My first real passion is drums. I started playing when I was 4 years old and studied pretty hard through college. I was lucky enough to have some incredible mentors and teachers along the way, from guys like Mike Shapiro (Sergio Mendes, Macy Gray, Justin Timberlake), Ralph Humphry (Frank Zappa, George Duke), and Craig Thatcher (October Project, Christopher Cross). But of all the lessons and ideas I picked up along the way, I’ve deduced that the single most important thing, as a rhythm player, is being able to confidently play while under pressure. With that, I’d like to tell you about the infamous “RLS”.
“RLS” (not to be confused with Restless Leg Syndrome), stands for “Red Light Syndrome” and is defined accurately by Urban Dictionary:
Where a person has musical talent, but once they are being recorded, they fall to pieces. Symptoms of Red Light Syndrome include pale skin, cold sweats and frequent mistakes.
‘It took three takes on drums for him to get that, and even on the third time, he didn’t get it. I’m thinking he has Red Light Syndrome…’
It’s that little red flashing light that goes on when you’re in the studio and the producer hits record. You’ve practiced your whole life for this moment, you’ve got this, you shred your instrument, but then, all of a sudden, when the red light goes on, you’ve suddenly forgotten what a drumstick is. It happens to us all at some point. Something about the idea that whatever you play is under the microscope, every screw up, every imperfection, all there to haunt you for the rest of eternity. The biggest bummer of all is, there’s absolutely no way to practice for this situation other than actually being recorded! That is to say, the only way to practice not sucking while being recorded, is to actually suck while being recorded – inevitably pissing off your band mates, and producer, and manager, not to mention your parents who spent all that cash on drum lessons… It can be a painful rite of passage as a musician.
A few weeks ago I was tracking a little drum idea and realized that you can totally strengthen that Red Light muscle by using Trackd to practice. At the end of the day, it’s about building a strong, healthy relationship with the Metronome – making sure every note you play lands exactly where you want it to, while being able to do so under the immense pressure of the Red Light.
Here’s a few ideas to play with so when you’re at a real session you don’t bite the dust. I’ve put them in the context of being a drummer but the truth is they apply to all instruments. As James Brown would wisely remind us, “every instrument is a drum”.
Bury The Click
Turn the click on and play directly with the beats of the click. So 1to1 tapping with each note of the metronome. Then, with the click still on, play it back and listen for notes that are offset from the click. You’ll probably hear a few that are ahead or behind the click. Start noting how long you can go without any offset notes. See if you can build up to a few minutes of perfectly dead-on notes with the click. This is gonna be harder than you might think, so don’t get bummed if you practice this for a week straight and still hear all kinds of notes rushing or dragging. Good things take time.
Make Friends With The Click
A lot of people fight the click while recording. Violently stomping your foot ‘in time’ as if that will somehow connect you with the time better is the opposite of what you wanna do. This just creates friction between you and the click. The best thing to do (and what I mean by “making friends with the click”) is to just listen to it. Use your ears while you’re recording. Did you know that it’s impossible to listen while you’re talking? Think about that for a second… Stomping your foot is kinda like talking over the click so when you allow yourself to actually just relax and listen you’ll be on your way to a very fruitful, almost sensual relationship with that little robotic chirp sound.
Multi-track with the Click
Throw on the click and record a kick drum pattern (or just pound on a table if you’re not next to a kit). Only focus on the kick sound for track 1. Then on track 2, record a snare pattern (or snap, clap, tap, you get it). Next up on track 3, put down another layer of some kind. Get creative. You might make something worth keeping! At first really try to lock with the sound of the click instead of the other sounds you’ve recorded. If you want, you can even go to the mixer and drop the volume of the previously recorded sounds so you can really only hear the click. Then when you’re finished with all 8 tracks, turn the volumes of each voice back up and listen to what you’ve created… If it hurts your ears, which it probably will at first, you’ve probably got some notes in there that aren’t completely locked in with the click. Keep trying this with all 8 tracks until you get something that is undeniably danceable. Rinse and repeat at a bunch of different tempos.
Take your Time
These concepts are gonna be harder to get down than you might imagine. It’s stuff that the pros will spend lifetimes practicing, so be patient, cut yourself some slack, but stay at it! That said, if you still don’t sound good after 10,000 hours, it might be time find a new hobby 😉
A cool thing happens when you use Trackd to practice like this. Most musicians practice with a metronome, but with Trackd, you’re actually recording yourself while practicing! This subconsciously is building up a strong resistance to our old friend RLS and ensuring that when it comes time to throw down in a real studio you’re gonna feel right at home.
Unless you own a laptop, DAW software (like Logic or Ableton), a set of mics, cables, preamps, and an audio interface – there has never been an easier way to gain practice time with the Red Light. Toss out the metronome app and use Trackd from here on out. Don’t be shy. If you end up making something cool invite me to collab on it! Find me on Trackd @aaronrays. I’m always down to listen to what you’re creating!
Aaron Ray is a musician and app king with over 50M downloads to his name. He’s been a drummer since day one and is pretty good on the keys too. He is a co-founder of Trackd, a multi-track recording platform that allows users to record music then collaborate and share with musicians across the world. At Trackd, Aaron keeps the dev flowing and currently holds the (current) record for most collaborations in the app.