Miles is going to have to ask
you to CTFO. 

In the past I was regarded as kind of a loud player- I forgot how much, until recently before a gig, when the club owner asked if we would please keep the volume of the drums low, the band leader- who knew me in college- burst out laughing. “Oh, right, I’m the guy who used to practice my sambas at fff for 90 minutes straight. I forgot.” For many of the intervening years it was something of a struggle to come down to the requested level on some things- often I would suffer from a lack of control, or wouldn’t be able to maintain it once the music started feeling good.

No more. I now declare myself to be an expert on playing softly, ever since I was able to play a date sitting two feet away from a violinist and a bassoonist, play everything I wanted (this was an actual blowing gig), and have them leave at the end of the night not only on speaking terms with me, but actually happy. QED.

So, I thought I’d share a few things that helped me when I decided I needed to get this part of my playing together once and for all:

Lower your stick heights. Do your pad practice keeping everything in the 1-6″ range, dedicating a significant amount of time to practicing in the <1″-3″ range.  Using a mirror helps. Learning to play without lifting the stick before every note will help keep your volume from creeping up. Spend some time cleaning up your full strokes, down strokes, taps, and up strokes, so every note you play ends with your stick in place for the next note. You can’t be thinking this way at the drum set, but if you work on it on the pad it will get things moving in the right direction.

Simplify. If you’re accustomed to playing a lot of ghost notes, busy ride patterns and other filler, lose most of that. At low volumes your dynamics become compressed, so your ghost notes will not be much softer than your primaries; the effect is similar to playing mf+ ghost notes along with a f funk groove; it’s nobody’s idea of funky.  

You don’t have to switch to brushes. Or multi-rods, or whatever, unless there’s a musical reason for it- unless that’s the sound you want. I still start gigs on the brushes, and psych myself up for a big jump in dynamics when I switch to sticks, only to find that, oh hey, I can play them exactly the same volume as the brushes. You don’t have to do rim clicks instead of regular snare hits, for the same reason.   

Use your wrists. Eliminate forearm movement, and hold the stick so that it doesn’t wobble around in your hand. That means you need to hold on in back maybe more than you’re comfortable with- my back fingers keep the stick against my hand most of the time. This eliminates much of the “noise” (movement and effort that isn’t contributing to putting the stick where you want it)  in your stroke, improving your control and helping you work less and relax overall. Even though your grip is more controlled, you have to keep it relaxed, with a feeling of lightness, and a smooth action in your stroke from the attack, to the note, to the follow-through. I concentrate on this more on the practice pad; enough of it carries over to my actual playing on the drums to give me the control I need without having to think about it.

It’s still got to be solid.  Play the notes, even if you’re only playing an inch off the drum.

Get comfortable with heel-down technique on both the bass drum and hi-hat. It’s not that you can’t play them softly heel up, but keeping your feet on the floor helps your balance, which gets magnified as an issue when playing softly. Playing heel up also generates more background noise, which will compete with your soft playing.
Get some books with written-out drum fills/solo ideas.
I’ve found that by taking away the creative element, it’s easier to focus on keeping the volume down. Once you get accustomed to making the moves quietly in that structured setting, you should be able to keep it together better in actual playing. I recommend: Rudimental Patterns by Joe Cusatis, Rudimental Jazz by Joe Morello, Rudmiments Around the Drums by Joel Rothman, Drum Set Warm-Ups by Rod Morgenstein.

Expand your idea of what is a good drum sound if you’re accustomed to a lot of rim shots on the snare, full crash sounds, and deep, funky toms.

Expand your idea of what is a good drum performance. If you need to be making a lot of big build-ups and explosive climaxes all over the place to feel like you’re doing anything, stop it. Learn the phrase slow burn, and apply it.

Play to the softest instrument in the ensemble. Listen carefully and concentrate on not drowning them out.

Don’t fight your instrument. Use drums/cymbals/heads/tuning/sticks that are controllable, and that sound good at a low volume.

  • Wise use of muffling. In the past I was an anti-muffling extremist- I used wide-open Remo Ambassadors on all my drums including the bass drum. Playing that way at very low volumes, your signal:noise ratio can go a little bit to hell- your primary note can get lost in the overtones. Today I have an Evans “Dry” head on one of my snare drums, and a coated Emporer with a Muff’l on the playing side of my bass drum. That’s still a pretty live sound for a lot of people.  
  • Tuning. I tune my drums high enough that I can just touch them and they will produce a tone. Lower tunings need to be played more forcefully to get a good sound.  
  • Bosphorus cymbals, particularly the Master series, and certain Sabian cymbals are very good for allowing you to dig in and get a full sound without the volume getting away from you. 
  • Maple sticks with a wooden bead. They don’t need to be small- I use a Vic Firth SD-11, which is the size of a fairly beefy 5B, and I have no problem controlling them. They’re easier to hold on to, and get a better tone than smaller sticks, both of which help me to relax. Use a felt beater on the bass drum. 

Learn what is and is not reasonable in terms of volume requests. Live music is louder than piped-in muzak, and the drums are going to dominate an unamplified flute or voice, no matter how delicately you play them. If the dirt-bag best man wants to hear “Rock You Like A Hurricane” exactly like the record, but the crusty old venue manager is freaking out because you’re louder than the clarinet/accordion duo they usually have, I’m afraid it isn’t going to happen.