Capturing the Ambience

From a point of my career on, one of the reasons why I’ve performed adequately – in terms of dynamics, at least – has to do with my understanding of the physics drumming involves, on more than one aspect. I gradually acknowledged that the manner drums are played has, of course, an important role in the musical adequacy. For example: no soft note can be played even letting a stick drop from any angle of over fifteen degrees from a drum. But there’s more to it: ambience. Where you play at is as important as how you do it.

What about playing in an opera house, built to make instruments’ sounds – the human voice included – easily projected, acoustically? A “fifteen degrees pianissimo”, there, might be as hard as you could hit a drum. The actual pianissimo, then, could only be the lightest of taps.

In a stadium rock gig, otherwise, a stick dropped from high, onto an amplified drum, would only produce the mildest of sounds, amidst a band’s blast. In such situations, in order to state time properly, snare hits have to cut through from hard rim shots. Pianissimos are almost always out context, here – or, if needed, would be played like softly accented notes.

In conclusion: The way one plays, in dynamics, also has much to do with the environment where action takes place. Unless we are surrounded with trustworthy sound engineers, this is something we can’t forget. But most of us, in the real world, never meet sound engineers. We’re the ones who must take care of our delivery.

As musicians in charge of meter and rhythm, we have to make sure we are heard, at all times – by audiences, as well as by band mates. Also, we have to hear the other guys, or else… boo! This is, always, the “first commandment”: “Thou shall hear and be heard”. The commandment’s true for all band drummers, anywhere: open ears to what goes on. It can also be ours the job to keep the band together, sound-wise.

If there’s trouble hearing others, chances are of drummer playing too loud, and not of soft playing from them. If the drummer can hear nothing but drums, nobody in the room probably hears anything other, either. Once everything is well heard by drummer – drums and all else –, chances are the sound up front is cool, even if the ending number can’t be played with such abandon as in best sounding circumstances. (Surely, fair enough, I should state that, at times, we run out of sources to make ourselves heard, for we can’t crank up a button and sound hysterically loud, since ours is an acoustic instrument. What I do? Simply stop playing, no less. It works, trust me on that.)

But how are we supposed to make sure about how loud drums can sound, comfortably, here and there? How to make them sound always properly, to the music, and well, to us, in entirely different places?

The main objective, in achieving the best sound, should be to be able to play in a relaxed manner. Only entirely at ease with our ears, with best use of our hearing capabilities, can we do so. The key is to gain control over the sound a drum produces acoustically. In order to reach such control, it’s fundamental to “capture the ambience”: Achieve objective knowledge of the relation between the factors involved in the physics of drumming – in two basic areas.

First: the instrument, in itself. How hard a hit is technically supposed to be in order to achieve a specific level of volume? Second: the environment. What characteristics should a good room have – or a specific room has, in fact? (Since acoustic theory is out of my realm, I reckon one must, quite practically, simply regard the physics of the room where he will play, and test them to the fullest possible extent.)

The tricks of the trade are quite simple, in fact. The technical keys for achieving control over dynamics are dealt with in a number of drumming methods. Of all I’ve seen, so far, I find Gary Chaffee’s “PATTERNS – VOL. I – Rhythmic and Metric Considerations” (edited by the author, in 1976) the very best. Even tough the tittle does not indicate that, it deals with dynamics in a big way.

Right on, Chaffee presents his “Down-Up Technique”. Simply put, it relates progressive stick heights (from 15º to 90º) to the progression of dynamic shifts (from pianissimo – pp – to fortissimo – ff). Accents are to be produced by bringing lifted sticks down – differently from the more traditional “snap” or “whip motion”. Thus, sticks will produce as more powerful a hit as they come all the way down, on the drum, from increasingly higher starting positions, and vice-versa.

Most exercises deal with dynamic shifts (quite a demand, for they also deal with uneven figures and accents, sometimes played over odd meters). Among the first series of exercises (“On Finger Control”) is a treasure for those in trouble with quiet playing. The playing is to be done by moving the stick with only one finger at a time – one of those three not used to hold it. No wrist motion. Taken such advice into practice, one will hardly ever have trouble controlling dynamics or dynamic shifts. This should very much take care of first area.

In second area, common sense is the best advice. The only tools of the trade: A good pair of ears and proper attention. Hopefully, our ears can still tell the difference between different levels of sound volume – and will, until we reach a ripe age. (To keep from loosing this capability prematurely, we should avoid playing constantly under volume above 80 decibels.) The starting point is the use of a good pair of… eyes. Yes. It is just a matter of an early arrival to the gig site, as done usually, and of starting to capture the acoustic ambience with a good look at it.

Thoroughly check it out. How deep and wide is it? How high is the ceiling? (And walls, consequently.) Of what material are walls covered with – and how reflective is it? (I’ve played a rock gig in a pub where they were covered with… mirrors!) What is the floor’s coverage? Are there any windows to be left open? How large is (are) the door(s)? Will they be open? Do walls and ceiling have any protrusions? (Different levels can help avoiding undesired sound reflections.) Does the place get good crowds? (Yes, people can absorb sound a great deal.) Get right to the center of the hall and clap hands once. Any echoes? How long does the sound take to fade away? Trade opinions with your sound tech. (If you don’t have one, get moving, right away!)

Once on stage, check all the items listed above. Then drums must be set, unless you’ve already given up playing there, after phase one… I usually mount my set from snare on, to have the opportunity to check the stage’s acoustic sound with it, first. It’s the more frequently used voice in a set, so it’s important to know, right from the bat, how is it going to sound to my ears. I go on, hitting very widely spread notes, from soft to hard. While doing so, I open ears to how they reverberate inside the ambient of stage and main room (sometimes, we know, there’s no separation between them).

Every time I add another piece to the set, I play around a little bit. It’s amazing, sometimes, how only one drum piece sounds well, instead of all others. Or, maybe, all stink. Depending on how good drums sound, I get to know how hard a task it might be. Also there’s no worry, while playing, about “why is it this or that piece’s sound so rotten” – it’s already known, by then.

After all is set up, comes the moment to put all acquired senses about the place at stake. Already knowing about how sympathetic the room can be to sound, it’s time to use best judgement and convey the best relation between the dynamics on the set and those of the room. It’s not a difficult task, once all the elements are taken into proper consideration.

I cited the opera house, above, out of my own experience. I had to play a single date for a theatre play called “Brazilian Musical Theatre” in Niterói’s Town House, near Rio. The play was, in itself, one of the hardest works I had ever taken, by then, in terms of dynamics. Music from the 18 eighties to the 19 thirties, played along with a small acoustic upright piano, wholly closed and not amplified, and actors’ voices (sometimes only one voice). I had all the parts written, transcribed by me from a recorded tape, and in none of them did the playing require for more than mezzo forte/medium level (all accents were well within that range).

Once I got there, I started my evaluating routine. As with most opera houses, this one’s ceiling was heaven high. Not much to my surprise, the very first snare drum hit, a technically designed 15º height level pianissimo, sounded like a gun blast. I considered blowing on the drum, instead, but, since I was out of practice on that, I chose playing all notes with only my minimum fingers as propellers. Hopefully, this would take good care of technique side, regarding that ambient.

To take care of the “first commandment”, of course, I had to hear the other elements very clearly. Piano, and, over it, the voices – quite usual. Yes, but not there. Anyway, I stood by the book: Since I could hear them well, it figured they would hear me, all right, and hopefully in tempo with what I played, not with any reflection. To adjust, a rehearsal with one song’s extract. I chose it, and for a proper reason: Sometimes, an actor was positioned right across the stage from where I stood. So, such was the chosen act. And I did play with my little pinkies…

I’m proud to say it worked. Congratulations poured after the act. That day, the actors and Marshall Netherland, pianist, singer and conductor – a natural American – called me on center stage for the first time (it was not on the script). They all had been very anxious before the event, and seemed very contented, after it. I had to run away from glory, though, for I had a rock gig, in 20 minutes, some 50 miles away.

That rock gig was with Coração de Leão (Lion Heart), the same band that had a single date in that mirror walled pub. That day, looking at ourselves, we had played a quiet song, on sound check, before the owner approached us. He asked if we could play “not so loudly”. “No. And this was a quiet song”, I said. And told him a number of things. He should know better than to hire rock bands. (Oh, the floor’s coverage was in… thin ceramic material!) Band’s dynamics was up to me, and playing was as soft as it could be, under rock circumstances (we were 50% down from usual, which we showed him, swarming ears of passersby). There was yet no public to accommodate the sound. His was the choice to let us proceed or not, for we could not – therefore would not – lower any more. He called us to play again… we thankfully refused.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Jean-Luc Ponty’s band in Rio’s Town House, Teatro Municipal, a big opera house, twice – with Rayford Griffin, then Sonny Emory. They seemed to be playing quite at ease. There was a small PA system, turned almost all the way down. Drums had microphones on them, surely, but the higher pitched drum instruments – cymbals – were mostly heard directly from the stage. The sound technicians, those days, had certainly done a good job of capturing the ambience.

So, I guess it’s worthy of a good try. I always keep in mind that good playing is all about respect. Respect for music, other musicians and audiences – and yourself, of course, not necessarily in this same order. Anyway, if music always comes first, all the remaining is well taken care of.