Open Your Ears

Songs are at the very origin of my love for music, in general. When I was a little kid, all the music I listened to sounded from either cheap AM radio or the turntable on my family’s huge stereophonic machine. The latter had great sound, even for today’s standards. On it, mom listened to Frank Sinatra, mostly, while me and my brother listened to the Beatles, only. I can still remember the thrill, when Old Blue Eyes’ fabulous voice first reached my ears, on “Strangers in the Night”. I agree with David Bowie: Sinatra is the best singer, ever. I got started on The Beatles with Lennon’s cool throat rash voice rocking on “Anytime at All”, from “It’s a Hard Day’s Night” soundtrack, which stirred the hair on the back of my neck (still does). It was played over and over by those two amazed kids.

But what did those artists, so different in genre, have in common that could enthusiasm two kids, seven and eight years old? Today I realize that, apart from the talent of the artists, themselves, what brought our interest together was that the quality of those recordings made them very clearly and well finished musical statements. They sounded good, felt really fluid, and had an overall musical mood that was perfectly adequate to what the tunes were about. That was the work of the musical producers of those recordings – often overlooked, but of utmost importance to any good recording (well, bad, too).

I still had that overall context in mind, long since then, when I started to conceive and record drum parts for songs, in 1979 – unconsciously playing, with a little help from my friends, the part of recording producer. (Mind you: We never had a cast type producer, in those days – we knew no better than “do it yourself”, and also could not afford a real producer, if we knew one might suit us. I, for instance, had no idea of what producers did, although I was to become one.)

Those early efforts were mostly done with a handful of musicians from Rio de Janeiro’s twin city: Niterói. Many natives reached high professional status, mainly because they’re quite studious. Like Artur Maia, bass player with (Grammy Award Winner) Gilberto Gil. Other two, Arnaldo and Raimundo, welcomed me to play on homemade demos of some songs they had done together. I had quite a crash course in playing “unreleased” pop song format, a task quite different from all I had done that far (playing along to previously recorded material).

The richness of that learning experience was wide enough to bring my first real studio date, led by Raimundo. The guy is a true monster: Singer, guitar and bass player, as well as arranger, he’s the most complete and competent musician I’ve ever worked with (no employer, anymore, just deserves the compliment). I was to record a “single compact”, as we called small 10″ vinyl discs containing two songs, one per side. The artist was composer and (terrific) singer Tadeu, who I met at Raimundo’s house, one late afternoon.

The way I first acknowledged those two songs remains, in my experience, as the best way to listen to a new, recently created song for the first time. Raimundo had Tadeu sing it to us, on guitar only, while we stood quite close by, facing him. No drums were in the room. I still do the same, today, when first listening to a song. I may even use my throne as a stool, but far from the set. While it transmits real complicity to the artist, this does help to have a mind clear from drums, focused on the song from moment one. “Listen” in its purest form: an “acoustic respiratory exercise”. If my eyes are not closed, they’ll be quiet, resting on the player’s right hand, to catch any accents that call my attention. Then I have him sing it again, for maybe three or four times.

That process of repetition links the artist and his piece to me, and I can evaluate how consistent it already is in terms of time, pulse and rhythm, can find it’s hills and valleys, grasp its general feel. I try to reach into the song for its soul. If they’re both good – song and soul – my sole intent, from this point on, is to keep that communion intact and just build on it. Usually, all the elements are right there, and sometimes there’s not much need to dig into the song, or into my mind, to find or create a groove consistent with such elements, to make all fall right into place.

(The best drum part – and arrangement – I’ve conceived, to this day, is a gutsy rock song called “No Meio da Noite” (“In the Middle of the Night”), from a band mentioned on another article. It came clearly to my mind, after listening to singer composer Rogério Leão play the song (on acoustic guitar) to me for the first time – just once –, while I stood next to him. I immersed, from bar one. Although we both were in a band, I asked him and the other guys to let me do the arrangement. I’m glad they agreed. It closed our shows, later on, and was the strongest piece in our repertoire, ever.)

Once a tune’s format is learned and well understood, the meter (usually 4/4, in pop song format) and the rhythm in which it is to be played in devised, all the rest is in fact quite easy to do. We must convey a number of other elements, but in a way none surpasses the song.

There’s one sole element that can bring all others into place quite easily. To me, this is the most important of all: correct time, measured in beats per minute. Setting that time up right is crucial. If the way the song was first presented felt good, it is a cool tip to just try to find that one frame and stick to it. On his “On Session” video, Steve Gadd says that each piece has a time that makes it “kind of play itself” – true.

So, when recording, it’s advisable to clearly find out such “magic time”, and set up a nice click track, stating it, to play along to. By all means, try to do so with some percussion instruments (such as shakers, congas and cowbell) in order to interact musically. There are few things worst than trying to play relaxed with such a “time keeper” as a sole beat sound, louder than the rest of the instruments you’re playing with, banging relentlessly on your ears. Taking such a simple measure can, believe me, do wonders for both your pulse and feel, and make the time statement a truly musical accomplishment. That should take care of pulse, feel and timekeeping, if you’re wise enough and/or a good producer is at work.

The mood is all in a pop tune, and much of it is brought in by what is being said on lyrics. Utter respect to that – by all instruments – is a must, so that the way the song is exposed is not only consistent, but in accordance to the spoken (sung) discourse. Drums can easily do that once they don’t “get in the way”, that is: If no stuff is thrown on the track without a very specific purpose. Songs are not the best grounds to throw tricky stuff into, unless you’re Vinnie Colaiuta. (The use of musical moods entirely opposite to that of the song’s message has been sometimes tried, but that is more likely to be done in covers with comic or “shocking” purposes. Don’t try that, as a rule, if you’re producing. If you’re just playing, try to do “what the man says”.)

Some songs demand to be played in uniform fashion, some demand a number of mood changes (“hills and valleys”). It’s up to artist (be it singer or composer), arranger, producer and musicians, together, to clearly and tastefully convey that. As far as mood changing goes, there is even some given room for speeding on certain parts and dragging on some others – a job in which Keith Richards once claimed Charlie Watts to be a real specialist. Choruses can sometimes get a little bit snappier, yes, but that, again, is not a rule. In a ballad track, for example, a snappier chorus would sound misplaced. If a click track is well enough done, one can even play “around” the beat – before, on or after it – with little difficulty.

Making the correct mood changes or links between parts may be crucial to a “happening” song – if there are any such changes. And that’s usually more than just “A” to “B”, to chorus etc. In order to state them, there are cues a drummer can follow. Any specific melodic accents on melodic/lyrical line, to be chosen from those before changes are the best. They already make part of the core of the piece, so it is always proper to build on them.

To do that, the best way is tasteful discrimination of notes from melodic phrases contained in the “linking” parts. The key is to play only the ones that rhythmically keep the flow going. (We can also build on elements to be brought to the piece later on, such as horns, but always keeping the forward flow of the song’s pulse going on.) A good example of such melodic accent is on the opening line of “Good Day, Sunshine”, from The Beatles, which also works as chorus and bridge, as well as intro, all at the same time (if you never listened to it, hurry and do so).

Although it’s quite nice to have the artist’s voice on your monitors (once it’s in tune), that’s not a rule (the voice being there, I mean), even if the artist is present – sore throat or not. So, it’s advisable to get to know the lyrics and follow them. I always have them copied and well written right in front of me, sometimes beside a “road map” or arrangement, others instead of both. Those are the la-la the Ray Conniff inside each one of us will reproduce. That is the heart and soul of the song, make no mistakes about it, and be wary not to play over the melody unless when necessary, as in mood changes.

Always try to grasp the minimalist concept that “less is more” in this particular field of drumming activity. Play for the song. The pulse is to be felt, the rhythm is to be clearly stated, both in proper time, and the rest is consequence. Anything more fancy than this may be thrown in as a subtlety, if there’s room for it. Anyway, always keep in mind that such elegant stuff will ordinarily not be heard, at all, but that the beat must be there, always, clear and clean, mixed up front, to be well heard on the cheapest of AM radios, like the one I had as a kid. Even if that is as much the job of arranger and producer as it is yours, the drummer is you, not them.

Although those simple “rules” and guidelines might seem all too easy to follow, as they are, in fact, one factor bounds them all together to make things actually work when the tape (did I say “tape”?) is rolling: Concentration. Lock in with your rhythm section, if you’re playing with one (I have not, in a long time), and just feel the liking you have for the song (or for the session’s fee, if you happen not to like a tune). That song piece may not last for more than three minutes, but if it is to achieve any success it will surely be played and heard millions of times, and no one wants to have the simplest of mistakes repeated that much. So zero in on what you’re doing, focus on consistency and good feel and relax, because tension can show through on tape. But then, again, don’t mind if that squeak from your bass drum pedal can be heard a zillion times if you just recorded “Since I’ve Been Loving You”.

After my first recording was released, I showed it to my teacher, then: Joca Moraes. He heard it all, both sides, with a sober look on his face. Then he shook my hands, and said he could not have made it better, himself, and had had no idea, that far, of how accomplished a drummer I might really be, at that point. “I had to hear what you could do in a song, first”, he said.

As far as “doings in songs” are concerned, there are four guys whose listening I’d like to recommend:

Ringo Starr (The Beatles): This man has recorded more number one hits than anybody else, and no matter has he chops or what, his parts were written by (Beatles’ producer) George Martin or not, he plays killer pop drums on all tracks;

Jeff Porcaro (Steely Dan, Toto, recording): Best pop drummer ever recorded;

Phil Collins (Genesis, solo, recording): Drummer, composer, singer and producer, he knows all there is to pop drums, and can surely play (his playing on Tears for Fears’ “Woman In Chains”, from the “Songs in The Key of Love” CD, for example, is killer);

Liberty de Vitto (Billy Joel): His work is a master class on pop drumming.