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Studio musicians?

Discussion in 'Studio Lounge' started by number58, Jul 1, 2007.

  1. number58

    number58 Guest

    This may sound like a stupid question, but how does one go about becoming a studio/session musician? How do you break into the business?

    Im a music major, and i think it would be pretty nice to be a studio musician. I just have no idea how to get started. Any info would be appreciated!
  2. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    A couple quick questions for you...

    1 - I see your location is Alabama. Are you hoping to get (a lot of) work there or are you planning on moving to LA/NY/DC/Nashville/Branson?

    2 - What do you play? If you play trumpet, horn, or multiple woodwinds and you can hold your own, you might want to check out LA. If you can play sax(es) or drums, your arena is a little bigger.

    3 - What type of sessions do you want to do? Soundtracks, backing, etc...?

    4 - What experience do you have?

    I think all of these are important questions in determining a good answer.

    Welcome to RO!

  3. number58

    number58 Guest

    Well, after i finish college, i thought of moving to NY as my goal. My main instrument is sax, but i will be learning flute, clarinet and piano. As far as what type of sessions, im not picky at all. I would prefer jazz, but anything is better than nothing. I have very little recording experience.
  4. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Groovy. Sax gives you a chance to play for just about any genre.

    Honestly, I wouldn't bother trying to learn other instruments. If you don't know them intimately by now, you won't be a strong enough studio musician on those instruments. Smaller (project) studios may use you a lot if you can do a lot of instruments, but larger studios already have strong flute and clarinet players.

    You should always learn more piano skills. I doubt you'd be able to use it in the studio, but it's obviously a good skill to have. (Of course, I'm assuming you've done a piano proficiency in college).

    So...to answer your questions - how to get into the studio musician life - Go to vistaprint.com and have some flyers or postcards made up highlighting yourself, what you do, what you can offer and your rates. Send them to every studio in the area no matter how big or small. Then, follow up with phone calls.

    As for rates, some of my studio musicians charge $75 an hour, some $50 per hour. 1 of them charges $50 per song. Another one charges $50 per hour and gives me $10 an hour out of his rate. (Obviously, I like using him!)

    Rate structures are obviously very different.

    Good luck!

  5. number58

    number58 Guest

    Thanks alot!
  6. Yeah, great advice
  7. recordrookie

    recordrookie Guest

    I'm an upright bass player. Is there much demand for this instrument in session work, to the extent of it being enough on its own? I also play guitar and electric bass by ear, and used to take piano, so I'm decent on those, but don't consider myself a good sightreader. Is there always sheet music involved in session work, or is it a mix of playing by ear as well as sheet music? Btw, sorry if I took over your thread.
  8. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Hmmm...tough to say.

    Can you only play by ear, or do you read music as well? If both, there's probably a studio that can use your help. Unless you're in Bloomington, South Bend or Fort Wayne. These are VERY music heavy places where you'll be up against some VERY heavy competition.

    For my bass players, I prefer ones that can:
    -Read music, figured bass, nashville and play by ear
    -Play upright and electric
    -Have their own instruments and amps
    -Can play well both arco and pizz

    I would work on the sightreading skills if you want to be a session player and get as good about reading notation as possible. It's very rare that I ever ask a studio bassist to comp other than maybe 12 bar blues or I, IV, V's so playing by ear isn't that helpful.


  9. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    As always, Jeremy's advice is dead-on. I would add a few things as well; You'll have much better luck in any bigger city/market, and you must keep your options open. The big obvious ones of course are NY, LA and Nashville, but there are other busy areas as well. Mainly, any area that has a thriving Arts community also has the studios & people working in them. Ditto for Theaters, Universities & Schools. The deeper the pool, the more chances you have for finding work in the Arts.

    Keep a few things in mind up front: More than ever before in this biz, most of the jobs are already taken, (not that there were all that many in the first place) and no one wants to let work get away from them. So, you won't be hearing any REAL or factual information from those doing the job. They will be too busy (or too paranoid) to give you the real story. This is normal for any business, of course, so you have to dig deep to get to the truth.

    As already stated, keep your flexibility high and mind open. Most of the work that IS still out there nowadays is word of mouth and referrals. You probably won't get much work by ads or flyers, aside from the rare chance occurence of "right place, right time." Don't mean to be negative, but no one of any importance reads those things, they're too busy in the studio working, and they cannot take a chance on someone untried and unproven. It's the chicken before the egg syndrom: How do you get referral work if you can't get heard because you're not working?

    The answer is time and patience. (Assuming you've got the chops, of course.) Aside from lucky breaks here and there, this takes a lifetime, so don't expect immediate success. Do lots of things all related to what you want to do. LA, NV and NYC of course are the hotbeds of the studio industry, although it's now smaller than you'd think. (NYC has only a handful of full time, professional studios, while LA is still busy, and there are a lot of film-based soundstages/studios that are busier than ever.)

    Let me tell you how some of it works in Phila., and perhaps some of the other markets. The busiest (union) players are doing everything, not just session work. Many are university trained (Curtis, Temple, West Chester, to name a few local institutions). To be fair, most Curtis grads end up in the Phila Orchestra and other big 5 orchestras. The rest are doing all the other gigs in town, and there are a LOT, if you're connected. Aside from concertizing during the calendar year, they teach, and do pick-up work in Opera, Musical Theater, and specialty things (big choral works with orchestras, etc.) We also have the suburban areas keeping the players busy, as well as Wilmington, DE, and Princeton/Trenton & Southern NJ Arts organizations. Ignoring NY and DC areas, the DelVal region is massive, and savvy players are busy indeed, not just in session work.

    The reason I bring this up is that these people (Let's call them the A team and B team players) are well known to all the local contractors (People who hire large ensembles for long-running things like operas & theatrical gigs), and are well known to sound and recording people in town as well. Guess who also gets the calls to do commercials, soundtracks, and music beds?

    I would go as far as saying the most important people you need to know are CONTRACTORS who hire the musicians for these gigs, be it studio or whatever. There are a handful of classical & jazz players who are just tops in their field here and get the calls first.

    In my own experience, this included a 60 piece orchestra we used to do a soundtrack recording for Warner Brothers Animation last spring, April 07. (Tom & Jerry's Nutcracker Tale - straight to DVD this year.) Every player was known to each other and us; all top-tier, sight-reading mo'fo's who were almost machine-like in their ability to do things perfectly, on-cue, every time, in pitch and perfect intonation. Their musicality was NEVER an issue, thankfuly.

    There is no way anyone would risk a second of production time with someone untried and untested in something this massive - studio suits watching, conductor flown in from Belgium, 24 mics and recording gear in place, hall rented, clock ticking away, etc. etc. (LA was too busy & too expensive to do it there, so they picked Phila., based on local musical reputation and the score involved: All-Tchaikovsky music - Nutrcacker Ballet.)

    There is also a very busy music studio (known to only a few here in town) run by Larry Gold who does a ton of things for CBS & Sony. He regularly records with all of the first-call string players mentioned above, and his work regularly appears on things by big-name artists. (Google Larry Gold and see what I mean...) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPL2RPHwYUk

    I have a running joke with several of the first-tier string players, in that I let them know every time I see them on Television (and it's more than you'd think - even THEY are suprrised at how often they appear.) Most recently, I was watching snippet of the Justin Timberlake DVD (Live from Madison Square Garden) and lo and behold, right at the start of his gospel-choir segment, where four of my fav Philly-based string players, thirty feet high on four screens, pre-recorded on video (to go along with audio they'd recorded a year ago) to play in full sync with the live material on stage. Again, these are the people that get the calls again and again.

    Can you break into this sort of market? Absolutely. No question at all. But again, you must have the chops, the patience, and the reliability to to show up on time, in tune, no attitude, and ready to do it again and again, as perfectly as humanely possible.

    Oh, and being a nice person never hurts either. The a-holes don't get callbacks, believe me. :cool:
  10. recordrookie

    recordrookie Guest

    Thank you to those who replied, especially JoeH for your informative and honest answer. It seems that you've got to be very dedicated if you're going to get into the business. Now is it the same on the engineering side of things, as far as competition and referrals go? Would you say it is similar to getting in as a session player, in regard to those areas? Because it seems from some things I've read on this site that this is the case. What are your thoughts?
  11. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    I have two friends who are studio/musicians for hire and they are both excellent musicians.

    Friend number one lives and works in Nashville, he is a cellist and did a lot of session work and was the number one person on call for session work in Nashville for a number of years. He has since retired. He is a classically trained musician and played in a large orchestra for a number of years. He finally decided that he want to try something different and told me that the pay was MUCH better doing sessions than he was making as a second chair cellist in the orchestra and it was a lot more fun. He told me that if anyone wanted to get into being a session musician there were some ground rules 1) be flexible and be ready to drive to a session on very little notice 2) be good at sight reading 3) be ready to sit down - tune your instrument and play 4) be easy to work with and don't give ANYONE ANY GRIEF or there will be someone else playing the next gig 5) do lots and lots of networking - many of his gigs came from others in the string section and he knew almost every contractor and audio engineer in Nashville on a first name basis.

    Friend number 2 lives and works in Northern Ohio. He too is a classically trained French Horn player. He does a lot of session work and a lot of pickup playing for traveling shows and concerts. He was also the musical director of his church and gives private lessons to a number of students. He is also a composer and rounds out his work with doing a lot of editing and mixing of projects for his church and his friends.

    Both my friends love what they are doing and find the work both interesting and profitable but they also have to do things that take them away from their families for long periods of time and their life is not their own since they have to work their schedule around what is going on with the music business at any given moment. They do not have a normal 9-5 existence and sometimes go for weeks without a break or day off. They also are at the beck and call of their contractors and in more than one instance they have had to play at with a very short notice when someone else got sick or could not make the gig. Not a profession for the faint of heart or the person who wants and or needs an ordered stable family life.

    Best of luck and I hope this is what you REALLY want to do because it takes a lot of talent to break into the field but even more to stay at the top. There is always someone nipping at your heels.
  12. biscuits18

    biscuits18 Guest


    I noticed all you are talking about is woodwind and brass instruments, but what about studio drummers. Do they have to sight read? or can they make up their own beats as the songs go along? I'm also a lefty drummer. Would that in any way affect my chances of becoming a succesful studio musician? Also, how am i capable of gaining experience, considering that i live in stamford, CT?
  13. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    I am VERY picky about my drummers. As a matter of fact, I have no "drummers" on my list. I have 3 percussionists all of whom are professionally performing musicians and can read in all clefs and own many of the finest percussion instruments available.

    Sorry - drummers MUST be top notch.
  14. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Just curios; how old are you, Biscuits? Stamford isn't all that far away from Boston or NYC or even Hartford. There are lots of gigs in those areas, but NYC and Boston might have the most work.

    I think you'll find, though, in case we haven't been clear; that the old model "Studio musician" just doesn't exist anymore, not the way it used to. (And yes, you really SHOULD learn how to read, if you want gigs.) Every gig will be different, but the core of most of your work will probably involve charts. It's the quickest, easiest way for musicians to communicate with the director, and get done what needs to be done, efficiently and accurately. Trust me, there's no time for someone to stand around and teach you the part while everyone else waits.

    Sight-readers (esp the GOOD ones) get the most gigs, and the most call-backs. If you create a train-wreck and tank the session because you can't read a chart properly, things will go south quite quickly.

    Making up your own parts can of course happen, if they want your ideas and feedback, esp if it's a pop or rock gig (although most of those usually have their own drummers or drum machines.) Sometimes, though, it may be too much, and if you're asked to stick with the chart, you'd better do so or risk not being called back. You may also have to simply replace the click track or drum machine with "real" drums of your own, so timing & accuracy is more important than creativity.

    You may want to expand your skill set out to "Percussion". I see more percussionists called into sessions than just kit-players. Tuned percussion, bells, tymp, toys, etc. are all busy players if they're doing orchestral or pops work.

    As for left-handed-ness, I don't see that as a problem per se; but you may get into the habit of letting them know ahead of time not to set the kit up until you get there. Early. :cool:

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