Top-call NYC session musician Shawn Pelton talks about what to expect, how to prepare, and how to nail the take for your next recording session
If you read Disc Makers’ recently published Home Studio Handbook, you probably know quite a bit about what it takes to craft quality recordings in whatever recording studio space you have access to. But when it comes to a great music performance in your next recording session, getting your home studio setup is only half the battle. Once your preamps are set and your mics are placed, how do you summon your musical mojo, nail that single, transcendent take, and truly make your composition sing?
Best known for his tenure as house drummer for Saturday Night Live, Shawn Pelton has built a tremendous career by capturing such in-studio magic, session after recording session. The top-call New York studio drummer has recorded for artists like Ray Charles, Sheryl Crow, Pink, Rod Stewart, Shakira, and Elton John. Here are some tips from the master on how to bring your own best playing to every take that you track.
“When you’re first starting out recording, it’s easy to have certain ideas about how things should go in the recording studio,” says Pelton, “but what’s interesting about the recording process is that records are made in millions of different ways by different artists and producers. The process can be all over the map.”
Does the producer prefer to track every instrument separately, digitally slicing and morphing each tone to perfection in a home studio — or does the solo artist you’re working with want to rent out a pro studio and record an entire album live, in stereo to analog tape, in a single afternoon? Whatever the case, go with the flow, bring your focus, and have fun.
“As a sideman, or as a member of a band, or even if you’re the artist, flexibility is key,” Pelton affirms. “There’s really no right or wrong way to go about the art of recording, so be ready to deal with different situations that may pop up.”
Be adequately prepared
“When you’re recording music, the balance between being prepared versus over-prepared is an interesting thing,” says Pelton. “If you’re going in to your recording session and still haven’t written the bridge to three of your songs, that’s probably going to be a problem, so spending some time in pre-production can be helpful.”
While he recommends putting in hours to solidify your arrangements and overall vision, Pelton is also loath to generalize about the preparation necessary for every artist when it comes to a recording session. “It can be so different for each situation,” he continues. “If you’re really improvisational, for example, it’s possible to over-prepare. But having a solid concept going in, and knowing what you’re trying to accomplish, that can be helpful. Studios can be expensive, and you don’t want to waste your time and money.”
Listen to great recordings
Before you get into the recording session yourself, absorbing a diverse array of stellar recorded music can give you a great start — not just for abstract inspiration, but also for on-the-spot communication.
“If you’re working with a group and somebody that was into the Beatles drops the reference of the drum part for ‘Come Together,’ it’s great to know what he’s talking about,” says Pelton. “By the same token, if they drop a reference about Stone Temple Pilots or a Dave Grohl drum part, the more exposure you have to recorded music in the world of whoever you’re working with, the more helpful it can be. It’s all about giving yourself the right background to play in context with the other musicians you’re working with.”
Get your playback mix as hot as possible
Pelton has worked with tons of engineers and, while many can capture great sounds in the studio, not quite so many take the time to craft a great playback mix for the band to hear.
“If you’re recording take after take and step back into the control room to listen, if the engineer hasn’t hooked up an inspiring playback for everybody to listen to, that can tank your spirit as a performer and a player,” says Pelton. “If you’re recording drums in a really dead, small room, but the track needs big, rocking Led Zeppelin drums, it’s possible for an engineer to recreate a similar sound with room simulation reverbs, which can really help.”
If you’re working with a hired engineer, try to take time ahead of the session to talk about your expectations with a playback mix, so he or she can dial in appropriately massive-sounding drums, intimate guitar, or other elements. And if you’re engineering yourself at home, spend a little time pre-session messing with EQs, compressors, reverbs, and other effects to help make your playback as on-point, relevant, and inspiring as possible.
Respect the process, whatever the space
Should you bring a different game when you’re in a posh, professional studio that Kanye West calls a second home, versus some dude’s basement? Absolutely not, says Pelton.
“Whether I’m recording in a historic room in Manhattan or a shed in upstate New York, I try to respect the process,” says Pelton. “When the red light’s on, it’s for real.”
Pelton points out that many classic records were recorded in shed-like conditions, so don’t give a recording session only half of your creativity, due to less than luxurious digs. “Whenever it’s time to record, wherever you are, make sure that you’re 100-percent present,” he continues. “So much great work can be done anywhere these days, which is cool as far as leveling the playing field for independent artists of all sorts.”
Take direction with grace
Whether you’re a hired sideman, band member, or artist, knowing how to respond to criticism is an invaluable tool in the studio. “If you’re a sideman, you have to be ready to take direction from a fourteen-year-old singer-songwriter from Nashville who you may have never heard of,” says Pelton. “You have to have, or develop, the temperament to hear what people say about your playing and deal with it constructively.”
Egos and thick skins aside, taking direction can be difficult if people aren’t clear about what they want. “A key part of the gig as a sideman, or even someone who works often in a studio as part of a band, is the ability to interpret what’s being asked for,” says Pelton. “If someone asks for a sound that’s more ‘fluffy,’ for example, you need to work with that and ask, ‘Okay, should we try mallets? Or do you mean that the sound is too harsh? We can tune it down and muffle it a bit.’”
“It would be easy to say, ‘fluffy? That’s some dumb shit,’” he continues laughing, “but that would shut down the positive energy in a room. You don’t want to do that.”
For Pelton, a lot of being able to effectively take direction comes down to having a good frame of reference. “If someone you’re recording with asks for a Lady Gaga vibe, for example, having certain touchstones that are reference points can be helpful,” he says. “You can ask which Lady Gaga track he or she is thinking of, and then go to YouTube and listen to it. There are lots of ways to take input like that and sensitively steer it towards more clarity.”
Understand that it’s not all about chops
“Being great in the studio isn’t necessarily about being the best musician technically,” says Pelton. “Having a great feel, coming up with great sounds, and having concepts for crafting a part when the song really needs it — that’s what you need most.”
Pelton affirms that there are tons of great drummers, guitarists, and other instrumentalists who can play with amazing facility. But what he’s seen win in studio settings is the ability to, essentially, think like an arranger and orchestrator on the spot. “Let’s say the song needs a guitar line for the bridge, or an element that builds intensity in the second verse,” he says. “Are you going to have any ideas for a drum or guitar part that will help?”
Key to being able to contribute appropriate parts to a recording session is a deep and efficient knowledge of your instrument. For guitarists, this may mean knowing your effects pedals, axes, and amps inside and out, and being able to quickly shift from a dreamy reggae sound to a blistering metal burn; for keyboardists, it means knowing how to program a variety of tones without spending hours lost in your synth’s sub-menus. And for drummers, knowing which sticks or brushes to use on which snare drum to get just that right smack going can make all the difference when the studio clock is ticking.
One final tip? Do all your get-to-know-you time with your instruments at home, before you ever get into a recording situation. Don’t be the guy that holds up the whole operation while frantically trying to dial in the perfect sound.
Know when to speak up
Contributing inspired musical parts is what playing in the studio is all about, so knowing when to share your ideas is important. “If everything is at a standstill and nobody has an idea for, say, the bridge of a song, then being the person who steps up to the plate with an idea is valuable,” says Pelton. “What about this guitar line, or this drum lick? What if we mute the drums with tea towels like Ringo did to change the color of the drums on the bridge? Being ready to toss out ideas like that can really help.”
As mentioned above, be ready to have your ideas applauded — or trashed. Just remember to take whatever feedback given and use it constructively to further the goals of the session, and record some killer music.
Know when to shut up
“I heard one really famous artist say at a session, ‘Man, I hate a guy with a great idea,’” says Pelton, with a smile. “What did he mean? It was all about the idea that he, as the artist, already had a plan, a vision about what he was trying to accomplish. If people are interjecting before he’s had a chance to realize that concept, it ends up causing confusion. So as a session player, it can be smart to have a radar on, to always be aware of what’s going on in the room and where the artist is at.”
In other words, if the team in the studio is working to realize an idea from one of your recording colleagues — especially the artist in charge — don’t distract from what’s happening. “I’ve seen people bring up good ideas at just completely wrong times,” says Pelton. “It only adds to the confusion and doesn’t help with anything.”
Keep a wide perspective
When you’re working in the studio, it’s easy to get myopic, says Pelton. But regardless of how hyper-focused you may be on getting the perfect high-hat sound or bass rumble, don’t lose your vision of the big picture.
“The more experience you have in the studio, and also the more experience being on all sides of it — as a sideman, artist, or producer — the more insight you’ll have on everything you’re doing,” he says.
One bit of perspective that’s particularly helpful in the studio is learning not to judge yourself, or others, too harshly in the moment. “If something doesn’t sound completely gelled together right away, it’s important to know that you can sometimes, like the classic quote, ‘fix it in the mix,’” says Pelton. “There are also times when you can sit down and feel like a track isn’t coming together at all, and then listen again a month later and it seems much better. And there are times when it may feel like something’s really happening in the studio, but when you go back to listen to it, there are problems.”
Pelton recalls working with one artist who verbally trashed a session as it was going on. “He hated it while we were tracking it, but six months later, the record came out after it had been mixed and he goes, ‘Yeah, well, after all that distance, it sounded pretty good.’ I thought that was so interesting. At the time, his being so bummed out about it put a dark cloud over the session. It turned out that his negative energy really didn’t need to be there.”
In short — don’t be too quick to applaud or condemn, and don’t undervalue the new perspectives and ideas that listening with fresh ears can bring.
Stay positive – and real
“Staying positive in the studio is something I’ve worked on a lot myself,” says Pelton. “Keeping your head together and not getting dragged down by other people — it’s a really good skill to have, since so much of what you’re doing is under the microscope. Staying positive isn’t always easy,” he continues, laughing.
Positivity by no means equates to praising whatever your studio buddies come up with, even if it’s awful. “You don’t want to be fake or jive, and not everything you’re called into the studio to work on is something you’re going to be over the moon about,” says Pelton, “but doing the best you can under the circumstances is important. You have to realize that there’s only so much you might be able to do if a song itself isn’t that great or the producer is terrible. You can still focus on delivering the best performance you possibly can and being able to leave having recorded some tracks that you can be proud of. It’s about finding the opportunities to polish what is there, as opposed to being pissed off about what isn’t.”
Image of Shawn Pelton from DrummerWorld.com.
Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download now through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and catch him live on his current fall tour.