One of my greatest joys as a producer and engineer over the years has been bearing witness to the musical genius that is the session musician. The same people you’ve been hearing on recordings your whole lives are the men and women who make their livings coming into the studio and playing not only on projects for household names but for aspiring songwriters as well. I thought I’d put down a few things to consider when you find yourself in the enviable position of being in the studio with these musical masters recording one of your songs.
It’s not at all uncommon for songwriters new to the studio process to think they need to know exactly what each musician should play. Nothing could be further from the truth. Part of the reason to hire session musicians is their deep and nuanced knowledge of not only their instruments but the musical genre of your song. By allowing them to try their approach to your song first, you’re not only affording them the respect they deserve but also allowing them to utilize the depth and breadth of their expertise instead of hemming them in with how you think they should play. Of course, it should go without saying that if after you’ve heard what they’ve done, you’d like to try something else, that’s perfectly acceptable and highly recommended. I’m simply suggesting you wait to hear what they come up with first. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred you’ll be totally thrilled.
Another benefit of working with professional session musicians is how quickly – and musically – they work. I made the mistake early on in my career of assuming that it would take a session musician as many takes as it did for me to get a part right. Wrong. My experience has been that a “keeper” part will happen almost always in the first or second take. The reason I bring this up is that it helps to expect this so you’re listening right away instead of assuming they’re just warming up. The danger in asking these thoroughbreds to do take after take is that the spark is often diminished if they feel like they’re being asked to do something that they’ve already done better and earlier.
It can help to remember that a session musician’s time is their currency. They’ve learned to be incredibly efficient on their instruments so that your time in the studio isn’t wasted. I’d like to suggest that you be equally mindful of their time. Asking a session musician to do take after take or wait around while you do something that could have been taken care of earlier is poor form. Be respectful of the session musicians’ time and they’ll appreciate you for it.
One of the fears songwriters have about going into the studio with their songs is that they can’t write out a chord chart. My recommendation to songwriters is that if you like writing charts, then do it but if you don’t or can’t, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Session musicians are trained to listen to a song and write out a chord chart in just a few passes. This is just one of the many reasons hiring pros can make the entire demo process easier.
If you have a musical figure that you’d like the musicians in your session to perform, take a moment prior to the session and do a rough recording of the part you have in mind. It can be a messy and frustrating process to try and approximate an instrumental part in the studio by singing it into the talkback mic for the players. In almost every situation, doing a little pre-production on your own and having a reference recording no matter how rough is always better than expecting yourself to remember and consistently sing a part you hear in your head.
Unless you’re an experienced studio musician, I’d advise against playing on your own song demos. I understand the urge to save money and the feeling that you know the song better than anyone else but the skill set required to play in time, in tune and with compelling dynamics in the studio is a very different one from the skills you use to perform live even if you’ve played your song hundreds of times in concert. Everything you do should be in service of your song demo.
Working with session musicians can – and should – be a truly thrilling experience. If you’ve never heard your song performed by a master instrumentalist, you’re in for the ride of your life. The above tips are designed to help you know what to expect when you find yourself in the studio with the pros. That being said, I’d like to remind you that you’re always allowed to politely stick to your guns if you have a part or approach you’d like to hear. Without exception, the great studio musicians are only truly satisfied when they’ve given you exactly what you want if not better.