Simon Phillips talks Derek Sherinian's Oceana

Drummer discusses writing, recording and producing ex-Dream Theater man's record

Simon Phillips and Derek Sherinian have just released the latter's solo record Oceana (with Phillips handling drum and production duties). We recently sat down with Simon to talk all about putting this modern prog masterpiece together.

Where do you track drums for Oceana?

"It's an old fashioned studio in the way it's laid out and designed. It's a medium size, about 700 square feet live room, it's not particularly live. It's a room made for the days when you had everybody playing in the room. There is one iso-booth that was there. I built a piano room, which is totally isolated so you can put an acoustic piano in there, you can even put a drum kit in there if you want to get that real '70s vibe. It's not over-live, it's very good for tight, close miking but there is enough ambience in there for it to breathe and with a little bit of manipulating and a couple of tricks I can make it sound like a much bigger room without having to resort to loads of digital reverb."

What was the process of writing with Derek like?

"It's quite quick. We had about two or three days of writing earlier on in the year and we got five songs out of it. Typically what we do is Derek comes over and we set up a couple of keyboards, the drums are set up and miked up so we can track and we'll go out and just jam on a couple of things. Once we are happy with it, we'll come in and work in Logic, I work in Logic for MIDI and Pro-Tools for recording, and we throw in the ideas and start sorting out arrangements. One thing leads to another, when you write with somebody that's kind of the way it works. There were a couple of songs from this writing period where we would write a section and right in the middle of writing that section, I remember I came up with something and I went, 'Wow, this is cool,' but it had nothing to do with the song at all. It's even a different tempo. It just happened, so I said, 'Okay, hang on, let me save this as a different session and we'll come back to that.' We jumped from one song straight into a new one and started working on that, so hence we got five things together, plus I had a couple of things stockpiled that I had written a long time ago. There is one song on the record called Mulholland which I actually wrote for Derek when we were doing Inertia, that's a long time ago. For some reason it just didn't happen back then, but we made it work this time."

How did the two of you approach the album?

"The process of making the record is always record-by-record or song-by-song. I vary that as many ways as I can make a record and as many styles both as a player and as engineer. I treat everything very differently. If there is something on a record that is very different, both sonically and stylistically, then I would approach that very differently. I might use a different miking technique, a different approach, a different balance of the kit. The same goes with getting guitar sounds. You suit whatever it is. It's adapting to whoever is coming in. For example recording Joe Bonamassa and recording Tony MacAlpine are two different things and they were recording in two totally different ways. I had Tony set up with a 4x12 and his head and we messed around quite a bit with sounds and that was in the iso-booth because it's a nice sounding room, it's quite a big space. Then with Joe Bonamassa he just brought one of his vintage little Fender DeLuxes, or whatever he had, and placed it in the middle of the room. I threw my R21 and a [Shure SM] 57 up and bang, there's his sound. From an engineering point of view, I try to capture what the musician is giving me. If it needs a bit of work, because it's not quite making it, then we'll get into it and get the microscope out."

On 'Five Elements' there seems to be different kit sounds in there, particularly in that middle section

"In terms of the drum track, there was nothing different in recording, it was the same pass. We didn't stop and change everything and start again. That is how you play it. It's all in the playing. On an acoustic instrument, there is just so much you can change by the way you play. I can tell you now, in terms of the mix, I know what I changed. Basically the ambience came down, any reverbs I was using were all old-fashioned, first-generation digital reverb, like the old EMT 250 and the AMS RMX-16, these are all old-fashioned reverbs we used to use in the Eighties. It was interesting how different they sounded. I would dial up a reverb and once I was happy with it I printed it so it was actually recorded. They would have come down and the balance of the kit probably would have changed, toms might have come down, overheads might have gone up, stuff like that. In terms of the actual recording, nothing changed, it was purely a playing issue."

Does Derek give input on your parts?

"Absolutely. Derek is very direct. If there is something in there he doesn't like, he just says, 'I don't like this bit.' And I'm going, 'Hmm, how else can I tackle this?' It might be a particular groove... As a player I also have to assume the character of the drummer too. I have to listen to him. I might just sit there silently thinking, because at that point I may not know what I need to change. He saying he wants it a certain way, or maybe he can't say what that is, or maybe he has a very strong idea. I'll take that on board, I'll go out and become the drummer again. From that point on, I'm a drummer and I try to forget about all the recording aspect of it. I'll try out his suggestion. Sometimes it's very quick and I go, 'You know what? You're right, this works great,' or it's not working. Then I go, 'How else can I look at this?' It's like a big jigsaw puzzle. If you turn the Rubik's Cube around a look from behind it looks different. Suddenly I'll come up with something and he goes, 'That's cool.' Other tracks I'll play and he'll go, 'Perfect,' and I'll listen to it and go, 'Well, punch me in here and I'll do it from here to here.'"

It's complex music, did you use any charts in the studio?

"No, if I've co-written the songs, I know them. We wrote these songs back in January, some of them, I came off the road at the end of March and we did them in April. I'd forgotten what we'd written and had to listen to them again. For some of that I did put scratch tracks down when we made the demos."

For more from Simon pick up Rhythm 195, on sale now.

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