Jay Reynolds has been infatuated with drums since he was two years old. It’s a lifelong passion that led him from his family’s home in Atlanta to living in Los Angeles. These days, Jay works with some of the most popular musicians around while studying and forging friendships with several of his favorite drummers.
Jay is a musician and songwriter in his own right, skills that bolster his role as a drum and keyboard tech. For more than a year, he has toured the world as a backline tech and providing backing track playback for JBL Brand Ambassador and multiplatinum-selling recording artist Demi Lovato. And, when Demi took a break to record a new album, Jay joined the entourage of GRAMMY® award-winning band, The Chainsmokers. He has also worked with Nick Jonas, New Kids on the Block, Stevie Wonder and 5 Seconds of Summer.
During a recent visit to the HARMAN Professional Solutions campus in Northridge, California, I had an opportunity to meet Jay and discuss his music and the intricacies of his job.
[MM] Can you describe your work process as a backline tech?
[Jay] If it’s a tour, you usually deal with the same drums and keyboards every day, and setting up is pretty easy. For the most part, it’s reliable and consistent. It becomes more difficult when you do one-offs in different places around the world. When you get the backline gear from local rental houses, the quality can vary drastically.
My first step is always to do quality control. I go over the gear to make sure everything is there and correct, preparing myself for whatever challenges I’m going to face. Often, rental companies don’t have exactly what you request, so you have to brainstorm ways to make what they deliver work or find an alternative. If it’s something essential, like a main keyboard or the kind of cymbals the drummer always uses, you need to be resourceful and track them down.
Next, you need to talk to the production manager and stage manager to figure out the stage plot and determine where each musician is going to be positioned. Then, it’s time to set up the gear. I start with the keyboards and, for those that are crucial for the sound of our show, load in the sounds. Then, I set up the drums, and finally, when I’m with Demi, I set up the playback rig.
[MM] Once you’re sure you have what you need and know where to set up the gear, what’s next?
[Jay] With drums, it’s essential to go over absolutely everything. There are a lot of pieces, and you don’t want to be onstage fixing things during the show. I go around and tighten every piece of gear. Everything should be locked down and tightened to nothing. Things come up that you can’t avoid, but I usually use a checklist with everything I need to go over.
Once we’re set and the drums are miced by the front of house crew, it’s a matter of buttoning everything up and making sure it’s as good as it can be for when the band arrives. We usually have our own soundcheck to make sure all the lines are working prior to their showing up. The goal is for the band to be able to jump right into their soundcheck. You don’t want to be figuring out why you’re not getting the right side of a certain keyboard while they’re waiting.
[MM] How different are your keyboard tech duties?
[Jay] I try to get my hands on the keyboards I work with ahead of time and read as many manuals as possible. That’s an important aspect of being a keyboard tech and probably the most difficult. Demi’s keyboard player, Steve Rodriguez, is primarily a bass player and played bass with her for years. When he became the MD [Music Director], he switched to keys. He plays piano and keys, but relies on my knowledge of the technical side of his instruments.
With analog-style keyboards like the Prophet 6, there are on knobs and switches you can see and adjust, but many keyboards use workstations, and it can take going through multiple pages and into the sub-settings to get the sound you want. You don’t always have the luxury of taking the time to scroll through a manual, so I try to be comfortable on as many keyboards as possible.
For example, we were in Mexico with Demi and Paulina Rubio wanted to come out and sing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” with her, so Steve needed a sound that sounded like a glockenspiel. Demi and Paulina were already on stage and I had about a minute to figure it out. With one ear, I was listening to the original song on my phone while quickly programming a sound with the other.
Another part of being a keyboard tech is making sure the instruments are well maintained. If you haven’t cleaned them in a while or are rough on your cables, eventually, they’re going to fray or there will be a connection issue.
[MM] Do things ever go wrong?
[Jay] All the time, but fortunately, we’ve never had a colossal failure. With Demi, we do a lot of overseas gigs, and there’s often a language barrier. Those are the hardest shows, but they’re also the most fun, because you often get to see a new place and usually have a couple days off.
Besides not knowing what gear is going to show up, the most common problem is faulty equipment. Some keyboards and drums look like they’ve been thrown down flights of stairs. Some have knobs missing. You might encounter problems with cables or inputs not working. You’ve got to be able to adapt and make things work.
At festivals with a lot of bands, things are often patched wrong. You have to figure out where the signal is going and get it routed to the correct channel for monitors or front of house. Those are the most common problems and usually the easiest to fix, but you don’t want them to happen during a show.
[MM] What’s the first thing you do when starting to work with a new drummer?
[Jay] I do my research. Social media is a great tool to see what their setup has been like. You can see if they change it a lot or if it has remained consistent for a long time. I can also see if they use a lot of electronics or not. If possible, I call them to find out what they like.
The day of the gig, the crew gets there before the band. I try to have everything set up the way the drummer wants it. Seeing how many things they move or change is like a game I like to play. The goal is zero, but that rarely happens.
I believe that being a serious drummer has given me an advantage over some of my peers. Becoming a professional drummer is still my aspiration and what I’m working toward. Because of that, I always consider how I would I want my kit set up.
[MM] Tell me about becoming a drummer.
[Jay] There are a lot of musicians in our family, but growing up, I had an uncle who was a guitarist and had a studio with a drum kit at his house. When I was two years old, I picked up the drumsticks and tried to play. A few years later, we ended up living next to him, and he would always have bands playing in his studio, which really nurtured my interest.
[MM] Did your uncle teach you to play or did you take lessons?
[Jay] Both. He taught me a little, and I picked up stuff from the drummers in his bands. I joined marching band in middle school and high school. I took the classes but never actually marched; I wanted to go home and play a kit instead. I was also in the jazz band and concert band in high school and took two years of lessons when I was about 14. Ever since, I have studied privately. I never went to music school; I’ve just sought out people to learn from. Currently, I’m studying with Dave Elitch. He’s a professional drummer who teaches in L.A. and is a great technician. He has played with Miley Cyrus and a variety of other artists.
[MM] Did you also play the piano while growing up?
[Jay] My parents said that if I wanted drum lessons, I’d also have to take piano. I wasn’t at all interested in what I was learning, but three years of lessons gave me a good understanding of the instrument.
I didn’t play a lot of piano until I decided to write more. You can’t really write music on drums, so I would mess around. When I started getting calls about keyboard tech work, I became more serious about it. Sometimes we need to soundcheck in front of 10,000 people, and I didn’t want to just be hitting middle C. These days, I spend equal time on drums and keys. I love the creative options and how they each help me to be better at my job.
[MM] How did you become a backline tech?
[Jay] I came to L.A. to play, but thought that becoming a drum tech would be a great way to meet people who might eventually hire me or help me with my playing career. My first goal was to get into the circles of professional musicians who did what I wanted to do. I would go to where they hung out and started networking. I’ve always been very technical about my drum knowledge and love to collect drums. I made friends with these guys, and they started asking me to help them build their racks or a rig for an upcoming tour. After a little while, I was asked to do a tour.
I also worked at CenterStaging, a backline company that provides local services and rental gear for events like the GRAMMYs. There, I learned a lot about the technical aspects of production and worked on a lot of big shows. I actually got the job with Demi through CenterStaging. The show manager there put me in contact with her production manager.
[MM] Was that your first big gig?
[Jay] No, a couple shows with Stevie Wonder were my first independent drum tech gigs. The drummer was Stanley Randolph, who is one of my favorite players. These days, I see him more as a friend, but if I were going to take a step back, it was awesome to work for someone I considered one of my favorites. My first tour was with New Kids on the Block; their drummer brought me in on that one.
[MM] Do you have a home studio?
[Jay] I have a home studio that also serves as a practice space. I use Pro Tools on a MacBook Pro, because I like being able to record tracks and then take them on a plane to edit. I recently got a pair of JBL LSR308 monitors that sound great. It’s really a delight to sit in front of them. They make listening to music even better.
I use a variety of drum mics that include AKG 414s, AKG D12s and AKG D112 MKlls. AKG 414 mics are incredibly versatile as overheads. And, to my ear, the D112 MKll perfectly picks up the frequencies of a kick drum. AKGs are really some of the best, especially the 414s. They’re so classic, and you’d be hard pressed to find better mics to capture drum sounds.
[MM] How has handling playback impacted your tour duties?
[Jay] Initially, I was a drum tech. Then Demi was the first artist I did keyboards for as well. Later, they needed someone to handle playback, so I had a crash course and learned how. It’s a live show, but there are backing tracks that fill in what the band isn’t playing, so you need to be ready to do the smoothest audio transitions. All the tracks are played off of an Ableton software system, but being a live show, anything can happen. Thankfully, everyone is on top of their game, so it usually goes right.
[MM] Thinking back to that kid playing drums at your uncle’s house, are you living out what you hoped you would by now?
[Jay] Even more so! I’m 23 years old, so being the kid next door wasn’t that long ago. I’m blessed to do what I’m doing at my age. I’m doing more than I probably imagined I could. I think the biggest thing is that over the last couple of years, guys I grew up watching on Modern Drummer Festival DVDs and YouTube videos are now friends. They were my heroes, and now I’m taking lessons from them or going to practice with them. That’s probably been the biggest way I’ve measured where I am and how far I’ve come.
Many thanks to Jay for sharing his insights on his backline tech and playback work. Are you a backline tech? Share your tips and tricks in the comments.