One of my songwriting partners asked me to come into the recording studio for a couple of days and play drums on some songs that he’d been itching to get going. It’s been a while since I got to record anything but Zeppelin on the kit, so I was excited he asked.
The studio where we recorded is one of my favorite places in the world. I have been working there for 16 years, the whole time that I have lived in San Francisco. Nearly every project, every record I’ve made, it’s all come out of this place. The reason: Robert Preston, owner and engineer. He is my dear friend. I could never describe the depth of my delight in this human. Because of him, the studio is my happy place.
Anyway, as I was going through the first day, I started to think about what it’s like for a musician to be hired for a session. I have been on the hiring end and on the hired side, and have listened to my friends speak of their good and bad experiences hiring musicians for their work in the studio. As the day went on, I started to make some notes in my head about the way to handle it.
Nearly every item on the list was based on one truth: a hired musician has to respect the clock. Everyone, even artists signed to major labels, knows how true the phrase “time is money” is when they step into a recording studio. Studio time is precious, expensive, and pretty much everyone I know saves up for a while to make a session happen.
Most things take longer than you think they will take. I have been in sessions in which people were so concerned about the ticking clock that there was an edge of stress around the whole thing: not the most conducive situation to capturing magic when recording. I have been stressed like that, and it really makes it no fun.
As someone hired for the session, the primary thing that matters to me is that I get in and get out as quickly as possible. In most sessions with Rob, there is a feeling of celebration. The studio is hallowed place in which each person gets to bring a lifetime of work and all of their creative energy and let it shine for an afternoon, or a few days, or however long you are gifted with studio time. In this time, the culmination of your creative voice is laid down on something that stands to be heard by the world. So there is a tendency to want to milk it, to bathe in the connection with the other musicians, drink a beer when your part is over, hang out and see how the rest of the recording goes down.
That’s not your role, though. As someone hired for a session, your job is to:
- Come in prepared. You should know the music as intimately as possible. If you haven’t had a lot of time, bring notes, have a solid idea, and be as familiar with the material as possible when you walk in the door.
- Know ahead of time what the bandleader expects from you. Know what other instruments you’ll be playing with so you can map out who to listen to, and get an idea of the feel they’re looking for.
- Set up quickly. Don’t be precious about your ideas about sound. The producer or band leader makes those decisions with the engineer. If they ask your opinion about how you think your instrument should sound, give it, but at the end of the day, step into the room with your instrument ready to go and make it as easy as possible for them to fire up the sounds quickly. If you’re a drummer, step it up, set up quickly, use only what you’ll need for the material and let the engineer get the sounds. I am lucky in Rob’s studio. He has a house set of drums that I love, so when I show up he’s got them set up and mic’d, and all I have to do is adjust so they’re comfortable and I’m ready to go.
- Know how to trouble-shoot. Know a little about tuning. The snare wasn’t singing, so I had some quick tricks to get it snappy. Be flexible and open to doing it the way that best suits the session. You’re a bass player and they want you to record direct, without an amplifier pumping low end all over the drum take. Figure it out, get what you need to make it as good a take as you can give within the parameters of what you’re asked, and then let it go.
- Learn to love to play to a click track. Recording these days is edited in a computer, so often a click is essential to make editing easier. Learn to play behind, with, on top of the beat. As James Brown said, every instrument is a drum. Perfect your timekeeping, no matter your instrument.
- Then, let go of perfection. When you’re recording in your own studio, you can do 40 takes of a two-bar measure to get it just right. On someone else’s dime, do your best, lay it down, and when they say they have it, they have it. It’s their record. It’s their time. Be honest about saying that you think you have one better in there and if they want it, do another take, but otherwise, let it go. If I don’t get the drum take in 1-3 takes, I take a good look at the issue and simplify.
- This is a key word in 90% of recording sessions. The red light comes on, and the body freezes up. It happens to most people, especially when there are four people on the other side of the glass standing under a clock. So simplify your parts. Make your drum fills the ones that come from muscle memory. Come up with parts that your body can play even though your mind is saying, “oh crap oh crap oh crap.” Play for the song, no showboating. Unless they want it to rip, then let it rip.
- Be positive. Don’t get wrapped up in your ego and don’t get dramatic. Don’t take anything personally. You think you got the take of the century and they want something more? Don’t argue or get all grumpy. You have infinite takes in you, right? You love playing your instrument, right?
- Remember, you’re just a piece of the pie. The bandleader has a vision and you are a little piece of a big picture. Don’t underestimate them. Don’t give your opinion about any other instrument or part of the recording unless asked. Too many cooks is a very real saying when recording. There is a big sensitivity an artist manages when they’re creating their vision. Shut up about the way you would do it unless asked. Which you won’t be.
- Get out quick. Most likely, the other musicians are awesome people who may be your friends and they won’t kick you out, but most likely, they want you out. They want to move on to the next item on the long list of things they’re aiming to get done that they most likely won’t get done, so hanging out is just time. And time is precious. Pack up quickly, wish them luck, get going.
It’s funny how, when you hear the finished product months later, most of what you did and were stressed out about is gone. All of the times I’ve agonized in the studio over tiny things are just washed away when I listen later. Sometimes, I’ve completely forgotten that I even did what I did. I’ve listened to records and realized in the credits that I played on the song. Which is hysterical and may be just my rock addled brain that I don’t recognize my own playing, but that just goes to show you. It’s not about you. It’s about the big picture. How wonderful to be used as a piece of someone else’s vision in the snapshot in time recorded forever in one glorious recording session.