Three types of musician you'll prefer to work with in the studio, and one type that you won't
I received an email from an Audio Masterclass student the other day who was having difficulty getting her two guitarists to play in time with the backing track to her song. Apparently although most of the song was in 4/4 common time, there was an occasional 2/4 bar which was throwing them off. "Couldn't you fix it?" they asked, as though there was something wrong with the song rather than their playing.
Well I'd say that messing around with time signatures is an important part of music, and I think that a lot of composers and songwriters would agree with me - and music lovers who may appreciate the time signature change only subconsciously, but they appreciate it nonetheless. So the guitarists had better shape up and do what the writer wants - which is my opinion.
But it did make me think about the different types of musician that you will meet in the course of studio work. Some good, some not so good, none of them ugly because music is always a beautiful thing. Let's start in the middle ground...
The session musician
A skilled session musician will play exactly as you want them to play. And they'll give you more of what you wanted than you even knew you wanted. So the occasional 2/4 bar in a 4/4 song will be absolutely no trouble to them at all. The occasional 15/16 bar may take a few moments to figure out, but figure it out they will.
This is exactly the kind of person you want on your recording. It will cost you a significant amount of money in session fees, and anyone who is good might only want to work with writers and producers who are successful already. But it's something to aim for as you advance in your career.
The 'name' session musician
It gets better still. Although a skilled session musician will give you everything you want, with icing on top of an already rich and fruity cake, there is an even higher standard. This is the musician who has a 'thing'. Or a 'thang' if you prefer. They have a particular style of playing that no-one else can match, and it's a style that you want on your song. Your session will definitely be something to remember, and the shock to your bank balance will be something to remember too. But it will all be worth it when your record climbs the charts.
The band musician
To become a session musician you have to be both skilled and versatile. Reliable too. There are however a lot of musicians who are really good at what they do, but they don't have that supreme level of skill to work efficiently as a session musician. And they may have only a limited stylistic range. Now don't get me wrong - I wouldn't dream of criticising this kind of musician, and whatever it is that has brought them success in a band might be on such a level of quality that even the best session musicians would struggle to imitate it.
The problem you will face as a writer or producer however is that you might have written a country-style song and your musician has a rock background. So this is where both you and the musician are going to have to work together to get a good result. It might not come easily, but if everyone raises their game and finds good solutions, the end-product might be excellent.
The story so far...
All of the above three scenarios can lead to a straightforward recording session and a fully successful recording. But there is also a scenario where things are going to be a little more difficult...
My way or the highway
The MWOTH type of musician might be a perfectly lovely person who is always first to buy a round of drinks at the bar. But they have one way of playing and there's nothing anyone is going to do to change that.
Now for a name session musician this can be fine. They have a trick and that's what you've hired them for. It's a bit like hiring J.J. Abrams to shoot your wedding video - there's no way you're going to want to tell him what to do.
But for a musician of average ability, this can make for a difficult session. To pick one example from many possibilities, the guitar is an instrument that is prone to make noises that are rather less than musical. For instance if the bridge saddles are set on the low side then the strings can buzz. And, more often on an acoustic guitar than electric, there may be finger noises - squeaks - on the fretboard.
Now some will say that since these noises are an intrinsic part of the sound of the guitar they should be celebrated rather than seen as a cause of irritation. But as a producer, maybe you just want the musical sound of the guitar without the noises.
An experienced session musician will be able to respond to your request for clean playing and won't mind doing so. But the MWOTH musician might be more reluctant and you'll end up with a recording full of noises, or lacklustre playing because they felt they weren't allowed to display their musicianship in the way they thought right. Your player is still a lovely person, but you wish they could adapt to your needs as a writer and producer a little more.
It is always good to aspire to high standards of musicianship, while remembering that musical and sonic character can play a part too. With some players, you'll get what you want easily, and perhaps more than you expected. With other players, you might have to work harder on persuasion, and accept some issues that to you seem to be defects. But thinking optimistically, sometimes what seems like a defect can be turned around into a benefit. The power of serendipity in the studio can sometimes be amazing.