Rules Of Recording

Simon Phillips, Gregg Bisonette, And Steve Smith Offer Their Tips Of The Trade


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.

Prep Time

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.

Sweet Sounds

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.

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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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Gregg Bisonette

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.

Take Five?

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.”

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Simon Phillips

Getting Creative

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.”

Personal Best

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