By Scott Mathews
Given the genuine dedication and effort most band members make in many areas of a band’s career, the very idea that someone outside of the band could come in and record parts that would usually be handled by a band member can be a crushing blow. Over the course of nearly 50 years now, the act of bringing in a “ringer,” and replacing a band member in the studio has indeed proven to be the source of band meltdowns, personnel changes, and even breakups.
On the other hand, it has also been the strategy for gigantic hits. As a result, many groups have embraced this approach as an effective method of building great records. It is not an unreasonable estimate that half of the biggest acts that recorded in Los Angeles and New York City in the ’60s and ’70s used “The Wrecking Crew” or other top studio musicians. That was the era when session players ruled the charts, and bands went shopping for Rolls Royces, while collecting royalty checks from records that other people played on.
Obviously, this is a sensitive area. I am not advocating using—or not using—outside talent, as that is a producer and band decision. But if you’re into considering session help to spice up your tracks, here are four areas to consider.
Pro Session Players
If a band member is not accustomed to the demands of great studio performances, proficient and versatile studio pros can often make for better tracks using less studio time. Experienced session players can often get tones and sounds that can expand the band’s sonic palette in interesting new ways. Exotic instrumentation can be sought to bring in some wild “special sauce” to the songs. But while a seasoned pro will likely be able to nail parts easily, never forget that a lesser musician may have a certain vibe the pros can’t begin to find.
Pro Session Singers
Background singers can be brought in to juice things up if a band finds that this area is a weak link. They can help with voicings and arrangements in areas that vastly improve a song’s strength, and/or add some incredible dimension to the recording. However, if the band has a special vocal blend and identity, it may be that the band trumps the pros.
Famous Guest Stars
To bring a well known and respected guest artist in on a project is often a good move for a couple of reasons. First, you are adding a tried-and-true sound that people have shown they dig. That familiarity shines brightly on new artists who don’t have much of a fan base, as well as with artists who do have a following, but want to switch things up in an interesting way by bringing a new personality forward on a song.
Second, using a recognized artist may prompt his or her fans to check out your band. This guest could be a vocalist sharing lead vocal duties, or an instrumentalist with a distinctive character that brings the band to a whole new level.
You may think this is an impossible task, and wonder why an artist who is well known would want to collaborate with a lesser-known act, but it happens all the time. One of the most surprising combo plates I have found recently is Michael MacDonald doing lead vocals on a Grizzly Bear track. It’s so outside it works!
Publicists usually appreciate this move, as they find more people are interested in reviewing something when there is a known artist attached. Record companies like it, too, as it can help get radio play and sell product.
As we all know, the sound and feel from a living, breathing human being has a certain vibe. It is also true that machines have their own characteristics, and are sometimes a better choice than humans. Arguably, most professional recording sessions today are based on a click and/or drum loop figure. If the sound and feel of creative uses of loops are what your particular song needs, go ahead and use them. You may want to combine real drums, or build other loops for different sections of the song, but the key phrase is “creative uses.” If you want the most effective tool for the job, be open to experimenting with what works best. Certain styles of music demand machines, and other kinds don’t want anything less than organic.