An Essential Guide For Hiring & Working With Session Musicians

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  • Ever hired a session musician only to be dissatisfied with the experience?
  • The issue might be on you, not them.
  • As a session musician who has worked with countless artists, allow me to walk you through the fundamentals of a successful hire.

This article was written by Nicky V, a session musician, and guitarist who has helped countless artists realize the sound in their heads.
Hire him here.

How To Set Your Studio Musician Up For Success

I’m going to give it away in the first sentence…communication.

Most session musicians got where they are by having incredible attention to detail skills. It’s a well-defined skillset that is all about accuracy, being receptive, managing details, and communication.

Your job as the producer should be to give them all the information they need to meet and hopefully exceed your expectations. This article is geared towards working with session musicians remotely but some of the psychological tricks can be applied to a tracking session environment as well.

The tips I’m about to lay out I’ve picked up from working remotely with hundreds of different producers from all over the globe.

Sometimes I have to coach them through the right questions to ask me (it’s always better to let the person paying you be the hero).

Other times, they are total pros and the entirety of the email exchange is their requirements followed by a simple ‘yes sir (or ma’am)’. So take notes and be a pro…here we go.

Step 1: Create The Environment

Reverend Steve Allen (high-caliber producer and engineer here in Nashville) once told me:

“Nicky, some people respond to the environment given to them and some people create the environment they need to succeed”Steve Allen

As a producer, for you to build your own successful environment, you need to surround yourself with the right team. Everything you are about to read is more effective if you have the right session musician(s) hired for your particular project.

Step 2: Communicate Technical Requirements

Usually a producer wants to jump right into discussing guitar tones, snare drum sounds, etc.

However, one of the first things needing to get squared away is the basic technical requirements for the session.

You would be surprised how many times I’ve had to ask the producer what sample rate they want the project recorded at. Here’s a couple of things to put on your checklist. 

  • Sample Rate. Do you want it recorded at 44.1kHz or 48kHz? Let the player know. 
  • Bit Depth. Most session guys will go with 24bit unless the producer request differently so make sure you make a note if you want 16bit or 96bit. 

It doesn’t stop there. Also, consider the following…

Headroom

Make sure the musicians know that you would like their stems peaking at -12db to tape. If they are a pro they will do this regardless but a friendly reminder will give your mix some headroom that the mixing and mastering engineer will appreciate.

Tempo

What’s the tempo for the song? It’s nice to have this when the player is setting up their session and can just drag and drop with everything immediately lining up on the grid. It just saves us a little time as well so we can skip right to the next order of business.

Charts

Attach a chart if possible. This way all the players involved are on the literal same page regarding the arrangement and it saves some time. This also helps eliminate excuses from the players and avoid revisions “O I thought that was an A minor 11″…”Sorry Charlie, chart says Csus2”.

Starting Points

The last thing you want is getting dozens of stems back from your players and none of them having the same starting point. Trying to sync all those up will make you want to pull your hair out so solve the problem on the front end.

Make sure there is at least one bar out front before the downbeat of the song/chart to make room for a fill or an acoustic guitar raking into the chord, etc.

Some producers will want the downbeat to start at bar nine, some just bar two, some have a long intro in mind they want to leave room for. Just let us know so we can make you or the engineer’s job easier when organizing the delivered stems.

Reference Tracks

Never let the artist/client hear the reference track you have in mind but always let the musician(s).

Odds are, a studio guitarist is going to be able to distinguish between a Vox AC30 and a Fender Bassman easier than you are.

So if you send them a tune and say “Hey I dig this tone on the chorus” they will likely pull out the right tools for the job and get you the sound you are after. This applies to all the instruments/players on the session and helps us determine intensity, gear choice, dynamics, feel, etc.

Step 3: Communicate Creative Requirements

How Much Space Do They Need To Fill? 

From the musician’s perspective, it’s super helpful to know what instruments are going to be in the mix when it’s all said and done. This is primarily because we need to know how much space to leave for the next player after us.

For example, if I’m recording electric guitar and I know there’s not going to be a keyboardist on the track, I might add some tremolo to give the mix a little wobble since there won’t be organ under the mix. Also, a drummer might take a completely different approach if they know there’s going to be an upright on the track instead of a P Bass. 

Should They Play It Safe, Or Have Free Rein?

I play with drastically different levels of risk depending on the producer I’m working with. Some cats will want me to just lay it down as simple and clean as possible then others will want me to stomp every pedal, crank the amp wide open, and give it hell.

If you let us know how far out you want us to stretch and make your expectations clear, it actually alleviates some of our stress load trying to guess what you are looking for.

Clearly Express Your Overall Vision For The Project

Having skilled people in your corner is always a win. Share what your end goals are for the project so they can help get you there. Music is a team effort so the more everybody understands what they are working towards, the more likely they are to hit the mark.

An example of this would be telling the keyboardist you want to make the listener float coming out of the bridge…they are going to play completely different if you give them that kind of imagery. Or tell the percussionist, “Hey man I need this to sell”…so he puts snaps on two and four.

Tips For Working With Session Musicians

1. Overcompensate Your Musicians

Do you know what motivates people? Yes, money. Any professional musician studio guy will give you 100% and deliver stellar work. However, when the player knows that they are going to be taken care of financially, the level of willingness always seems to kick up a few notches.

It shouldn’t work like that but it’s human nature. Here’s another thing to think about, if a player is well paid for the service they are providing, they are likely to refer other great players and help you expand your network. 

2. Make Their Job As Easy As Possible 

Any time you can lighten the workload for the musician, they are going to give you a better product. You want the majority of the musician’s energy spent on the creative aspects of the project. Not trying to beat an arrangement into shape for an hour or transcribing chords since there was no chart given. Once again, give us the tools and information we need to make you look good.

3. Learn To Trust Your Session Musicians’ Natural Instincts

Every one of us studio guys secretly wants to be a producer. So if you are ever in doubt or not sure how to express yourself, just tell us to do our thing and you will probably be happy with the reference mix you get in your inbox. 

Build the right team and give them the tools they need to succeed.


This article was written by Nicky V, a session musician, and guitarist who has helped countless artists realize the sound in their heads.
Hire him here.