Why do professional recordings sound, well…professional? There are a number of reasons including high quality microphones, pre-amps, an experienced engineer and a well-designed studio space. But one of the single most important elements in a great-sounding, professional recording is the performance of the session musicians. There is a reason that the job of the session musician exists. It’s these musicians whose talent and studio experience contribute in a major way to the polished sound of a recording. Because there are different rules that apply when you’re recording an artist demo, I’m going to limit the scope of this article to song demos specifically.
While I am a big proponent of wearing as many hats as you can in your musical career, there are certain areas where it makes much better sense to rely on experts. First of all, it’s extremely important that you take your ego out of the equation. There is no shame in having someone else play on your demo. Remember that a song demo is supposed to put your song in the best possible light in order to “sell” it to prospective artists or place it in films and TV shows. It is not supposed to be proof of your musicianship. Recording an instrument in the studio requires an entirely different skill set than playing live. For lack of a better description, studio recording is more like music surgery than a musical performance. While you might be comfortable playing guitar in your living room or even on a stage in front of hundreds of people, it’s an entirely different ballgame to sit in a four by six-foot booth wearing headphones and listening to a clicking sound. Giving a note-perfect, dynamic and in-time performance in this kind of unnatural setting requires a special set of skills.
Given that we all have to keep an eye on the bottom line when it comes to our recording budgets, there is the temptation to save money by playing on the demo yourself. The problem with this method is that often it will take an inexperienced studio musician twice as long to get a viable take as it would a pro. One of the many advantages of using session musicians is that they are not only good at what they do but fast. In other words, the price you pay to hire a session musician translates into savings on studio time compared to playing the part yourself. Being fast in the studio is useful for another reason as well. When a session bogs down with take after take, it starts to feel a lot more like work. When things go quickly and smoothly, the session stays musical and fun. Don’t discount the need for a session to stay enjoyable. My experience has been that everyone does his or her best work when the atmosphere in the studio is light and productive.
When it comes to recording a demo, it’s essential that you keep your listening audience in mind at all times. In the music industry, there is a certain level of polish that record labels, publishers, managers and producers have come to expect from the demos they listen to. By bringing in the same musicians that play on hundreds of song demos and major label record projects, you’ll be giving these industry types what they’re used to hearing. We’ve all heard – from time to time – industry professionals say that they can “hear through” your rough recordings. My recommendation is NOT to take that chance. You’ve only got one opportunity to make a good first impression and you should give yourself every advantage. Also, even if there is an industry professional willing and able to hear through a rough recording, you’ll hopefully be pitching this song to a number of industry people many of whom will be expecting a professional sounding demo.
When it comes to working with session musicians, there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, if you’re not comfortable writing out a chord chart, these musicians are perfectly capable of listening to your rough recording and writing out their own charts. For them, charting is quick process that should take no longer than 10-15 minutes at the most. Then, when it comes time for the musicians to play, always suggest that they try it their way first. There are two reasons for this. First of all, you’ve hired them to make your demo sound great so you should give them a chance to go with their instincts before you offer any direction. Secondly, by letting them do what you’ve brought them in to do with a minimum of interference, you’ll create goodwill that will go a long way towards the overall vibe in the studio. In almost every case, what the session musicians come up with will be better than you could have ever imagined. HOWEVER, if you’re still not getting what you want after they’ve tried it their way, you’re 100% entitled to politely ask them to try it the way you were hearing it. The ONLY appropriate response from a session musician to your request is “absolutely.”
It can be intimidating to work with such talented musicians, but remember, they’re working for you. One of my favorite expressions is “the best ones have nothing to prove.” In other words, when you hire pros not only will they be great at what they do but they should be a pleasure to work with as well. There is no reason to hire even the best session musician if they have a bad attitude. This is extremely rare but if it happens, I’d recommend never using that musician again. There are way too many wonderful, friendly and talented session musicians out there to ever settle for one with a chip on their shoulder. If you’ve never used a professional musician on your song demo, do yourself a favor and try it out. You’re in for a treat and you’ll end up with a great demo.