6 Tips For working With Online Session Musicians

September 25, 2014 by Paul Kinman

We all remember how long it took older generations to trust online banking, or online shopping for that matter. And, for those of us that were young during the inception of the internet, how long it took, if ever, to convince our parents that they would not randomly find a Lamborghini purchased on their credit cards if they bought us a CD off an online store. Not surprisingly, it has taken a similar period of time for amateur songwriters, as well as industry professionals, to cozy up with the idea of hiring musicians online. However, now days’ hiring online musicians is a commonplace in the industry, and many people make great records, largely online. However, when we jump into working online, it is important that we make sure that we follow certain protocols. In the same way that live tracking a band would have a set of rules that stay fairly consistent session to session, online work is similar. Therefore, to save everyone a lot of trouble, and to streamline the time working with musicians online, here are a few things that we all can do to make everything go a lot smoother and ensure that we all get the best takes, in the fastest amount of time.

Prep your files correctly

This seems like it should go without saying, but sometimes even the best engineers, or most DAW savvy songwriters get a little lax when it comes to sending files over to session musicians. For example, when the musician brings the files into his or her DAW, the files should line up immediately. This means that both you and the musician should be careful that you did not convert the files in a way that may change the tempo when bouncing them down or sending them over. To avoid this, try to avoid sending files in MP3. Also, always check what DAW that the musician is using, because if you are both using Pro Tools 10, then you can just DropBox the Pro-Tools Folder instead of sending each individual file for the musician to re-sync up on their end. The less syncing that needs to be done, the better. Finally, you should label and clean up all your tracks as much as possible so that it is obvious what track is what and so that they are easy to sync to the grid if you are sending individual files.

If you are planning to have Vocals on your track, if possible, make sure that there is at least a scratch vocal

As we all know, the most important element in the majority of popular music is the lead vocal. Knowing this, any strong musician will play ‘around’ the vocal, making sure that everything that he or she plays compliments the melody, and the emotion that the melody is trying to convey, without overtaking it by being too busy. If there is not a vocal on the track, it is difficult for the musician to predict what the vocal may do, since there are often endless melodic possibilities, so it is important to have scratch vocal, even if it is terrible – don’t worry, we won’t judge. For example, I once had a producer send me a track that he wanted me to play on sort of last minute because he needed the guitar tracks track to be done within a day or two but he was so swamped with other mixes that he did not have the time to record it himself, as he often does. However, the track did not have vocal on it yet. So, he called the client, who was in LA attending a series of meetings, and got the client to sing a scratch vocal to the track that I was supposed to record on and then sent me both the actual instrumental track and the artist’s scratch IPhone vocal. I then synced them up in Pro-Tools and recorded the guitars. It didn’t matter that the track wasn’t absolutely perfectly in time or flawless in pitch, I would never expect that for a quick scratch track. However, it let me know roughly what the vocals were going to be which hugely aided me in recording the correct guitars.

Give reference tracks and direction!

Although all musicians obviously appreciate the statement “do whatever you feel is good, I don’t want to stifle your creativity.”, even one or two reference tracks or direction is much appreciated. We want to please the client more than playing exactly what we want, and having played on tons, and tons of tracks, most session musicians know that sessions where the client gives at least some reference tracks or input at the get go tend to finish up faster with the client happier. So, even if you are not sure what you want that violin player from Scandinavia to play on your song, at least humor him or her and give one or two examples of violin that you really like, it will go a long way towards getting you the tracks that you like the fastest.

Unless you did your Session over Skype, do not worry if the first version of your song is not ‘Exactly’ as you dreamed it would be. 

One of the benefits of doing sessions online over Skype is that it is exactly like you are in the room with the musician, so, you can give real time advice as to what you like, and do not like. This is why Skype is generally the best way to work with online musicians. However, saying that, other than the fact that working with online musicians allows you to have anyone play on your tracks, regardless of location, most producers and engineers hire out online session musicians to save time and money. Because they know that while they are mixing another artist’s EP, a session bass player in Toronto can be tracking the perfect bass lines for their other pop singer, allowing them to finish double the material, twice as fast. Therefore, due to wanting to save time, most online sessions are not done on Skype. So, it is important to remember that due to the musician and you not being able to be in the room together it is almost always assured that not every part that the musician recorded will be exactly as you pictured it would be the first time that you work with them. However, most session musicians have a very good sense of musical taste, and, because of the great reference tracks and input that you gave them when you sent the track, they will probably get really close to what you want, even if you are not on skype with them, giving direction in real time. It’s just important to remember that it is to be expected that you will have to go through one or two revisions first, and once you have worked with a musician a few times, they will start to know exactly what you like their instrument to do, and you will probably won’t ever have to ask them for many, if any revisions.

Communicate well.

All of us are guilty of bad communication at one point or another, but in online sessions communication is key. For example, do not let an e-mail or message from a player sit for over 24 hours without responding. Even if you just send a quick response before bed saying that you have a million things going on now and that you will send an e-mail promptly tomorrow; that is great. At least that way the player knows when they will be getting the information, or files that they need.

Hire and work through a Trusted Platform

Unless you are using a musician that you already know online, or one that came strongly recommended from a friend who you trust, make sure that you are using a trusted platform to find your musicians. SoundBetter is a great example of this. A site that lets you really look at the musician, and hear a demo reel, as well as see client reviews, articles, and a discography is exactly what you want to look for when you are scouting potential talent. This helps you make sure that you are not going to pay two hundred dollars to Joe Schmo with an M-Box and Garage Band to track guitar for you with his Wall-Mart Strat. Not to mention that in SoundBetters case, as long as you and the musician agree to it when the musician submits his or her proposal, SoundBetter can hold your money for you and give it back if you are unsatisfied with the players work. This way you do not need to worry about shelling out money for something that does not turnout.

At the end of the day, working online with Musicians is a really fun way to make a record. It gives you the ability to handpick your dream team of players. You can get a drummer from LA, a guitarist from Vancouver (hint, hint), a bassist from Toronto, and a key player from New York. And seeing how the tracks turn out with all these different players is a lot of fun – for the players, and for you. In addition, having the ability to broaden the circle of musicians that you work with will only make the music better, and the recording process a whole lot more enjoyable.

  • Great article Paul! This hits the nail on the head. Asking the client to provide you a reference track or 2 really helps me understand of ‘hear’ what they are looking for. This is especially useful when hiring a gospel bassist originally from St. Croix USVI 🇻🇮🇺🇸👦🏾⛪️🤙🏾!

  • Thanks Paul -- this really helps me to understand how to get the best result with the fewest misunderstandings. Will follow your advice!

  • Default-avatarby Brandon

    Great article Paul!

  • Default-avatarby Jimmy L.Sound

    Thank you Paul! Very nice and usefull article! :)

  • Default-avatarby RC Bergeron

    This is a great article and sounds like it's coming from someone with a solid background in session work. Very well done.

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