuban rhythms on top of some funk music in Boston in 1979. There were two rooms and I was impressed by all the gear and the organization of all the recording equiptment as well. It was like a top secret spy room from an 007 movie!
We entered a small booth together and put on the headphones. He told me to just follow along with the click track and stay with the beat. To really tune into the click track (which is like a metronome that clicks the 4 pulse or every beat). At first it was a little challenging to stay with the click track. But it is the beat that everyone has to follow in the studio so that we can all stay in time with each other and the music.
So why not record with out the click track if it is a mechanised unnatural beat? Because the click allows everyone that is not playing live to follow each other in a 100% effective way. Each musician that comes in to later on his or her part after us also has to follow the click track as well. It is our guiding light. Eventually i relaxed into. He told me to remember to breath and also pay attention to the part I was playing and he was playing as well as the music. It was a lot to remember but somehow it all came together. Breathe, relax, listen and play! Wow.
After I finally relaxed into it it was so much fun, and so easy. I just had to hold my part. Recording in the studio was an eye opening and ecstatic experience for me. When we listened back I could hear every sound in a three dimensional way. It’s like I had only heard it one dimensionaly, one way before, but now I could here the drumming and music all around me like I had jumped into a swimming pool of music. And it all sounded so good, so clean and so clear. I knew this was for me and this was my calling. I sought out any session I could find which is what I always tell aspiring musicians. Until you are fully experienced play at any recording opportunity you can even if it is free.
George told me he loved the recording studio because it was, “minimum input, maximum output” meaning you did not have to play as hard as you could and yet everything you played was there full on.
When I arrived in California in 1980, I was wroking as the percussion salesman at Haight Ashburry Music Center where I met producer song writer Ray Gardner who had written the tune, “Dance Sister Dance” for Santana. He was also a karate instructor and good friends with percussionist and bongo legend Armando Perraza, too.
Ray came into the shop frequently and talked me into playing some rhythms (for free) for him in the studio. This was 1980 before the current world music scene had really kicked off. Ray was combining African rhythms with funk music. Ray had a ton of experience in the studio and I had very little. I was young and dumb and filled with drum! Ray instructed another Bay Area percussionist Rafael and I to play very simply. One of Ray’s sage like lessons in the recording studio was that the simpler the track you lay down when you are laying “basics” the better it is going to sound overall , and the stronger your resulting musical piece or drum arrangement will be. It was about laying the foundation for the house. Ray wanted super simple rhythms. To this day I follow his advice and in my experience it always pays off. The less you play the better the tracks sound be it basics and even solos!
Now this goes counter to a creative persons first intuitive expression. When you get into the recording studio and hear how you can hear yourself clearly for the first time, every detail, you really want to play complicated riffs. It is our natural tendency to fill every space that is empty. But layering simple tracks is the way to go. So the lesson is play less achieve more! Don’t worry about leaving your mark or being super cool. Super clean with space is way better!!
If there is one thing I have learned it is that just because someone is a great musician or performer deos not mean they can play well or to the click track in the studio. I have seen it time and time again someone come in to the studio and they can not stay in time with the click. It is because they have never had to play to one before. The click stays in perfect time and humans do not. It really is a completely different beast. So no matter how good you are (or think you are) you need to practice to a click track before you go into the recording studio! So to recap, if you are going to go into the studio or record music of any kind I highly recommend you practice with a metronome or drum machine before hand.
Now having said all that, playing or practicing with a click does not necessarily help you playing with other people. As a matter of fact, since humans naturally do not keep time like a machine, too much practice with a metronome can leave you frustrated when you play with your friends or other people whose time shifts constantly. So you still need to practice and play with humans to balance out your feel. So therefore practice with and without the metronome.
Because the opposite of not being able to play to a click, is being too used to playing to a click. Some studio musicians actually lack creativity and also can only play to a strong click because that is all they do! Then when other peoples time is off (even slightly,) it can be hard to play with them or aggravating at best. So again it is about balance. You still have to practice both ways. But if you want to go into the studio or you need to go then you must first practice to a metronome or click track and get used to it. Or, it is quite possible that it could be an embarrisng time for you.
I have had to cancel sessions with great musicians and even close friends when they could not play in time to the click and it was not easy for me or them! If your friends are coming to the studio tell them to practice to that click first! When you are in the studio or practicing it is important to have the right headphone balance in your headphones. Don’t be shy or afraid to ask for more or less volume from the engineer.
You do not want it to be painful but you want that click to be very present and you want to tune into the click and let your part fall right on top of it. Become one with the click! The studio is an incredibly fun, intense and amazing creative space but you need to be ready for it. There is always a lack of fresh air because it has to be sealed off for sound. No sound leaking out means air conditioning and no fresh air coming in. Make sure you slip out when ever necessary and get some fresh air. Do some stretching whenever you can. People are not aware of have stressed they are getting in the studio sometimes. Bring healthy snacks, too.
Hours can slip by and before you know it you have not eaten for 5 hours or more and your blood sugar can get low. Studios are not known for their fine cuisine so pack accordingly. I always bring snacks, liquids, a change of clothes and a camera of course! And remember to turn off your phone when you are recording. A ringing phone can ruin a track!
The more experience you have in the studio the better! It does not happen over night and there is a never ending amount of things that can always be learned in the studio no mater how long you have been involved in the recording world. Every recording engineer and or producer has a bag of his or her own tricks and you can learn them and bring them to your next session as well. Watch how the techie places the microphone and what type(s) of microphones they use. I am a microphone junkie! I love collecting mic’s and jones for high end mic’s as well. I was surprised how good a simple Sure SM 57 sounded on my congas the other day. You never know what is going to work or not so stay open minded, take mental notes and remember “playing is about having fun”!