In the first article in this series, I shared with you a few of the overarching ideals I strive for as a working studio musician. Here are my thoughts on how to be effective in the studio. The art and craft of recording is something I’m constantly honing and exploring, and these are a few of the most invaluable (and often obvious!) tips that have helped me succeed.
Prepare for Success
Be prepared. Will you need an amp? Effects pedals? Are your harps in proper working order? Are there any demos, specific recordings/players, or styles that can be referenced for the session? Occasionally, I’ll get requests to do something unusual, challenging, or requiring special practice. A little forewarning can be the difference between a successful or an embarrassing session.
Also, be aware that sometimes even experienced musicians may not know exactly what they want, and part of your job will be to help them clarify their musical vision. I’ve done numerous sessions where the client told me they wanted chromatic harmonica, but we ultimately used diatonic, or the client had never heard a bass harp before, but they ended up falling in love with it and featuring it prominently. I’ve even done sessions where they asked for acoustic harmonica, but ended up settling on a raucous amplified take. It can be hard to predict how the session will go and it’s best to be overprepared!
Check Your Ego at the Door
We all have different ideas about who we are as artists and what we consider meaningful music and exceptional playing. It’s easy to define a successful musical activity by whether you liked the music or the performance. However, when it comes to studio work, success isn’t defined by you, but by your ability to do the job asked of you. Often that’s “be yourself, and give it the best you’ve got,” but frequently, it’s not. If you play the most inspired solo of your life only to have the producer say, “that’s not working for me,” it’s time to go back to the drawing board and find something that will work. Enjoy the challenge and don’t get too attached to your last take.
For me, being a professional musician is a privilege and a lifelong dream—I don’t want to mess it up! It’s so easy to psyche yourself out: perhaps there are a few intimidating musicians on the session, perhaps it’s for a high profile project that many people will hear, perhaps it’s your first time working with a producer or artist you’d like to impress, or perhaps you haven’t had enough time to play recently and feel a bit rusty. Regardless, you can always take comfort knowing whoever hired you has already invested in you and knows you’ll do a good job. Somehow you earned their respect and it’s important to acknowledge this even when facing the array of unusual situations, requests, and adverse circumstances in the studio. When in doubt, do your thing!
Build a Foundation
In some situations, it can be hard to know where to start: perhaps the track has a lot happening already, the producer hasn’t given you any directions, or you’ve never heard harmonica played in the context you’re currently in. Trust your intuition and go with something simple, texturally consistent, and foundational. Maybe it’s long tones, a simple rhythm part, or fills between vocal phrases. Whatever you’re feeling, stick with that and create a foundation that you and the client can build on. Is it working? If so, how can it be improved? If not, try another approach until you find something that’s working and go from there. When trying to figure out an appropriate part, I avoid playing a little of everything in one take—playing too many different ideas can make it difficult to pinpoint what’s actually working and to generate a meaningful conversation on how to hone the part.
Trust Your Intuition
Your first instinct is often your best—the mystique of the first take is well founded. There’s a spontaneity and honesty that comes with intuitive reaction, before you think about what you should be playing, what notes the producer has given you, and how many bars left before you get to that break you missed last take. If music can express things that words cannot, it’s worth letting it fly once or twice before getting tangled in words. Trust it. In some cases I’ve even been thankful I hadn’t received the material ahead of time, as I loved the opportunity to react without preconception. Even if your first take needs polish (and it probably will), your intuition can be your greatest guide in coming up with that part. Often, a client may be looking for a specific part to be played, but in other instances they may be looking for you to sprinkle a little magic on their recording. Sometimes the best way to find the magic is subconsciously! Trust your instinct and develop your intuition.
Faith in your musical sensibilities can also go a long way when you find yourself out of your element. Before panicking because you’re unsure what to play on a particular song or in an unusual style, allow yourself to find something that works. If this song is begging for Toots-style chromatic and you don’t have that in you, allow yourself to find something that will work with your skills, palate, and style. I’m constantly surprised at how one’s limitations can be great opportunities.
My approach to the studio is equal parts common sense, technique, and psychology. If I’ve had a bad session, it’s typically because I failed to stick to the guidelines I’ve laid out in this article. There’s always more to learn, and recording is a beautiful way to document your development at each stop on the path.
In the third and final article in this series, I’ll share some pointers on how you can improve your own recordings, whether you’re recording from home or working on your band’s record at a studio. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. Please visit www.RossGarren.com to hear some of my music and do drop me an email while you’re there!