Studio Tips: Smith, Bissonette & Phillips
Bonding With Producers
Leading the charge during the past 40-plus years has been the omniscient producer. Smith can’t resist making a cinematic analogy when describing the drummer-producer relationship: He’s like a director who listens carefully and makes suggestions for improvement, such as saving a cymbal crash for the second chorus or ending a fill differently from the last take.
“Most of the producers I work with these days are really good musicians who know what they’re talking about,” he says. And there should be no confusion about who’s the boss: “Session drummers are simply accompanists or musicians for hire.”
His favorite producers are Corrado Rustici and Walter Afanasieff, both of whom are open to his ideas, creative, professional, easy to get along with, and knowledgeable about tempo and rhythm. “All the great producers share these qualities,” according to Smith. “I can trust the feedback they give me.”
Phillips, who’s also a producer, engineer, and songwriter, says it’s important to let the producer do his job: “If someone asks you to do something, you evaluate what it is and go with it.”
Production will largely depend on the kind of music that’s being recorded. For example, he says jazz will be performance-oriented while rock is more premeditated to minimize mistakes – the danger being that it creates a homogenized sound. While his work with Judas Priest and the Michael Schenker Group in the ’80s “had so much feel, essence, groove and vibe,” Phillips thinks it now sounds “too planned and automated.”
About a year ago, Bissonette worked on a CD with a band whose members were at odds with the producer, who sought a simple groove. Three 18-year-old musicians were pleading with him to impersonate Carter Beauford of the Dave Matthews Band. So he followed their instructions until the producer told him to dispense with the rolling hi-hat histrionics and splash cymbal fills and instead follow “a Stan Lynch, cool-pocket drum part.” The lesson, of course, is to find out who’s in charge and be professional about it. “If you do that,” he says, “they’ll call you back.”
Pro Tools Perceptions
While some folks romanticize the sound of analog, Pro Tools-lover Phillips says there’s no escaping the noise, hiss, scratches, and limited tape space. “It’s wonderful to open a session on a Mac and everything is there: where you left all the faders, delays, reverbs, and effects,” he opines.
Bissonette also is fond of Pro Tools “because it can take the heat off you.” Translation: Drummers no longer have to sweat through a session to lay down the perfect take within a limited time frame. “You can leave a session at the end of the day, even if it’s for one song, with 20 versions and let them cut things in and do what they want,” he says.
However, Smith is bothered when producers use Pro Tools to quantize his playing. His main gripe: it removes the human element and allows anyone with questionable ability to make a record. Indeed, Pro Tools can make the most anal-retentive producer even more anal retentive, though he believes most producers shy away from quantizing drums in favor of a live feel.
“I like for my performance to keep its integrity and not be changed,” he protests. Still, he appreciates the ability of Pro Tools to edit takes so easily that a performance literally can be cut and pasted together.
Despite the magic of Pro Tools, Phillips prefers first takes, though it depends on the music. For example, he mentions that the fabulous “Space Boogie” on Jeff Beck’s There and Back album was completed on just the second take. “I think it comes from the experience of having to make records in three hours like we used to do in the early ’70s,” he says. But in other cases it may take an eternity to nail the track. A song he did for L. Shankar called “Darlene,” produced by Frank Zappa in 1979, took two days.
Smith also tends to be a true believer in first takes. “They have a certain element of exploration, creativity, and seat-of-the-pants quality you find in playing a tune for the first time,” he observes. He cites as an example his work on Larry Coryell’s Count’s Jam Band. For Journey’s Trial by Fire, he recalls that it was easier to nail the tracks because the band was so well rehearsed before entering the studio.
While there’s no denying that first takes can produce incredible performances, Bissonette says, “as professional drummers, I would hope that each take would get better – not worse.”