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Dynamics on the Drum Set

August 25, 2016

Dynamics or the relative loudness of sound as it relates to the drum set is an important and complex topic.
First, the drum set is already a collection of different instruments that each have their own characteristics of sound and capacity for volume. So, there are questions of the balance of dynamics within the drum set itself. Then, there is the issue of the volume of the entire drum set sound in relation to other instruments in an ensemble.

Additional nuance is introduced to the equation when we consider different styles of music. There is often even a difference between sections of a given composition.  It would be easy if one could say that in a particular kind of music (let’s use the word Jazz for our illustration), that the bass drum should be this loud in proportion to the ride cymbal, etc. The fact is, that even in a style of music, there are other variables to consider – such as the period or era of the Jazz that you are playing, the other instruments in the ensemble (are you playing with an Acoustic Bassist, Electric bassist, Tuba player, etc), the acoustics of the room and many other factors.  When you are playing the drums (or any other instrument) in an ensemble, part of your responsibility is as a”mixing” engineer.  You will constantly be making minor adjustments to your volume as you evaluate the entire sound of the ensemble.

Whether you are playing Rock, Jazz, Funk, Calypso or Reggae, the question of volume for a particular part of your drum set (let’s say the snare drum) is a question of function.  If you are playing a basic Rock beat in which the snare drum is simply playing on 2 and 4,
the dynamics will be fairly static, strong and balanced with the bass drum. In this case, you are playing an important, but accompanying function.  Because the music that you are playing is commonly danceable,  you need to play pretty loud as your function is foundational.  If, on the other hand, you are playing an up tempo bebop tune on which your snare is playing in a varied, improvisational and conversational way, your dynamics will be much more subtle, varied and blended with the rest of the drum set as well as with  the whole ensemble. The volume of riding on your Hihat (in relation to the rest of the drum set) in a pop tune is way different than the volume of riding on the Hihat on a Hard Rock song.

Dynamics are a very powerful and expressive part of drumming.  To gain insight, listen to great drummers on recordings in a variety of types of music. Turn a critical ear to how they balance the various parts of the drum set as well as where the drums are in the mix in relation to all the other instruments. Since great artists (as well as engineers and producers) have taken the time, energy and resources to achieve that balance in the recording studio, we can know that what we hear is a desired effect.

In closing, let’s take note that the Drum set is acoustically a very loud instrument and when it is played out of balance with other instruments, it can destroy the ensemble sound.  Musicians like to be able to hear themselves as well as the musicians with whom they are playing. Playing with the right dynamics for a situation will win you appreciative collaborators who will want to have you on the session!

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