Here at Parachute H.Q, we’re currently deep into the fourth week of creating production tracks for Dancing with the Stars NZ. We’ve become this crazy hotbed of activity, creating more than 90 tracks over the show’s 12-week season. When your favourite celebrity rumbas across the glittered studio floor to your favourite Ed Sheeran jam, they’re doing it to a track created from scratch by one of our community producers.
As you can imagine, this is quite an undertaking, and we couldn’t do it without the undercover stars of the studio – session musicians. Called in at a moment’s notice to lay down a drum track, form an impromptu choir, get the brass line “just so”, or even replicate Freddie Mercury’s trademark howl, session musicians are the hard-working heroes of studio life, versatile, fast, and often a lifesaver in the face of an impossible deadline.
It’s only when you observe them in their natural environment that you realise what a nuanced art form being a studio musician is. Studios can be psychological pressure-cooker environments; they’re the Tour de France of the creative world - if you’re prepared and in shape, you can excel, if not, you’re likely to be left sweaty and embarrassed on the sideline.
But enough of the sports metaphor. Professional musicians will tell you this gig is a job, and should be treated as such - the talented musician on the stage is just the tip of an iceberg, the end result of years of practice, preparation and devotion to their craft.
So, with a tip of the hat to the heroes of studio session, we’ve prepared this little primer for all you aspiring studio-ready musicians out there.
The Scouts had the right idea when they hammered this two-word motto into the impressionable youth of the world. If you’re a session musician, showing up to a studio prepped tops the list of requirements for producers and musical directors alike. Why? Because, like any contractor, you’re being hired for your efficiency – your job is to save them time, and you can only do that by hitting the ground running in the studio. This principle applies for any musician in a studio, whether you’re a session player or a bonafide band member - the last thing you want is to keep everyone waiting as you slide into take 34 in a $1000-a-day studio.
Learn your parts. Duh, right? But you’d be surprised at how many musos saunter into the studio, relying on their natural skills to nail the part in the moment. The truth is, while the carpe diem approach is great for an adrenaline kick, it’s also a fast track to the session players blacklist. Nothing makes a producer want to commit grievous bodily harm with an auxiliary cable more than an unprepared musician – it can cost them hours of precious time.
Your job starts hours before the recording light blinks; you should be hitting the studio with a thorough knowledge of the part you’ve been asked to play. Vocalists, you should know how to sing the part in your sleep, and be warmed up enough to hit the high notes. Players, you should know the lick/riff/drum fill intimately, or have a familiarity with the vibe and direction of the track – you should also be ready to transpose that part on the spot. If you’re being asked to contribute to a new track, pre-prepare some ideas – they may not be needed in the final cut, but at least you’ve arrived with a head-start. Once you hit the session, you’re there to record, not to practise.
Attitude is a close second to preparation. Any musician who has ever worked in a studio knows that they’re dynamic spaces – fill them with the right people and they’re volcanic hothouses of creativity, add a few bad apples in and you soon find yourself in a sub-arctic nuclear bunker. Session musicians: you never quite know what you’re walking into; you could be crashing the tail-end of an exhausting 48-hour tracking marathon, you could have been called in to replace a temperamental band member, or in the legendary case of Steely Dan, you could be the seventh guitarist to be called in for the same guitar solo.
All this to say, whether you’re a hired gun or a band member, having the right attitude is going to stand you in good stead, and increase your chances of getting a return invite to the studio. Be professional (this is a job, after all), be willing to tackle that 10th take with as much energy as the first one, and most of all, be pleasant to be around - session musicians aren’t paid to bring their egos to the booth, band members shouldn’t bring counterproductive energy to the table. Also, be pliable, not precious: ask for feedback and direction – make it clear to the person running the session that you’re not happy until they are. Most studio musicians will tell you this gig is 50% talent and 50% interpersonal skill.
Be an All-Rounder
American composer George Duke once asked psychedelic freak-rocker Frank Zappa for some friendly advice: his reply? “Invest in yourself.” If you want to be taken seriously as a studio musician, you can’t afford to get pegged by your limitations. Keep taking lessons, try to master the nuances of every genre, learn to read music – add to your arsenal and learn another instrument altogether. It’s even helpful to get familiar with the basics of studio recording equipment, from editing and recording software to best practice for working with studio gear. Know your pedalboard/vocal range/guitar tones like the back of your hand, so when a producer is looking for a certain sound, you can dial it up with ease.
Yep, you’ve got to press the flesh in rock n’ roll – maybe even more so. A lot of times session work will come from a spontaneous decision or need for a quick fix, and often it’s the familiarity of relationships rather than a raft of phone calls that will yield results.
There’s no point in being the best hired hand in town if no-one knows who you are. Put up some listings in musician’s rags, create an online showreel, call all the studios in town and (politely) let them know you exist. Be familiar in the scene, if only as a fan. Co-write with whoever will have you in the door. Help out where you can – there are countless stories of famous bands whose guitar techs ended up taking the main spot because they were in the right place at the right time. One day you’ll be the guy or girl that everyone in town calls, but until then, be the name they’ll remember when it counts.
Check out the documentary ‘Hired Gun’ on Netflix – an inspiring ode to the session greats.