session players

How to find and manage session players for your studio recording

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Whether you’re in a pro or home studio, hiring and working with the right session players can make a huge difference in your studio recording. We’ve got tips from a pro to help you do it right.

Whether it’s your first time behind the glass or your thousandth experience in the studio, recording your own music can be an amazing — and uniquely challenging — experience. Case in point, your band’s newest tune is begging for a raucous fiddle solo or a cool cello line, and none of you have worked with either sort of instrumentalist before. How do you find the right session players to fill the musical void and get the sounds you want for your studio recording?

Mixer, music producer, and audio engineer Jason Moss has years of experience dealing with such issues, captaining sessions in New York City and beyond. Here are some tips from the man on how to get the right session players in the studio with you — and how to get the best playing out of them once they’re there.

Understand that the studio is different than the stage

Every time you play at your favorite local venue, you may have your old buddies who you call — but as comfortable as everyone is playing together, the regular gang might not be the right group to make your studio recording come to life.

“The studio is much less forgiving than most live venues, where subpar monitoring can often mask problems with a player’s technique, as well as deficiencies with their instrument,” says Moss. “If you have any doubts about the abilities of a player in a live context, chances are they won’t cut it in the studio.”

In other words, don’t forget that your goal when you go to record is to cut the best tracks you possibly can — so choose your personnel with the best interest of the project in mind.

That said, if your regular musical cohorts have the chops to play excellently both on stage and in the studio, don’t hesitate to call them for the session. While playing with new collaborators can bring new energy and perspective to a recording project, working with folks you know well can add a level of comfort and tightness to that you can’t get anywhere else.

Activate your network

Need to find a killer bassoon player, an operatic soprano vocalist, and a harmonica wizard with soul for your upcoming studio recording session? Rather than relying on Google to help you track down the specially-skilled individuals you need, start by asking around.

“Nothing beats recommendations from musicians and producers you trust,” says Moss. “You’re looking for players who are dependable, have studio experience, and are comfortable playing in your genre.”

While you may be tempted to find and hire that guitarist that you’ve never met, but who lives in your city and sounds amazing on three of your favorite new releases, do so with caution, as studio recordings can be deceiving when it comes to instrumentals as well as vocals.

“While listening to recordings and perusing credits may point you in the right direction, this may not give you a true picture of a player’s abilities,” explains Moss. “You won’t know, for example, how much comping multiple takes together, or editing out mistakes, it took to make their performance work, or how easy or difficult they were to work with.”

When searching for the right players for your session, he adds, all roles are not equally vital. “Finding a great drummer and bassist is especially important, as these players provide the foundation upon which a recording is built,” he says.

Search smart

If you live in a musical hub like New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville, chances are you’ll have no problem finding great players of any ilk to help with your project. But what if you live in a suburb or town with fewer musicians per capita?

“Reach out to local colleges with music programs,” advises Moss. “You’ll often find seasoned players who are available to play on sessions for reasonable rates.”

If you can’t find anyone local and are desperate for a certain flugelhorn harmony part, the web can help. “Many studio musicians are also available to record tracks remotely over the Internet,” says Moss. “While nothing beats sitting down with players in a room, this may be an option worth exploring.”

In addition to searching smart, it is important that you hire the best studio musicians you can find and not the ones who are just the best at self-promotion or perfecting their public image. “The best studio musicians are rarely the flashiest players,” Moss says. “Look for professional, dependable musicians who can play functional parts that fit in well, as well as get things done quickly. You’ll save time, money, and end up with a better record.”

Manage effectively from the first “hello”

Long before you enter the studio with a session musician, you can lay the groundwork for an effective collaboration. One of the first steps? Getting finances in order.

“Figure out what your budget is before approaching a musician, don’t forget to account for pre-production,” advises Moss, “and always pay musicians for their time.”

Knowing how much you can offer a player before you get on the phone can save everyone time, and your session musicians — whether they’re A-listers or talented conservatory students — will appreciate your being up front from the get-go. Again, if you’re not sure how much to offer, ask around to get a sense of what a respectable rate is for the work that you’re requesting.

Moss further recommends explaining the scope and genre of the project clearly, being as transparent as possible about what you want your musicians to provide, and giving them plenty of time to prepare. “Send the musicians a chart and a rough demo at least a week before pre-production or the session,” he says.

Another important aspect of pre-session prep is working out any legal questions ahead of time. “Most studio agreements are work for hire,” says Moss. Though language may vary, the core of any work-for-hire agreement is straightforward: In exchange for payment made to your musicians, you officially own all rights to the music and recordings created during your session and can do with them as you please.

Numerous templates for simple work for hire forms can be found online, or an experienced entertainment attorney should be able to help you draw one up quickly and affordably. One note — if you are going to ask your players to sign work for hire forms, be sure to inform them up front and send them language ahead of time, so they have a chance to review. Nothing can derail the vibe of a session more than arguing about legalities when you should be laying down irresistible grooves.

Do your homework

One of the best ways to make sure your day in the studio goes well is to prepare as thoroughly as possible ahead of time. “This means knowing the sound you’re going for and preparing charts, among other things,” says Moss. “This is particularly important for players who rely on sheet music, like string players.”

To the extent that budget, time, and availability allow, work with your players to get everyone up to speed on the music before you gather to record. “Don’t skimp on pre-production,” Moss advises. “Find a practice space where everyone can hear each other. Strip down each song and make sure everyone is locked in on the correct structure, chord changes, parts, and dynamics. This is crucial, even if you’ve all been playing together for years.”

As far as preparing in the studio day of, the more you can do to keep your players from sitting around getting bored, the more time and momentum they’ll have to deliver the inspired takes your music deserves. “Plan studio sessions efficiently so you can get the most out of your musicians and keep things moving,” says Moss. “Get microphones set up quickly and properly. Make sure the bar and beat markers in your DAW line up with your chart, so that everyone can remain in sync and reference sections easily.”

Communicate clearly

Whether you’re the artist, producer, or both, do your best to be straightforward and respectful in your communications in the studio.

“Choose one person who will be communicating from the control room to the musicians over the talkback,” says Moss, “and tailor your communication style to fit the musicians you’re speaking to. For example, string players often prefer bar numbers and classical music terminology, whereas guitarists are typically more comfortable with casual language, like ‘take it from the second chorus.’”

“If you’re communicating with musicians who are reading off a chart, know how to read sheet music!” he adds.

Don’t push too hard

Even after doing your due diligence and hiring the best, most professional, and easiest-to-work-with player you can find, you might still find him or her struggling with a particular part on your recording. Sometimes he may just be experiencing a learning curve, or a bit of red-light-induced nerves, and the player will hit his or her stride after ten minutes. Sometimes, though, the music may not get where you want it to be.

It’s always important to recognize when you’re asking a musician to play something beyond his or her abilities, Moss says, and deal accordingly. If you find yourself in that situation, there are really two options — simplify the part on the spot or call it a loss and find another musician who has the chops to handle what’s called for.

Keep the takes under control

Sometimes the first time through a tune in the studio is imbued with a unique magic that could never be matched, even if you played it a thousand more times. Similarly, a particular band or player may not hit the sweet spot until take five, six, or beyond.

It’s important to give players a few takes to start to feel comfortable, get used to the sounds in their headphones, and reach their personal best before you start offering any feedback, Moss advises. But once your sounds are dialed in, your players are comfortable, and the music is cooking, don’t record a million takes, he continues. Though it may largely be a gut decision, trust your instinct and don’t overdo things: “Know when you’ve got it and move on,” he says.

Follow up

Before it comes time to release your album or do any publicity, make sure to credit your musicians the way that they’d like to be credited, he says. It pays to take the time to check in with them on this — for players with common names, for example, including a certain middle initial or nickname could be key in differentiating them from the five other drummers with the same name.

And a positive follow-up can be a great way to continue to build your relationships and professional community. To that end, “don’t forget to send them the final version of the track!” says Moss.

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Disc Makers’ regular contributor 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, jam along with the new JamBandit app, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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3 thoughts on “How to find and manage session players for your studio recording

  1. OK, there’s a ton of supposedly-great-advice here, but nothing about dealing with the musicians union. Top session guys work a lot of union dates, and it’s not hard to bring your date into compliance.

    The locals in NYC, LA or Nashville will help. Scales are not unreasonable (maybe less than you think) and contributions for the player’s pension and health funds will be included. Also, if you’re working in a major city and need some type of ensemble like a string section, consider using a contractor. A good contractor’s reputation is based on his ability to put together appropriate players for a particular need. The union can tell you who the best contractors are, and you can often find their names in album credits. In addition, the contractor’s staff will handle the necessary paperwork.

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