S.O.N.G.S. Episode 1: Ben Johnston – Twin Cities Breaks

S.O.N.G.S. (Stories Of New Graduate Success) is a spotlight on the paths IPR students pursue after graduation and the success they find along the way…

Welcome to the first installment of S.O.N.G.S.!  This episode features an interview with Ben Johnston detailing the unique compilation of drum loops and samples from local drummers which he has recently made available.  Released on his label, Skinny Branches, it is being offered in two different versions, each with qualities appealing to different types of music makers:

1) The vinyl (for live deejay use) contains 28 long loops.  Also intended for those who want that extra warmth that dumping the vinyl to digital can provide.

2) The data CD for electronic musicians, producers, beat makers and the like contains 117 loops (.wav and .rex files) as well as hundreds of drum samples from 12 different kits. The loops also have beats per minute indicated for added convenience.

-What inspired you to create this library?

The idea behind this project came about during a conversation between a former band mate and myself.  His idea was to make a studio recording of acoustic drum performances of my best beats /grooves and release a breaks record called “Bends Breaks.”  After pushing the idea around for a while I instead decided for it to be a collective of all my favorite drummers from right here in the Twin Cities.  So, that’s exactly what it is.  Twelve drummers (myself included) and two duets, performing their own grooves and on their own kits (and yes, we also sampled all of those kits). We wanted to have as large a variety of sounds and styles as possible; I think that we have succeeded in doing just that.  Twin Cities Breaks not only displays nicely the rich diversity of skilled drummers from right here in our fine cities, but is also a one of a kind tool for endless loop grabbing and beat making.  This project was amazingly fun and we are all very happy with the results.

-How did you select which drummers to contact?

Well, from the start I had a short list.  Before I attended IPR to learn production and engineering I had also gone to school for music performance.  Chris Hepola, Pete Hennig, and Brian Heitzman were all students at the same time as me –  they were the first I called.  Next up were drummers who are I knew of from bands that my band (self-evident) had played with throughout the years: Ian Prince, Zach Barocas, Adrian Suarez, Jeff Marcovis, and Joe Gaskill.  Last, but certainly not least, were the guys who I had never met but had see them play and wanted them to be included.  As luck would have it, Joe Johnson (engineer of the project) had their phone numbers and knew them through the studio (Fur Seal Studios): Martin Dosh, J. T. Bates, and Joey Van Phillips.

-What types of miking techniques did you employ?

As for miking it really depended on the kit that we were recording at the time.  Joe Johnson really knows the room he works in and got some amazing sounds.  I can tell you that because of the nature of this recording we didn’t close mic the toms, just overheads, rooms, and close miking on kick and snare.  One thing that was interesting that we did with a handful of the kits was to use a 30” marching bass drum as a low end resonator.  We placed it in front of the drummers kick with a mic in between and a mic on the far side of the marching drum.  You’ll hear this on some of the “wet” versions and select grooves – it sounds huge.

-Where were the recordings made?

Most of the tracking was handled at Fur Seal Studios, with the exceptions of Adrian Suarez and Jeff Marcovis, who recorded at The Sound Gallery.

-Any funny stories or anecdotes from the sessions?

Every session was a blast.  I love working with Joe Johnson; we spent a lot of the time laughing.  Each session had it’s own story and dynamic.  Every drummer had a different way of working, and that was kind of the whole point.  I gave basically no direction; just told them when to be there and to bring whatever they wanted.  Some just kept it simple and only brought their kits and recorded no overdubs and others loaded up with all kinds of auxiliary percussion and toys.  Joey Van Phillips probably worked the most “outside of the box”.  He brought in all kinds of stuff to play: ceramic tiles, a piece of metal he found in his driveway, even a hand full of sugar packets as a shaker (sounded pretty sweet).  Most of the drummers came in with premeditated ideas of what they were going to play, but for some we just set the click and found the loop later.

-How has your education from IPR proven useful to you since graduating?

What I learned through IPR has been applied to everything I’ve done music related since.  I actually just got home from Oklahoma where I was recording with my band.  This time around we demoed the entire record using Pro Tools on my laptop before we even went down to record.  I can’t tell you how much time and money we saved because of the inclusion of the demoing process.  Also, I am more comfortable and feel that things move more smoothly in the studio when the musicians have a knowledge of how things work.  It’s a huge time saver and makes communication much easier when everyone is speaking the same language.

Twin Cities Breaks is available online at: myspace.com/twincitiesbreaks and in-store at:  Fifth Element, Cheapo, The Electric Fetus, Treehouse Records, Ellis Drums, Twin Town Guitars, and The IPR book store.