drummers sound off on session work, offer handy tips
© 2002 Bruce Shutan. All rights reserved
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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,"
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
"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.
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
"Counts 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
While there's no denying first takes can produce incredible
performances, Bissonette says that "as professional drummers,
I would hope that each take would get better - not worse."
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 Henderson Wootan record, 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.
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
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
mic 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
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 "Trial by Fire"
and "Escape." He's partial to the hit song "Don't
Stop Believing," whose drum part he describes as "very
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 10th CD, "Show 'Em Where You
Among the recordings Bissonette enjoys the most: his work
on Santana's "Supernatural," Don Henley's "Inside
Job" and the first Mustard Seeds album. He's also excited
about Gregg Bissonette's "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, and Spot, which also features his brother.
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 3-year-old boy
and 1-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."
Even if he means recording Icelandic folks songs.
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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. email@example.com