Technique: The Ins & Outs of Recording Sessions
By Chris Marion |
Technique: The Ins and Outs of Playing Recording Sessions
My big dream when I moved to Nashville in the mid ‘80’s was to be a session musician. I had enjoyed a taste of recording through a few high school and college bands and was confident that I had the moxie to step up and leave my mark on the recording industry. Almost three decades later, I look back and see some things I did right matched by many things that I stumbled with. Sometime my experiences are less of a great example and more of a horrible warning… Regardless of whether you aspire to be the first call guy in your hometown or in Manhattan, there are some things you can do to raise your personal bar. In these session recording articles, we’ll examine some of those techniques and tips, interview some living, breathing professionals who are already making a living doing what you aspire to and then take a look at some of their rigs. You’ll be surprised that the size of your ability is a lot more important than the size of your rack or guitar collection.
The Tip List
1. Hone your talent – in most serious music towns like Nashville, your coffee barista at Starbucks probably has better chops than you. You have to be talented just to enter the playing field. Here are some specific areas to focus on:
a. Music theory – there are a great variety of sessions that are recorded in Nashville in a great variety of genres. Some sessions require that you read actual music, even note for note depending on your instrument. Other projects use what’s called the Nashville Number System (click on the hot link to find an article that I wrote about this fantastic versatile system). As a player, you have to be ready to do either or you are immediately limited. It’s always important to ask a producer who is calling to book you what is required in this session. Nothing will make a producer lose your number quicker than not being able to step up and read charts. Time wasted is money wasted.
b. Technique – There are two considerations here that are pivotal in your marketability as a player. It’s important to know what to play but also how much of it to play. You have to familiar with a broad variety of genres and techniques. Then, you have to have the sensibilities to recognize how to apply these techniques with discretion and taste.
c. Accuracy – Some producers love to spend loads of time and recording budgets on minutia – drum sounds, mic placement, lunch, etc. Regardless, when the red light goes on, you need to be able to play the chart accurately from the first pass. As a matter of fact, in Nashville we usually rehearse in red. The key here is know your limits. It’s better to play simple well executed licks correctly and accurately rather than take three or four takes to almost get an advanced shredder lick.
2. Gear Readiness – knowing exactly what you are going to need for a session requires some deliberate planning and thorough discussion with the producer – ahead of time. Focus on these aspects of readiness:
a. Functionality – the time to repair your gear is before the session. Make sure your cords, inputs and outputs, et cetera are clean and functioning properly. Put in the time so you don’t waste recording time.
b. Applicability – Bring the gear you are going to need for the session requirements. Again, go above and beyond in your initial conversation with the producer to know what sounds or instruments he needs from your position. It will even prevent miscommunication on the fact that you don’t play banjo or own one.
c. Familiarity – Know your gear inside and out. Know how to get to your sounds and where they are located. Know the signal chain from top to bottom to be able to alter if the need be.
3. Hone your people skills – I can walk out of my house throwing a stone and probably hit two guys that are better players than me. But, one thing that has often gotten me return calls is my ability to relate and hang. Here are some considerations for you:
a. Be punctual – this is such an obvious point but it’s one that often plagues creative types the most. If you know it’s going to take you 30 minutes to set up and get ready, give yourself adequate time to do this without costing time for everyone else. Know the address of the studio and plan ahead of time taking things into consideration like access, rush hour and errands on the way.
b. Be flexible – the customer is not always right, obviously. Clients and producers are hiring you for your expertise because they don’t have it. But, they do know what they want and they are signing the check. Cater to them. Make an effort to find that right sound or incorporate their demo love lick into what you end up recording. Take their suggestions and try to apply.
c. Be discrete – take into consideration your surroundings, the personnel on the session, and the client in the things you say or joke about. You might think the song is the biggest piece of crap you’ve ever heard but it might be important to your client. Hold your tongue and be positive.
d. Be creative – offer suggestions and ideas when applicable. Your idea might be the signature that takes the song to the next level. But, don’t over press your idea in a way that is offensive. Offer – don’t demand.
e. Be considerate – be a team player on things like not getting lost between takes, listening and noting changes to charts, listening to what everyone else is playing and accommodating and limiting your distractions like personal calls, texts or constant social media updates. It’s frustrating to have a player miss a downbeat because he’s paying more attention to his smart phone than the cue.
f. Be communicative – be able to articulate what you need in terms of cue, inputs or gear. Communicate your needs to the producer, session leader or even the engineer as they arise.
4. Hone your promotional skills – the Nashville recording industry is all about relationships – who you know. Here are some networking tips that will amp up your potential:
a. You must be present to win – get out of the house and meet people. Often, it’s those person-to-person contacts that will put you in the minds of artists, producers and even other players when sessions or projects come up. Go out to writer’s nights or clubs and actually meet and chat with other players. Gigs as well as potential sessions usually develop because someone knows you’re in the market.
b. Be able to articulate what you do – know what it is you can do and be able to talk about it as well as what you have been doing with it. I am not advocating launching into a 5 minute diatribe about your resume but it’s good to be able to talk about what you can do when it comes up.
c. Have a way for a potential client to reach you or listen to what you do – I have a friend who always carried a pile of business cards and you could tell who had talked to from where the pile was distributed. But this guy ended up working a lot because people knew where to find him when they needed what he did. A business card is not a bad means of doing this. Having an easy to remember website is also helpful that contains your contact info and even samples of what you do. A potential client might meet 10 other guitar players that night – try to make your contact memorable and make it easy to find you in the future. The days of handing out demo CD’s and resumes are long gone. EPK’s and cloud based demos are really where the industry is now.
d. Follow up promptly – if you get a call or an email, respond immediately even if you are unable to do a session. If a producer has taken the time to track you down and call you, he just might be waiting to hear back from you before he calls someone else. Be considerate.
e. Be generous with your time and availability – This falls under the category of paying it forward. There have been times when I was in famine mode that I’ve done a comp track or sat in with someone on a writer’s night for no pay just as a favor. I can’t tell you how many times this has ended up paying me back ten fold. If the person is any part human, they will feel some level of indebtedness to you for your generosity and often send paying work your way when it comes around. This is not always true per se. Yet, sometimes, others seeing you being a stand up guy will bring it back to you even if the particular client doesn’t. Sowing good and generous seeds can’t help but reap goodness in return.
5. Alternative Recording Outlets – Today’s recording industry has changed so dramatically from those mid ‘80’s when I came to Nashville. In those days you had to record in big rooms with big budgets on big rolls of 2 inch analog tape. With the advent of digital audio recording, it’s possible to duplicate the same pristine recording in your basement while you lounge in your boxers. Recording studios are black holes for money as you chase the ultimate piece of gear or format. I do think it’s important to be able to have a good means of capturing what you do instrumentally from your home. Here are some due considerations:
a. Proper gear for recording – just buying a cheap USB mic and recording into Garage Band is not going to cut it here. On the flip side, you don’t have to have a 32 channel SSL console to record clean guitar tracks in your basement. Plan on having a computer, an audio interface, a monitoring system, microphones and necessary cabling.
b. Proper software/ hardware - the industry standard for digital recording is Pro Tools. Yet, functional DAW’s are plethora and fairly economical depending on your needs. Most files are interchangeable and transportable across various formats. Poll producers you work with regularly and find out what they use.
c. Proper promotion of your capacity – this area of recording is not like the “field of dreams” – just because you drop 20 K on a Pro Tools rig, projects will not automatically drop into your lap. Let your clients know that you have the capacity to do your tracks at home if they need stuff without a big studio tab. You might even comp a couple of tracks just to promote your rig.
d. Operational ability – PLEASE – know how to properly record your instrument before you start promoting your home rig. I have a friend who dropped a few thousand on a Mac, preamps and mics but wasn’t even sure how to hit record in his software. But he accepted 10 songs thinking he could certainly pull it off. He ended up losing the account and 5 times more work because the tracks were noisy and in the wrong sampling rate. Do your due diligence and learn your rig before you jump into the home recording alternative.
In conclusion, even following these suggestions religiously will not guarantee that you will set the session world on fire. The industry has changed dramatically. Home recording and the contraction of CD sales has seriously effected how much recording is going on period. But, participating in the creation of recorded music on the spot is one of the most fulfilling things I do. It’s a magical thing to sit in a room with a group of talented players and create. Next week, we’ll spend some time talking to some of those talented musicians and pick brains for their own tips and advice. We’ll also peek into their racks and hear their tips for the latest greatest essential piece of gear. Until then, record wisely my session friends!
Chris Marion is an American musician best known as a member of Little River Band and for his contribution to the gospel and country music industries. Although graduating college with a B.A. in Psychology, he is a classically trained pianist and has worked in the music industry professionally for over 35 years. As a resident of Nashville, he is involved in the recording industry working in the genres of Gospel, Country and Rock. Since 2004, he has toured globally with the classic rock act Little River Band as a keyboardist and vocalist. For more useless trivia and minutiae concerning Chris or to contact him directly, feel free to visit his personal website www.chrismarionmusic.com.