As a young musician, I remember being so excited to unwrap a brand new CD, turn up the music, and read through the liner notes to find out who played what on each album. I have always been enamored with studio musicians and their amazing musical abilities. Still to this day I read the jackets of CDs and google the names of the players, read their bios, and look for youtube videos so I can watch them play.
Being a session musician can be very different from playing live. Not only is every nuance of your playing more exaggerated, but those nuances are now captured like a time capsule to be played over and over again for all eternity! It is for these reasons that studio recording can be very intimidating.
A session musician must be skilled, versatile, and possess a great deal of musical maturity. Session recording is a skill unto itself. It is a skill that can be learned through experience, trial and error, as well as the advice from others who have gone before you. As one who has done his fair share of recording sessions, I'd like to present you with 10 tips for sounding great in the recording studio. My hope is that these tips will help you take your studio playing to new heights!
The importance of warming up was drilled into my brain as an essential part of a musician's daily routine. Not only was it emphasized, but I noticed how my playing suffered when I did not warm up. So take a tip from your high school private music lessons and warm up thoroughly before your sessions. This is so very important, and for obvious reasons. A 20-30 minute warm up that touches on pitch, flexibility and agility, and breath support is vital. Do these exercises before you head to the studio. Your warm up may be the difference between a great studio performance and a performance that leaves a producer wishing he had hired someone else.
01. WARM UP
The benefits to cleaning the inside of the sax are many. The pads will last much longer, and it reduces any smell and risk of health issues caused by spit, bacteria and food particles resting in the sax, neck and mouthpiece for long periods of time.
02. ASK QUESTIONS AHEAD OF TIME AND PREPARE ACCORDINGLY
It is in your best interest to get as much information about your upcoming recording session as possible. Give the producer a call and find out what kind of music you'll be playing, who the artist is, and where you can hear some of their music. With this information you'll be able to better prepare musically for the session, you'll be well-versed in the artist's history and musical catalog, and you'll show the producer that you are eager and ready to go the extra mile to perform at your best.
03. BE SURE YOUR INSTRUMENT IS IN PROPER WORKING ORDER
Nothing is more frustrating that a musician who walks into my studio with gear that is not in tip-top shape. Equipment will malfunction on you. It's gear, that's what it does. What is not helpful is when the malfunction occurs because the musician has not properly maintained his/or equipment. It can be very frustrating for everyone involved when momentum and creativity is lost over gear malfunction. Take every precaution to have your gear in amazing shape and have backup plans for most of your gear (extra strings, a backup amp, extra drum heads, etc.)
04. STRIVE FOR CREATIVITY
Creativity in a recording session is a delicate and potentially inspiring thing. At the core of a session musicians job is the ability to do the right thing for a job. Sometimes the right thing is not creative. Other times there is plenty of room for extreme creativity. What is rare is a musician who can do the right thing with creativity. Achieve this and you'll be in an elite group of session musicians.
05. SERVE THE SONG, NOT YOUR EGO
Studio musicians are servants. Your job is to offer your services for the producer, the artist, and the song! If you find yourself contemplating how you can sound impressive while recording, you are likely not performing at your best. Instead, your mindset should be, "What does the song need?" In other words, let the song dictate what is needed in a certain musical situation and be willing to forgo your favorite lick or solo over the second verse. As a session musician, you're going to have to check your ego at the door and be a musical servant!
06. LET YOURSELF OFF THE HOOK
You may think that as a session musician there is an expectation that you should be able to nail the perfect performance on the first time. Unless you are doing 10 songs in a day for country demo sessions, this pressure is likely not being impressed upon you by anyone else but yourself. I find that even the best musicians sometimes need a few takes to find the right part and the right emotion for the song. If you are a rookie studio musician, give yourself even more time. Whatever you do, don't beat yourself up over a missed take. This will limit your ability to connect emotionally with a song. So, let yourself off the hook.
07. AVOID YOUR WEAKNESSES, PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS
Everyone has weaknesses. Even the best players in the world are incapable of doing something on their instruments. The real trick is to avoid your weaknesses and play to your strengths. Think about it, if you are a vocalist and you don't have great high notes, the only way anyone knows that you are weak in this area is if you try to sing high notes. If you avoid your weaknesses, your listening audience can imagine and assume that your talent has no end. In their mind you are a fantastic high vocalist but simply choose not to. In other words, do what you're good and don't do what you're bad at.
08. CONNECT EMOTIONALLY WITH THE SONG
Notes are notes, and notes do not sell songs. Heart sells songs. Make a conscious effort to connect with the emotional quality of every song you play. Ask to hear the lyrics and try to understand the mind of the songwriter. Once you understand this, do what you can to aid in the telling of the writer's story. The psychology of music is such an important thing. Whatever is in your heart will come out and there's nothing you can do to stop it. So, connect with the song and then play your heart out.
09. KNOW YOUR ROLE AND DO IT WELL
It is important to understand the role that your instrument has been called to play. If you are a guitarist and you've been hired to play rhythm guitar, then it is not helpful for you to solo over the second verse of the song. You must understand that most studio work is done with a lot of self-control. Take time to consciously understand what your role is for each song. Once you understand your role, stick to it and give it all you've got.
10. BE HUMBLE, WILLING AND THANKFUL
This last tip is less about your musicianship in the studio as it is about how you interact with others. Humility is a virtue that should not be overlooked in a session musician. Let your musical skill speak for itself. Rather than bragging about your past opportunities or voicing your opinion about the part you've been asked to play, be humble and easy to work with, willing to try any idea (no matter how dumb) and be thankful and truly grateful for the opportunity to play music. Many are skilled, but few have the people skills to build a career in the music business.
Anyone can be successful in the studio with a little practice and experience. It is my hope that these tips will help you record with experience beyond your years. If you give your all and discipline yourself by learning your craft, you will find great success in the recording studio and in all of your musical endeavors.