Studio Tips: Smith, Bissonette & Phillips


Steve Smith

The Snare Difference

When adapting his playing style to a particular recording, Phillips says changing the snare usually does the trick. He used to lug around eight or ten snares, but now prefers three or four. “I have used my Tama Signature 14" snare for pretty much everything I have recorded for the past three years,” he explains.

Bissonette’s dad, who has served as his drum tech for about 12 years, brings about eight snares to his sessions. His favorite is a Mapex Precious Metal Phosphor Bronze that has the warmth of maple. Other noteworthy numbers include a 14" x 6-1/2" Mapex Black Panther, 5" Mapex Orion Classic, Ludwig Black Beauty, various wood and metal piccolos, and a snare that turns like a RotoTom.

Of the half dozen snares he brings to recording sessions, Smith is partial to an Ocheltree Phantom Steel, Sonor 4" bronze piccolo, as well as a single-ply maple shell piccolo from the now defunct Solid company, a 1928 Ludwig Black Beauty, and a Ludwig Aluminum Acrolite from the ’60s for straight ahead rock and roll, which he used on Hallucination, a record that guitarist Tommy Shaw and bassist Jack Blades made after Damn Yankees.

Charting A Course

Following all the ritualistic setting up, one final preparation will lay the groundwork for the rest of the gig: charts and cheat sheets or a lot of memorization. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are two schools of thought on this critical step in the recording process.

Bissonette, who reads for every session, simply doesn’t trust his memory – knowing how patience can wear thin in the studio. “There really isn’t much time for mistakes when you’re being paid union double scale to do an album and the clock is ticking,” he says. He’ll chart out major fills and mark tempo, dynamics, breaks and fadeouts – the kind of landmarks that he says allow the drummer to act as a musical director for other players who may lose their place.

In the early 1980s, producers pretty much stopped asking Phillips to read music. Often times, he’ll write out a cheat sheet – condensing nearly a dozen pages of computer printouts that require three music stands into half a page. For the casual sessions he’s done in L.A., people tend to turn up more with charts, whereas in England they don’t. “I tend to be very un-studious about it and have a ’70s rock and roll attitude,” he sheepishly admits. “To me, it’s about the music and the feel. It’s all instincts and intuition.”

Changing Scene

Recording drums has evolved through the years from a loose process through which the instrument was buried in the mix to a disciplinary drill marked by technical precision and efficiency.

“In the ’60s,” Phillips observes, “drummers were much quieter, and they’d put screens around the drums. If you listen to those old Stax and Motown records, you’ll hear the drums spilling out into the string and brass sections. Then in the ’70s, drums were considered noisy instruments. There was a drum booth craze but no ambience at all, and the drums sounded dead.”

When drum booths were converted into vocal booths, Bissonette remembers how the drums suddenly moved into the recording studio’s sweetest spot with the help of Phil Collins’s larger-than-life tom fills and Power Station drummer Tony Thompson’s gated signature sound.

His early session work involved songwriting demos, which later became records. These days, he says drummers are mostly hired for the finished product, noting that in about 70 percent of his sessions, he’s the only one being recorded.

When Smith started out in 1974, he recalls how entire bands would play live in the studio with no clicks or computers. In the early ’80s, he noticed a few folks bringing drum machines to sessions, a harbinger of the click track that later would become an integral part of the recording process.

Then it became even more precise when people started quantizing (i.e., digitally straightening tempos) in the late ’80s and using loops in the early ’90s. “If you’re the slightest bit out of time,” Smith says, “you’ll hear a flam between the electronic and acoustic snare drums to alert you. I had to re-learn all my playing.”

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