Looking for some tips for hiring a live musician? I can help! I’m lucky enough to get hired to play saxophone and/or piano quite often for clients. It’s a great way to keep my reading/playing chops up, earn a few extra bucks and get involved with new projects. Over the years I’ve noticed ways to make hiring a live musician more streamlined, for both the client and the player. Some of these are things I’ve done myself when hiring someone and other times it’s things I’ve seen others do when hiring me.
Here’s a quick-n-dirty list of those things:
1) Know the range of the instrument(s) in your music.
Sometimes I have to rewrite parts for people because they’re out of the range of my saxophone. I never like changing someone’s music, because that’s not my role as a hired player. I want to capture their music as closely as possible. Best way to avoid this is to do a little bit of study of whichever instrument(s) you plan to have recorded live. Check for things like standard range of the instrument and if it’s a transposing instrument or not. (I don’t mind transposing at all but not having to transpose a part does speed things up for me and the client!) Google instrument ranges or pick up a college orchestration book (The Art of Orchestration is an EXCELLENT resource for things like this!) More modern sample libraries can help but even then you want to know if you’re writing in the super-hero range or the more “normal” range of that instrument! If you gave a trumpet player nothing but super high Cs to play for a full hour, you’re gonna wear out that player much faster than if the part was using lower notes! It also comes down the ability of the musician you’ve hired!
Sub point: Consider delivering the parts a few days early so your musician can look it over. This way you can avoid any snags once in the studio, where every minute costs money!
2) Include an audio recording of the MIDI/sample mock up.
The problem with working with samples is sometimes the MIDI and the audio output don’t match up. Think of a sample that when cued, plays a whole note with a crescendo. The audio sounds like a long tone but the MIDI data shows a short note. This literally happened today with a saxophone recording I was doing. Thankfully, the client was smart enough to also include an audio recording of that MIDI, so I knew to hold out that note and crescendo. But without that audio file, I would have delivered a much different recording – only to the frustration of my client and would’ve had to re-record things to fix it. Re-recording things means more studio time and that means more cost to you, the client.
3) Make your parts “native” to the instrument you’re writing for.
I’m not really a guitarist so if I were writing a guitar part, I’d first check with some of my guitar playing friends to see if what I’m after is even possible on guitar. Is it idiomatic or does it conflict with how the instrument organically plays? Depending on the ability of the musician you’ve hired to record, this could possibly be an issue. As a saxophonist, I can play most things but there are certain regions of the horn where highly technical playing is more difficult for me than others. If you want the low Bb note (the lowest note on most saxophones) to be super duper soft and played as 16th notes repeatedly at a tempo of 190, that’s gonna be challenging! But move it up just one octave and I could play those 16th notes all day. Look for tiny compromises in your music where the musician can quickly and easily nail the part for you but still deliver the song/vision you’ve composed.
4) Musicians have to breathe too.
I’m guilty of this one myself! My track, The Market was written back in 2006 for a game that never came out. I designed the flute part to be an ostinato over much of the piece. While it sounded cool on my computer, it was KILLER on my live flute player once we had it recorded! Give your parts some life and flow by putting in spots where the player would rest or at least breathe. I’ve found it helpful to sing the part and mark where I need to breathe myself, then consider adding in a little lift in the rhythm or changing the music so it’s more singable. This could also change your piece’s structure and give it more direction, instead of rambling along.
5) Clean up your MIDI data.
If you choose to deliver MIDI as notation for your player, please clean it up to make it as easy to read as possible. Make sure measure numbers coincide with the master score you’ll be referencing in the control booth. (Again, this is a mistake I made once by having the score and part render out different regions, therefore the measure numbers didn’t match up!) Include rehearsal numbers or letters to help mark chunks of the piece. This is especially helpful when having your musician redo or start somewhere in the middle of the piece. Quantize your MIDI data so the rhythms are as readable as possible. This is especially true if you played the parts in yourself instead of point-n-click with a mouse. Put in dynamics, articulations and phrase markings (even by hand if needed!) to help translate as much of the performance as possible to your player.
Most musicians I know and work with really enjoy recording parts for composers. They want to help bring your music to life! Perhaps you don’t have or don’t know how to use Finale, Sibelius or Notion. That’s okay! Write in notes by hand to help communicate what you want out of the performance. Talk with the musician beforehand. Give references and ideas. In other words, you simply cannot over communicate… as long as you’re not conflicting yourself. 😛 During the recording session, be firm about what you want. Nothing is more confusing or frustrating than a wishy-washy client! You know this music better than anyone else in the room. Own it and let your musician know if things are not going in the right direction. Politely, of course. Having said that, also be open to your musician’s ideas as they’re the expert on that particular instrument. Strike a balance.
Hiring a live musician is one of the best ways to bring your music to life! Yes, amazing results can be achieved with modern virtual instrument libraries but a living, breathing human can bring so much more! Both in regards to playing as well as presenting new ideas for you music. “Have you considered this note instead of that note?” “What about a glissando up to this part?” “This part of the horn is more muffled, what if we took it up an octave?” And so on. Use these tips to help keep your recording session as efficient as possible. It will be mean less cost and stress for you and a more enjoyable process for everyone else involved!
Nate is an established composer/sound designer, based in Austin, TX. Aside from making various kinds of noises and music, he also teaches private lessons (saxophone and piano) and performs with live bands.