Nashville is known as being home to a large community of world-class musicians, drawn to Music City’s lucrative recording scene. But you will find just as much talent on the other side of the studio glass. Grammy award winners and platinum-record recipients, Nashville producers and engineers have captured the sound of drummers like Chester Thompson, Simon Phillips, Ricky Lawson, Abe Laboriel Jr., and Jim Keltner, to rattle off just a few iconic names. We spoke to four first-call recording masters – Dan Rudin, Reid Shippen, Denny Jiosa, and Richard Dodd – and asked them to shed some light, share some stories, and reflect on the drummer’s role in the studio, from their perspective.
Jiosa: I was actually managing a studio on Music Row called Hummingbird Productions. I started when the gospel craze was happening here in town. Ben Tankard came in and he needed an engineer, and I jumped at the chance. He was looking for someone that had ears for a little more of a jazz feel, so I jumped in and ended up doing his records with Yolanda Adams, and it just took off from there.
Dodd: I was nice to a female producer on a jingle session who wasn’t that familiar with the studio terminology. I was an assistant and I’d sneak up behind her and whisper “double track” or whatever the relevant term was the client wanted to hear. Shortly after she started to get work and realized how useful I was, she decided to use me as her engineer.
Rudin: I haven’t started yet! [laughs] I was the coffee boy at a studio when I was 16 years old, and the engineer came in one day and said he didn’t want to do this [jingle date] and he said, “You’re doing it.” I was about 82 pounds, 4'11" and the clients showed up and asked where the engineer was, and I said, [crackling voice] “I’m the engineer!” I was given a chance and it took off from there.
Shippen: I did a ton of interning and assisting, including for Denny at Skylab. I almost didn’t graduate from school because I was downtown working the studio more than going to class.
Jiosa: That’s true.
Shippen: I didn’t really see the reason for going to class at that point anyway. I think the break was a hip-hop record. I think it was Yosh, where they could only afford Yosh for like five songs on the record. The producer wanted to mix the rest of the record himself, and I was going to help him because I knew how to run the studio. He was kind of lazy, so I ended up mixing the rest of the record. And then off I went.
Jiosa: I’ve worked with some great drummers: Chester Thompson, Ricky Lawson, Derico Watson. Also these guys have great-sounding kits, which makes your job a lot easier.
Dodd: The very first session drummer I worked with was the late Barry Morgan. He was a percussionist turned drummer and had a very unique style. This was back in the day when you did four songs in a three-hour session – normally a run-through and then a take. We did a run-through that had a one-bar drum break in this pop song, and he did the most amazing thing: I heard three-and-a-half beats of silence and then a little hi-hat pick up, and I was thinking, “Can you do that?” [laughs] I then learned you could play nothing and still be cool. That was a good lesson. His counterpart would be Clem Catinni from The Tornados, and in America, Jim Keltner, of course. He’s automatically perfect.
Shippen: [Matt] Chamberlain is always killer. Everything he plays is great, with tons of feel. Abe Laboriel Jr. has turned in some amazing tracks. I was actually doing a record that was cut in L.A. with Abe and a bunch of other people. I came back to Nashville, and for some reason, some of the songs got changed and they re-cut some tunes with a local guy named Ben Phillips, who’s this young up-and-coming session drummer who records in the living room of his house. I didn’t know, so I hit the second or third song on the record and the drums on this song were just killer, and I turned to the producer and said, “Abe just murdered this song, it sounds amazing.⁄” And he was like, “That’s Ben Phillips.” There are tons of local guys like Ben that are just killer. Ben’s great. Dan Needham is phenomenal. Chris McHugh is phenomenal.
Dodd: Chris McHugh is absolutely brilliant! Greg Morrow is another one.
Shippen: The talent of drummers in Nashville is stunning.
Rudin: We are not “great drummer” shy in Nashville.
Jiosa: Ron Tutt.
Dodd: These guys know where and how to hit something, and their tone.
Rudin: Good [laughs].
Dodd: In time.
Rudin: EQ and effects are so down the scale. It’s all about the drummer, and then everything else goes downhill from there. Good-sounding drums and good responsive drums only matter if the drummer plays real dynamically or has a certain touch. Matching the drums with the drummer with the music is the whole thing.
Dodd: The environment.
Rudin: I think even before the environment, you can even work around the “room” if you have the right drummer for the gig. Steve Gadd came into town and worked over at Sound Emporium. Dave Sinco engineered that session on a Janis Ian record, and Dave told me that Gadd did the coolest thing. He put him in this booth over on the side that has the big 700hz “wonk” in it. Gadd sat down, he played the drums for about an hour, and he listened to what dynamic level the drums sounded great at. For the rest of the recording he never played louder than that.
Shippen: Know your instrument.
Jiosa: So much of it still comes from the player. I can hand my guitar to another great guitar player and it’s not going to sound like me even though it’s the same instrument.
Dodd: I’ll tell you what destroys a drum sound is the tempo. The faster it is, the harder it is to get a good drum sound. Also, the harder a drummer hits the harder it is to get a good drum sound. I remember a funny story about Simon Phillips – brilliant drummer: One day he turned up for a session, my first session with him, and someone told me he was left-handed. We were in one of these little rooms and he had a minimalist kit. I think only four tom toms [laughs], and he’s looking at the mikes and then asks me, “Is that the hi-hat mike? Because it’s set up for a lefty.” I said, “You’re left-handed, aren’t you?” Simon said, “No, but I’ll play that way for you.” And he did the whole session left-handed. On another occasion with Simon Phillips, he had his latest kit delivered and set up in the studio so they could take some snapshots of it. It must have been like 14 tom toms, two kicks, two hi-hats, cymbals behind him, gongs – the whole thing was just magnificent to look at. Clem Catinni was around that day and I asked him to take a look at this kit. I asked, “What do you think of that?” Clem said, “You can’t miss, really, can you?” [laughs]