Insights from Brian MacLeod, the pulse behind recordings by a "who's who" of top artists...
February 13, 2014, by Bobby Owsinski
Anyone who reads me regularly knows how much I love, admire and respect great drummers. My good buddy Brian MacLeod certainly falls into this category, having been the pulse behind recordings of Sheryl Crowe, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Seal, Ziggy Marley and many more.
I remember the first time I heard Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” at a party as it was climbing the charts, and the only thing I could think about was “Wow, does the drummer ever groove on this.” And that’s exactly what Brian does—make the song groove and feel good in a way that few can.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Brian from The Drum Recording Handbook (which was written with the great engineer Dennis Moody) where he talks about playing to a click and gives some great advice.
There’s a defining moment for every player when they finally “get it.” What was yours?
Brian McLeod: That’s an interesting moment for me. I think it was on my first trip to LA on my first kind of big session. It was with Patrick Leonard (producer for Madonna, Rod Stewart, Jewel, Bon Jovi, Elton John and Pink Floyd among others). He flew me down from San Francisco, where I was teaching drums and playing live. I had toured a bit and done a few albums in England at that point. Pat was starting a band and was auditioning me to be the drummer.
Now this is back in the days of tape. He played me a track, which was already finished, that had a click. I played that song and then another and he said, “Hey Brian, can you come in here for a minute” [to join him in the control room]. I thought to myself, “That’s my audition. I guess I’m outa here,” so I actually grabbed my stick bag and zipped it up so I wouldn’t have the embarrassment of having to walk back out into the studio to get it. I figured that the door out of the studio was in the control room and if he was firing me, I just wanted to be able to leave as fast as I can.
I zipped up my stick bag and walked into the control room and he looked at it with a confused look on his face, like “What are you doing?”. So I go, “What’s up?” and he says, “I love the way you play to the click. You know how to lock in without making it sound mechanical. I want to hire you to do this record.” Then he says, “Oh, by the way, listen to a track I just finished,” and he cranks up Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” at full volume. That was the moment I felt like, “Wow, I think I get this.” I realized at that moment that I really could play to a click and make it breath at the same time, and that really is an important thing for drummers to learn. If you play to a click, don’t be so focused on it that you lose sight of the fact that your actually playing a song.
What are you looking for in the phones when you record?
That’s a great question. Generally it depends on how we’re tracking. If I’m tracking with a bass player and we’re doing overdubs to an existing track, I’ll try to get a nice even level so it sounds like a record with the vocals and the bass player just above the music. I want to hear the bass player so I can be sure to lock my kick drum with him. Then if I’m tracking live I want whoever is the leader of the song to be above the track. Like if the guitar player has written the song, he might be doing some important inflections that I need to hear. If it’s a vocalist who has written the song and they’re evoking some emotion that they really want, I’ll make sure that is above everything else. So I latch on to whatever the main instrument of the tracking date is, or what is the biggest concern seems to be when laying down the basics.
I’ll also have the click at an ungodly level, which can drive producers and engineer’s crazy, so I like to use closed headphones for that. I’m still looking for the perfect set of headphones because you don’t want the click track leaking into the song. On Christina Aguilara’s “Beautiful,” you can hear a bit of the drum machine on her vocal track, but the vocal was so amazing that they just went with it. You have to be careful especially on endings of songs. I try to get the engineer to cut the click off so that the cymbal sustain doesn’t have any click bleed. I’ll even punch in the ending of a song if they can’t catch it at the right time.
What kind of a click sound do you like?
In the old days I used to be very specific about it. I used to like a cowbell or some sort of side-stick sound with a shaker doing 16ths or 8ths depending on the feel of the song. I have to say that’s still my favorite click track, but I’m getting used to just the Protools click. I’ve adjusted over the years, but my preference still is the cowbell and shaker.
Do you any mic preferences on your drums?
Depending on the engineer and the producer, if they have a preference I’ll go with what they want, but I gotta say I really love a [Neumann] FET-47 on the outside of the kick drum. That’s one of my favorite mics. I like ribbon mics a lot for room and overheads. I like the Beyer M-160 ribbon on the hat. That warmed it up a lot.
I did a session the other day where we used Sony C-37s on the toms (which haven’t been made since the late 60s) and they sounded amazing. The producer said, “If you weren’t the drummer, I wouldn’t put them up,” because they’re so fragile that you have to be afraid of hitting them. That was really quite a compliment. Then again, some people get great results from Sennheiser 421’s.
I don’t generally do top and bottom mics on the toms. I don’t like too many mics on the drum kit unless the producer and engineer are really paying attention to the phase cancellation, but I have had good results with people who have done it that way.
I walked into a session with a metal producer who shall remain nameless, and he had the kit miked up with what looked like 40 microphones. I thought, “This is ridiculous,” but I played the track and it sounded amazing. Then sometimes I’ll work with just three mics on the kit and it will sound great too.
Everybody has their own technique and I try to be flexible because most of the people that I work with are so high end that I trust them to get my drums sounding the way they want them to sound.
You mentioned before about Patrick Leonard inviting you to LA to record. Would you consider that your big break?
I think so because after we finished that I record I was pretty much planning on moving back to the Bay area, but Patrick said, “Hey Brian, if you lived in LA I would use you on the records I work on.” Ironically the engineer/co-producer on that record was Bill Bottrell (who eventually went on to produce Sheryl Crow, Michael Jackson and Shelby Lynn) and he said the same thing to me. So I had two top-of-the-line producers tell me that if I lived in LA they’d use me on their records. It became a no-brainer for me to run up to the Bay area, pack my things in a U-Haul, and get my butt to LA. Then it kind of expanded from there.
I had no delusions of moving to LA before those sessions. I was too content up in the Bay area where I had a nice life teaching drums and playing live almost every night. It was wonderful, so I really didn’t want to move to LA unless there was a good reason because I didn’t just want to try to break in the way everyone seems to do it. It would have been too frustrating for me.
Do you have any other advice for a young drummer just starting out?
Yeah, I’d say try to play to a click as much as you can so you can learn to play with it yet lose sight of it at the same time. You want the feel of the click track to become like intuition, so it doesn’t make you feel shackled to it.
Also, when you work with a producer, be as flexible as you can be. Don’t be stubborn and trust the people you work with. If the engineer or producer has a suggestion, trust their advice. I was talking to a producer the other day about he’ll sometimes have a drummer come in that will insist on playing his own kit.
If I work with a producer that wants me to play his old vintage kit, of course I’ll play it because I think it’s important to be flexible. Even if you show up with your gear, if he has his kit miked up and he knows what it sounds like, I’ll generally do that. If they’re not satisfied after that, then I’ll use my drums.
Another thing, if you have any ideas, make the suggestion if the time is right because it’s all about teamwork and you’re on the team.
Bobby Owsinski is an author, producer, music industry veteran and technical consultant who has written numerous books covering all aspects of audio recording. Get The Drum Recording Handbook here.