During sessions, drums are traditionally recorded first as they’re the backbone of any song (along with bass guitar). A strong drum beat will inevitably give you a solid foundation to build upon no matter what band, genre, or type of session you're participating in or hosting.
To this end, I want to tell you why to throw this notion totally out of the window, and focus on everything else first before recording drums.
Let's dive in!
Pre-Production Is Everything
A few years ago, I came across and incredible producer called William Putney who's responsible for well over 80% of the largest metal bands’ production in the world within the last 5 years - everyone from Northlane to Counterparts, Knocked Loose to his own band Fit For An Autopsy. Will has been at the forefront of the most sought after sonic stamp from any producer in his main genre.
Upon watching an interview, he explained the idea of recording drums last, at which I was totally taken aback, at first as most likely are you.
I was confused: how would that work? Would the band just record to a click? What would be the benefit of this? I couldn't work it out until one day it clicked - Pre-production is everything!
If you insist on the band creating a basic demo of the track using samples or midi instruments, you get not only a feel for the track but an opportunity before any microphones are even set up to discuss the tracks and talk through potential issues or ideas you have.
At the end of the day, your job as a producer is to help shape the bands final sound and take the songs to their fullest potential and the composition of the tracks is no exception.
Not only does pre-production allow you this opportunity and luxury, but it gives you the basic drum beat that the drummer has no doubt gone over with a fine tooth comb several times for the band to track to.
So, hopefully this is making more sense now - you already have a beat to track to in this scenario! No need to record drums first anymore. Each member will be able to still listen to a drum track as they lay down their parts and, if you're anything like me, you'll have a template you can drag and drop the MIDI they've created in the pre-production sessions into, to give them a mix ready sound for the drums in any case.
Last Minute Changes
Another major benefit of this workflow is that it allows the drummer to create last minute changes in the studio, at the kit, and embellish the tracks even further.
One of the reasons I love recording and engineering so much is because of the happy accidents that happen to make the record into its own experience. Sometimes, something will happen totally randomly that ends up being one of the defining moments or sounds on a record, and in my experience, allowing a drummer to listen to the tracks come to life and dwell on what might sound cool to accompany another last minute change (for example, a guitar riff being tweaked very slightly to give more grove to the section) is only going to benefit the end outcome of the bands efforts.
The last reason and possibly most importantly for us as engineers, is that we can create and tailor the characteristic of the drum kit to tonal elements already laid down.
For example with super reverby guitars that may have been made to create a certain soundscape - adding a mono room mic last minute to help the drums hold their weight is something that might have been overlooked had guitars been tracked after the drums. You're then stuck with a problem that can only be fixed in the mix as opposed to having the ability to think outside the box during the engineering phase.
Be able to do both
I've found this to be the case time and time again, and each time it's only reaffirmed my decision that recording drums last has far more benefits than rushing to get them done first.
One main obstacle is always going to be explaining this to a band that hasn't worked like this before - sometimes, they're very set in their ways and want to dictate the sessions as it's what they're used to, or sometimes the drummer will have had their heart set on recording on day one and psyched themselves up to lay out the performance of a lifetime.
In any case, I would always recommend discussing all options with the band before you start on Day 1, and give them the freedom to choose, which means you have to try and be able to work as flexibly as possible. But I'm positive that once you start recording in this workflow - you'll never look back!