Studio Tips: Smith, Bissonette & Phillips
Beyond the age-old debate on first takes, drummers often wonder how much freedom they’ll have to color outside the lines and unleash their creativity.
For pop sessions, Smith says there’s not much of an opportunity to etch his personality into the tracks, though he finds the process more gratifying than frustrating. “It’s like industrial work where I lay a standard foundation for the vocalist,” he explains. Still, he considers the incredibly controlled and precise pop style featuring loops and computers “a very unnatural way to play the drums and music.”
Occasionally, he’s asked to be more adventurous, which happened when Savage Garden wanted some over-the-top roundhouse rack-tom fills and double-bass foot patterns. Aranda, two brothers from Oklahoma City who just signed to the Epic label, sought what he’s perhaps best known for: Journey power-ballad fills.
When Smith works on jazz-rock fusion records with artists like Larry Coryell, he usually gets involved with writing and arranging songs – many of which are composed around his drum parts. On a Vital Tech Tones album that he did with guitarist Scott Henderson and bassist Victor Wooten, he burned a CD of drum parts around which melodies and other instrumentation were later devised. “Those records are about personality and expressing one’s musical ideas,” Smith notes.
Home Sweet Home
For many drummers, the chops needed for today’s recording sessions often are honed in home studios. Whenever possible, Bissonette practices at home to CDs and likes to “borrow” ideas from other drummers who he often invites over for jam sessions that make him feel energized. Recent jams included Mike Malinin of the Goo Goo Dolls and Afro-Cuban rhythm king Jimmy Brantley. He also plays along with drummer videos and does lots of songwriting in the studio with his bassist brother Matt.
Phillips built a professional studio at home in 1986. But for the first four years after moving to the house, he couldn’t bring himself to use it – swearing off the concept because of maintenance and cost issues.
He then built a compact digital studio based around DA-88s and a Tascam 32-channel console and spent a month wiring the mike patch, patch bay, FX racks – all 24-pair cable terminated with EDAC 96-pin connectors so the whole studio could be portable. “It turned into a full-blown Pro Tools rig with 5.1 monitoring,” he says. “I have recorded and mixed quite a few CDs there now.”
When the recording process is finished, the sweetest gift of all is having terrific material to be proud of. One of Phillips’s recent milestones is a bebop jazz CD recorded in his home studio with pianist and friend Jeff Babko, a collaboration known as Vantage Point. “It was a six-hour live record with a few takes each,” he reports, “and is the first straight-ahead playing of mine available.”
Of the more than 100 recordings he’s appeared on, Smith is fond of all the Journey CDs, especially 1981’s Trial by Fire and Escape. He’s partial to the hit song “Don’t Stop Believing,” whose drum part he describes as “very creative.”
Smith also cites Ray Price’s Prisoner of Love as a perennial favorite for exposing him to country music, as well as a funky power ballad by Australian singer Tina Arena called “No Shame,” which features “some very creative fills and the drums sound amazing.” These days, he spends quite a bit of time touring with Vital Information, which just released its tenth CD, Show ’Em Where You Live.
Among the recordings Bissonette enjoys the most: his work on Santana’s Supernatural, Don Henley’s Inside Job, and the self-titled debut album from the Mustard Seeds. He’s also excited about his own solo Submarine CD, as well as his work with Jughead, which includes his brother on bass and vocals, Ty Tabor of King’s X on guitar, and Derek Sherinian on keyboards.
Bissonette says he never passes up a recording session. “My dream in life was to play drums for a living,” he explains. “There are certain live gigs I’ve turned down because it wasn’t the right kind of music to be out on the road for six months with or I was going to lose a lot of money,” says the dedicated husband and father of a three-year-old boy and one-year-old girl. “But for a recording session – to be in town and be able to hug my kids at night – life doesn’t get any better.”I