8 months ago I decided to invest my time into finger drumming. I took several beginner and intermediate courses at QFG before but I hadn’t really put it into practice.
So I set a goal to record 10 drum covers in genre of rock within a half-year timeline. Also I wanted to develop my musical ear skills as opposed to playing sheet music thoughtlessly. And have fun, obviously.
With this intention I started to investigate two big topics – active listening and practicing.
Active listening means that while you are listening to a song you are paying attention to song structure, individual drum patterns, orchestration, dynamics, other instruments, etc.
As a result of active listening I have a song roadmap. Essentially, it is a compressed sheet music that contains all information you need to perform a song live. After I create a song roadmap, this is the only sheet I use to learn a song.
I use existing sheet music and video tutorials a lot to refine fills, ghost notes and other difficult parts. But for the basic groove (kick, snare, hi-hat) I try to count and figure it by ear.
Yes, I learned how to read a drumming notation. It wasn’t difficult at all and it opens you an access to countless drumming resources. For writing drum notes I use a simplified notation that I can read and understand. Who cares whether it is right or not?
The main idea I have learned here is that in order to learn a song faster you should play all notes 100% correct. This habit helps to develop muscle memory faster. This fits well with another common advice: slow down.
Another important idea is to make a real workout form a practicing session. That is, you should constantly challenge your brain and practice drum parts of next-level difficulty instead of playing what you already can play decently.
I usually split a song into drum parts, e.g. intro groove, main groove, a fill before a chorus, etc. Then I learn each drum part separately starting from 50 bpm and gradually increasing speed with 5-10 bpm increments. I make these drum parts overlapping, so if I learn a verse groove fill that leads to a chorus I also play 1 bar of a chorus. This really helps to make transitions nice from the beginning.
After I can confidently play all drum parts at 80% bpm I switch to a song mode and learn how to play it from start to end. Last 20% is where the progress may slow down. It happens with me for two reasons.
Because song tempo is too high and I need to practice hands coordination. This can be fixed either with practicing or simplifying a groove.
Because I do not feel the groove, miss the beat grid and need to practice locking with other instruments. This can be fixed with a dedicated song mixing for practicing. The idea is to bring forward instruments you need to lock in (usually it is a bass or rhythm guitar) by using EQ.
I ended up with a minimalistic set of a tripod, two light sources and an iPhone camera recording FHD@60fps video.
Important thing here is that vibrations from your pad controller will be seen on a video if a tripod stands on the same table. I fixed this with a kitchen sponge under each tripod leg.
Obviously, I picked songs that I like. But after learning them I would have done it differently. I would have picked more simple songs to have more fun with them. And maybe one of five would be a difficult one.
Three most difficult songs I have learned were “Kids Aren’t Alright”, “By The Way” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I’ve spent 2-3 weeks on learning each song but I cannot reliably perform them live after I recorded them once.
However, now I know that I can learn a simple song in a week and a medium-complexity song in two weeks. 16th note grooves over 100 bpm and 8th note grooves over 120 bpm may be difficult to play consistently.
Gear and software
I have AKAI MPD 218 as my main controller. Pads are not sensitive enough but I learned how to fix that with electric tape and velocity curves.
I bought Machine Micro mk3 three times over a 2 year timespan but each time I had to return it back – they all have issues with sensitivity when two neighbour pads are pressed simultaneously. I have never experienced this with Launchpad X and MPD 218.
I use Addictive Drums FAIRFAX vol.1 Neutral preset most of the time and adjust it manually to match drum sound on a recording. Claps and tambourine samples that come with AD are very weak, I hate them.
To find a drumless track I search for existing tracks on youtube. Otherwise I use https://moises.ai to split the instruments. You may get satisfying results sometimes but it really depends on an original recording.
I find valuable that this practice has made me a better musician. Now I’m sure that I can play with better accuracy on any instrument, listen to other instruments, understand how songs are structured. Also I developed appreciation to drums and listen to songs differently.