The studio guitarist’s guide to happiness and personal fulfilment, as related to us by Mitch Dalton This month: “What’s a recording session, Daddy?”
Jason - a talented, intelligent, well-meaning individual who should know better recently suggested a number of topics that I might like to discuss in future articles within this authoritative journal. Indeed, I found myself impressed both by the breadth of his imagination and the resulting length of potential monthly meanderings from which to sweep pick.
One request in particular caught my eye, if not my unbridled enthusiasm. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s a perfectly reasonable topic - studio sessions and how to survive them. Fact is, this particular chestnut can be filed alongside questions like “How long is a piece of string?”, “How do you get a lute to stay in tune?” or even, “How many Mexicans does it take to pay for a wall?”
Nevertheless, after hours of alternating head scratching and navel gazing, I have finally come up with this handy cut-out-and-weep guide: my very own Session Success For Dummies, if you will. Read on and money, women and fame will be yours as surely as Gladys Knight follows Marvin Gaye*. (*Quantities strictly limited. Terms and Conditions apply.)
The brutal reality is that the idea of a one-size-fits-all description of a recording session is but an illusion in itself. And therefore the skill set required to cope with the problems (er, sorry....”challenges”) that may be lobbed in your direction will vary accordingly. But before I classify these categories like a latter-day Digital Darwin, there are a number of common threads that unite all activities that feature the use of a malevolent microphone placed unforgivingly adjacent to your amp or axe. I would suggest that this recipe for tasty tone requires the following ingredients.
In passing, you may notice that I’m a simple kinda guy. And simple is good. As is minimal. Trust me. First off, you’ll need couple of electric guitars. One should be a Fender Stratocaster-based instrument, or heaven forfend, a Strat itself. There are approximately one zillion different models out there vying for the affections of your platinum enriched card, but all you require is one that covers the characteristic sounds that we know and love at the flick of a five-position pickup selector switch.
Guitar two could then be equipped with humbucking pickups for heavier rock-based noises and act as a complement to Guitar One. Think Gibson or equivalent, Les Paul, 335 etc. The latter is an interesting choice because it’s eminently capable of fitting into jazz based arrangements and reduces the necessity to acquire (and schlep) yet another dedicated instrument.
As for effects, you are free to build yourself a pedal condominium with enough onboard tech to fill a space shuttle and fire it to Jupiter, if that’s your 5p bag.
Just bear in mind that on frequent occasions you’ll need to produce that killer sound that lurks somewhere within your rig (or head) on demand and not on Tuesday. Time is money. And the money is theirs, whoever they are. Remember also that for 95% of the time, the bottom line of pedal protocol is a decent overdrive, a warm chorus, a digital delay, a volume pedal and an analogue foot with which to er...boot them. If you have a compressor and a wah pedal in the vicinity, so much the better. And if you happen to be plugged into a Fender amp, there’s your reverb and tremolo, built in. No matter that Leo decided to disguise the latter as ‘Vibrato’. What did the guy know about sound, anyway?
Next, you’ll need posh steelstring acoustic and, ideally, Spanish nylon-string guitars. Even if you have carelessly neglected to acquire a serviceable finger-style technique along life’s Rock road, now is a very good time to start. Four joyous hours a day for about a year should crack it. Meanwhile, use a pick and attempt to simulate a suitably mellifluous tone for those sensitive gut-string wrenching ditties that lie in wait, inevitably at the very end of the session.
It goes without saying (so I’ll say it) that your instruments must be set up professionally. Buzzes, rattles and squeaks render your performance unusable and your future employment prospects negligible. As do intonation issues.
And valves that go bang on the night. And jack cables that fail the instant the light glows red. Personally, I am perfectly capable of making my own mistakes without having my gear do it for me. So, best to pro up, eh? And thus prepared, we walk a tad nervously through the studio door in next month’s gripping sequel...
the reality is that a one size Fits all description oF a recording session is but an illusion
Mitch: on the basics for becoming a fine session musician