John Mayer

Aaron Sterling - How To Talk To Drummers, Convey Emotion And Much More

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- Are you a home studio owner or professional audio engineer who is struggling to find clients?

- Do you want to build relationships and find more artists to work with?

- Are you struggling what to say or write to bands to make them come back to you?

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!

Sterling hanging out with Mayer and the king of bass - Pino Palladino

Sterling hanging out with Mayer and the king of bass - Pino Palladino

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.

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You guys ever hear about grunge? 🦄

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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.

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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.

Michael Brauer - Developing New Ideas And Getting Out Of Your Comfort Zone

Having worked in the music industry since the 70’s, Michael Brauer has done records with legends such as Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, John Mayer, Coldplay, Rolling Stones and the list of huge artists goes on. 

Besides the artists he has worked with, his unique style of mixing, especially how he uses compression has made him one of the top mixers in the industry. In this interview, Michael opens up about how he first got started, how he expresses himself through his mixing, favourite failures, going out of your comfort level to keep developing new ideas and stay fresh, what he learned from working under Clearmountain and so much more. 

Michael shares some really great knowledge that you can definitely apply to your own work and career so I hope you enjoy it.

Photo by: Sonya Jasinsk

Photo by: Sonya Jasinsk

You started out in the shipping department and eventually became staff engineer at Media Sound Studio in New York. Could you tell us some of your experience from starting out to eventually becoming an engineer? What were some of your biggest struggles and how did you overcome them? 

Our job was to stock the studios every morning, deliver tapes and packages to clients, either at the labels or at home. We also helped to set up and break down sessions. I became head of shipping in a few months and when the shift ended I would offer to assist any of the engineers. I was 25 when I got hired so I was actually older than some of the engineers. It didn’t bother me though since I was there to learn from the best and I was happy to be there. The hours were really long and it was a while before I felt that there was a light by the end of the tunnel. However, considering how it’s now to get ahead, I moved up the ranks very fast and became a staff engineer in two years. 

The main struggles I had was to understand what Dolby did and hearing the differences between compressors or even hearing compression in general. 

You said: “The tools and toys are simply an extension of the thought process. It's really about being creative and visualizing how the song should sound and feel.” What led you to that approach and how can you as an engineer develop that creative/visualization skill? 

That came from me being a musician. It wasn’t the drums that made me good, it was how I played them. Watching and listening to the producers inspired me to be more sensitive to the song being recorded. I imagined I was singing the song and delivering the message. Therefore, it came naturally to me that the more emotion and heart I put into the recording and mixing, the clearer the artist’s vision became. I was very physical when I was mixing, I moved the faders a lot to create more dynamics and crescendos. Luther’s first album “Never Too Much” is the template for how I would approach mixing right up to the present. 

How important is it to get out of your comfort level to further develop your skill as an engineer? What is your favourite way of stepping out of your own comfort level? 

As an engineer, it’s crucial that you evolve at the same rate as music. A fresh new idea today, that is appropriate for the record you are making, has a shelf life. It may be groundbreaking and completely cutting edge, however, when the record comes out and if it becomes popular everyone will copy it, therefore, it stops being fresh. If you base your career on that, the day will come when you use it on an artist and they are not going to like it because it’s been done, it’s old. 

It’s tempting to sit on your laurels but then you are no longer cutting edge because music has evolved and you haven’t. So the way I approached it is simple; take a few months to think about an idea you want to start using, spend 6 months developing it on whatever songs that are appropriate for the idea. Then search for the artist that the idea will sound great on and will bring the uniqueness out off. Work it until you feel you’ve completely nailed the idea and it’s sounding great at home and on the radio. Enjoy the success of it for another 6-8 months, then slowly stop making it your go-to idea because you are now being comfortable with it and that is the beginning of laziness. The idea is no longer fresh so it’s time to get out of the comfort zone and start on something else. 

I look forward being out of the comfort zone because the alternative is being considered old in regard to sound and thought. Since I always want to have young, exciting, music coming my way I need to have fresh ideas and sounds to contribute to the mix. How can I do this if my sound is 20 years old? I must evolve as a mixer at the same pace that new artists are evolving and that requires knowing the newest technology, plugins and keeping my sound fresh and modern. 

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What are the main things you teach your assistants when you teach them critical listening and how to base their mixing decisions on what they want to hear rather than just following your “presets”? 

First thing I do is tell them not to overthink what they are doing. Don’t think, just do. React to the moment. Second, I teach them to avoid focusing on the wrong element in the song. Third I teach them to mix with their heart, not their head. 

Many people in this industry seem to experience moments where work doesn’t come in, sometimes over a few months or even years, have you experienced this and if so, how do you deal with it? 

Yes, we all at some point during our career experience slow periods. It can be from a few days to a few months. If it’s a year or more it becomes a whole other problem. They way I deal with a few days or a couple weeks is to take care of things in my personal life that needs my attention as well as enjoying my time off. I’ve had a couple of summers where it got super slow but I do my best to keep upbeat and positive. It’s not easy but I get through it. It’s a good time to work on new ideas or take on spec projects. The worst thing you can do is sit around and do nothing. That just gets your mind in a bad place. 

Assuming you have a good manager, they will let you know what’s going on so speak with them about projects you want them to go after. Or, maybe it’s time to reconsider looking for a new management if you feel there’s a pattern with them being lazy or not going after the records you want to do. Most important, though, is not to blame everyone around you. Take responsibility for everything. Who hired the manager? You did. Who didn’t keep on top of keeping your sound fresh? You did. Who isn’t out there networking? You aren’t. Now, when it gets into 4 months and upwards to a year, you’ve got yourself a serious problem. Aside from the financial stress, labels and producers are not thinking of you for their records. You need to figure out why. A year is very serious because labels, artists, et cetera want to see what you’ve done recently and a year is a long time because music and sound have changed, and frankly, if they don’t see a current discography they may not have the confidence that you are going to do a good job. I’ve seen great managers turn careers around for a new client that hasn’t worked in a long time. Doing it by yourself will be extremely difficult to pull off, but it means reconsidering the team you have around you. Do it sooner than later. 

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What were some of the most impactful lessons you learned from working for people such as Clearmountain, Delugg and Bongiovi? 

All three were completely different in their approach to engineering and temperament. It was such a great experience to watch them achieve the same endpoint from different perspectives. Tony Bongiovi was just a badass engineer who came from Motown and his sounds were so funky. His personality was unique, he didn’t take shit from anyone and always had complete control of the session. As an assistant you had to be out of the way and alert at all times. He might very well say, "I gotta catch a bus in 20 minutes, take over the session Brauer." He always spoke his mind with the artist. If the song sucked, he told them. He wasn’t condescending but he did make sure the artist was going in the right direction and he was pretty blunt about it. It worked for him because that was his personality and he seemed to always be right. Bob Clearmountain was always chilled and he would come up with sounds and ideas that were simply mind-blowing but also very intimidating to me because of how great he was. I often wondered that, if I’d be even half as good as him I’d still be very successful. 

Michael Delugg was my mentor and best friend as was Harvey Goldberg. Michael was high pressure, you had to be on your toes with him. He moved really fast and was a brilliant engineer who was a master of compression. He taught me about compression and is a major influence on me taking compression to the next level. He was also a master with keeping the clients happy and running the show smoothly, even when there were 10 people in the control room all raving lunatics. We would do big advertisement dates with 40 musicians in the studio and the guys producing were usually intense, nervous and hyped up on something but Michael would keep calm and keep them happy. It was incredible to watch him in action. He was a true master on interpersonal communication. 

You have worked in the industry since the 70’s, are there any moments that stand out to you that was really special? 

There are many moments but to name a few: 

Meeting and working with Luther Vandross certainly stands out. He taught me how to feel R&B. My approach to recording his records kept his music very fresh and modern sounding. He showed me how to put emotion into everything I recorded and mixed. 

Luther Vandross and Michael Brauer

Luther Vandross and Michael Brauer

When I did my first big recording session which was for a commercial with 40 musicians in a room, all playing at once. It was epic in that I was completely over my head and it needed to be recorded and mixed in 6 hours. I pulled it off without anyone noticing how nervous I was and not trying to distort anything, except the bass, but nobody noticed. I knew that if I survived that day everything else moving forward would be easy as pie.  

I saw you mentioned that your fear of failure is a motivation to you, but how has that fear impact your life/work and how did you overcome it? 

I’ve never overcome it. It’s what keeps me going and doing the best job possible. It comes in different degrees. I think it’s lessened by the amount of confidence I have in myself but when there isn’t some fear sitting there in the background, there’s a possibility of complacency that might set in. And that can lead to nothing but failure in my mind. 

Do you have a favourite failure, as in a failure that set you up for later success? 

My complete lack of understanding and hearing compression…if you can believe it! I mixed a song that was so compressed in my early year as an engineer that it didn’t matter how loud you brought up or down the monitors, it still sounded like the same volume. It scared the hell out of me so I didn’t touch a compressor for months after that. However, with time my ears began to tune into the difference in sound and feel between compressors and what compression actually did. Instead of making an instrument sound small, I learned how to make an instrument sound big with the right compressor. 

What has been your best purchase for $200 or less that has most improved your work in the studio? 

Plugins like iZotope RX or some of the sibilance plugins from Waves or FabFilter.