Top Producers Discuss Drums In The Studio

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.

Engineers And Producers Need Breaks Too

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.

Nailing It In The Studio

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.
Shippen:Shannon Forrest.
Dodd: These guys know where and how to hit something, and their tone.

And The Tone Is? Do You Need EQ?

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]

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Hours Or Minutes To Get Great Drum Sounds?

Rudin: Twenty minutes.
Jiosa: Twenty minutes.
Rudin: Did you say 20? Seventeen! [laughs]
Jiosa: If the kit is right, and the mikes are in place, just put them up there and dial them in.
Rudin: The only time that I’ll go on a hunt [for a sound] is if we’re working with a band and they are trying to create some drama, so we’re switching kits maybe between the verse and chorus. Then you might take a 3-piece kit around to different rooms in the facility to listen for something different, but more often than not now I’ll use the same kit and throw some foam blocks around it to change the sound.
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]
Shippen: The difference between a band drummer and a session player is like night and day. I recall doing two records back to back. One was cut by a certain drummer, on a certain drum kit, in a certain studio, and the second one was cut by Mark Hammond on the same drum kit, in the same studio, on the same day, with the same sounds. The drum sounds were like night and day. The reason is that Mark has been playing drums for 20 years and is smoking good.
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.

Best Way To Mike A Kit

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 [engineer].
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 you pretty much have the right mike choice.
Shippen: If you cut really 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.

Time Constraints

Rudin: Some orchestral sessions go a little faster than you really have time to wrap your brain around. 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.’”

Just Clean Up That Part In Pro Tools

Jiosa: That happens all of the time.
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 done.
Shippen: If you’re going to keep the vibe of the session going then sure. Rudin: If it’s something musical and the input of the player is going to enhance the track then I always fix it with the player.

Final Tips

Jiosa: Less is more. Or, don’t overplay. Don’t show me every chop on the first song.
Shippen: Listen.
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]