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Book writing: My journey in Words of the Music Masters

Lots of people say “I want to write a book” but never do it. It’s a painstaking process. Believe me, I’ve been there. This post is about my process when I – together with my best friend – wrote and edited Words of the Music Masters. If after reading this you still want to do it (and I’d do it again), then, by all means, go for it! It’s an invaluable experience that will teach you a lot about yourself.

Words of the Music Masters book coverStraight out of college, my best friend (who also happens to be a drummer) and I were talking about the dislike we had for the majority of the books and materials available for musicians. We had lots of questions about musicianship, playing like a pro, technique and many other things that no book, video or any other material addressed. There no guiding principles, no clear guidelines behind about how to become a better musician. So, we had the idea. If no one made it, let’s do it for ourselves!

We thought about it for weeks, crafting ideas, trying to find the best way get those answers. One thing was for sure: we didn’t have any answers, but we had lots of questions. Finally, it all seemed clearer. If we had 1 hour with a musician we admire, what would we ask? Well, we would ask about the principles on which they rely to grow and thrive. Principles which can be of great help to us.

Weeks went by, and dozens of questions were written. We were both in bands by then, making records and giggin’ around, but we were also young musicians learning the craft and pushing to become pro. We knew that this was bigger than us, this was an answer for thousands of budding musicians out there.

Very nice, but now…?

Well, if we were to do this (and we were VERY determined), we had to leave our fear, shyness and other mental roadblocks behind and start asking very accomplished and famous musicians if they were willing to take part in this. It was insane, beautifully insane.

We crunched the internet for about a month, getting as many emails and contacts from every accomplished musician you can think of. When I say every musician, I mean every musician (except for Metallica, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Foo Fighters, who are very hard to get, especially the first two).

We sent hundreds of emails explaining what we were up to. We spent hours on the phone talking to managers, assistants, A&R representatives, musicians, their mothers, sisters, pets… everyone.

Finally, after almost 3 months of intense work, 8 incredibly amazing musicians understood what we were doing and what this meant for the music community.

They were:

  1. Michael Manring
  2. Chester Thompson
  3. David Ellefson
  4. Thomas Lang
  5. John Abercrombie
  6. Larry Grenadier
  7. John Cayton
  8. Lenny White

Before the first question was to be answered by one of these incredible pros, there’s one thing that was still missing: a contract. You have to have a contract, otherwise this whole thing won’t work. So, underground musicians and DIY punk rockers we were, we wrote the contract ourselves! After writing that whole thing (I’m never doing that again. Seriously, thank God I’m no lawyer), we went with an Intellectual Property Attorney who read the contract and verified it was good to go. He made a few modifications, of course. You can be as punk rocker as you want, but when it comes to business, don’t be stupid.

So, with the contracts sent and signed, we were ready to kick off the interviews.

We broke down the questions into 4 sections:

  1. Growing Up: The principles behind technique and skill acquisition,
  2. Making Music: The principles behind jamming, composing and letting the music flow.
  3. Work is Play: The principles behind the day-to-day of a professional musician.
  4. Finding the path: The principles behind not giving up and climbing back on to the wave.

This separation helped us to have a clearer vision on how the book should be organized and which were the building blocks we had to care for.

And there we went. We sent the questions to the musicians (so they could think them over beforehand) and scheduled the interviews.

We interviewed John Abercrombie in September 2008, then came Michael Manring, and then David Ellefson… by December we had all 8 interviews. All of them were done over the phone and recorded.

Now comes the difficult part…

Once we got the interviews transcribed, it was time to transform them into a book. Since we asked the same questions to the 8 musicians, it was easier to put them in order, and it was great reading all the different points of view, some very similar – in spite of playing “opposite” genres as thrash metal and jazz – and some very unique.

By February 2009 we started putting this thing together. It was a scary “.doc” file. 100+ pages long of pure text (12 px size font. Scary, yes). 7 months and 4 full rounds of editing later, we had the text file that seemed like a book. 7 months of daily sessions that lasted at least 4/5 hours every time. Back then, we both had day jobs, so that means late night sessions and weekends. It was hard. By August we got together with Nico, who played bass in my band, and happens to be a very talented graphic designer. It took us a full month and several iterations to come up with the cover design, colour palette, fonts and a layout idea.

Finally, in September 2009 – a year after we recorded the first interview -, we held the final session. Since we decided to publish it ourselves, we used services like Lulu to get the ISBN and a market place. Lulu prints & ships the book, so we had to go with their standards. We pulled an all nighter, polishing last-minute details and checking for minor mistakes that could have gone by us. This pic was taken that last night at Nico’s. This was at around 3 AM, and we were burned!

Tom Sawada & Federico Pereiro

Finally, by 9 AM the final file was sent to Lulu to get reviewed. No sleep, no glory. We went to bed and the next day we got together again to start editing the audios of the interviews. Not only we were putting out a book, WOTMM is also an audio book.

5 days of voice editing is hard – I’d much rather edit drums! But we had it. The book & audios were ready.

We contacted hundreds of magazines, blogs, music schools and music pros to get our baby out to the world. We were so DIY that we even coded the website ourselves.

It took us a very intense year & a half. And I’d do it all over again. Fede (my co-editor) and I produced something that helps musicians all over the world. We condensed guiding principles that help musicians improve their artistry, their view of the craft and helps the to find a path.

I still go to Words of the Music Masters for guidance. One of the main reasons I’m still playing and so into this is because those 8 amazing musicians and their message.

You have an idea for a book? Go for it, with all your being. At times it won’t be a joyride. But who cares, doing something that will outlive you is one of the greatest things you can do.

Cheers!

The best advice I ever had

I was recently deleting old emails and I came across an email that one of the greatest jazz drummers in South America once answered me. That email is the best musical advice I ever had.

Back in 2006 I was starting to record “seriously” and I wanted to have some “pro” experience, but I didn’t know how to begin. So, I decided to write emails to top drummers in different countries. One night in Buenos Aires I was at a jam session and I bumped into Oscar Giunta. Oscar Giunta is a drum god and one of the nicest persons you’ll ever meet. So you can have an idea, here’s a sample of him playing with The Wayne Shorter Quartet…

Anyway, my email was something like “Hi, my name is Tom. I’m starting out as a session drummer and I was thinking about recording a demo to showcase my drumming. I was thinking about doing R&B, Pop, Rock, Funk and some Metal. Do you think I should do it with pre recorded tracks or with a good bass player? In your opinion, which are the most recommended styles to showcase as a session musician? Thank you very much”.

It was a bit better written, but those where the basic questions. 

3 days later, I get an email from him. I couldn’t believe it. Most drummers never answered me, some even sent me a link to subscribe to their mailing list. He actually sat down and wrote a pretty long email for a newby who wanted to become a session drummer. Unbelievable. This is what he wrote (in spanish, of course).

Hi Tom, 

What you’re about to embark on is absolutely great, the demo and the whole idea is great. Now, there are things that – if you want to work as session musician – are very important. These things don’t have much to do with “technical” aspects, but with your personality. 

It’s super important to be willing to play whatever the music requires and what the musician who called you wants for his or her music. First, try to play and capture what’s being asked. Try to get his idea. Most of the times, what is being requiered is super simple – and honestly, is what usually works better with the music. 

In these ocasions, trying to be an “explosive dummer” (aka trying to make an impression) ends up in overplaying and away from the music. 

Be discrete, play good time, be precise and have a certain minimalistic approach. Knowing the structure of the song (knowing the different parts and giving a different colour to each one) is an asset that most times are forgotten, but are very important. 

If you want to work as a session musician, you have to be able to work in different situations and styles:

  • Try to have a good reading level.
  • Know how to play with a click track.
  • It’s important to work as a team with the bass player and, with every musician in the band, orchestra, etc.
  • Being a team player is a great virtue!

As far as the demo goes, try to have parts where you:

  • Play groove only
  • Play a solo
  • Solo & groove
  • Play with a bass guitar groove (maybe something simple at first and then something more complex)
  • Play on a track with more instruments. 

 I hope this was useful to you. 

All the best, 

Oscar. 

This email was – and still is – very important for me. It’s something that a few years later I could cross check with other amazing pro musicians when I did the Words of the Music Masters book, where I interviewed some of the top session musicians in the world.

As this was Oscar Giunta’s gift to me, now is my time to pass it over. 7 years later. Better late than never. 

Cheers!

Great Mic set up for drums!

This video has a few years by now, but it’s great and has very cool ideas for setting up the mic configuration in the drum room.

This video is from Royer Labs microphones (which I’ve never tried) and features Kenny Aronoff on drums and Ross Hogarth behind the desk.

The set up Ross uses is a slight variation of what most producers do when recording drums. Usually the set up goes:

  • Room mic (1)
  • Overheads (L & R)
  • Snare
  • Snare drum’s head
  • Hi hat
  • Kick
  • Subkick
  • Toms (1 each)

So, if you have a 5 piece drum set with a few cymbals, there you have the standard 11 mic configuration. Which is great.

Let’s break down what Ross is doing here. Besides your standard set up, he’s adding:

  • With a Center overhead mic he adds balance to the mix between the L & R overheads (which usually in the mix you pan them hard L and hard R).
  • A room mic on top of the standard room mic, but with a different mic capsule, so he can capture every angle and every harmonic that rebounds off the room.
  • …And, something that for me, when I saw this, it was like “that’s it! I love that!”: the corner mics. Now, having a pair of R-122V just to put them in the corner of the room (and like 7/8 feet off the floor) is something that most musicians don’t have. I don’t. But, I do have a spare of condensers (sometimes I use my good ol’ AKG Perception 120, which are the mics I use for making the free demos) to get that “corner” sound with lots of reverb and spark. And that sound really pays off in the mix, especially on big rock choruses.

Speaking of big rock choruses, did you get what Ross says at the end of the video? Besides the fact that he doesn’t like “fake” reverbs on drums (a matter of taste and styles, although I share his opinion) and having the option of exploding those extra room mics during the chorus gives the song great subtleties and power at the same time. And it usually pays off really well.

If you’re about to record drums, you should try some of these ideas.

What’s with the “free demo”?

What’s with the free demo? I know it seems that I’m giving away my time & talent just because I’m a nice guy (I am a nice guy, but…).

I love free shit

The free demo is intended for potential customers to hear and evaluate how their song would sound with real drums and my approach to the tune. It’s the first blueprint on how the drums will sound. Also, it lowers uncertainty and builds trust.

If you’re asking a musician you’ve never heard of to play on your song and he’ll charge you for his services, then the first obvious thing would be to hear something. But, having someone playing on your song is kind of a big deal, or at least it is for me. So if you can also hear that I’m a real drummer and that I’ve put time & effort to your song, then you’ll trust me more than some other drummer.

I’m a session musician, I charge for what I do. The odds of a potential customer purchasing a pro drum track after hearing the demo is pretty high – fortunately time has proven me right -, so that’s why I keep on doing it: I know that after you’ve heard me, you’ll be very tempted to buy me a pro drum track.

Now, I’m not infallible (tried, but didn’t work. Damn you, mother nature!), so maybe you don’t like what I played. You can always say “hey, you know what, this part and that part aren’t really working for me, can you change this and that?”, that’s absolutely fine. If I don’t nail what you have in mind, it’ll never be great on the recording. If after iterating it’s still not working for you (hasn’t happened yet, knock on wood), a simple “hey you know, thank you but this isn’t working for me. Maybe next time” is more than fine. I can take a rejection, girls at my high school were very efficient at teaching me that…

Now, a few FAQ… Can you just get the demo and never answer me an email ever again? Yes. Has it happen yet? Of course. What happens if after doing that you come back and ask for another demo or drum track? I don’t trust you anymore, and you’ve proven to not be trustworthy, so I don’t have to make business with you.

Gladly, it hasn’t happened much, but it has. The internet is a very strange and (sometimes) dark place. So, having that in mind, I truly believe that the best way to do this, especially when there’s money involved, is to work with trust from both sides. If I build a good relationship with people who are into making music then we both win: that musician gets solid drum tracks and I get to work with cool people. In the end, that’s one of the main reasons I do this: to record and make music with cool musicians around the world.

I’m not the first one who uses this approach, I initially got the idea from an eBook called “Recession Proof Graduate” by Charlie Hoehn. If you’re starting out (not only music, but in any industry), it’s definitely worth reading. This eBook was published in 2009, since then I’ve seen many getting very cool opportunities from this approach – not only online session musicians. It’s about trust from both sides and it’s just fun to do it.

So, if you have a song you’d like to record, but you’re not sure about who to trust with the drums, just send it over and get a free demo. If you like it, then we can talk about the pro drum track. Sounds good?

Cheers!

 

 

My approach to drumming and song playing

I’ve seen zillions of musicians trying to explain their approach to music playing and composing, and usually they all fail miserably.

Now is my time to fail. In written.

The best way to do it is by telling you where I come from musically. I could write all night, but if you hear, then is all clear.

I was brought up in a mixed race household, mom born & raised in Japan, dad spanish/italian. But my mom ran the stereo at home, so, my childhood sounded like this (please don’t fall asleep):

This type of music is called Enka, which was very popular in Japan during the 60’s. My house, car, everything sounded like that. Even with japanese folk instruments like the Shamisen and Shakuhachi (an ancient guitar and a flute, basically); this music has a lot of melodies with lots of pop and blues all over it. So that’s how my brain is fundamentally wired up: pop and blues.

These songs “breath”, they all have spaces, silences; they allow the listener to get the melodies, rhythm, arrangements and a wide perception of what’s being played. And that’s one of the main things I look for when making music. Have you noticed that the best songs/records (which are masterfully produced) have “space” in it?

With that japanese background and sometimes complex musical background, it’s not surprising that the first time I heard Queen, Genesis and Pink Floyd it felt like home. And for a 10-year-old it was a lot to take in. More melodies and arrangements for my young and naïve brain.

But then, at 15, something showed up. A classmate gave me this video (I know you won’t fall asleep now!)

I got hooked up. Badly. I didn’t know who these guys were, and surely didn’t know you could hit drums that hard (nor headbang the way Jason Newsted used to). I was already playing drums for a couple of years by then. During the next few months I burned more sticks and heads than in the previous 2 years. And I cracked my crash cymbal, of course.

So then came my period of sheer loudness and powerful drumming. Since then, I’ve always been a hard hitter (The guys at Pro Mark sticks are very happy with me).

When I got into college, my roommate was into Dream Theater, Primus and other progressive bands; and I couldn’t have enough of that either.  But the real thing that twisted my brain again was this:

Who’s this guy, what the hell is this??? This “guy” is Gerald Heyward, one of the sickest drummers out there. Just in case, check out Aaron Spears, Spanky McCurdy, Teddy Campbell and other gospel drummers. These guys not only have amazing chops, but their pocket groove is as solid as it can be.

Having a good solid pocket groove is utterly important. I practiced that for hours, and by the time I got to studios and started to make some serious recordings, all these things payed off.

Letting the song breath, having a good solid pocket groove – letting other band members, producers and listeners feel the rhythm -, playing powerful drums that are a good foundation for a song (without sacrificing dynamics and feel of a song) are main building blocks for me.

And this is how some of those things sound when I’m playing:


How I became an Online Session Drummer

I decided to open this blog with this post, since not only I get emails and tweets asking me this, but I also hear it a lot from family and friends.

It’s a long story (not really), but since you’re asking then, here it goes.

During winter 2011 I was, musically, in a strange place. My band, called Kasparov, was going nowhere. We’d just released our first album (self financed and all. I funded part of that record by selling stuff from my apartment on eBay… it was hard!) and we were at the brink of breaking up. After 5 years of struggling and gigging, it was a hard thing to grasp.

I wasn’t going to give up music, but I didn’t want to form another band. So, one day in February, me and my girlfriend were walking down Melrose Av talking about what I was going to do with my music career. Sitting on a bus bench on Melrose, I raised my head and saw this:

Travis Barker give the drummer

“I’m going solo” I said. My girlfriends face had a big “WHAT??” written all over it. “No, no, by ‘solo’ I mean I’m not going to form another band. I have to play more than what I used to play. I’ve got to keep on playing, doesn’t matter with who. So, I guess I’ll become a session drummer.”

To be honest, I had no idea of what I was talking about, but out of sheer necessity of keep making music, it didn’t sound like a bad idea.

Now, once I said it, I had to become it. I can play drums, I know that; I’m no Vinnie Colaiuta, but I don’t have to be. So, before I started, I made a list of things I wanted to do if I was going to be a session drummer (coming from a “band” mindset, I kinda had the concept of session musician = robot. Yeah, stupid, you don’t need to remind me that…). That list being:

  • I want to do this on my own terms (meaning having fun)
  • Never get pigeonholed in a genre (love hard rock, but I love music more)
  • Play and record with as many musicians as I can
  • Play with as many people from everywhere
  • Quality and music first, always.

Nice list. Now what?
Well… I had no idea. So what do we do when we have no idea? Correct! We Google…
Typed “session drummer” and the results came up. Basically what I found was data about what session drummers do and some Online Session Drummers. Clicked and tried to find out what was that about. I liked some of what I found, but, for the most part, I felt I could do it better. Music comes first and I should only pay somebody if I like their work, and trust that person. That kept going around my mind for a while.

So, after doing some research, the “free demo” thing came up and made sense: I make a quick recording of a song, so the “customer” (don’t like calling people that way, I’m not a bank, but it’s easier when explaining) can hear what’s my drumming about and I can check out how he or she reacts, behaves and – basically – if it’s the type of person I’d like to work with.

With the basic idea in mind bought the domain, built the website myself, got better at recording, editing & mixing and set out to do this for real. That was 2 years ago. I still have a long way to go, but now I’ve decided to put this into words. If this is the first time to my site, then welcome, I’m Tom and this is what I do.