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Why Playing In The Studio Is Different From Playing Live

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Read Time: 16 min

My new book, “The Studio Musician’s Handbook” (written with top Los Angeles studio bassist Paul ILL) is about to be released and I thought it would be a good time for an exclusive preview.

The book features a previously unseen look inside the world of the studio musician and covers all the things that you need to know if you have aspirations to be one, like how much money you can make, what kind of chops you need, how you get gigs, and the many ways to become one in the first place. Even if you never intend to make a living as a studio musician, but you still play in the studio a lot (even if it’s your own), the book contains a number of pointers that you can use at every session, like equipment tips, session etiquette, and a player’s guide for every instrument.

So here’s a bit from Chapter 2 that illustrates the differences between playing live and playing in the studio, followed by the “Standard Session Procedure” used by virtually all studio musicians.

All musical performances are really about “the moment”. Live music happens in the moment for that moment. Recorded music captures that moment so that it can last forever. The former is like a live TV news feed of an event while the latter is like a carved statue of the same subject material.

You’ve probably had a lot of experience playing live, but playing in the studio is a distinctively different experience. The thought process is different, the mindset is different, the approach is different, and the chain of command is different.

16 Ways Playing in the Studio Differs From Playing Live

In an effort to contrast these two different experiences, let’s move from the most simple differences to those that are, shall we say, a bit more subtle.

1. Repertoire

Most live gigs rarely change repertoire without rehearsal. Only on the fringes of the Jazz community do musicians show up at a live gig prepared to “wing it” every show. A session musician has to be ready to change material on the fly. If it’s a one-tune record date for a singer/songwriter, the song may take on a completely new character within moments. The session may start with the artist playing the tune by his or herself. As the rhythm section falls in, not only are they are expected to learn it “on the fly” but to come up with the appropriate parts that will help make the song not only as memorable as possible but as accessible and pleasing to not only the artist and producer but to listeners who may make the song part of their lifetime’s musical soundtrack. No pressure!!!

2. Scrutiny

On stage, whatever you play is gone as soon as you play it. In the studio, what you play is under a microscope and will likely be analyzed, dissected and reorganized all in the name of making the performance stronger.

3. Equipment

The gear you use on a gig won’t always translate to the studio. You choose the gear for a gig based upon versatility, durability and general ruggedness. The only thing that counts in the studio is the sound. While one size might fit all on a gig, it usually makes for a boring recording, especially if you’re recording multiple tracks or more than one song. The studio requires a wide range of sonic possibilities, so you’ll need to bring different instruments, amps, and pedals to get there.

4. Leadership

On a gig you have a bandleader that calls the songs, counts them off, possibly directs the solos, and ends the songs. In the studio you’re answering to a hierarchy consisting of the producer, artist, and engineer (in cases of sonics). The producer is the ultimate decision maker, with final authority over everything you play.

5. Nuance

The little things count in the studio. Everything you play can be critical so nuances are just as important as the body of what you’re playing. When you play live, the nuances are usually gone in the wind, overcome by the the stage volume, acoustics, and attention of the players and audience. In the studio, everything you play is scrutinized and that’s too much pressure for some players. On stage, your band mates may be listening hard (if they’re good) but the audience will be grooving to the music as a whole. No pressure, just play. In the studio, you’ve got to be great every time, every take.

6. The Live “Feel” versus the Studio “Feel”

Rest assured that watching drum god Steve Gadd play live with Eric Clapton is a whole different experience than his studio work with Ol’ Slowhand. There is definitely a different feel required when playing in the studio. Players well versed in both idioms tend to exhibit more finesse and restraint in the studio and cut loose in a different way. Remember, music in a studio terminates at some kind of recording or broadcast device. Live music just disperses in the ether. The studio requires the musician to play to a whole different set of variables created by the signal chain after the instrument and the needs of the session.

7. Etiquette

You can get away with being a jerk on a live gig since the other players usually will put up with you (up to a point) as long as you perform well or the audience loves you. Not so in the studio. In order to take the music to the level where it needs to be, a constant give and take is required with everyone in the studio. If you make someone feel even slightly uncomfortable for any reason, chances are you probably won’t be asked back. There are too many great players with accommodating personalities waiting in line for the chance.

8. It’s hard work

That’s not to say that playing or singing on a 4 or 5 hour gig isn’t difficult, but you play a lot of different songs every set and get the glory of audience feedback. In the studio, the only feedback you get is from the producer, artist and maybe the engineer, and 99% of the time they’re analyzing how you can play a part better rather than singing your praises. And the level of concentration is definitely up a few notches. On a gig you can breeze through the music, almost losing yourself in your playing. In the studio, every note counts and requires your utmost attention. It’s not unusual to spends hours on the same song (or even the same phrase), playing or singing it over and over until it fits perfectly. On the other hand, some sessions require that you play it perfectly the first time (or in a few takes), which brings a pressure all its own.

9. Preparation

Live gigs almost always require sufficient rehearsal. Most recording sessions happen with little or no preparation. As a result, a session musician has to be highly adaptable and be able to learn music “on the fly”.

10. Approach

Studio musicians can be asked to change their approach in the middle of a take! Imagine you’re on a TV scoring date and the producer and music supervisor are sitting with the show’s director listening to you do a Hammond organ overdub on a chase scene that starts in a ghetto bar on foot and ends with the bad guy and the cop hopping into their respective cars, with the bad guy stepping just ahead of our hero. As the cars speed away into an industrial neighborhood, the scene cross fades into a close-up of the cop’s Mom in church, lost in prayer. You’re cranking on the Hammond to a pre-recorded backing track, playing your best Jimmy McGriff or Jimmy Smith –inspired growly blues runs. Upon completion, you think to yourself, “That take was great.”

But after a brief pause where you watch through the control room glass your audience of three in intense conversation, the music sup leans on the talkback and says “That was pretty good. Now at bar seventeen on your chord chart, can you make it sound more “rock”, say like Deep Purple? Then for the last six or seven bars can you switch up to more of a Gospel feel? And by the way, we’re going to kill the track around bar 32, but we’ll leave in the click so make a solo transition from the “rockier” stuff to the Gospel on your own, OK? And remember there’s 11 more bars after bar 32, so don’t forget to count!” And you thought that your take was seamless!

11. Pace

Early in a session, studio musicians often hear, “We really like what you’re doing but we don’t like the sound. We’re going to change a few things in here.” Now think of those countless gigs you play. Rarely, if ever, do live performances stop to tweak, but it’s very common in any recording context for those on the production/engineering side of the glass to stop mid-take and say “You’re doing great but we have to fix a few things.” Often after a series of takes everyone in the studio band will hear over his or her headphones, “You guys are definitely in the zone, but we need to change out the snare drum,” or, “That was a great solo, but can you do it again on your Strat this time?”

A session player needs to always be ready to move at the pace determined by the environment. Things may change on the fly from breakneck speed to time-crawling meticulousness. If you get booked with a producer like Roy Thomas Baker you may be slaving over the same basic track for days at a time, but if Comedy Central calls you in for a series of cues for a cartoon series you may be expected to complete thirty to fifty short pieces of music in under three hours, so you must be ready for both and everything in between!

12. Creation versus Interpretation

Live musicians are usually expected to re-create a pre-existing repertoire, where the studio cats create the repertoire. Motown’s infamously influential Funk Brothers helped create the soundtrack for more than one generation of music consumers, and you can bet that popular music culture from bar bands to recording artists are going to be duplicating their licks and parts for decades and maybe even centuries to come.

13. The Required Skill Set

This will be looked at in greater detail when we get to Chapter 8, but let’s look briefly at the differences. For rhythm section players, there’s a whole different level of musical literacy required. Not only should one be able to read music well, but the top session musicians can access a variety of styles and feels on a moment’s notice. It also takes a really good set of ears and musical taste buds to make it to the top of the session musician hierarchy.

If you often wonder why Led Zeppelin was so good, consider the thousands of sessions logged by Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones in London studios between 1962 and 1968. Together and separately they played on everything from Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” to Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” to the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” to the Stones’ “Satanic Majesties Request”. All that studio work not only honed their already formidable chops, but it informed their taste buds and fine-tuned their ears as well.

14. Artist vs. Entertainer

Live musicians entertain, studio musicians create entertainment. It’s like the difference between going to see actors in a play and actors on the silver screen. Both achieve the same end, but theater changes from performance to performance while film is a one-time document meant to stand the test of time and to weather repeated exposures. Are you up to the task? Chances are you are! You just need to be willing to do the work.

15. Venue Variables and Studio Situations

Live performance almost always presents the same circumstances for the musician. His or her instrument(s), collaborators, and set list (see Repertoire above) will usually not change much or without fair warning. Not so in the studio. Except for the great studio bands of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, studio musicians are used to seeing new faces frequently, almost always play new material, and although the venues change, it’s not in the same ways live venues do. Granted, the acoustics and the crowd may change on a live gig from night to night, but most everything else remains the same. Not so in the studio. The session musician learns to expect change at any moment since the tune can morph and he may be asked to play a different part or instrument.

16. The Live Wolf Pack and the Studio Lone Wolf

Most live performances require a group and a sizable supporting cast, unless you’re a DJ or a solo singer/songwriter. Recording musicians usually convene at a studio, arriving on their own, so a different camaraderie exists than the “We’re all together on this bus!” mentality of live work. Recording musicians are independent and can work with different people every time they play music. Not usually so for the live players.

As you can see, there are a lot of differences between playing live and playing in the studio, but you can’t say that one is better or more exciting than the other as they both have their high and low points. But it’s not about which is better, it’s about knowing the differences so you can be better prepared for what you might face.

Standard Session Procedure

While many of the following items below also apply to playing live, there’s a different emphasis that centers on professionalism. 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.

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