A 3-video illustration: When you’re doing a freelance recording session, it’s push-come-to-shove. Nobody shows the working drummer why session drummers choose certain drums to bring to a date and why they tension them the way they do. I’m not a prize session drummer but I can tell you what I’ve learned from the greats (whom I’ve interviewed for Modern Drummer over the years) and how they get me thinking about what to bring to a recording date.

Check out three video clips that represent a continuum of my thinking as I approach a freelance session recording an artist I’ve never met and never heard, apart from a few emailed MP3s. I indicate that I have made a renegade choice: to bring a 16” bass drum (without, gasp, the riser!) as go-to kick for the session. And to bring a backup.

March 27, 2012 UPDATE: Long story short, the session is already well underway and day-1 has closed. We got a track. With the planned 16” bass drum! This is no pop track: it as a 5-movement composition that might well have been steered by a conductor but that relied on drums, accordion, and voicce to make the segues between sections smooth and credible.

My initial videos, done a week or so before the session, and, as you’ll notice, illustrate initial hunches and then a change of heart before D-Day, which urged me to bring a backup 20” bass drum, both hads intact, to hedge my bets on the day of the session. Turns out, at the last moment I brought another alternate bass drum: a 22” Yamaha Oak Definitive.

Fortunately, my second-guessing became first choice. I’d planned that my 16” kick off the riser (stilts) and with the beater striking off center, was going to bring out timbre and tone as opposed to attack—never much of a problem when whacking a small-diameter kick dead-center with a beater.

To complicate the formula, I’ve become accustomed to removing most of the front head (ie carving a large hole in the audience-side head) of many of my bass drums—even the current 16” drum. . I must admit, once again, that my influence here has been, as it has been for years, Eddie Marshall, drummer for The Fourth Way, whose “Sun and Moon Have Come Together”, a long time personal favorite, was also one of Jaco Pastorius’s faves, too. Eddie Marshall is a killer drummer whose tone, like Tony Williams’, makes his phrases that much more emphatic.

Today I arrived, loaded in, and set up a tentative configuration, displaying the two bass drums I brought, 16” and 22”. Almost immediately the producer chose the 16” with no front head. There was loads of tone and the sort of heightened sensitivity that allowed me to infinitely tweak tone by means of beater changes: fluffy lambswool to soft felt to medium felt to hard felt (yes!) to plastic.

This kick might not have worked on many styles. But this music, sort of legit and folkloric, seemed to “like” my choice. I ended up cranking the 16” bass drum a wee bit higher than normal, which conferred a sense of pitch and not just attack; and it worked well, went “to tape” well, and, as we speak, is the operative bass drum on an incredibly complicated track, which was a challenge to read, render, and reduce to essentials that would make it run smoothly. If you get a chance, search out Egberto Gismonti’s music before he migrated to Europe and ended up on the German ECM label. This is an optimum meeting of indigenous and classical styles wherein the bass drum is not merely dropping bombs, accenting strategically, or otherwise spotty in its role, but is an essential part of the groove as if playing funk. The “open front head” approach greatly assisted in this role.

Check out my videos. You’ll note the deliberations that precede a serious record date. Remember, I copied this and many other approaches from the greats I interviewed for Modern Drummer magazine. I learned from the best even if history includes me among the ranks of the rest.