Simon Phillips kicks off recording sessions with an unusual ritual – literally and figuratively. The son of English bandleader Sid Phillips places a gallon of Dunn Edwards house paint inside each of his two kick drums. The paint’s quality and density translates into a superior sound that he says most drummers cannot get from a feather pillow or towel. “What this does is tighten up the bottom end of the bass drum,” explains Phillips, age 45. “Then I throw the front head back on and tune up, check the mikes, say hello to everyone, and get a coffee.”
Top L.A. session drummer Gregg Bissonette follows a routine that begins even before he gets to work; in his car, along some of the nation’s most congested roadways. Each time the 42-year-old son of a drum tech is en route to the studio he warms up on the steering wheel or a pad strategically placed on the passenger seat.
Acknowledging that it may not be the smartest thing to do in an age of cell phone distractions, Bissonette is dead serious about limbering up. In fact, the practicing continues for another half-hour once he arrives at a session – his dad Bud having already mounted a pad next to his hi-hat.
The quirky routines belie a laundry list of major preparation that includes everything from the mundane (carting in enough snare drums) to the sublime (listening carefully to producer demands). Recording is hard work, but some of the industry’s leading drummers for hire say it can be highly gratifying.
The labor-intensive tasks often take shape prior to a studio date. For those who don’t mind doing a little homework, there are CDs to buy and a body of work to hear.
If Bissonette is approached for the first time by a recording artist that he has wanted to work with for a while, he springs for all their CDs a week before the session and listens to the material. Example: his work with ELO front man Jeff Lynne, a member of the Traveling Wilburys who has produced solo recordings for Paul McCartney and George Harrison, as well as new tracks that appeared on the Beatles Anthology collection.
The homework paid off during the session with Lynne, who also plays drums and appreciated that Bissonette developed a feel for the songs, clicked out tempos, and wrote cheat sheets. “If we don’t serve the song first,” Bissonette says, “then we’re not doing our job.”
Former Journey drummer Steve Smith, age 47, usually listens to the recordings of artists he hasn’t worked with to bone up on his preparation. About a year ago, he was hired to record a country and swing CD for Ray Price and decided to buy the singer’s greatest hits to learn his style and get an introduction to the unexplored world of country music drumming. Sometimes, he cautions, an artist may request a radical departure from the group’s material, in which case he says it doesn’t help to hear previous recordings.
Phillips never listens to artists he hasn’t recorded with, which he describes as “a bad habit” he’s had since 1974 when he was used to three sessions a day and there weren’t many demos circulating. He’d simply tune up, glance at a chart, ask for the tempo and play. “After about 25 years you get the hang of it,” he quips.
Once in the studio, the first item on every drummer’s agenda is to tune up. Smith targets a low-to-high range that allows for little variation and follows the same ritual in the studio as on stage, regardless of musical style. This way, “the drums sound really good and people are happy,” he explains. “For most sessions people like to get a real big, open drum sound and play them in a way that resonates.”
Next come the microphones. Smith favors the Shure Beta 52 for his kick, Shure SM 57 on the snare, and Sennheiser 421 for all toms, which he considers the industry standard. He also uses overhead condenser mikes for “a great reproduction of what the drums actually sound like.”
While Phillips loves vintage mikes, he points out that “if you forget to turn them on you’ll have to warm them up, which is annoying because I just want to get on with making music.” Like Smith, he’s partial to the Shure SM 57 on the snare, which also works well on congas, but uses Beta 98s on his toms. Sometimes he likes to use a stereo pair of condenser mikes, though it depends on what he wants to achieve in the mix.
For the kick, which he calls “an area of amazing discontent,” he mounts the Beta 52 on a bracket inside the drum, while recording the outside head with a speaker cone he wires up to an XLR connector that plugs into a mike tree. “If you place the speaker in front of the head,” Phillips enthuses, “you get the most amazing sound.”
Bissonette also uses Shure mikes, citing the Beta 52 for his kick and a Beta 56 on the snare, and a KSM 32 overhead. What is it about Shure mikes that are so terrific? “I just think they’re punchy and have the frequency range I’m looking for,” he explains.