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.
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. 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.
Shippen Shannon Forrest.
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.
Rudin Twenty minutes.
Jiosa Twenty minutes.
Rudin Did you say 20? Seventeen! [laughs]
Dodd I’ve done some stupid things as well. I was on this thought of why the snare doesn’t sound as big as the kick in terms of power, so I went on a quest to get the snare to sound like that. This poor drummer — I slacked off the skin so much that to give it any tension I had to put a 14 lb. spool of solder to weight it down. It’s funny because I didn’t work out the physics of it. When you hit the snare it would wobble and release the skin for a little bit, but you’d have the really low-sounding drum. I didn’t think what agony I was putting this drummer through at the time. He was in a band so he didn’t know any better.
Rudin To this day he carries around a 14 lb. spool of solder. [laughs]
Rudin He’s a monster!
Dodd Sometimes you’ll get someone that will remark on an album that you’d done and they’ll pinpoint just the drums. They’ll say, “That was an amazing drum sound on that track!” And yet they don’t make that comment about the other tracks, even though they were all tracked by the same people in the same studio with the same settings. It was a different day, but moreover it was a different song, a different vibe.
Rudin Different tempo.
Dodd All these things have nothing to do with the drums.
Rudin That quarter-note that equals 84 [bpm] is a lot easier to sound like a god than at 203.
Jiosa I will say that in today’s world, with the
technology that is available, many times it’s overkill. I believe less
is more. I believe that in production, and I believe that in recording.
Still, the bottom line is, was it a great song? Nobody listening to that
record is going to care about the drum sounds except the drummer and you
Dodd In an ideal situation, any good mike will give you a pretty-good sound.
Rudin Typically, I have an idea of how I want to record drums, but I do adjust it to the material if the band has a vision of what they want the record to sound like, or if there is some kind of extra vibe or tone that can be impacted by the process of recording over the parts that everybody is playing, like miking the kit with one ribbon mike.
Dodd Very often the case these days, there is a lot of mikes and a lot of tracks. I had to mix a record with 27 tracks for drums!
Rudin That’s what I got last month.
Dodd And all it was is that you have too many microphones in the wrong position, and I still had to struggle to find something. If you want to get a good idea of what mikes to use, put [up] a pretty decent pair of overheads, or close room mikes, and have a listen to what the microphone “thinks” the drums should sound like. Then when you go to your pinpoint microphones, or spot microphones, see if they bear some resemblance to that. If they do then you pretty much have the right mike choice.
Shippen If you cut great-sounding overheads then it doesn’t matter. There is no drum “picture.” There’s kick, snare, and crash, and half the time there’s samples anyway because if you want something to cut through 200 tracks of pop production, it’s going to be a sample. I think that’s unfortunate because then it lends itself to, “let’s not bother cutting good drum sounds, because they are going to be samples anyway.” I don’t like to replace drum sounds — just augmenting when I need to.
Rudin The truth is that recording is a process, and anything you choose to record with or to is going to change the sound and influence what you end up with. The job is to experiment and find things that sound like you want them to sound. Sometimes that’s a whole lifetime of experimenting.
Dodd The engineer is there for a reason. A [Shure] 57 and a suitable preamp can be a wonderful thing. Conversely, you can use a high-dollar microphone through a piece of crap and you’ll be wasting your time.
Jiosa In today’s world, everyone thinks you can buy a computer and start making records, and it’s just not the case.
Shippen Anybody can go on Sweetwater and get your 002 rig, you get an Avalon 737, and then you’re an engineer. Then they bring it to me, and go, “How can we get this to sound like Green Day?” My response is, “You can start with Green Day!” [laughs] The craft [of engineering] is slipping in this downward spiral, and drums are difficult.
Dodd Technology has fostered so many disgusting habits and decisions.
Rudin The mark of a professional is to check everything
at the door, focus on the task at hand, and have the technique and tools
you need to do the job, and 99 percent of the time, when the player gets
out of the chair, it’s right.
Shippen This is why Chris McHugh is called on a lot of sessions. He shows up on time, sits down, drums are tuned, and he nails it. If you want to tweak it, he nails the tweak. Greg Morrow is the same way. These are the types of players that are called for the [Musicians] Union sessions.
Dodd Chris was the first drummer I ever recorded in Nashville, and I thought situation-normal, everybody’s great [in Nashville]. That’s not the case, but I would rather discuss sessions in which I had less time. Sometimes too much time is as much of a pain as not enough.
Shippen The corollary to that is you may have a producer that says, “I don’t know what I want, but …”
Rudin “I’ll know it when I hear it …”
Jiosa Or, “Can you make it sound a little more ‘orange.’”
Dodd Good drummers these days not only tell me what to
do but how to do it. They can do it faster too. “Take this bar and drop
it here.” They are so in tune with what they’d done and what can be
Shippen If you’re going to keep the vibe of the session going then sure.
Rudin If the input of the player is going to enhance the track then I always fix it with the player.
Jiosa Less is more. Or, don’t overplay. Don’t show me
every chop on the first song.
Dodd Rehearse or be ready. Know what’s expected of you and if you don’t know, ask.
Jiosa Be on time.
Rudin Pay attention
Dodd The bass player is there for a reason.
Jiosa Yeah, to get your coffee! [laughs]