Not many people can recall the smell of magnetic recording tape with unbridled nostalgia. Meet Simon Phillips, whose mother was a tape archivist, and who performed at 13 with his father’s jazz band every week on BBC Radio. Given his family history, it’s clear how he came to be a musician, composer, engineer, artist, producer, and audiophile.
When we caught up with him to find out how he captures his famous drum sound, Protocol II had just been voted #1 in the Jazz Instrumental category at the 14th Annual Independent Music Awards, and he was getting ready to engineer a session at his Phantom Recordings studio in Sherman Oaks, California.
From Dixieland to Jazz Fusion
Absolutely. I grew up in a jazz family. My dad started his first band in 1925 and was on the road in the 1920s and 1930s playing Dixieland Jazz. I grew up on Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw—all these wonderful jazz greats. So, that’s where my jazz side comes from.
As I got older, I got into more aggressive stuff. For example, Don Ellis, the jazz trumpeter, was pushing the limits with very modern arrangements, Indian rhythms and quartertones. By that time, I was more into the rock thing and doing a lot of session work. I started hearing music that was jazz-oriented with a rock sound. When I first heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever, that was it. What I heard back then was jazz fusion, but in those days, it was called jazz rock.
The Evolution of the Simon Phillips Sound
They needed to listen to the drum kit in the track. That’s the whole point. No one is ever going to get a mix of just the drums. They’re going to get a mix of everything. Vocals. Keyboards. That’s where it needs to sound good.
They were used to having a less ambient, less organic, less dynamic sound. My sound is very live, very organic and very symbiotic in the way it fits whatever I’m playing.
How Simon Mics His Drums
Side-address microphones give you less coloration because the capsule is open at the front and the back. Even though it’s a cardioid pattern, it’s going to be less susceptible to any coloration from the casing that it’s in.
The biggest problem with a drum kit is the sheer number of mics needed. This can get you into trouble very quickly. In certain scenarios, I would just use 4 or 5 mics for the whole kit, à la Glyn Johns or Alan Parsons. It just depends on the sound that you’re after. But for a multi-mic scenario, the SM27 is my preferred tom mic.
SM27 Saves the Session
I am pretty sure that anything I do has been done before. In my 44 years of studio work, I have seen many strange mic placements, some that I think work and some that I don’t.
I did an experiment by accident last year when American Airlines temporarily lost all my microphones. I had to make do in London one day without any of my mics. I went through the studio’s mic collection, and I ended up with a mixture of mics for the toms: three U87s, a couple of U67s and a couple of AKG414s. They’re all beautiful microphones, but once you put a lot of them together, you get problems because of the wide pick-up patterns on them. It made for an unfocused drum sound. The next day, my SM27s arrived. I went to the studio and put them all up, and the difference was staggering. The only thing we touched was the adjustment to the mic gain of each tom channel.
Respect the Engineer
Simon Phillips in a Nutshell
Drummer first, and audiophile a very close second. This is my profession, but it’s also a hobby and a passion. If money were no object, I’d have rooms full of audiophile equipment. I’d have mono block amplifiers and speaker cables thicker than my arms. I’d have a DSD recording system (such as Sonoma) in addition to my trusty ProTools rig with some all-singing, all-dancing ADCs/DACs. And I’d probably still have a few analog machines in tip-top maintenance form, because they have a lot to offer, too.
I love listening to great recordings. I’m an audio junkie and always have been. The thing is, I never stop learning, and that’s the cool thing about what I do.