Drummers, you know the feeling… The new song you’re teaching your church sounds like it was recorded in a stadium somewhere: a huge, rich, warm, driving drum sound throbs away driving the feel and groove of the song. Problem is your church building doesn’t look a lot like Wembley. How do you drive a rocking song in a small or a reverberant building, with less-than-ideal PA? Play too loud and you’ll deafen the first few rows, we’ve all been there. There is another side though… play too quietly and nobody beyond the first few rows will hear. I once (true story) had a delightful conversation with a visitor on the back row after our evening service who politely enquired if we ever used a drum kit. An awkward silence followed as I tried to think of a way to explain that we had had a drummer in the band that very night – I think the drummer played quite well too (I could see his hands moving).
Here’s a few thoughts on bringing a driving sound to a small or reverberant room.
1. Think about your sticks.
We all love playing with sticks, and understandably so. It’s not just a love of being loud (that’s an unfair stereotype). Sticks enable you to bring a whole world of intricacy and detail to your playing which is much more difficult with hot rods – ghost notes, drags, ruffs etc. BUT… I would rather have the comfort of knowing I’m using a quieter sounding hot rod, which leaves me free to play with more vigour and energy than playing tentatively with a (louder) drum stick. Also I don’t miss the complexity and the intricacy too much because…
2. Simplicity beats the reverb.
Many of us play in buildings more setup for choral music. That means stone walls and hard floors bringing long reverb tails on everything you play. The reality is that anything busy, (full of fills or ghost notes) gets totally lost leaving your playing sounding like a mess which doesn’t serve the song or the congregational singing well at all. Your down beats and back beats are KEY for driving the feel – keep them clean, keep it simple. You’ll find your worship leader/ band leader will thank you too as it will clean up arrangements no end (especially if you came to rehearsal with the groove totally locked down).
3. Ease up on those cymbals
Good drummers don’t play everything at the same volume. Often the difference between inexperienced and better players is the ability to play at different volumes with different limbs, which brings a tasteful sound by accentuating the important elements. As a general rule, ease up on your hi hats and cymbals and keep your kick and snare solid. Cymbals tend to sound particularly ‘in your face’ at close proximity in a small room. I also think you more accurately simulate the sound of a kit amplified through good PA by doing this, since snare (and especially) kick tend to punch through when amplified.
4. Tune your kit!
Contrary to popular belief tuning drums is not a excruciatingly difficult form of black magic. A few principles for small or reverberant rooms would be…
A) a dry, low and focused kick sound. Tune it as low as it will go then, if you need, put a pillow inside. This should give you a low, inoffensive thud perfect for driving the song.
B) RESIST the urge to tune your snare up high and tighten the snares to within an inch of their little wirey lives. This feels counter intuitive but hear me out. It’s natural to think that in a small or reverberant building the last thing you want is a meaty, rattly snare… BUT… Since your kit is probably not mic’d you need to consider what the drums sound like from the other side of the room (rather than up close). If you tighten everything up, once you move more than 10 ft away from the drums the effect of the snares will be totally lost. Loosen off the snares MORE than your instinct tells you then have someone else play while you listen from the back – you’ll be amazed to hear that your snare actually sounds good and not at all like a mouse being murdered with a saucepan.
c) we all love resonant toms, but there’s a balance to be struck here. Dampen them too much and they’ll sound choked, too little and things may sound a bit messy. The main thing is to tune them to an equal tension all around, reducing overtones. Moon gel or O-rings can help. A few years working in a drum shop also taught me that people generally tune drums too high. If you’re struggling try lowering half a turn all around.
5. Don’t play too quietly
When you’re playing together as a band, it ought to feel like other instruments are locking in with you, not that you’re apologising for every note while hiding behind the keyboards. Tasteful, simple and confident playing are what people need to be led well, especially for driving contemporary songs.
6. Play good stuff
Most times it isn’t purely volume or reverberant buildings which are the problem… One of the best things you can do is simply to become a better player, with whatever time and resources you have available. Playing at any volume is so much more helpful if its good! – by which I mean playing that tastefully serves the song, not playing that’s busy & showy.
Peter Turnbull- Christ Church Fulwood