Monday morning I had a drum recording session at my buddy Tim Horsley’s house. I can record drums at my place, but Tim has his kit and mics set up already, and he’s constantly tweaking his setting to get better and better sounds. (Timmy Boy, you’re drum sounds have gotten better and better over the years since I first recorded with you back in…2011? You’re a beast.)
Monday’s session was for a 5-song EP I’m producing for my friend Frankie Barranco. (Side-note: we’re mixing one of the songs from that EP over at Dueling Mixes this month. Now is a GREAT time to join. The song is dope.) We had three songs that needed drums.
We recorded scratch tracks a while back (acoustic guitar and vocals recorded to a click track). I scheduled some time on Friday to do some prep work. Frankie’s husband Spencer sent me some ideas and references for each song. It was super helpful. Still…with the start of every new project there can be a lot of doubt about what direction to take each song.
Enter Crippling Self-Doubt
I sat down on Friday, and my intention was to listen to the three songs, finish writing charts for each, and do some quick “pre-production.” (Pre-production is a catch-all term for making decisions about arrangement, instrumentation, vibe, feel, etc.) I scheduled one hour to do this. I really thought it wouldn’t take much more than a quick listen.
Then I started listening, and I felt a strong desire to make changes. To be clear, it wasn’t that I listened to the arrangements and thought they warranted a bunch of changes. It was more that I’m wearing the producer hat for this project, and I felt pressure to make a bunch of changes to the song arrangements in order to feel like I had “produced” them. I confused “producing” with “changing.” Sometimes being a producer absolutely means making big changes to the song and arrangement, but I put myself in a position of needing to make big sweeping changes to every song. It was overwhelming.
I have a deep desire to do good work, to create beautiful art. That necessarily comes with a certain amount of pressure to perform. A little pressure can be a fabulous motivator, when it comes from a place of desire to do good work. When that transitions over into pressure to make zero mistakes, things start to unravel pretty quickly.
I started in on the first song. I was having a hard time hearing what the drums needed to do, what the vibe of the song would be. So instead of reading Spencer’s well-thought-out paragraph about what he envisioned for the song (which included two references songs), I arrogantly decided to figure something out “from scratch.” The first thing I did was change the rhythm of the acoustic guitar part. I liked it, it was different. Okay, I didn’t like it all that much, but it was different, and remember all I was concerned with was making changes for the sake of feeling like I contributed something. I recorded a sample of the new acoustic part and texted it to Spencer and Frankie. They didn’t love it. (And I’m so glad they didn’t, because it wasn’t the right rhythm for the song…it almost took this driving, powerful song into a reggae direction…don’t ask.)
After trying (and failing) to come up with something unique, I read Spencer’s notes and listened to his references. It all started to come together. “Oh THAT’s the direction they were thinking when they wrote this. That makes sense.” Suddenly, my brain was off to the races thinking about what drum parts would accomplish that vibe the best.
That little experience “shook me loose” a little bit. It was time to go to lunch, and my hour was already up. I made the executive decision to clear my afternoon and make sure I spent plenty of time giving these songs the attention they needed. I also gave myself permission to make mistakes and try stuff, because eventually I would land on something great, something that would be perfect for the songs.
Fast-forward a few hours, and I didn’t make too many changes. I recorded a piano part on one song that accomplished the desired vibe better than the acoustic guitar we had previously recorded. I also extended the bridge on that song from 10 to 16 bars. That was it.
On the third song, all I did was finish writing the chart and listen over and over until I could hear the drums I wanted in my head. That was it. I made (gasp!) no changes at all.
I sent the charts and scratch tracks to Tim and called it a day.
Drum Tracking Day
As I drove to Tim’s house Monday morning, I experienced that familiar feeling of inadequacy that plagues so many of us. It would be Frankie, Tim, and myself at the session. They would both be looking to me to answer questions like, “What are you hearing on this song?”
I felt pressure to have the right answer. I felt pressure to make no mistakes. That tempted me to stay quiet, to defer to Tim and Frankie and hope the tracks turned out okay. I was afraid of saying, “Hey, what if you played it like THIS?” because what if he tried it and it sounded stupid?
The answer? It would sound stupid. We would agree that didn’t work, and we would move on.
It’s really that simple.
Making art is all about risking, experimenting, trying things and seeing what works. To find the part that’s right for the song sometimes means you have to try four parts that aren’t right for the song. That’s not failure. That’s just another day at the office.
Thankfully, I had this conversation with myself on the drive over. When I arrived at Tim’s, I was ready to rock this thing. I wouldn’t be timid. I would step in confidently and be a part of this session. That didn’t mean I was a bully. I deferred to Tim a lot because I trust him as a drummer, but I didn’t shy away from saying things like, “That’s not the vibe we’re looking for,” or “What if you tried THIS instead?”
One song in particular took a lot of hard work. We tried probably five different vibes until we settled on one that worked. It took work. It took honesty. It took experimentation, but none of us felt like failures in the process. We were mining for the right part for the song. It just took us a bit longer to uncover it.
And it was 100% worth the effort.
The lesson? Don’t let fear freeze you. Recognize it. Talk to it. Then choose to lean in and risk. It’s worth it. Trust me.
Want to be a part of this project?
Frankie just launched a Kickstarter campaign for this EP. You should see the video they made for the campaign. It’s incredible. The entire concept of the album is powerful. CLICK HERE to check it out, and please consider supporting Frankie by backing the campaign.
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