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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Standard Session Procedure

There's a standard session procedure for every studio musician, and it's the difference between a real pro and an amateur.

While many of the following items below also apply to playing live, there’s a different emphasis that centers on professionalism in the studio. All items apply to every recording session, with the possible exception of recording in your own studio.
  • Arrive early.  You should always arrive at least a half-hour before the downbeat of the session. This means that if your session starts at 7PM, you need to be there at 6:30 or earlier to be ready for 7. You can’t expect to get there at 6:55 and for everything to be cool. If the session starts at 7PM, find out if that means load-in time or actual downbeat time. Remember that if you keep your employers waiting, you probably won’t work for them again.
  • Turn off your cell phone! The session should be your main priority with as few distractions as possible. One of the easiest ways to achieve this is to turn off your cell phone. If you leave it on, not only do you risk ruining a good take if the ringer goes off, but talking on the phone is the best way to stop the momentum of a session in its tracks, and it’s so disrespectful to everyone else at the session as well. Don’t even bother to put it on “vibrate” since this will cause you to lose your focus just as easily as when the ringer is on. Turn it off, then leave it outside the studio in the lounge so you won’t be tempted to use it.
  • Make sure your instruments are in good working order. This means that you should have them professionally checked so that every note plays true without any unwanted noise.  
  • Make sure to check your tuning to the “A” of the track. If the song isn’t tuned to the standard A-440, there’ll be a tuning note recorded on the track for you to tune against. The tuning of your instrument is really easy to overlook when you’re tracking because sometimes being out of tune isn’t that obvious, but it will bug the heck out of you (not to mention the producer and composer) every time you hear it played back forever and ever it it’s out of tune and you didn’t take the time to fix it.
  • Warm up quietly. You’ve got to warm up and everyone expects you to, but try to be quiet as you can so you’re not a distraction. The quieter you can warm up, the more everyone will appreciate it.
  • Don't make any unnecessary noise. The less talk, the better. Don't leave your earphones uncovered or turn them down when you don’t have them on your head. A little courtesy like that can go a long way.
  • Don’t complain about the temperature. It’s never going to be perfect for everyone, so it’s useless to even bring this up since it just becomes a distraction. The only exception is that if it’s so cold that it physically impedes your playing or cause problems with your instrument.
  • Stay awake! Listen to everything that’s going on and be ready to play at all times. If you’re playing with other studio musicians, watch the leader and stop playing when the leader stops.
  • Don’t talk after a take until the engineer or producer says it’s OK. Nothing can either ruin a take or make a lot more work for the production team than someone thoughtlessly making a comment at the end of a take. Even if you think the take will have to be done again, keep all comments to yourself. Sometimes a take that feels bad to you can feel great to everyone else.
  • Always seem interested in the music. It’s easy to get a little complacent when your chops exceed what you’ve been called to play on, but try to get beyond that feeling. It’s best to have only enough chops for that particular job. Nothing more and nothing less. Showing off is a good way not to be asked back. And try not to look ahead on the chart when you’re playing, it’s a good way to loose your place.
  • Stay out of the control room. Unless you’re specifically asked, stay in the studio. And if you’re asked to come in to listen to a playback, don’t eat the booth food unless offered. It’s not necessarily there for you!
  • Make any charts, notes or cheat sheets beforehand. Once again this comes under the heading of being prepared. If you have some time before the downbeat of the session, ask to hear the song (if there’s a demo or you’re going to be doing overdubs) so you can make a chart or notes. You don’t want to be wasting anyone’s time for something that could so easily been done beforehand. Also, if you have to mark your charts, do it so anyone can read it later, so make all your notes legible.
  • Don't pack-up early. Don't leave until you're officially excused, and be sure to clean up your area when you’re dismissed.
Following these tips will take you a long way to being hired again the next time.

For more on what it takes to be a studio musician, check out The Studio Musician's Handbook.

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