Sunday, March 29, 2015

Drum remixes: a spice of extra flavor

Summary: There's nothing wrong with simple drumming, but remixes are a way to add a little extra to a song by spicing up the drums. Don't expect to be rewarded with thousands of views, though; from my YouTube covers and remixes, I've learned to make these videos because they're fun to play and look back on, as opposed to validation from viewers. This post starts with the history of how I got into drum covers and remixes, show the general outline of how I write a remix, and then share some thoughts that went into the Calvin Harris, The Spinto Band, and Lorde remixes.

It wasn't until eight years after I started drumming that I played along to an existing song. Until then, every solo session had been improvisation (though undoubtedly with influences from tunes on the radio or drum videos I'd seen online). Even my high school band, West Point Bridge, stayed away from the covers and preferred jam sessions where we'd improvise continuously for oftentimes twenty or thirty minutes. [On the left is a snapshot from June 14, 2006. We're all 15-16 here. I lost the hair right before college!] 

There was a certain naive pride to teaching myself and playing exactly what I wanted to play at any moment. If I played music I was comfortable with, mentally written a few moments before I played it, it was easy to feel like the best drummer in the world. The best example of this, I think, is improvising in randomly-selected time signatures. Switching from 7/8 to 15/16 to 5/4 is a lot less impressive when you didn't necessarily plan on it!

After my first live performance at a talent show in high school (which, I'll admit, was probably the happiest day of my life!), I got a few requests to put the video on YouTube. I didn't have an account yet so my brother put it up, but the thought of more performances, live or filmed, kept cropping up from the back of my mind. The summer after my freshman year of college, I decided to make my own YouTube profile and try drum covers. 

Playing along to Protest the Hero songs proved surprisingly challenging, fun, and rewarding. Learning the drums at a deep enough level to give them justice in a cover meant catching intricacies the drummer had written that I normally overlooked. Like little footnotes or scribbles in the margins of a book, they were little spices that often added a lot to the piece once I noticed them. Playing others' music, too, taught me to play more consistently and broadly. When I began, filming a one-take playthrough (i.e. no cuts to different angles or piecing together takes to overwrite mistakes) on a 4-minute song could take up to an hour because my playing had a large variance; sometimes I got that double-bass riff down but how well I did was a bit like rolling a die. Similarly, playing the occasional jazzy or psychadelic riff that made it into a Between the Buried and Me song was a nice reminder of other styles of music besides metal, and that popularity or drumming minimalism wasn't necessarily correlated with lack of satisfying drumming.

But sometimes other styles I listened to did seem to be woefully lacking tasty drums, like the drummer had played the essentials to keep the song going but had mentally checked out as soon as that was done. Learning these types of songs can take less time than the actual length of the song because they're so repetitive. This can be a sensitive topic: is it a lack of technical ability or creativity of the drummer (and if yes, is that a bad thing)? Is stepping back a conscious decision to keep the focus on the vocals, which more listeners will be paying attention to anyway? 

As a drummer, I can't help but pay more attention to the drums than the other instruments, so I really enjoy when drummers put in the effort to make them interesting. For a few songs I listened to, I felt adding a little to the drums would have a disproportionately larger improvement to the song, if not for the average listener then at least for those who paid attention to the drums. 

The last piece fell into place when I bought an electric kit in spring 2014. With access to studio-quality drum sounds without the headache of microphones, I was ready to try drum remixes.

General progression of a remix
1) Identify a candidate song
Good songs to remix have simple repetitive drumming that doesn't draw too much attention. An example is "Maps" by Maroon 5. The song's drumming is simple and enough in the background that it's easy to add extra elements without deviating too far from the core. The drums in a song like Taylor Swift's "Shake it Off," on the other hand, are too prominent to easily add to while still playing along. You either have to forget the original track and play something different, which sounds incongruous, or you have to devote a lot of your energy to playing the original track and then adding whatever bits you can on the side, which might sound like you're trying hard to just one-up the song.

2) Listen to the song... a lot
This might be an optional step, but I like having a pretty good understanding of the song and what additions, exactly, could sound good. What seems to be missing?

3) Play along to the song
Instead of focusing on one section at a time, I prefer to play through the whole song a few times, trying different interpretations out and making sure it flows well, before ironing out details in later revisions. This step goes a lot faster if I've done step 2 first. One thing to consider is that for some sections, playing minimalist drums is fine. Not every section needs crazy flourishes; playing in the background can help build up to the moments where you do show off.

4) Record it!
I usually walk in with a pretty good idea of what I'll do but with some few-second gaps in the plan. These spaces to improvise are usually automatically filled with playing that isn't by itself notable but that seems to fill well because it's being generated in the moment. I like having a bit of spontaneity in the final performance to make that take unique.

5) Post it and bask in the accolades... not really!
Posting drum covers and remixes on YouTube has been curious. Below is the time series of video views per day. (The first remix was on June 6, 2014, and the 300-view peak is from a live video of a Between the Buried and Me concert I posted the day after the show.)

A logical assumption is that the more videos I have, the more views (and praise) I'll get. Similarly, the better the playing or audio quality of the videos, the better the reception should be. Somewhat surprisingly, that hasn't been the case.

Even with the recent drum remixes being popular songs (as opposed to the more niche market of progressive metal), daily views have remained almost as low as when I started making covers at all. My bet is that the niche in drum covers and remixes has been filled by YouTube drumming stars like Luke Holland, Troy Wright, Alex Rudinger, Cobus, and Travis Orbin, all of whom have professional-quality audio and video and consistently put out awesome work. For me, the oftentimes lack of response to hours of effort in learning, performing, and editing a video just reinforces the importance of doing something for the sake of itself, not for a reward. Do what makes you happy because it makes you happy, not because you want the approval of others. 

Alright, enough generalizing. Here are some specific thoughts I had that went into my remixes of Calvin Harris, The Spinto Band, and Lorde.

Remix 1: Calvin Harris - "Summer"

0:32 - Ride cymbal build-up
I wanted something to serve as a build-up between the intro riff and the chorus, and I found I absolutely loved the addition of the ride cymbal. It parallels the piano notes and seems to add a bit of elegance to the nostalgia. Hitting the closed hi-hat on the fourth notes creates the build-up, especially with the mini release at 0:38 and then the open hits in the second measure. Adding the kick drum at 0:42 continues the build-up with the final release as the fill leading into the chorus.

0:46 - Alternating downbeat-upbeat chorus
The main synthesizer (starting at 0:39 and leading into the chorus) accents the downbeat so here was a logical opening to play with the downbeat and upbeat. The trick was to have smooth transitions between downbeat and upbeat so there weren't gaps in the notes; I did this by adding a bit of an extra punch in the crashes at 0:49 and 0:53. The kick drum is hard to hear at this part, but it's largely improv except for the upbeat. (The kick at this part is on the downbeat to accent the cymbals.)

1:16 - Downbeat toms and dancing on the ride 
When I play or hear this part, I think about excitement as a teenager, the fluttering piano being your thoughts and the toms almost like your heart as you're in the car heading with friends as you drive to a party. Thoughts of past loves, hopes of meeting someone new. The dance of conversation (and actual dancing maybe!) at 1:30 as you chase after each other. I play three versions of the "skip" on the ride here: R-L-R, R-LL-R, and R-R-R. This part was largely improvised and to keep the forward push on the kick drum, I lost a bit of focus on the ride and ended up doing the first version almost every time for the rest of this part. If I could redo the cover, I'd mix the "dancing" in this section up more, but I still enjoy it.

2:31 - Silence?
Especially when you focus on the drums in a song, it can be hard to admit that sometimes you should just sit tight and let the rest of the band move to the front. I didn't do too well; still had to throw in a snare roll at 2:42. :-) I tried building it up a bit with the hi-hat and then trickier snare patterns... but I'll be honest and say I usually stop listening to this remix around 2:00 because this section is kind of painful for me to listen to! With these drum remixes/covers, I always film them in one take, as a bit of pride but also to keep some authenticity of it being live drumming instead of highly edited. This was probably the 20th or 30th take and at some point, I'll just accept it and move on. Definitely still happy to look back on, though!

Remix 2: The Spinto Band - "Oh Mandy"

0:07 - Baseline riff and extra notes on the hi-hat
It took a few listens to this song to look past the (awesome) vocals/lyrics and ukulele to realize the drums play the exact same riff for nearly the whole song. Like in my "LAX" drum remix (a song that also has the same riff repeated for verses, chorus, etc.), I start the remix by playing this baseline riff before adding to it. I hint at more with the ghost notes at 0:14 and 0:17 before the small transition at 0:20. Here, I stop the constant kick drum and hi-hat 8th notes to open up space to add more. Throughout the rest of this part, I add in extra notes on the hi-hat to make it more interesting. Note the difference between hitting on the top of the hi-hat (concentrated note, e.g. 0:29) and edge of the hi-hat (bit more diffuse, e.g. 0:30).

0:49 - Ride 1 and push on the open hi-hat
This is the first of three ride riffs throughout the song that build in intensity. Here, I use the bell to create an accented pattern, throwing in a few extra notes on the ride and eventually hi-hat to make it more interesting. I debated what to play at 1:03 for a while; how could I make it flow but also add something? I decided to scale back the complexity and just play a simple pushing-forward riff on the open hi-hat. It's pretty straightforward, so I added a few extra notes on the kick drum and the stick tricks to keep it interesting. (Note: this part of the song is so happy/bittersweet. It's a lot of fun to listen to and play and I really got into it in the video!)

1:31 - Ride 2 and first cymbal explosion
The ride riff here is essentially the same as the Ride 1 but with more accents on the bell and a more prominent kick pattern. 1:45 was born in practices when I aimlessly tried adding more and more crashes to a ride riff, until I saw I could have an entire riff of crashes forming this uneven explosive wave. The trick was to have a simple kick pattern with a lot of space, allowing for me to focus on the hands. When it ends, 1:59 is like a heartbeat as you catch your breath.

2:06 - Return to origins and double hi-hat
I again wasn't sure what to have here: more complexity, more flourishes? I decided to go back to the original riff from 0:21, first on the hi-hat and then on the ride, with a few tiny additions. 2:27 mirrors the splashes (in the original, I kept waiting for the drummer to do this! Pretty simple and fun way to link up drums and ukulele) and builds intensity to the double-hi-hat riff. To avoid being repetitive with the kick drum but still having that "pushing forward" feel, I add and remove a few kick notes. When I first listened to this song, I kept imagining a drumming release here, as I see it as a focal point / climax of the song. I love playing the 16th notes on the hi-hat here because it feels like I'm adding to the energy.

2:49 - Ride 3 and finish
I accidentally hit the china (it's programmed to be the edge of the ride cymbal) at the start but I actually really like how it sounds. This final ride riff was improvised, and the little smile I get at 2:55 comes from this neat pattern of bell accents on the downbeat that was totally unintentional. (Maybe a bit of a translation: if you were to nod along the song, I unintentionally made a pattern of hitting the bell every time you were to nod.) Then at 3:02 the explosion of crashes again, but maybe with a bit more energy than the first time? Not sure, but I like this time around a bit more. Then with the hits on the snare and low tom, it's over. A breath of relief for what I happily realized was a playthrough with no mistakes and the improv turning out well!

Remix 3: Lorde - "Ribs"

0:00 - murky awakening
I first heard "Ribs" in a hostel in Berlin and downloaded it (legally from iTunes, no worries) to listen to again later. The train from the airport back to campus, after hours of traveling, sleepiness from jetlag, and some stress from getting back to work, formed the perfect conditions for being blown away by this song. I quickly realized I wanted to be part of the song, to add my voice with drums. The first thing was to make a drum version of this sleepy quagmire of thoughts at the beginning, like an embodiment of the few seconds before you wake up. To do this, I recorded a bunch of layers, from the rolls on the crashes and splashes to create a gentle background, to the notes on the hi-hat and ride that trip over each other and shiver as they build towards the "awakening" at 0:48. This is the first cover where I used a background light instead of the overhead room light to create a bit more intimate/safe environment. 1:02 bugs the crap out of me but it's too late to fix: trying to do the stick toss and keeping my eyes closed made me mess up the simple kick rhythm... but oh well. :-) I love the way the ride sounds at 1:09. The ride, and the entire ambiance at this point, feels intimate, like you're safely tucked away from the worries and stresses around you.

1:18 - tom build up and interlude
When I started writing this remix, I knew the loud clashes at 1:20, 1:24, 1:40 etc. would need a lot of attention so I used the china to accent them as much as possible. After the build-up, 1:33 follows Lorde's waves of thoughts and grows in intensity on the crashes as she shifts from withheld to assertive, yet still projecting that fear of growing up. At 1:49, I meant to cut all sounds from the cymbals but instead we're left with the declining wave of an earlier hit. It serves as a gentle transition, though, so I actually really like the effect. Now we're falling asleep in a car, consciousness just below the surface of the water. 1:53 is a whale beneath your feet, 1:56 sunlight on your face before a cloud darkens the water again.

2:04 - moving forward
To make a pretty standard beat a bit more interesting, I alternate the hard downbeat on the edge of the hi-hat with a soft upbeat on the top of the hi-hat. It kind of sounds like TSS-tut-TSS-tut-TSS-tut. Maintaining this DOWN-up-DOWN-up was pretty tricky during the splashes at 2:24... I won't say how many takes I messed up at this part! After some hints at fills on the hi-hat, 2:32 has a full fill on the top of the hi-hat. (Note the metallic clicky sound of the top versus the more TSSSS sound of the edge of the hat.)

2:34 - Calvin Harris beat and the tom build up
The ride/hi-hat build up is a pretty versatile beat, what can I say. :-) I like the addition here because I feel like it starts building a bit of excitement, like everything will be ok and we're getting in a car to drive with the windows down on a summer day. (Or is that 1:16 from the "Summer" remix...? Lots of shared imagery!)

3:04 - Galloping on the hi-hat, crash, and ride
The hi-hat gallop is a shift from the drums being largely in the background (except maybe the tom builds) to leading the section. Again, I wondered if I should try dressing this section up more (particularly with the straightforward kick drum), but simple is often better. These three riffs are linked by having a focus on the upbeat: the gallop is up-up-DOWN, the crash is UP, and the ride is UP-up. At 3:19, I'm imagining a shift in perspective from the nervous and scared girl afraid of growing up to one who's taking her fear head-on, hair blowing in the wind and chin up in defiance. It's hard, though; at 3:33 we have the delicate confession, fingers along the back, speaking in the darkness to the face next to yours in bed saying "you're the only friend I need." 3:49 is throwing open the curtains; you'll take this on, you'll make it through. As you look at the city lights below, you're telling yourself you'll be fine. And at 4:04 a hand at your shoulder, a hug from behind as you slowly close your eyes and relax. 


YouTube channel: mgrobis

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