The studio guitarist’s guide to happiness and personal fulfilment, as related to us by top sessioneer Mitch Dalton This month: Studio sessions and how to survive them - part the fifth.
It has to happen at some point, with any luck and a following wind. If you pick away at the commercial music face for long enough, eventually you’ll hit pay dirt. Yep, I refer to yer actual real live, paid recording session, a frankly bizarre engagement in which the sole purpose of the date appears to be structured to capture musical sound as accurately and fastidiously as humanly possible.
How weird is that? No messy compromises. No slicing and dicing of the composer’s intentions to fit the charming moment where the little girl kisses the poodle’s ear (or vice versa). No cameras. No cables. No directors with tin ears. Nope.
Nothing but proper recording engineers, assistants (“tape ops”, back in the day when tape was tape, men were men and sheep were nervous), a producer, a composer, an artist and even a copyist if the budget happens to stretch somewhere north of posh.
A brethren gathered together exclusively to make bootiful music. And money, to be fair. But you know. Unless the record label has filched the last Arts Council grant in town or the artist is formerly known as Abramovitch that’s just the reality of life in this post truth, post Trump, post-early-for-Christmas world. Of course, yet again and however, there is a multitude of potential scenarios that might unfold shortly after that vital studio question, “Where’s the coffee?” has been posed.
You may have been asked to bring but one specific instrument to the gig, which is handy but harrowing if there’s a last-minute change of artistic direction (“Surely not?” I hear you cry, in four-part harmony). No. It’s probably wiser just to bite the Bigsby, load up the Mondeo with as much gear as a Tupperware Ladies’ morning, and hope for the best.
You might be part of a large orchestral ensemble. In which case you should definitely count the day a personal triumph if you can correctly identify your chair, gain access to it without crashing into the second desk cellist and trashing her instrument (worth on its own more than all your equipment put together!), and can actually see the conductor from the broom cupboard in which you’ve been incarcerated (“Sorry, it’s nothing personal. There’s too much spill if we don’t put you in here.”) Oh. And can you play the part correctly and in time with a bunch of disenchanted divas who regard a click track as the work of the diatonic devil?
On the other hand, you may be in for a day of overdubbing on pre-recorded tracks under the watchful ear of the producer and perhaps the artist too. You might be provided with meticulously scored parts. Or just a chord chart. And more often than not you might think, nothing at all other than the poisoned plectrum preamble of, “We’re looking for a killer guitar solo here, right after the tambourine breakdown section. What can you give us?” Er, apart from a large invoice, I take it?
Sadly, there is no infallible guide that I can give, to coping with the stress of being obliged to deliver superlative, in-the-pocket, instantaneous musicality at the blink of a red light. There is one helpful cardinal rule, however. You’d better love the song, the artist and the gig to death - and if you can’t do that, then fake it, baby. This project is someone else’s blues-eyed boy and they want you to undertake the lonely, tortuous journey with them. Well, for three hours anyway, with a 15-minute break.
And there is no way of predicting the outcome. In my time I’ve walked into a room with nothing but a Spanish guitar, a bunch of emery boards and a wan smile and yet emerged 20 minutes later with a solo, fills, and rhythm part in the can. And a number one record to tell my bored-to-bits kids about. Alternatively, I’ve spent an entire day playing continuous semiquaver chords on a 12-string guitar, punching in endlessly on the track until the producer was completely satisfied that each and every up-and-down strum was exactly in time. Like, EXACTLY.
Six hours of arthritis-inducing, barre-chord purgatory, my friends. Don’t try it at home.
So. They pays yer money. And they takes their choice.
Just be sure to get the address for the bill before you leave.
IT’S PROBABLY BETTER To BITE THE BIGSBY, Load UP THE MONDEO WITH AS MUCH GEAR AS a TUPPERWARE LADIES’ MORNING, AND HOPE For THE BEST