The Future of Studio Drumming

By Tommy Babalony

Any musician who has spent any time at all in the studio has some horror stories to go with the successes. Whether they are technical snafus, tiny budgets, late/no-show musicians, difficult-to-work-with musicians, or tight time constraints, the same challenges face anyone who wants to record their musical vision. The resulting product is a 50/50 proposition…sometimes the dynamic of a bunch of stressed-out people in the same room makes for great music. Sometimes you take what you can get…so much for vision.

Brian McRae’s answer to the percussion aspect of this dilemma is, an online drum-track recording service that, in some ways, is even better than having an in-house studio drummer. What makes unique, however, is the fact that you are getting a professional studio drummer who is playing real drums in a real room. McRae creates custom drum tracks and makes them available digitally to the recording artist for far less than it would cost to have a good drummer in-studio. All drum work can be conceptualized, written, recorded, tweaked and re-tweaked without ever having to meet face-to-face.

This isn’t a new concept if you’re talking about drum loops from a machine, but has the human element. While loops will often get an arrangement started, the dynamics of an actual human being playing an instrument is vital for the finished project. McRae calls it “the humanistic element…it’s the glue that holds it all together.”

The “glue” factory is the Wrecking Room, McRae’s Lyons-based studio. Inside (along with an array of computers and studio equipment) are the equivalent of five full kits, whose components can be combined and mic-ed in various ways to create any conceivable drum sound, not to mention the numerous percussion gizmos like hand drums, shakers and tambourines (even trash cans). Depending on the customer and the project, the sound can vary widely.

“The big thing these days is room ambience,” says McRae. “When you talk about drums, you’re talking about room sounds. What is needed for a commercial will likely be quite different from a local songwriter’s ideal sound.” What makes work, says McRae, is communication with the client. “I talk extensively with the customer. They’ll say something like, ‘Make this sound like Coldplay,’ (or something similarly vague). “They use words like ‘organic.’”

The ability to interpret these ideas requires not only creative juice, but also an extensive amount of experience on the road and in the studio. McRae has the creativity and the credentials to make any producer happy.

His background is steeped in music. McRae’s best friend growing up was Gary Novak, popularly known for his drum work with the Chick Corea band, but has also worked with Allan Holdsworth, Alanis Morissette and others. McRae says Novak is probably his main musical influence.

McRae attended the music-rich University of North Texas, where he immersed himself in the music program while earning a business degree. The associations he made at school led to more session work later on, and eventually led to his becoming a full-time professional drummer in 1993. Since then, McRae has recorded and/or toured with everyone from local favorites Xiren, Wendy Woo and Liza (of Zuba fame) to Sally Taylor (daughter of James Taylor and Carly Simon), Sherri Jackson, the Freddy Jones Band, the John Denver Band, and other national acts. He has shared musician credits on projects from such artists as Maceo Parker, Sam Bush and others. His work on local artist Christopher Jak’s latest CD is considered one of the best examples of McRae’s studio expertise. made its debut with Xiren’s new album Polite Conversation, and McRae has plans to use it not only for albums, but also for a number of commercial TV and film projects. McRae has extensive experience working with customers like Ford, McDonald’s, Hot Pockets, and the Dish Network, national commercial projects he recorded through Coupe Studios in Boulder. In fact, commercial recording is one of McRae’s main business ventures with

His customers rave about his talent and professionalism. Steve Berlin (Los Lobos’ producer) has called McRae “…versatile, fearless, creative, and quick to learn…I’d have a hard time believing anyone wouldn’t be happy with what they got from him.” Marty Lloyd of the Freddy Jones Band says that “whether you’re in the studio grinding out a tedious part for a song, or cracking jokes on the bus, Brian is there as part of the team,” adding, “Brian just so happens to bring an innovative talent and way of approaching music, in addition to his hard-working attitude and team spirit.”

The list goes on (and more quotes from happy collaborators are available on the website), but the upshot is, McRae can be trusted to provide not only killer chops, but also a musical intuition and depth to any project.

All this praise is fine, but how is better than hiring a similarly talented in-house drummer? Even McRae will admit that sometimes the vibe from having a whole band play live is what’s needed for a recording to work. But many times, a service like is without peer. The problems listed earlier…time, money, personnel issues, and technical gremlins…are all taken care of by recording remotely.

“In some ways it’s better not being in the studio,” says McRae. “The clock’s not running, and you have more time to listen to the song.” This is a huge plus, as often times nuances of the song don’t reveal themselves in the timeslot available at a live recording. By working at home, McRae can take the information given to him by the client, listen to the song over and over (without the dreaded ticking clock), deal with any technical issues and cut the track. All the client has to worry about is the finished product, and by the time McRae has corresponded with him/her throughout the process, the finished product is far superior to what can be achieved live.

After having worked through the whole process with McRae, “They trust me now,” he says. “We identify the sound and run with it…a lot of pressure is taken off of me.”

This is how works:
McRae needs a stereo mix of the music track you want him to drum on in an Aiff, .wav or SD II format. He prefers a click track or drum loop to be included, but can provide one if needed. Next, he will listen to the track and talk to you about what kind of sound you’re looking for. Depending on that, McRae will select from his arsenal of drums, cymbals, and other toys to get a “sound palette” for the song. He then plays along with the song to figure out the vibe and how different sounds affect the track. He’ll mix and edit the track, emailing a finished track for your approval prior to payment. If you want to revise his work, he’ll do it up to two times (within reason) at no charge.

Which again brings up the money issue. A decent professional drummer in house will often charge a high rate per song, not including expenses for getting him or her there. At, a flat rate is applied, and the results are even more controllable and consistent than with the higher priced live method. You can even pay online. There’s little wonder clients from local musicians to corporations are responding to McRae’s online concept. In the age of the Internet, it’s an idea that’s been a long time coming.