Live Performance Vs. Studio Recording: A Drummer’s Perspective
This is a guest post by drummer and producer Luke O’Kelley.
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve experienced the disconnect between performing live and recording. Wether you’ve spent years performing live and sit down to record parts that you could have sworn you could play in your sleep, only to find that under the scrutiny of that red light, your best efforts seem to fall short; or… You’ve spent years in your studio tracking parts and practicing only to find yourself sweating through a live set, completely unsure how your performance is coming across to the audience under the stage lights. These are two different worlds. In this post I’m going to try and identify the mind set I use to approach recording, and the one I use to approach live performance, and differences between how I prepare for each. Full disclosure, I’m a drummer, so that’s the perspective I’ll be tackling this from. Let’s get into it…
We know performing live and recording are different, but in both situations it helps to know the songs you are going to perform. Whether you are recording a guitar part on one song, or playing a three hour set in a bar, you should know your parts as well as humanly possible. Now let’s get into how that looks different in different situations…
Traditionally, most musicians have more experience performing than recording. In the world of social media, I think this might be shifting, but is still mostly true. If the studio is brain surgery, live performance is gorilla warfare. Here are a few things that are unique to live performance:
- Making decisions on the fly – Whether it’s a microphone not working, or a string breaking, when you play live you usually just have one take, so you learn to make the most of it and not sweat the details too much.
- Approaching parts more loosely – Since things can change on the fly, you need to have a flexible knowledge of the song so that you can still nail that guitar solo if the singer forgets that chorus tag. You need to make sure you can play confidently even if things take a turn you weren’t expecting. This is especially true of longer performances, or performances that involve improvisation.
- Listening – Approaching parts loosely takes developing your ability to listen to the people around you in the moment and make playing decisions not just based on what you PLANNED to play, but on what works best in that particular performance. Is the guitarist swinging harder than usual? Maybe loosen up that straight 16th note high hat groove. A lot of times, you won’t be able to hear everything perfectly (Not every venue will have an ideal monitor situation). This means, training your ear to really listen and notice the other instruments, and maybe playing quieter if that’s what it takes to hear what’s going on.
- Approaching time more loosely – Before the last decade, it was pretty rare to perform live to a click track. Even still, lots of live playing situations don’t include a click. This means that song tempos will be looser: that chorus might speed up, that drummer might not count the song off at your tempo, that singer might want things faster than you do. Navigating time in these situations takes a balance of initiative (have an opinion about the tempo and feel) and flexibility (listen to how other people are feeling the song and don’t INSIST on getting everyone to follow you if they aren’t on the same page… Even if you’re the drummer.) You’ve got to work together in order for a song to sound good.
Even if you’re playing live to a click, no one in the audience cares if the drummer is nailing the click if the band’s group time is all over the place; make sure to keep your ears open, and be aware of how the other musicians are approaching time. You might need to turn the click off at times, or even bump up or down the tempo mid song.
- Putting on a show – A live performance isn’t just about hitting all the right notes; it’s also about entertaining an audience that can hear you AND see you. Even if you are killing your parts, if you are looking like you are miserable, slouching, or staring at the ground; you aren’t crushing the gig.
Unlike live performances, in most studio recording sessions you get more than one take, and you will be able to hear everything clearer: the good stuff and the bad stuff. Here are a few things that are unique to the studio:
- Playing to a click – While it’s important to practice to a click, the click rules the session (especially in modern music). Everything should be performed as tight to the click as possible in almost every case.
- Approaching parts in detail – Since you have multiple takes, before you start recording, it’s best to have a sense of how you are going to approach the song. Instead of just playing “a fill” into a chorus, be intentional about what kind of fill you are going to play, does that fill make sense with the genre, the part it’s at in the song, and the other parts you’re playing? You don’t have to necessarily chart out every note, but you are crafting a part that people will hopefully listen to over and over so put some thought into how you can put together a part that fits the song best.
- Playing efficiently – In the studio there’s no one watching, so you should think more about how can deliver the best performance, whether or not it looks silly. Do you need to sing you part while you lie on your back? Do you need to tuck some cloth under some guitar strings to make sure you don’t brush them by accident? Do you need to play really quietly in order to crank the preamps? Find ways to help you capture the perfect take.
- Less is more – While in a live performance it might be cool to stretch that guitar solo out and shred a little harder, in a recording environment, it’s usually better to play thought out parts. You want to get the song stuck in people’s heads, not wow them with your on the spot creativity. Once you have a song that people know and appreciate, you can stretch it out live, and extend that guitar solo if you want and wow the audience.
- Overdubbing – You don’t have to do everything in one take. Instead of trying to move all around the guitar neck or all around the drum kit to hit a complicated part, you can split it into multiple takes and layer each take together. This way, you can make sure you hit every note more precisely. With drums, overdubbing really helps with building dynamics. Instead of doing take after take trying to make the chorus even bigger, overdubbing cymbals or percussion or programmed sounds can be the secret sauce to make the drums really elevate a song without feeling like you have to beat the tar out of your drums. Recording drums and cymbals separately is also a great way to minimize bleed and control cymbal volume.
Preparing for a live performance
When I prepare for a live performance I try and practice what is going to be expected of me. If I’m playing in a church with a high quality in ear system and a click track, I can approach it more like a studio session. If I will be playing to a backing track, I like to run through the song with the backing track to make sure I lock in with any percussion that’s in the track, and am aware of any differences in the structure.
If I’m playing at a longer bar gig, or a jazz gig where I will be expected to count songs off and improvise, I practice those things.
For longer sets, I like to go through and make sure I can remember the tempo and how each song starts. I need to be able to think of the tempo quickly and count it off without a lot of down time between songs. I also need to be able to speed up or slow down if the singer/band leader wants to play it at a different tempo in the moment.
I’ve found focusing on remembering the melody and song sections is helpful too. If I just chart out the drum part without knowing how the song is supposed to sound, if someone plays something a little different, I can get thrown off. But if I know the melody and how the different sections sound, if the singer comes in too early on an instrumental or something, I can easily reset and start playing the appropriate part.
I also have started practicing playing to songs at low volumes where I can barely hear the recording and seeing if I get off tempo with the song, or forget a part. This is good for being prepared for less than ideal monitor set ups.
Also, practicing performing songs at higher and lower volumes is great in case someone asks you to play softer or harder, you will still be comfortable and won’t struggle to perform the song.
Preparing for a recording session
Most of the recording I do is remote from my studio. These days that seems to be the most common way people record. I’ll go through how I approach that situation vs. a commercial recording situation:
When someone sends me a track to record drums to, they typically have some kind of programmed groove that helps me get a general sense of what they want the drum track to be. I’ll have people send me a WAV file or mp3 of their song and drop it into my DAW. Before I get behind the kit, I listen through and use markers in my DAW to create simple notes on sections, and even specific parts I want to play.
I’ll then sit down and play through the song a few times before I hit record. While I play through it I think about:
- Parts – What parts are going to fit this song well?
- Feel – How do I lock in to the click and/or other instruments? Are the other instruments played well/edited to the click? Do I need to ignore the click in spots to lock into the other instruments? Is the client going to retrack everything to my drums or is this the final edited version?
Once I feel comfortable with the song, I’ll record it until I have a full take I like, edit anything that needs it, and send it to the client.
If I get asked to come into a commercial space, I try to have different ideas and parts worked out. Chances are good that I’ll get asked to change things up and/or try different ideas in the studio, so practicing a variety of ideas, and having the song structure down is important. Unlike my home studio where I can use markers to chart out my song, I might make a written chart to bring with me to the session.
Things to avoid when playing live
- Over thinking – don’t sweat the small stuff. If you mess something up, move on and be in the moment. Don’t let it destroy your confidence, or put a sour look on your face.
- Being in your own world – you should be interacting musically with the other musicians. Be open, flexible, and a team player.
- Being afraid to mess up – if you’re having fun, people will notice in your performance, and the way you carry yourself on stage. Cut yourself some slack and have a good time.
Things to avoid when recording
- Waiting until you play a perfect take before you listen back. It’s hard to tell if a take works in the moment. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt, and listen to each take. You may find that you nail the first 1-3 takes more often than you thought. There’s definitely a point when you start playing worse, so more isn’t always more when it comes to takes.
- Over editing – don’t snap every beat to the grid if you don’t have to. Let yourself have some human feel. The more you record the better you’ll be at finding this line.
- Under editing – it’s ok to edit. Even the best musicians in the world get edited. If it will make the song better, then make that edit.
- Trying to insert your identity into every song – This is especially true of session musicians. Some songs don’t need insanely unique parts. Sometimes you need to just support the song and hold down the groove. It’s better for someone to ask you to cut loose a little than for someone to tell you that you’re stepping all over their song.
The more I play music, the more I realize I have to learn. What are some of the differences you’ve noticed between live performance and studio recording?
How do you prepare for each to avoid those pitfalls? Asking for a friend :).