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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

Simon Phillips kicks off recording sessions with an unusual ritual - literally and figuratively. The son of English bandleader Sid Phillips places a gallon of Dunn Edwards house paint inside each of his two kick drums. The paint's quality and density translates into a superior sound that he says most drummers cannot get from a feather pillow or towel. "What this does is tighten up the bottom end of the bass drum," explains Phillips, age 45. "Then I throw the front head back on and tune up, check the mics, say hello to everyone and get a coffee."

Top L.A. session drummer Gregg Bissonette follows a routine that begins even before he gets to work: in his car, along some of the nation's most congested roadways. Each time the 42-year-old son of a drum tech is en route to the studio he warms up on the steering wheel or a pad strategically placed on the passenger seat.

Acknowledging that it may not the smartest thing to do in an age of cell phone distractions, Bissonette is dead serious about limbering up. In fact, the practicing continues for another half hour once he arrives at a session - his dad Bud having already mounted a pad next to his hi-hat.

Prep Time
The quirky routines belie a laundry list of major preparation that includes everything from the mundane (carting in enough snares) to the sublime (listening carefully to producer demands). Recording is hard work, but some of the industry's leading drummers for hire say it can be highly gratifying.

The labor-intensive tasks often take shape prior to a studio date. For those who don't mind doing a little homework, there are CDs to buy and a body of work to hear.
If Bissonette is approached for the first time by a recording artist that he admires or wanted to work with for a while, he springs for all their CDs a week before the session and listens to the material. Example: his work with ELO front man Jeff Lynn, a member of the Traveling Wilburys who has produced solo recordings for Paul McCartney and George Harrison, as well as new tracks that appeared on the Beatles anthology collection.

The homework paid off during the session with Lynn, who also plays drums and appreciated that Bissonette developed a feel for the songs, clicked out tempos and wrote cheat sheets. "If we don't serve the song first," he says, "then we're not doing our job."

Former Journey stick man Steve Smith, age 47, usually listens to the recordings of artists he hasn't worked with to bone up on his preparation. About a year ago, he was hired to record a country and swing CD for Ray Price and decided to buy the singer's greatest hits to learn his style and get an introduction to the unexplored world of country music drumming. Sometimes, he cautions, an artist may request a radical departure from the group's material, in which case he says it doesn't help to hear previous recordings.

Phillips never listens to artists he hasn't recorded with, which he describes as "a bad habit" he's had since 1974 when he used to three sessions a day and there weren't many demos circulating. He'd simply tune up, glance at a chart, ask for the tempo and play. "After about 25 years you get the hang of it," he quips.

Sweet Sounds
Once in the studio, the first item on every drummer's agenda is to tune up.
Smith targets a low-to-high range that allows for little variation and follows the same ritual in the studio as on stage, regardless of musical style. This way, "the drums sound really good and people are happy," he explains. "For most sessions people like to get a real big, open drum sound and play them in a way that resonates."

His secret: fastening onto his Sonor Designer kit Remo Powerstroke 3 heads on the top and bottom tom heads with a felt strip on both sides and mounting a mic inside the kick to supplement the outside mic, which promotes snap and minimizes low end.
Phillips likes a lot of life in his kit, with just enough ring, nice attack on the toms and bottom end without too much of a booming sound.

For most projects he uses a massive British racing green colored Tama Starclassic drum kit he affectionately dubs the USS Phillips: two 16" x 24" bass drums (on occasion he'll use a 14" x 18" kick), with toms that are 8" x 10," 9" x 12", 10" x 13," 11" x 14", 12" x 15" and 13" x 16," a set of four Octobans, lo pitch Signature Gladiator snare (5-1/2" x 14"), Signature Pagaent snare (5" x 12") and a gong.

Bissonette usually chooses among four Mapex kits: an Orion Classic, Saturn Pro (with various wood configurations), a Mars Pro M Series and bebop set up. Sometimes he introduces retro-kit or electronic drum elements, while he favors K. Zildjian cymbals, DW pedals and Remo heads.
Recently, he was told to bring his pop usual kit (a thin-shell Mapex with a big maple sound) to a bebop-style session where he needed to make a few adjustments such as cranking up the bass and toms and using a piccolo snare. His point: always be prepared in case the producer or artist throws you a curve ball.

Next come the mics.
Smith favors the Shure Beta 52 for his kick, Shure 57 on the snare and Sennheiser 421 for all toms, which he considers the industry standard. He also uses overhead condenser mics for "a great reproduction of what the drums actually sound like."

While Phillips loves vintage mics, he points out that "if you forget to turn them on you'll have to warm them up, which is annoying because I just want to get on with making music." Like Smith, he's partial to the Shure SM 57 on the snare, which also works well on congas, but uses Beta 98s on his toms. Sometimes he likes to use a stereo pair of condenser mics, though it depends on what he wants to achieve in the mix.

For the kick, which he calls "an area of amazing discontent," he mounts the Beta 52 on a bracket inside the drum while recording the outside head with a speaker cone he wires up to an XLR connector that plugs in to a mic tree. "If you place the speaker in front of the head," Phillips enthuses, "you get the most amazing sound."

Bissonette also uses Shure mics, citing the Beta 52 for his kick and a square mic that lays flat inside the kick on a towel and Beta 56 on the snare with mics that mount on toms and a KSM 32 overhead. What is it about Shure mics that are so terrific? "I just think they're punchy and have the frequency range I'm looking for," he explains

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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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