Not to put too fine a point on it but the recording studio, when people behave badly, can be a very stressful place. As a producer, I work VERY hard to make sure this doesn’t happen and it very rarely does but, on occasion, a client’s behavior – generally inadvertently – can sour an otherwise enjoyable studio experience for everyone. In an effort to help my readers avoid putting themselves in this situation, I’ve reached out to a collection of experienced studio professionals and asked them – with the guarantee of anonymity – to describe some of their worst studio experiences. Consider these as landmines to avoid as you make your way through the songwriting demo process.

This isn’t the way to get what you want

“There was a songwriter whose demos I worked on for a brief spell some years ago. A nice enough person but they had this habit of telling everyone what to play and when. They’d stand in the vocal booth and sing our parts to us while we tracked the songs. When it came time for my guitar solo on one particular session, they kept singing something that was supposed to emulate an electric guitar solo, like I’d never heard one. It was annoying as could be. I politely asked them to refrain because I couldn’t think, let alone play, with their voice in my headphones singing what they wanted me to play. I never took calls to work for that person again.”

A little modesty goes a long way

“I was doing a session for a songwriter I shall not name who had had a humongous hit. They were recording a new song demo and I made a suggestion for a part. The songwriter said, his voice dripping with disdain, ‘Who asked you? You’re just a keyboard player. You’re just the fingers for my genius.’ ”

Make sure your song is finished

“I worked with a writer who came in and wanted to edit the song while I was trying to record the vocal. The kept asking me to sing alternate lines and melodies. Then they said, ‘now that you have it, let’s record from the top.’ I’d already been there for an hour recording what they said they wanted. The studio is a wonderful environment to be in. I would hate to see anyone spoil that experience because of something like not being prepared.”

Be thorough in your pre-production

“I was called to record drums and percussion on a fusion record with some pretty big names in the rhythm section.  Pre-production from the artist was sketchy at best but everyone apparently received charts and scratch tracks prior… except for me!  Since I am a no excuses kind of guy, I was attempting to assemble my parts/plan on the fly and not keep the rest of the musicians waiting on me, however it was obvious that I was dragging the the session down.  I got through it, but it could have been much better…”

Too many cooks

“I’ve been hired to sing in sessions where there isn’t a designated leader/producer.  There are multiple writers and you’re in the vocal booth, while they’re all giving you different suggestions on talk back and you can’t figure out who you should be listening to.”

Don’t count on your ability to play your instrument in the studio

“The songwriter has a ‘hook’ lick for the guitar and wants to show the guitar player how to play it note for note. This is usually fine except when the writer keeps playing the lick for the studio musicians and is actually playing the lick different every time. It’s virtually impossible to copy what the writer is playing if they can’t play it consistently themselves. This applies to every instrument but it’s usually guitar players.”

Make sure your example song is similar in style to the song you’ve written

“The writer has an ‘example’ of a hit song that he or she would like their song to sound similar to. Sometimes, however, the example song has nothing in common with the song they’ve written. Completely different style, groove, tempo, time signature, instrumentation, etc. I’ve seen someone write a classic country waltz and want it to sound like ‘Hotel California.’ That just isn’t going to happen no matter how hard we try!”


Well, there you have it. Stories from the men and women in the trenches. My intention in printing their stories is not to ridicule studio clients but, rather, to help those of you with little or no studio experience see things from the perspective of the studio professionals who do this every day to earn a living. Wishing you all a joyful and friction-free demo session soon!

Good Luck!

Make the most of your studio demo experience.

Click the image on the right for more info.

15 responses to “Confessions of the Studio Pros”

  1. So true! Relationships are relationships and communication, grace, and kindness in all of them are key. Thanks as always for sharing, Cliff!

  2. This had me laughing and cringing so hard! I mean, “You’re just the fingers for my genius?” HAHAH! Great post, Cliff!

  3. Rich Hayes says:

    Great insight from you and the other pros.
    When the experienced studio and band is allowed
    freedom without interference, it always produces a
    better sound.

    Beyond my expertise

  4. Devlin says:

    Great stuff Cliff, definitely made me cringe a little as well.

  5. Patricia says:

    Wow – songwriters behaving really badly.
    As always, very insightful. Thanks Cliff.

  6. Kelley says:

    That’s when you want to respond, “Here’s my middle finger for your genius,” but you don’t because you’re above that, right? 🙂
    Thanks for the laughs!

  7. A certain degree of tolerance must be shown for the idiosyncracies of humans, especially the Creatives. There is a line to be observed of course. Expecting everything to go smoothly is unrealistic, and stressing over what really happens instead of what you imagined would happen is a matter of self-management. Managing the ‘others’ is a matter of standards you set for your participation and not being afraid to inform others when they’re crossing the line, or, better, simply communicating back as they try to communicate to you what they imagine for their Song. It’s good for the Creatives to hear from the pros about their experiences, but it’s the pros who have the best chance of managing the process with as little stress and distress as possible. For many this will be the first time they ever tried to communicate their imagined ideas to get others to imagine it their way.

    Regarding: “his habit of telling everyone what to play and when.” Another perspective I’ve observed is the lead guitar takes off on a lead that is in tune, on key, but scarcely relevant to the Vocal Melody, the Lyrical Cadence. “supposed to emulate an electric guitar solo, like I’d never heard one.” Seems to imply you knew what to play before you ever heard this particular Song, and could give it an off-the-shelf treatment and it would be fine. Listen to the various guitar players on one track on Steely Dan’s “The Making of Aja” and see what a difference there can be among guitar players who ‘have heard solos before’. The contributor to your advisory did the right thing: “I politely asked them to refrain because…” Reasonable, rational people can communicate and be communicated with.

    “… I made a suggestion for a part. The songwriter said, ,,,”You’re just the fingers for my genius.’ ”
    That reminds me of a story from a man who retired from a factory after 40 years. He told how the suits came out, put on their hard hats and instructed the workers to set up a process a certain way. They did. It didn’t work. The suits turned and headed back to the ivory tower. As one was walking away he heard a workman say, “I knew that wouldn’t work. We tried that 30 years ago and it didn’t work then.” The suit stopped and asked, “Why didn’t you say something?” “When they hired me they told me, literally, ‘Don’t think. We just want you from the neck down.’
    Creatives, new to the process of turning performance product into recorded product may not comprehend the value of your experience and how your suggestions can bring their product to new heights of appeal. Especially in a demonstration recording the expertise of the people in the studio can be of immense value. Some philosophical indoctrination in an opening session to establish rapport and the social milieu YOU want to work in with the Creatives might accomplish much.

    I can’t imagine writing in the studio, especially at these prices! I read somewhere that Bob Dylan has done it, but then he’s Bob Dylan, and he can pay the bill. People like the prestige of working with him so they’ll put up with a lot more than they would with unknown or lesser known Creatives.

    I’m wondering why one musician didn’t get the charts and tracks the others did, leaving him to get Creative during the session in the studio. That oversight may have been the difference between a great product and a mediocre one. Being a professional, he soldiered on, possibly enjoying a freer range of possibilities than those restricted by the parameters of their instruction. Perhaps the strategic lesson there, applicable in many ways and places, is to keep smiling, keep your creative flow flowing, and enjoy it in spite of the failings of preconceived plans.

    “…they’re all giving you different suggestions on talk back and you can’t figure out who you should be listening to.” If their suggestions conflict with each other you could ask them to confer and settle on one or the other. It’s difficult. It seems confrontational. Patience, tact, tone of voice, all risky, as people are ready to be offended. But working in that environment demands you learn to communicate such matters without distracting from the work. That’s why they pay you the big money. LOL

    “The songwriter has a ‘hook’ lick for the guitar and wants to show the guitar player how to play it note for note.” It sounds like you just have to work with them to get it ‘right’. The customer is always ‘right’ they say. After all, you’re the supplier; they’re the demander. You’re there to supply their demand. Work with them. They’ll think you’re a genius! What a nice guy! A great guitar player! He gave me exactly what I wanted!

    “The writer has an ‘example’ of a hit song…” Again, just listening to them, eliciting from them specifications of what it is in the example they want might enable you to deliver it. You’re the pro. They’re the amateur.
    I often rewrite Songs to be sung by the opposite sex, just in case a lady wants to cover it. The kind of communication demanded to get specification to guide you is probably not something you have developed anywhere near you skill with your instrument or voice or recording devices. It’s that human thing that you can only learn by doing it. So do it. Learn it. Enhance your ability to supply their demand. Again, they’ll think you’re a wonderful human being because you listened, you communicated, you supplied exactly what they wanted. They’ll tell others, recommending you.

    CONCLUSION Let me tinker with this to turn it back to you, “… the men and women in the trenches. My intention in (tinkering with) their stories is not to ridicule studio (professionals) but, rather, to help those of you with little or no studio experience (with the guy paying for the service) to see things from the perspective of the (Creative amateurs) who (DON’T) do this every day to earn a living. Wishing you all a joyful and friction-free demo session soon!”
    If you don’t come out of the studio tired but smiling somebody’s doing it wrong. Since you’re the one feeling ‘wrong’ you might be one who didn’t manage the human interaction of it as well as you could have by adjusting to more realistic expectations.

    “Good Luck!” And good planning, good foresight into what to expect, being prepared to work with it, can improve your luck.

  8. Cliff, I see is closing as of April 1, 2019. I wondered if you had stayed affiliated all these years.

  9. Cliff says:

    Hi Gary,
    That site was BMI’s and now I write directly for BMI in their Weekly and Music World publications. Thanks for reading!

  10. Tyler Morger says:

    Nice article Cliff!
    You do have me wondering how an artist should prepare music for studio musicians…is there a standard?

  11. Pete says:

    Always good stuff, Cliff. Thanks!

  12. Hi Cliff … ego is a trip isn’t it? Ahh the world of narcissism that we live in.

  13. Mark Sweeney says:

    In the studio there is nothing worse than a egotistical jerk or micromanaging. It sucks the life out of everything and everyone.

  14. Fred Lancia says:

    Very useful. Much appreciated!

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