Even if a musician is completely comfortable about his environment and headphones, there are things you can do to help him take his performance to another level. Unless you’re a studio pro, most musicians can be very self-conscious about what they’re playing, especially after hearing a playback that uncovers some flaws they were unaware of until that moment. It’s important that their confidence doesn’t flag and it’s directly up to you to keep that from happening. Here are a few tricks that will help.
• Stay positive. Regardless of how badly things might be going, how off-key someone is singing, or how out-of-the-pocket someone is playing, never be negative in your body language or your comments. Remarks like, “You suck,” or “That really sounds bad,” don’t ever help the situation and can even completely undermine a performance. If something isn’t going as well as you think it should, give the player a reasonable chance, sit him down for a listen in the control room, then firmly but respectfully describe why the part isn’t working.
• Explain what’s wrong. Players hate it when they’re just told to, “Do it again,” without any explanation as to why you think what they just played wasn’t good enough. If the take wasn’t a keeper for any reason, explain what was wrong in a kind and gentle way. Statements like "I think you have a better one in you," or “I’ve heard you play it with more excitement before,” might work if you can’t put your finger on the problem, but players appreciate it if you can be specific so they can concentrate on that part the next time they play it through. “You’re falling behind the beat every time we come out of the chorus,” is an example of a specific statement. If the player continues to get it wrong, make sure you play the part for him so he can hear it clearly and understand what you’re going for.
• Keep the studio talkback mic on. Communication is one of the most important, yet sometimes overlooked parts of a successful session. Players hate it when they’re speaking to you from the studio and either you’re not aware that they’re trying to get your attention, or you simply can’t hear them. Make sure that the engineer puts up a dedicated talkback mic in the studio and that it’s turned on immediately after every take. It’s important that you don’t miss a single word.
• Keep the control room talkback mic on. Players also hate when there’s long periods of silence from the control room after a take. They might see a conversation going on, but if they can’t hear it, many players get insecure and feel isolated. You may be having a conversation about what kind of take-out food to order, but as far as the player can tell, you’re talking about how bad his performance was and how you’d like to replace him. Get rid of the insecurity by latching the control room talkback so he can hear you all the time between takes. Once again, communication is the key to a successful session.
• If a player asks to play it again, let him. You may think that the player just nailed the ultimate take, but if he feels he can play it better, he usually can. Players inherently know when they’ve messed something up, were late on a chord, mis-fingered or ghosted a note, or slowed down during a roll. Maybe you didn’t hear it, but the player knew it. Let him go again. This is a lot easer decision to make nowadays than it was back in the analog tape days, thanks to digital recording. Back then, you might only have space on tape for a single take and you might loose a take that was great if the next take didn’t work. That kind of pressure on the producer has now been lifted, thanks to your favorite DAW.