Aaron Sterling is a drummer, producer and engineer based in Los Angeles. He has played with artists such as John Mayer, Taylor Swift, The Civil Wars, Keith Urban and many others.
Aaron is an awesome drummer and if you are not following him on Instagram I would suggest that you do so. There he shares very cool and interesting sounds that he creates in his studio. Using various drums or anything he can get his hands on.
In this interview, Aaron talks about his early struggles regarding networking. Being focused on one goal. How we as engineers should talk to drummers and how we can make our programmed drums sound more human. The importance of conveying emotion in your playing and why he would prefer to teach me drums on a yacht.
I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did, so please, enjoy!
What were some of your early struggles trying to make a living as a drummer and what did you find worked best?
I had an advantage because both of my parents were professional musicians. I could see what they were doing. I learned the trade from them and got a lot of key points to this business at a very young age.
One of my biggest struggles when I moved to Los Angeles was the networking part. When you realise no one knows who you are. And the only way that can change is if they hear you or meet you, hopefully both at the same time.
It was very difficult and it was also before social media so you didn’t have that help. I felt I was a good enough player to get started and I understood how to be in the studio. But forcing yourself out of the house and into a new scene that doesn’t necessarily need you is difficult. Nobody asked for you to show up.
What did you find so difficult with networking?
Just a general, social anxiety. It all felt so awkward.
I suppose there is this cool factor that we, as musicians, have to portray. And going out and essentially admitting that you need work and more contacts, well, that isn’t “cool”. So there is a rub there. You have to look like you have high value but admit that you don’t. Or that, at the very least, no one has recognised that value yet.
My wife also helped me get better at it.
I heard you speaking about being focused on a few goals rather trying to do everything at once. How did that help you in your career?
I wanted to be studio guy so I put all my energy in to that as opposed to being everything to everybody. I didn’t take a lot of auditions for live tours either because I wanted to work my way up in Los Angeles itself. Not leaving it going around the world.
I stayed in town trying to do as many gigs as I could to let people know that recording music was my thing. I tried the best I could to let people know that being able to hear a song and knowing what to do with it was my thing.
It paid off big.
Talking about pricing, how did you figure out your worth and how much you could charge?
It’s all about how much value you are bringing to a client but it’s also different for every project. For example, there are people who think I’m highly valuable and can not make a record without me. There are also people who don’t even like me and there’s everything between.
Anybody can experience this dichotomy which is really interesting.
The big thing you have to do is gauge peoples perception and reactions to you when you work for them. You have to objectively understand how people subjectively look at you. And that can be really difficult. You have to stop thinking how you feel about yourself. Instead, look around you and figure out what you mean to different people.
After a while you will start figuring out what the going rate is for this crappy gig versus a bigger gig. Eventually, the more numbers you hear you the more you will understand what you are worth. You don’t want to charge differently for everybody but you have to create an average based upon that. If your brand starts going up and you get bigger gigs you can start raising your rates and demand a higher rate. You can test the market.
Being an engineer too, what is the most important thing for you to capture when recording drums?
For me it’s all about capturing the sounds I hear in my head. I hear sounds that are based upon the emotional communication I want to convey with my portion of the song. It’s whatever I feel I can do to help push the emotional aspect of the song. Whether they are drums or not doesn’t really matter, it’s just sounds.
That’s why I have all these microphones up and different instruments lying around. Whatever shape that takes is fine with me, I just want to capture what I’m hearing in my head.
You seem to experiment a lot in your studio, any cool techniques/combinations you like to share?
I think the best thing is to have no fear, just grab anything and start playing with it. Many times I hold one microphone in one hand and start walking around the room touching and hitting stuff. I play different things until I hear something that inspires me and that will act as a stepping stone. Maybe I’ll add a compressor, reverb or an octaver. I keep trying things.
What do you think it’s the best way for drummers, or anyone, to do to stay ahead of the competition?
I think you have to pay attention to your surroundings and follow the patterns of history. You always have to think about the future. Whenever you feel comfortable and things are good don’t stay in that zone. Know that things are changing any second. Don’t ever assume that once you get to a certain spot that you are set. Always be looking ahead.
It’s no different from people doing real estate investing. Those people never stop and they always think about what the next big thing is. It’s very speculative and so is music, we never really know what’s ahead.
The people who get enough work are people who pay attention to what teenagers, kids or 40 year old’s like. The death of the professional musician is when you don’t do the research and only listen to whatever you feel like.
The most badass cover of Pearl Jam’s Even Flow
What can we as engineers do to make drummers feel as comfortable as possible when tracking drums?
The best thing to do is to stop thinking like an engineer and hope that the drummer stops thinking like a drummer. Instead, think in terms of how to communicate emotion for the betterment of the song. Then you get to ask the drummer what they are thinking in terms of sounds and parts to play.
Don’t talk drums. I don’t like when people start saying that you should get a metal snare. What the hell does that mean? Metal snares doesn’t mean anything. Neither does wood snares, they are words that should be thrown away.
You should be asking about what vibe or colour they are going for. Is it aggressive or mellow? If you start talking in these descriptive terms drummers get excited. They will show you what they are going to play. If they have ideas that are dependant on recording techniques they can describe it to you. For example, if they say, “I wish it sounded more like underwater,” you know that probably means that you have to start rolling of high-end.
Communicating like that is much better than thinking, “I got to record the drum set as it is and I wish he could hit the cymbals quieter”.
Being a father and husband, how do you balance work and family time?
I work in my studio Monday to Friday, 10 am - 5 pm unless I’m in another studio. I take my kids to school every day and I cook dinner most nights. I’m with them on the weekends and as soon as they are home. I’m very lucky that I’m not forced to be away all the time. It can be hard but right now I’m very lucky that the balancing act is not that difficult.
Many home studio owners don’t have the ability to record real drums. Instead, they have to program them but loose the human feel. Do you have any tips of how to make programmed drums feel more human/groovy?
If you break the kit down in to 3 parts you have the kick drum, snare drum and motion. To get the impact of the drum kit you can program the kick drum and snare drum. No ghost notes or anything like that. Then try, even if you are not a good drummer, to play the inside stuff to get the motion.
You can shift things if you are not that good of a drummer, don’t quantize, just shift things that don’t feel good. You have now created your own thing and even though the only thing you had was a crappy snare and a SM57. But you got the really big, impact sounding kick and snare drum from the programmed drums.
This is what I did before I had a studio. I programmed stuff and recorded the in-between parts in my little bedroom. I made some cool tracks that way.
Having been a session drummer for a long time, what’s the biggest change you have seen in the recording industry. Both good and bad?
I started this before Pro Tools and right before Napster hit. I saw how Pro Tools came in and changed the entire thing. Also, how not paying for music is a normal thing now.
Both of these work in the good and the bad category. But I think in some way it’s working out OK. It’s changing the landscape. People don’t feel like they need a record deals anymore. But there’s a freedom in the fact that there is less money in recorded music. People now focus on making the best recording they can make and to go out there and play live. For me it hasn’t hurt my job at all, things have gotten better for me every year.
What if I were to give you $1 million for you to train me to become a great drummer in 4 weeks, what would you teach me?
I would try my very best to teach you that you have to emotionally convey whatever the music needs. And to not think like a drummer. I would also teach you very basic techniques and the most important things like time and consistency of tone.
God, a million dollars, what am I saying, I haven’t even spent the million dollars. Maybe I would just teach you for 4 weeks and keep the money. Maybe I would hire the greatest drummers in the world and we would go nuts on you for 4 weeks.
No, we would go on a cruise. I would buy a decent yacht and I would teach you the drums on the yacht. That’s my answer. I million dollars would probably not give me that great of a yacht. It probably needs some work. But we would just learn drums on it. It’s actually not that hard, it’s easy, 4 weeks is plenty of time.