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Listen Up!
Top drummers sound off on session work, offer handy tips

By Bruce Shutan
© 2002 Bruce Shutan. All rights reserved

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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 10 snares but now prefers three or four. "I have used my Signature 14-inch 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 6-1/2" x 14" Mapex Black Panther, 5" Mapex Orion Classic, Ludwig Black Beauty, wood and metal piccolos and a snare that turns like a Roto Tom.

Of the half dozen snares he brings to recording sessions, Smith is partial to an Ocheltree Phantom Steel, Sonor four-inch bronze piccolo, as well as a single-ply maple shell piccolo from the now defunct Solid, a 1928 Ludwig Black Beauty and Ludwig Aluminum Acrolight from the '60s for straight ahead rock 'n roll, which he used on a record that Tommy Shaw and 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. Oftentimes, he'll write out a cheat sheet - condensing in to half a page nearly a dozen pages of computer printouts that require three music stands. 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 'n 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 adjusting tempos) in the late '80s and using loops in the early '90s when drums would be overdubbed onto completed tracks. "If you're the slightest bit out of time," he says, "you'll hear a flam between the electronic and acoustic snare drums to alert you. I had to re-learn all my playing."

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 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're giving 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."

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Bruce ShutanAbout the Author: Bruce Shutan, an L.A.-based freelance writer, has been playing the drums since 1970. He has performed and recorded in numerous bands.

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