The Inquirer: Being Easy in the Studio

June 28, 2017

In the previous edition of the inquirer, I outlined the technical tools that bass players confront in the average professional recording studio. When a player is fluent in DIs, must-have mics, and compression, they’re well poised to advocate for themselves in an environment that often relegates bass to an afterthought. Yet, while gear know-how is an asset, the interpersonal and network-y side of the studio experience ultimately matters much more.

In education, teachers are tasked mostly with synthesizing and consolidating concepts and facts, while students are expected to learn and integrate these facts, periodically proving it through exams and term papers. When I was in music school, I initially took refuge in this framework, thinking that my success in music would somehow be proportional to the quantity of information I could digest. Now, on the other side of 15-plus years in a music career, I can easily see my error. Recording studios exemplify the problem with that paradigm. In hindsight, music school’s biggest value to me wasn’t as a source of information, but rather a place to observe professionals at work. Given the investment of time and money, recording studios are generally staffed with working professionals, too. The things I observed in my first contact with the pros I wanted to emulate continue to serve me, more than the data those pros relayed. I see now that my teachers were successful not because they knew so much, but because they were good people to be around.

The most critical objective fact about music and the studio specifically is that it’s a social experience. A group of humans is engaged in a collaborative activity toward a common goal, usually under substantial stress and at significant cost. If there’s one thing I can relay that will help you not only succeed on a session, but be a player that engineers and producers want to work with, it’s this: Be easy. This, more than any other skill, will ensure your success. The music world is littered with exceptional out-of-work players, and when you get to know them, you discover it’s because people don’t like being around them.

So, what does it mean to “be easy” in the studio? The first parts ought to be obvious at this point: Show up on time, and prepared. If a session is scheduled to begin at 10 AM, then be there. Even if your previous session involved three hours of sitting around while an engineer miked a drum kit and worked out a headphone mix, get there at the call time. It’s perfectly acceptable to email/text/call the bandleader and ask for a real-world estimate of when you’re needed, but do it in a way that clarifies you’re available regardless.

Your preparation should have begun at home. Depending on the session, you’ve likely heard the material before. Do what you have to do to learn it, and don’t be afraid to write charts for tunes you don’t know. This isn’t a gig, so there’s no shame in reading if need be. Bring more gear than you think you need, too. While a producer might suggest you just need a 4-string P-Bass for a session, it can’t hurt to have a fretless and a 5 in tow; sometimes producers and arrangers don’t know what they want until you’re there, plugged in, and showing them the possibilities. That said, any time your instincts suggest a deviation from the producer’s plan, make your suggestion with humility and grace, especially if the producer is just getting to know you. You may love your graphite-necked 6’er, but you may not realize that the track would be much better served with a tapewound-strung hollowbody. Remember, the recording-experience differential is most often tipped in the producer’s favor.

Unless you’re just doing an overdub alone with an engineer, there will be a lot of hubbub in advance of starting to track. While this is happening, do everybody a favor and don’t noodle. By all means, warm up, but do it with your volume down. Once everyone is in headphones getting feedback from the control room and negotiating their mixes, the last thing anyone wants to hear is you practicing. When you’re communicating with the producer and the band, be decisive and clear, and try to consider what you need to hear, for example, before relaying it to the engineer. There are inevitably challenges at the outset; you want to be a part of the solution, not the problem.

Finally, this is a big one: Don’t front. Don’t act like you’re a bigger deal or more experienced than you are. It’s transparent and off-putting. It’s okay to be new to something. In my studio I’m too often confronted with people who clearly want me to think they’re more seasoned than they actually are. What they don’t know yet, perhaps, is that almost to a person, the most successful people I’ve worked with are the least ostentatious. They have nothing to prove, and neither should you.

Bass Player Senior Contributing Editor Jonathan Herrera is the magazine’s former Editor-in-Chief. An accomplished player, Jonathan has been a fulltime musician and producer since first leaving the magazine’s staff in 2010. His latest endeavor is Bay Area recording studio Airship Laboratories. Catch up with him at jonherrera.com and at airshiplaboratories.com.

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