Recording session musicians can be a source of great fun and inspiration, because you witness your songs growing through the craftsmanship of professional players.
But it can also drag your day into an emotional abyss, if your sessionals lack the energy and experience that your record requires.
Today I’d like to share some of my most and least favorite studio moments.
Choosing Session Musicians
When my producer Craig and I started discussing the choice of session musicians for my debut album, I made the point that I wanted to be present for every recording session.
Firstly, I wanted to have a say in the arrangement of the songs. It is a lot easier to change a particular banjo riff or flute note, if you’re able talk to your musicians live in the studio.
Many things can be changed afterwards during the mixing process, but it is a lot more time-consuming to push little snippets of sound around than it is for the musician to play a particular part again.
If you have the time, I definitely recommend sitting in for every session. Even if you don’t have anything to add to the discussion between producer and musician, you still get to watch your song grow.
My second reason for sitting through every single recording session is my social media campaign. During every session I took pictures and shot video of the musicians in the act of art, and I posted those snippets as teasers on my social media pages.
How that turned out will be discussed on a different day. In any case, I now have plenty of material that I can use for promotional purposes. I think that’s a good thing.
On Working with a Producer
If the option exists: stick to one producer. When the recording process of my album was completed to approximately 80%, my producer Craig decided to move from Alberta to British Columbia, and oddly enough that move was not helpful for our work relationship.
Craig promised to return to Calgary relatively frequently, and attend remote sessions via online conversation. Neither of these options found fulfilment to any great extent. We pulled through, and the record sounds great, but recording without producer was a great labour.
Both quality and efficiency of the recording sessions dropped markedly after Craig had left town. Despite all the wonderful options that modern technology has to offer, nothing beats direct conversation.
How to Determine What Instrumentation Your Album Needs
What kind of session instrumentation your album requires is subject to consent between your producer and yourself. In general, your producer is more experienced than you are, and will probably not only have a good idea of the instruments that will sound good with your music, but also know the right players for those instruments.
Personally, I play about a dozen different instruments. Some I play much better than others, but still good enough to provide me with a reliable perspective on composition and sound.
If you play more than one instrument, you can obviously play lead yourself, but I don’t recommend it. As my friend Frank pointed out: “that would be too much YOU on that record.”
No, I wanted to drag as many of my musically talented friends into this project as I possibly could, because I wanted to implement their unique perspectives and talents into my music.
Except for one player, I enjoyed every single recording session, and I am very happy that I made time to witness them live.
Against all odds I did end up playing a bit of lead guitar on one song. “Your Love” is probably the weirdest song on my album, not least because I wrote it on autoharp. After Craig sent me the rough cut of that song, I experimented a lot with its composition. Some relatively simple, but intentional guitar chords added a lot of structure to it.
I think the greatest obstacle for my session players was the absence of a click track on my songs. Due to the absence of a metronome, the tempo of my rhythm tracks changes a bit over time, and even deliberate tempo changes are not always easy to follow.
Still, we managed. Various studio artists asked about the absence of the click track, but everyone found their way to follow my rhythm.
Working with Session Players
Obviously, some sessions were more amazing than others. The key players on my record (as judged by my own subjective perception) are Corry Ulan (banjo), Barb Olorenshaw (violin), Dan Mills (flute), and Joanna Drummond (vocals).
Every one of these four sessions was terrific. These four musicians are masterful artists, and brought a lot of beauty to the table.
I remember sitting in the studio with Barb, and my producer asking me if I had any comments on her contributions, and all I could say was: “can we just sit here and listen to Barb playing for the remainder of the day?”
There are sessions that are simply joyful. Art knows no perfection, and sometimes you end up with three different versions of a song that are all equally splendid. That’s just how it goes.
Decisions are part of our life, and sometimes they are so overwhelming that we cannot make them ourselves. And it’s always better to have multiple options to pick from, instead of being confined to one mediocre take.
Music needs time to grow. You cannot force art, and thus some sessions require more time than you might be inclined to put in.
We sat in the studio with Johnny Summers, who was supposed to contribute French horn to one song (“Long Black Braids”). It took about an hour to get decent takes for that six minute song.
At first I thought that maybe Johnny was out of touch with his instrument, or even not good enough, but that is an odd thing to suggest to the director of the Calgary Jazz Orchestra. As it turns out, that horn is just typically French: rude and uncooperative.
Johnny managed to wrangle the French horn into submission, but it took a long time to get the sound that we wanted. He also played an option of Flügelhorn, which went swimmingly, and took us one take to complete.
As result, we now have a beautiful dialogue of horns on that track, both played by Johnny Summers. You won’t get THAT with a live recording! Neither will you get Hammond B3 legend Mike Little on the accordion, because he is a busy man, and even for him it takes more than two tries to get accustomed to my weird bluesy chord choices.
So, be nice to your session players, and send them the rough cuts of your songs ahead of time, if you can, so that they have an idea of what will be happening on recording day. Recording an album in sessions has the advantage that you can experiment with its sound; use that!
There were various other recording sessions that either took longer than planned, or needed to be rescheduled.
Emma Rouleau, who sings a very beautiful duet with me, offered me ad hoc to sing the second half of the traditional “Every Rose”, because the song lends itself to a male-female dialogue.
Since my version is a bit difficult to follow, Emma needed to study the song at home, and return the studio at a later time.
When I asked Joanna Drummond to sing an a cappella duet with me (“Winter’s Cold at Sunset Bay”), she basically tore that song apart, and reassembled it into a much more structured form. Luckily we did that in a rehearsal session.
And then there was the tin whistle. Oh, dreaded instrument! Apparently tin whistle players are incredibly rare in Alberta, and it took me half a year to get a lead on one. That is already a bad timeline, considering that we had planned to finish the album within six months.
But we can top this drama: when we finally sat in the studio with my elusive tin whistle player, he turned out to be just not good enough. I know, I should have noticed that earlier, considering that I had several rehearsals with him, but I didn’t.
As mentioned before, I am quite new to the idea of music, and my ears don’t always work as the well-trained harmony detectors that they should be. When Craig sent me the rough cuts of the whistle tracks, we immediately omitted the whistle from two of the three intended songs, and Craig said: “I’d be okay with finding and recording another flautist.”
This was in January, about three month after my originally planned release date, and three months before my intended departure from Calgary, so you might conclude that the schedule looked a bit tight.
And considering the small amount of luck that we had with that topic thus far, the outlook was rather bleak. But fortune smiled upon me, and I got into contact with Dan Mills, who had just moved to Alberta a few weeks earlier.
And not only did Dan play all the whistle parts that we wanted, he also added some incredible Irish flute sections that we had not even planned. I think the grand prize question is this: what would we have done without Dan? Probably we would have omitted the flute and whistle parts.
In such a stripped-down composition, you would hear that something was missing from those songs, but in this case parts missing are better than parts half-asked.
Budgeting for Session Musicians
Besides the fact that I have many friends who I love to hear play, there was also a financial component to my decision on the identity of session musicians. Friends usually charge friendship fees, while unacquainted artists don’t.
I paid around $100 per song and artist. A bit more for unionized musicians; a bit less for friends. It was worth every dollar.
Some musicians won’t like to accommodate your schedule wishes for just one song, but you have little influence on that. James Hutniak plays harmonica on only one song, and he spent at least three hours on that, because said session was riddled with technical difficulties. Still he was kind enough to not charge me by the hour.
Similarly, Johnny Summers and Jonathan Ferguson played their instrument for one song only, and like true professionals they gave it their best possible effort. I think the key is to find session musicians that actually love their job, and put their emphasis on passionate play. In that regard I totally lucked out.
How Do You Get the Musicians You Want on Your Record?
You Ask. Duh! It sounds obvious, but when the session musicians on your wish list play way out of your league, you might hesitate to contact them. Sometimes you just have to overcome your little butterfly daemons to progress with your art.
I asked Hayley Sales to sing lead vocals for “The Fair”, knowing that her level of musicianship lies yards above mine, and that she was likely to laugh politely in my face. Surprisingly enough she agreed anyway, which provided me with a great leap of energy and enthusiasm for my art in general, and this record in particular.
It didn’t work out in the end, because Hayley signed a contract with Universal Music, but that is beside the point. My message is: you’ll never know unless you ask.
My friend Jim Burke performed his debut album together with grand talents such as Steve Pineo and Mike Little. Initially, Jim did not think that he was good enough to draw those Country legends onto stage with him. Honestly, who would?!
But he asked, and he succeeded, and that is really all you need to know. Music connects people. You will never know what kind of connection your art can draw unless you actually approach your prospective collaborators.
Some sessionals may only materialize before you due to sheer luck, or because your producer has worked with them in the past. About half of the 16 musicians that played on my debut album are friends of mine; most of the other half are in some way associated with the studio that I recorded in.
Some are actually rather recent additions to my circle of friends, such as flautist Dan Mills, as described above. My blues harpist James Hutniak, in particular, was a last-minute find.
My producer had big trouble getting any blues harmonica player to commit to our project. It was only one song, but the harmonica was to be the only instrumentation on “Free Bird” beside my slide guitar, so I did feel the pressure to find someone. And I needed to find him or her quickly, because Craig wanted to close the project within the week.
I took my chances, and posted a message on “Calgary Music Classified”, one of our musical Facebook communiqués in Calgary. Within two hours I had three replies, one of which was actually committed to the job. James turned out to be a great person, and the player for the record. Sometimes you just luck out.
Recording this album has been quite the journey. The record sounds amazing, and I can say that without sounding self-centred, because the impressive bits were all contributed by my producer and my session musicians.
My own participation in this project is dwarfed by anyone else who worked on it, but still it feels like I earned this piece of art. Because I was there when it happened.
I cut out and arranged many of the pieces of this musical puzzle, and I was present when they started to fall into place, revealing a majestic landscape of sound.
But there is a lot more to be done to develop your music into a commercial product, so next week I will take a break from audio, and will talk about design, layout, and advertisement instead.