Friday, May 20, 2011

Playing quieter

Miles is going to have to ask 
you to CTFO.

In the past I was regarded as a loud player— I forgot how much, until recently a club owner asked if we would please keep the volume of the drums low, and the band leader, who knew me in college, burst out laughing. I thought, Oh, right, I'm the guy who used to practice my sambas at fff for 90 minutes straight. I forgot.

For many of the intervening years it was a struggle to come down to the requested level on some things— I didn't have great control, and I would usually get louder as the music started feeling better.

No more. I am now an expert on playing softly, since I was able to play a date sitting two feet away from a violinist and a bassoonist, play everything I wanted (this was an actual blowing gig), and end the night not only with them on speaking terms with me, but actually happy. QED.

So, here are a few things that helped me when I was getting this part of my playing together once and for all:

Lower your stick heights
Do your pad practice keeping the sticks in the 1-6" range, with a significant amount of time dedicated to practicing in the 1"-3" range.  Using a mirror helps. Learning to play without lifting the stick before every note will help keep your volume from creeping up. Spend some time cleaning up your full strokes, down strokes, taps, and up strokes, so every note you play ends with your stick in place for the next note. You can't be thinking this way at the drum set, but if you work on it on the pad it will get things moving in the right direction.

If you're accustomed to playing a lot of ghost notes, busy ride patterns and other filler, lose most of that. At low volumes your dynamics become compressed, so your ghost notes will not be much softer than your primaries; the effect is similar to playing mf+ ghost notes along with a f funk groove; it's nobody's idea of funky.  

You don't have to switch to brushes
Or multi-rods, or whatever, unless there's a musical reason for it- unless that's the sound you want. I still start gigs on the brushes, and psych myself up for a big jump in dynamics when I switch to sticks, only to find that, oh hey, I can play them exactly the same volume as the brushes. You don't have to do rim clicks instead of regular snare hits, for the same reason.   

Use your wrists
Eliminate forearm movement, and hold the stick so that it doesn't wobble around in your hand. That means holding on with your back fingers— I play with the stick against my hand most of the time. This eliminates much of the "noise" in your stroke, improving your control and helping you work less and relax overall. Even though your grip is more controlled, you have to keep it relaxed, light grip, and a smooth action in your stroke from the attack, to the note, to the follow-through. Again, you do this on the practice pad and hopefully it will be available in your actual playing on the drums.

It's still got to be solid 
Play the notes, even if you're only playing an inch off the drum.

Get comfortable with heel-down technique
on both the bass drum and hi-hat. It's not that you can't play them softly heel up, but keeping your feet on the floor helps your balance, which gets magnified as an issue when playing softly. Playing heel up may also generate more background noise from the pedals and the floor, loud enough to compete with the actual notes you're performing.
Get some books with written-out drum fills/solo ideas

If you take away the pesky creative element, it's easier to focus on keeping the volume down. Once you're accustomed to making the moves quietly in that structured way, you should be able to keep it together better in actual playing. I recommend: Rudimental Patterns by Joe Cusatis, Rudimental Jazz by Joe Morello, Rudmiments Around the Drums by Joel Rothman, Drum Set Warm-Ups by Rod Morgenstein.

Expand your idea of what is a good drum sound
If you're accustomed to power drumming sounds— a lot of rim shots on the snare, full crash sounds, and deep, funky toms— learn to get good sounds at lower volumes. 

Play to the softest instrument in the ensemble
Listen carefully and concentrate on not drowning them out.

Pick your spots
Learn to use dramatic dynamics. Be able to back off after playing louder for a moment. 

Don't fight your instrument
Use drums/cymbals/heads/tuning/sticks that are controllable, and that sound good at a low volume:

  • Wise use of muffling. In the past I was an anti-muffling extremist— I used wide-open Remo Ambassadors on all my drums including the bass drum. Playing that way at very low volumes, your signal:noise ratio can go a little bit to hell- your primary note can get lost in the overtones. Today I have an Evans "Dry" head on one of my snare drums, and a coated Emporer with a Muff'l on the playing side of my bass drum. That's still a pretty live sound for a lot of people.  

  • Tune higher, so you can just touch the drums and get a sound. Lower tunings need to be played more forcefully to get a good sound.  

  • Smaller, thinner cymbals will be better. Bosphorus cymbals, particularly the Master series, and certain Sabian cymbals are very good for allowing you to dig in and get a full sound without the volume getting away from you. [2021 UPDATE: Cymbal & Gong cymbals are great at all volume levels. I've increasingly found many/most Bosphorus cymbals to be too insubstantial for most live applications.]

  • Maple sticks with a wooden bead. They don't need to be small- I use a Vic Firth SD-11, which is the size of a fairly beefy 5B, and I have no problem controlling them. They're easier to hold on to, and get a better tone than smaller sticks, both of which help me to relax. Use a felt or fluffy beater on the bass drum. [2021 UPDATE: I've reversed on this. I now recommend Bopworks Birdland Model for all of your quiet playing needs. They're very light hickory 7As that have a defined attack without vibrating the drum or cymbal too much.]

Learn what is and is not reasonable
in terms of volume requests. Live music is louder than the house stereo, and the drums are going to dominate an unamplified flute or voice, no matter how delicately you play them. The bar staff may just be complaining because they don't want to be there and don't want to have to raise their voice slightly to take an order. The drums aren't always the loudest instrument— half the time it's the guitarist who needs to turn down. 

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