The most common and controversial statement drummers hear is “Can you play softer?” Drum volume is one of the biggest issues with bands, especially in church and ministry settings. It is the most controversial because opinions are very strong concerning expressing yourself musically & spiritually while trying to keep the volume lower. Musicians often feel like they’re being stifled by the restrictions that are placed on them because of the acoustic environments they deal with. Well today my friends I will give you the answer to this problem. STOP PLAYING DRUMS!!!
…. Of course I’m just kidding. So, let’s talk.
Ultimately all musicians should adjust to the situation they are working in and have the attitude of making the whole team sound great. (*Please read my article- “Still Serving After All These Years.” – in an earlier issue.) The drummer’s job is particularly difficult because by nature drums are a loud instrument. We can’t just turn them down. So let’s work with changing the instrument you use.
The first solution is to use smaller drums and cymbals. A 20” kick is more focused & punchy sounding than a larger kick drum. The standard tom-tom sizes of a 12”, 13”, & a 16” floor tom could be down sized to a 10”, 12”, & 14” tom set up. The snare could be a 14” diameter by 5” deep brass model. Larger snares in general are going to sound more “thick” acoustically, and smaller snares are going to be too bright. For the rest of the kit maple drums sound beautiful, but you may switch to birch or other woods that will not sound as dense or massive. Believe me, a smaller kit will project less volume, but you still have to control your dynamics.
The same theory applies to cymbals. I use a 20” Medium Ride, 16” & 17” Medium Thin Crashes, 8” & 12” Splash Cymbals, and 14” Medium Hi-hats for most situations. They are a mixture of Meinl cymbals from their Amun & Byzance series. I may change things a little according to the music I’m working on, but I start with this set up. No big “Rock” or heavy cymbals. I only use them when the job requires it.
You may be playing a smaller kit and trying to play softly, but it never seems to be soft enough. Some rooms are not “drum friendly.” Hard floors, brick walls, and lots of windows are not helpful to the acoustic challenges of a modern worship band.
Be sure to set up on a nice rug. The floor reflects sound too and that will help to control it. Try NOT to set up in a corner. It acts like a megaphone for the drums. If you must do that try to hang a theatre curtain or heavy cloth around the back of the kit and even the whole band if you can. As a last resort build a booth for your drums or order one from the ClearSonic company (www.clearsonic.com). If necessary you can totally enclose the drums. You can match the color & décor of the auditorium and everyone will be happy with the sound AND the look.
If you use a shield or a booth be sure to make it large enough so you can still walk around the drums. It should also be at least two feet higher that your highest cymbal. A drum kit must “breath” or move the airwaves freely to sound its best. If the booth is too small the drums will sound choked & harsh. Test this by holding your hand in front of your mouth while you are speaking and then gradually move it away. Notice how your tone sounds warmer as you allow more space between your mouth and hand. Drums have a similar response in a booth.
There’s no use putting up a small shield. It will only cut down 5% to 10% of the decibel level. If you go to all of this effort do it completely. You can start in phases. Maybe begin with just the front panels. Add the back to it if that’s not enough. Then the last step would be a top if necessary.
If a booth is not an option then you have to physically control your volume. Remember playing louder does NOT make you more spiritual or dramatic. What’s in your heart when you play is what matters. So be able to play at whatever dynamic level is needed for the room you are in and play passionately.
In your stick bag should be many different sizes & weights of sticks, brushes, mallets, Hot Rods, etc. etc. Your favorite standard size stick (5A) should be plentiful. Heavier sticks for big outdoor events or other loud situations, and very light (jazz) sticks for smaller rooms. Hot Rods (by Pro Mark) or Splashsticks (by Vater) are excellent for keeping you volume down & still hearing some “snap” when you play. Even have lighter “blasticks” or “ultrflex” brushes for those super soft settings.
I always hear drummers say that it doesn’t sound as “cool” or real when they use other sticks or “rods.” My response is that they are correct! The tone is different. But that’s the adjustment we have to make for the music to really blend in a difficult room. The key is too find the right technique on the drums & cymbals when you use other “tools.” Sometimes I’ll play with a little more snap when using brushes or rods. I might also experiment with where I hit the drums or how I make a rim shot just to get the right sound. Approach this as a challenge not as a handicap. It will add to your creativity if you choose to make it so.
It’s also very important to practice everything you do at a variety of dynamic levels. Use a metronome to play all of the songs and exercises you play. While you do that switch to every type of stick, brush, & rod you have in your bag. Make it feel great with anything you pick up. Even your bare hands! You’ll be amazed how versatile you will become. Adjusting the height of your stroke when you are playing will definitely affect your volume. Practice until you are comfortable playing very high strokes (loud) with a lot of wrist and arm action as well as low strokes (soft) just barely raising the sticks off of the drums. At the softer dynamic levels be sure to use more finger control and less wrist action. It may take time to get your soft playing under control if you have been playing loud for a long time. Be patient and keep practicing it. And YES, with the metronome!
Be aware of the dynamics of your feet as well. Your kick drum volume will have to be in balance with the rest of the kit. Although in most “popular” music the kick is played harder as compared to jazz styles. The main thing is for you to develop your control for whatever setting you are playing in. The hi-hat foot will probably not be as critical, but be attentive to it as well.
I know that many of you have played electronic drums to solve the volume problem. That’s a great idea if there are no options to make your real drums work in the situation you’re in. The technology is amazing for digital drums. Roland, Yamaha, Ddrums, etc. are all making fantastic instruments. If you play electric kits be sure the P.A. system in your auditorium or church can really handle all the extra channels and reproduce the sound. That is big concern in churches. You should also use headphones or earbuds to monitor the sound. NO speakers allowed for monitoring. I would use the small drum or keyboard amps they make for these set ups for the band to hear the kit on the platform. Even though you’re trying to reduce your volume the drums still must blend in and feel like part of the music. I usually put the amp on one side of my electric set up with an extension speaker on the opposite side. This creates the sense that there is a real drum kit on the platform. Using amps and microphones is not to make your drums louder than other musicians, but to create a musical blend and to give them definition in the room. (Hmm. Maybe I should do an article on drum microphones & techniques. – We’ll see.)
Even when playing a great digital drum kit I still add a real snare to the left of the hi-hat pad. I also add a few real cymbals and some percussion toys for those moments when I want to do something really delicate. But I won’t use the “real” instruments for any loud hits. That is reserved for the pads.
Remember our job as drummers is to create a strong musical & spiritual foundation so everyone can enjoy what’s happening. Our focus is to serve the Lord & the people with the skills He has placed in us. It’s all for His glory!!
Now go play softly and this time WITH FEELING!!!