“Are those *real* strings?” - Breathing life into your music. Pt 5

Part 5: Session Day


Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Score preparation
Part 3: Selecting the studio and reserving the musicians
Part 4: Preparing the session
Part 5: Session day

Your morning session starts at 10am. Plan on arriving around 9 - 9:15am. If the engineer has any problems or questions relating to setting up the studio, your files, etc., you will have time to sort through them. Be certain to bring backups of the files with you.

As our primary focus here is on a string session, let’s go through what I have found to be a typical session, and a most efficient method of recording.

Efficiency is key to a successful session
Usually, if the session is at 10am till 1pm, the players will likely start to roll in around 9:30 - 9:45am, tune their instruments and become acclimatized. There is usually a lot of action in the studio at this point…setting up and placing of microphones etc. Distribute the musicians’ charts, if the stands/chairs are set up.

Order of the day
If you haven’t previously done so, decide on an order to record your songs. With a plan to record three songs, I generally like to record a moderately difficult one first, in order for the musicians to get comfortable with levels, the style, and playing together. Also, by starting with something not overly taxing you will feel a sense of accomplishment once it is recorded, as opposed to feeling stressed over the amount of time it may have taken. The first song usually takes the longest to record, as levels etc become established and bugs ironed out.

If there happens to be a piano in the studio (and you happen to be a pianist!), this is a good time to run through the first chart (see video from part 4). This also gives the engineer the opportunity to test the sound entering the desk. In other words, you are very efficiently killing two birds with one stone.

Keep the most complex one for second place, and the easiest for last. There will be a break in the middle…usually around 20 mins or so. There will also be brief breaks between songs whilst the next PT session is being setup. During these brief moments the musicians will usually read through the next chart.

Take 1.
Place yourself next to the engineer, score at hand (hopefully not covering too many of his faders!). If you are like me and would prefer to communicate with the musicians yourself during the session, locate the talkback button. Then, once all is set and the players are happy with their mix and level of click, go for a run-though and a take. Follow your score as you listen. If you notice something out, don’t stop the session, just pencil a note in your score. Unless it is a train-wreck, of course!

Over the years I have found that the most efficient method is to go for complete takes as far as possible, as opposed to ‘punching in’. I find the session flows better, and far less time is spent locating specific measures on the charts and in PT. If the players play three or four complete takes you will most likely have some large sections that you can piece together with minimal editing. If there is a constant bug in a certain place, then go back for a ‘punch in’. If there are musical glitches, check for potential notational errors in the charts and run through a few measures with the players. Once you get the hang of scribbling in your score you can note which phrases are good takes…and which ones are to be deleted as soon as possible, if not sooner. By the time you arrive at building your final submix you will already have most of the groundwork done.

Work your way through the session, savouring the process. It will feel easier and more relaxed as you get into it. When you feel strained, take a few minutes out or move to another song. By the time the session is over, you will likely be feeling pretty darn good about your decision to take this route, and the results you are hearing.

Be nice!
It does sometimes happen under stress, but try to avoid tension in the studio. It will take a toll on many factors of the process. Most importantly, treat your engineer and your musicians with the utmost respect. Be good to them and they will do their very best to deliver a fine performance for you.

Personally, I like to take a break after the day of sessions. Sometimes I head straight for a mix in the evening, sometimes I head straight to the local pub. Sometimes I leave with sub mixes in order to create the final mix myself, although a good engineer will likely have the better facilities for this step.

Whatever you choose, have fun piecing it all together.

To summarize, my studio sessions have worked out (in US$) to be under $1000 including the studio and musicians. In Germany it was a little cheaper, in the UK a little more expensive. What I actually got out of it was exceptional.

This whole experience should be a highly fulfilling one on so many levels. It is wonderful to share your music as it is being created. Good company adds to better creativity. Extra sets of ears sometimes bring creative suggestions that can turn out to be most positive.

Most of all it has taken me away from my lonely basement and the frustrations of technology, and back into the world from which I came: Working with live, breathing musicians.

Thank you for letting me share this experience with you. Please feel free to share yours with me!

* * * * * * * *

In closing, here is a little example from my session in Berlin. A moving song co-written with, and featuring, Kari Lynn Hewett on vocals, aptly titled ‘for the end’.

A little background: This song was the ‘easy third’ song of the session. The piano was my pre-recorded ‘keeper’ track. The six strings were recorded in two takes, plus two for the vocals. We opted for the second take of both, in their entirety.
Total recording time spent in studio on this song...about 20 mins.

Happy music making!


As always, please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, comments or suggestions concerning studio sessions such as this or orchestration/scoring questions.

For complete versions of all the songs used in this tutorial blog (amongst others), please visit Kari Lynn Hewett’s SoundCloud.