A common question from young musicians: what difference has affordable and professional-standard recording equipment made to session musicians?
The first comment I would offer is that it has effectively ended the session industry as it used to be.
The session industry was based on a simple premise: if you wanted to make a professional-sounding recording, you had to go to a specialised place with very expensive equipment (a recording studio) which would cost you $100 per hour. If you wanted a guitar on that recording, you needed to hire someone who could play it first or second time. These people were also expensive, but it was cheaper to hire them than to spend a whole day with someone who was less expensive but not as good a musician, trying to get a useable take.
The nature of tape also meant that you had to arrange the music carefully and record each sound in exactly the right place in the arrangement or composition. (It was possible to edit multi-track tape and “fly” material in from other sources, but it was easier and quicker to have the musician play it in the right place to start with!)
Now, digital recording systems mean you can sit at home with a laptop and spend as much time as you like because it’s not costing you $100 per hour! You can also cut-and-paste, edit, tweak and move stuff around to you heart’s content. You can also record first and arrange afterwards: a revolution in procedure that liberates the composer from the constraints of linear tape-based recording.
Here’s a list of questions from a student and my responses:
Q: Do you believe that recording digitally has made your job as a musician easier?
A: In some ways yes. I can collaborate online, (or off,) I can make professional-standard recordings at home, I can record first and compose afterwards, I can repair minor but irritating faults in performances that were otherwise good. All these things were difficult (and in some cases impossible) with tape-based systems.
In other ways, no. Record Label executives believe that “you can do it all on a computer, right?” so budgets have fallen to the point where the entire production budget is what used to be the drummer’s session fee! Producers have the ability to change not only what the musician played but the basic sound they used! This means that I have no control over what is released in my name, and an incompetent producer can make me sound like the worst guitarist in the world (whereas I am in fact only the second worst guitarist in the world!)
Q: Do you believe that recording using analog made you more disciplined as a musician?
A: Yes, but if you are a serious musician you will be disciplined anyway.
Q: Did you notice any bad habits occurring e.g becoming lazier after your first few years recording using digital platforms at home and/or in the studio?
A: It was very tempting to say “I’ll just play some stuff and you (the producer) can edit it afterwards.” As a producer, I soon found that it was quicker and better to get what you want from the musician in the first place rather than have to spend hours sifting through various takes and comping a master take together. However, there is a good compromise: I do a master take and then one or two takes of random ideas, crazy stuff, noises, effects, different approaches, etc. There’s always something useful in these “extras” takes, but I have a solid master take to work with if I’m under time-pressure.
Q: Have you noticed that young musicians of today (25 and under) play/sing differently to how you did at that age? If so in what way and why?
A: Yes, they don’t seem to have the same degree of passion. They treat it more like a job, similar to plastering or being an insurance broker. Here’s a common complaint from students at the ICMP where I teach: “I played it perfectly, with the right sound and feel. Why didn’t I get 90%?”
The answer is as simple as it is mystifying: “Because you didn’t light up the room. ” (Or nail me to the wall, or any other similar phrase.)
The people who succeed as musicians do so because every time they pick up their instrument or sing a song, they do so as though their lives depend on it (which if you think about it, they do!) Even on a cold February morning in a room with 15 other people you know well, you should still do it this way because that’s what makes a musician valuable, not the technical chops they’ve learnt.
And that’s why people pay £10, £20, £30, to go to see gigs: to be excited, moved, inflamed, not to see someone going through a technical exercise.