Studio Tour: At Home With Chester Thompson
Lounging in the quiet sanctity of Chester Thompson’s home recording studio, one can’t help but wonder how this humble drumming veteran of Genesis, Weather Report and Frank Zappa’s outfits wound up residing in Nashville, of all places. “It was time for a change,” the soft-spoken Thompson explains. “Doors appeared to be opening here. Actually I ended up really falling in love with the place. I came down [in 1992] for Larrie Londin’s funeral. I stayed for a couple of days and really liked the feel of it. After driving around, meeting a few people, talking to Larrie’s son Sean, I actually met several people in the industry here and it sounded like the right place to be. It turned out to be a great place, family-wise. It hasn’t been a great place work-wise but I never work in the place I live in anyway.”
At least not since he lived in his original hometown of Baltimore, although Thompson doesn’t seem to mind. He remains the supplier of deep pockets for international pop star and fellow drummer Phil Collins, but the singer has taken some time off to enjoy his recent marriage and write material for a new album. This hiatus has afforded Thompson more time to tinker at home with his studio gear. An avowed “gadget freak,” Thompson believes that he might have pursued a career in science if the drumming bug hadn’t bitten him first.
“I was really curious and understood principles like math and science,” he says. “I took electrical shop in high school, and one of the things I had to do was build a radio from scratch. You had to drill out the chassis box and mount tubes and all that stuff. So I had a little bit of a working knowledge of what things do, and then everybody went to transistors, which could do a lot more than tubes. And when everyone got into microchips, it was like having banks of tubes and transistors all in one thing.
“The problem is that microchips allow manufacturers to build gear so tiny, with pages and banks. You hit one button by mistake and it takes you into a whole new area.” He points to his new Mackie mixer – a new digital 8•Bus model. “Like this board, it would be nice to have it all spread out. They could make the same board with separate faders and buttons for everything.”
While Thompson does some engineering himself, he’s found that it can be difficult to do everything at once. So in order to play drums on his own recording projects, he sets a click through the computer to give himself a full minute or so before the song starts. This allows him just enough time to get everything running before he jumps behind the drums, puts on the headphones and begins to play. ”I’ve already gotten [drum] sounds,” he says. “Some good engineers have come in and have been gracious to get sounds for me. I’ve got their settings saved in the board.”
Like many other session drummers, Thompson uses his home studio to record drum tracks for clients, which saves them time and money and vastly simplifies his life. Most of the time he uses four Alesis ADAT machines that nestle in a small rack in a closet off of the control room, which also contains a Peavey Classic Series 120/120 Dual Mono Tube Power Amplifier.
He explains, “People send an ADAT with their music plus a click, and then I just play along with it on another tape, since it is a modular thing, and send it back to them.” Easy enough, but while the ADAT format is infinitely more convenient for telecommuting drum tracks than lugging around 2" tape reels, many producers believe that analog has a warmer sound than digital.
“Analog is not as clean as digital, but a couple of my ADATS have been modified so that they actually don’t sound like ADATS,” Thompson says. “There’s a guy in L.A. who can do that, but in actual fact, I almost don’t need the modification because of the Mackie board. The analog/digital converters in the Mackie are such a high quality that I am using optical cables to connect to the ADATS. What you hear is the processing in this thing, which is actually far superior.”
We turn our gaze to the tracking room and spy a set of Toca congas and a beautiful seven-piece maple DW set with a zebrawood finish, which is mounted on a Drumframe. Everything is fully miked and ready to go, using Shure Beta 56s on toms, a Shure 57 on the snare, a Beyerdynamic 740NC stereo mike for overheads and an AKG D112 in the bass drum. Even though Thompson prefers the sound of real acoustic drums, he says, “I do love the fact that I can have a whole bank of any number of drum sounds right there without having cartage back and forth ten times.” Whenever he’s called upon to record electronic percussion tracks, he either programs patterns into a drumKAT or plays a trapKAT (with real cymbals) right at the control board, which he hears through Mackie HR824 monitors. He also keeps his Alesis ADAT BRC remote right on top of the mixing console to run his ADATs.
Thompson has an ample supply of tone generators mounted in a rack bursting with goodies that sits to the left of his keyboards, within easy reach. From top to bottom, we see a Furman PL-Plus power conditioner and light module, E-mu Pro/Cussion Maximum Percussion Module, E-mu Proteus 2000, Korg Wavestation A/D, E-mu Systems EIII/XP Emulator, E-mu Vintage Keys Classic Analog Keyboards, two Mark of the Unicorn MIDI Time Piece IIs, Digidesign Pro Tools Audio Interface and an Impulse Aphex Systems LTD MIDI translator. All this is housed above a small Mackie CR1604 16 channel mixer, which Thompson uses for his keyboards: a Korg 01/WFD Music Workstation and an EX5 Yamaha Music Synthesizer.
Did you see the Pro Tools module in Thompson’s rack? So did we. So why does he use Qbase software to achieve near-perfect tracks instead? It’s because his older version of Pro Tools won’t work on his brand new Macintosh G-3 computer. Oops! “I need to update,” he says sheepishly. “I use Qbase instead, which I can pretty much use to do hard disk edits. Eventually, I’ll get into the next generation of Pro Tools. But for now, there isn’t anything I can’t do.”
You might have noticed that Thompson doesn’t feel a whole lot of pressure to update his studio gear. “In a town like Nashville, I can rent anything I need,” he says. “If I have a project and I don’t have the gear for it, it’s just cost effective to bring it in for the day and use it. I like owning my own gear but I’m not trying to keep up. Forget it. I’m not running a commercial studio. If I get to the point where it’s paying all the bills, then we’ll upgrade everything!”
Still, that hasn’t dissuaded Thompson from collecting a second rack full of nifty effects and assorted doodads. There we found a Sony TC-WE435 cassette deck, Teac PB-64 patch bay, Symetrix Patch 32, Furman PB40 patch bay, a custom-made noise gate by Jim Williams/Audio Upgrades, Alesis Midiverb II 16-bit digital effects processor, Yamaha EMP 700 stereo multi effects processor, Yamaha R100 digital reverb, Lexicon PCM60 digital reverb, Dynacord DRP20 digital reverb processor, two DBX 160X compressor/limiters, Dyna Mite compressor/limiter/gate, and an Aphex Systems Aural Exciter Type C LTD. What’s more, his new Mackie console has loads of compressors, EQs, and gates built into it. “And most of it is real good!” Thompson enthuses.
Besides the obvious convenience of having a professional studio in your house, Thompson has found other ways that he has benefited from the experience. “I guess I can say stuff maybe some guys couldn’t get away with saying, but I’ve been doing it long enough,” he explains. “And I’ve picked up some really good tips from different engineers over the years. It’s great to be able to be in a session and if something is not working, I probably have an idea of what it would take to make it work.”
Before wrapping up our little studio tour, there was one last piece of gear we just had to ask about – the RCA television mounted above the console. At first we thought it may be a monitor for the computer, but Thompson corrected us. It’s just a normal, beat-up TV. “It got a lot of use during the NBA playoffs!”