Recording Drum Tracks: Should They Be First Or Last?

Harmony Cardenas

Deciding when in your process to record drum tracks is an important decision. Should you record them first? Should they be last?

Both options can work out just fine, but if you understand the advantages of both strategies you can make a better decision for your music.

You may be wondering: “why not record everything at once?” That would be preferable in a perfect world, but often limitations of studio facilities won’t allow it (think inputs, separation, etc.).

Additionally, scheduling can obviously be more difficult if you are trying to get all of the session musicians in your project to record together. Having to organize the schedules of multiple session musicians for rehearsals (you need at least one if tracking an ensemble) and recording is a difficult task.

Therefore, many choose to record instruments separately. Increasingly this is done with online drum track services.

Let’s first explore the option of recording the drum tracks first in your process.

If your arrangement has been worked out during pre-production, you can have the drummer read a chart or listen to MIDI drum parts you have created.

However if your process is going to be more “organic” and you are not entirely sure what the arrangement will be, it is important to have the session drummer play in a way that leaves space. That way you can have room sonically to let the other session musicians come up with their parts.

You don’t want to have a busy drum track that doesn’t leave space for a great guitar lick or vocal melody that could be added later.

Some people like to record as they write, an approach which I neither intend to promote nor criticize. The point is, if you record the drums first and don’t have your arrangement fully thought out, the drum parts need to be spacious for the benefit of your process.

There are advantages to recording drums first. Certainly studio musicians feel more inspired tracking to drums rather than just click and a loop or programmed drum part. Performances are likely to be more energetic that way.

When drums are recorded first, everyone gets to play to the specific drummer’s pocket. If every musician tracks to click that means it is all in time – but the ensemble can be more in the pocket collectively if drums are recorded first for all to track to.

There are also advantages to recording drum tracks last.

The most obvious advantage to recording the drums last is the opportunity for maximum musicality from the session drummer, in terms of the actual parts.

A great session drummer can really shape your composition, as well as accentuate subtleties. Both of these concepts can be achieved more easily when the drummer tracks to the (mostly) finished product.

When tracking last, the drummer can accentuate big guitar hits that were not present earlier in the process, or add some nice subtle interplay in between vocal phrases during an outro – think along the lines of the outro of Sting’s “Seven Days”

This is the sort of musicality that listeners associate with tight, well-rehearsed musicians. Recording drum tracks last can “trick” the listener into thinking they are hearing a live recording of musicians who have performed the material many times, due to the drummer’s ability to accentuate more specific aspects of the arrangement.

Essentially, the more information the session drummer gets from what he hears, the more specifically musical he can be.

You can weigh these options and decide what is best for your music. Good luck and make sure you enjoy what you are doing regardless of your logistic decisions.

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