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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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Pro Tool 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 "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 studio.

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."

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 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.

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 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 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 "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 10th 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 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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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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