drummers sound off on session work, offer handy tips
© 2002 Bruce Shutan. All rights reserved
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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.
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."
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
"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
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."
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
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
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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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. firstname.lastname@example.org