THE RECORDING TEACHER
Dan Garvin

Today’s teachers have an amazing amount of instructional material at their disposal, from books to videos to play-along CDs. But the technology of today has also opened a new avenue for the private teacher: home recording.

Students often don’t see the “big picture” while they’re playing, so recording a student is a very efficient way of getting the point across. In fact, by playing something back, the teacher can present the more subtle aspects of playing such as feel, tone and touch. There’s no need to try to explain an intangible in words after the fact. In my experience, a single playback can usually take the place of several minutes of discussion and easily settles any disputes over timing accuracy or other issues. Some teachers have used home video cameras or hand-held cassette recorders to accomplish this for years (see Joe Nevolo’s column in the May 2002 edition of Modern Drummer). Setting up a teaching studio for recording is a great way to take students and your teaching to the next level.

Getting Started
Home recording has come a long way since 4-track cassette machines. While these machines still offer a valid (and less expensive) option for the recording teacher, these days, digital recording has come within reach of many musicians in the form of ADAT, Mini-Disc, computer based multi-track software and stand alone hard-disk recorders. These recorders have come down in price drastically in the last few years and may be within the budget of many teachers. Second-hand gear is also a very cost-effective way of equipping a home studio. With a small investment, a teacher can transform his teaching studio into a recording/teaching studio.

A home studio has a few basic parts. The primary piece of equipment is an analog (tape) or digital recorder of some kind. While analog recorders have a somewhat lower sound quality, they often make up for this with ease of use and an onboard mixing console (and a smaller price tag). Secondly, a few microphones, stands and cables are needed. At minimum, a single overhead microphone can be used, and it doesn’t have to be an expensive one. Secondary microphones will give you more control over the recording and can improve the recording quality. A drum machine or metronome is also very useful and can be run into the recorder to provide a click track. A pair of studio monitors or speakers lets you listen to the recordings during the lesson, while the student will need a pair of headphones to hear the click or backing track.

A CD burner or cassette deck will let the student take the lesson home with him or her, as well as any recordings you feel would be helpful. Compressors, reverbs, microphone preamps and other gear commonly found in home studios are also very useful and can really improve the recording quality but are not essential. If your budget is tighter, there are other options: a single microphone, a small mixer and a cassette deck or a Mini-Disc recorder can take the place of a multi-track recorder. Simply pan the click to one channel, the microphone to the other, and adjust the balance between the two on playback. Teaching on an electronic kit makes things even easier, since there is no need for microphones or processing. Electronic kits also allow you to record directly into a computer via MIDI – eliminating the need for an outboard mixer or recorder. And if the kit’s brain can also provide a click, there is no need for a drum machine!

Setting Up
In my home studio, I use 3 microphones: a dedicated mic in the bass drum, an overhead and an old “mystery mic” on the snare. This setup allows me to isolate the bass and snare drums from the mix, which is particularly useful when dealing with technique issues.

I run these mics into a small, inexpensive mixing console for some basic EQ, and from there into my multi-track digital recorder. The overhead mic runs through a very basic compressor unit, which helps me keep the recording level more consistent and guards against distortion if the student suddenly “lays into” the drums, and from there through a reverb unit. I also run my drum machine into my recorder, which allows me to always have a click track to move in and out of the mix. This has been very useful when dealing with time issues, as well as when explaining playing ahead or behind the beat.

The recorder’s outputs are split, one running to the studio monitors and one running to my CD burner. Being able to put a CD in my student’s hand at the end of the lesson has been extremely useful, so he/she can review their playing during the next week and spot specific problem areas we’ve been talking about in the lessons. This setup also allows me to store “music-minus-one” style songs, which I can have the student play along with and mix together. I have been able to get several “no-drums” mixes of demos I’ve played on, with a click track added back in to lock-in with. I also use Dave Weckl’s Contemporary Drummer Plus One package and Vic Firth Inc.’s Artist Series CD. Suddenly, the student isn’t just in a lesson—it’s a recording session! Hard-disc recorders work especially well for this, because they have the added advantages of accessibility and memory. For instance, you can use the locator or index function to mark different spots in the song or exercise, which you can then get to with the push of a button. This lets you compare two different “takes” of the same material or mark sections in a play-along song such as verse, chorus, bridge, etc. to isolate and repeat them (this is great when the student just can’t get that bridge down).

It is possible, however, to achieve great results with less equipment. Below are two other suggested setups:


Basic Setup:


Regular Setup:

Using The Studio
Most teachers have had a student who is working on a pattern, but while he has the mechanics down, it just isn’t feeling right. Previously we might have tried discussing it at length or demonstrating it, and we still might not have gotten the point across. With the recording setup, we have a very efficient tool for dealing with the issue. Record the student playing the pattern for 30 seconds, play it back and discuss it. Guide the student while he critiques himself. Record another 30 seconds immediately after the first, marking the beginning of the second take with a locator or index number. Compare the takes, using the locator button to switch quickly between the two (the tape counter on an analog machine will also work, but is slower). Continue recording takes and “locating” them as the student makes adjustments to his performance until it’s right. Then compare the final, correct groove to the first take and discuss how the student got from there to here. It’s a great “instant-feedback” way to show progress and to motivate.

In addition to what we have discussed above, there are many other uses for a recording/teaching studio, as well:

  • Use the level meters on the mixer or recorder to show inconsistencies in volume.
  • Send the student home with recorded examples of difficult patterns, recorded by you as you demonstrate during the lesson.
  • Send the student home with the “no-drums” mix of a play-along song, with instructions to come up with his/her own parts (I prefer to not let my students hear the original with the drums, in order to encourage their own creativity). You can then act as a producer, helping to create and fine-tune parts and suggesting ideas to help the song come alive, just as drummers often work in a give-and-take relationship with a producer in the studio. This is also a great way to show how several different drum parts can often work for the same section of music.
  • Record your student’s version of a transcribed drum solo (such as those found in Modern Drummer) and compare it to the original version. This is a great way to work on style and interpretation.
  • Record and critique pieces to be played in solo competitions (such as solo snare drum or mallet pieces)
  • Record the second part in a duet for the student to practice with at home.
  • If you have a second drum kit in your teaching studio, mic it as well. Record traded solos, fill ideas, etc., panning yourself to one side of the mix and the student to the other.
  • Certain computer-based recording software will visually display the recorded tracks, allowing you to show where the time is deviating from the click. You can even correct it digitally, so the student can hear it “right”.
  • Since regular metronomes are difficult to hear when practicing drum set, use a drum machine to create a click track tape or CD to be used with headphones. Start at a slow tempo, recording each tempo for five minutes at five-bpm increments. A CD will usually hold, for example, from 60bpm to 120bpm.
  • Program difficult patterns into a drum machine, and then record several minutes onto a cassette or CD for the student to practice along with at home.

I’ve just scratched the surface of the uses for a recording/teaching studio. As new issues come up with students, I keep finding new ways of using the technology at my fingertips. The use of technology in my studio also makes me more competitive with other teachers, as this is not a setup most teachers currently have. My students are advancing more quickly than ever and are playing with more maturity than they ever have before. Younger students are enthralled with hearing themselves for the first time, and my more advanced students enjoy the deeper, subtler issues we can now get into. Using a small recording setup for teaching can be a great advantage for any teacher and will enrich virtually any student’s learning experience.

Here is an example of how Dan uses his studio as he describes above! Below are 2 links to the tune "Long Night" as recorded by his band, Technicolour. There is a version with Dan's recorded drums and a version with "click" only.

|    "Long Night" - with drums (mp3)   |    "Long Night" - with click only (mp3)  |

Download the chart here! (pdf)

Dan invites you to use this sample in your studio as well!


Dan began playing and teaching professionally in the Baltimore/Washington area in 1992, while studying jazz and classical percussion at Towson State University. A founding member of SR-71, Dan was with the band from 1996 to 2001, culminating in the gold-selling release Now You See Inside on RCA Records. The band also maintained a heavy national touring schedule, which put Dan’s teaching schedule on hold. In 2001 he toured and recorded with ninedays, also supporting a gold-selling major-label debut. His attention then turned to session work and a return to teaching.