Over the last few years, I have hired more online session musicians to get instrumental parts recorded in my music productions than "in the flesh" session musicians that I book into my studio. Why? It's simple, hiring an online session musician is a quicker and more cost effective method of getting tracks recorded compared to booking an "in the flesh" musician.
A typical example - An online session drummer in America can record and deliver drum parts to me while I'm sleeping, this makes good use of the time differences between the USA and UK. Booking a local drummer to come into my studio involves a lot more hassle, time and effort. Good online session musicians are usually all set up and ready to record.
Online music collaboration is a brilliant thing, however, there is one common problem that crops up from time to time in my workflow that frustrates the hell out of me.
Briefing Online Session Musicians
When I choose an online session musician and the costs and deadline are agreed, I supply the musician with a detailed brief including audio examples to demonstrate my requirements in style, vibe, etc.
When I work with session musicians I believe there is merit in providing them with enough freedom to be creative as I know this produces magical moments, however, this freedom does come with one very important requirement that is often ignored.
Performance dynamics are integral to the overall feel of a song and it's so important to ensure that the performance dynamics within the instrumentation and across a song arrangement work together.
Example - If a drum part in a rock song is performed with a perfectly weighted dynamic in the chorus then a soft finger style folk approach to the bass guitar dynamic won't blend musically. Think the other end of the scale; Typically, a soft Jazz swung drum pattern won't be supported musically by an electric bass guitar performed with a heavy gauge metal plectrum. Typically this can be a real problem with backing vocals from online session vocalists. Their parts can be perfectly in tune, perfectly pronounced but their performances have been sung too loud making the song sound more like a duet.
Performance dynamics are very easy to get right when musicians are in a room either jamming together or working in a studio, this isn't always the case when tracks have been performed by online session musicians as the ability to be there in the room with them to correct issues quickly isn't always possible.
If like me you use two or more online session musicians for a production the problem with performance dynamics can get out of hand really quickly if not dealt with at the first instrumentalist. Say a drummer has played their parts too energetically and this gets delivered to a keyboard player who instinctively plays to the drummer's vibe and so on and so on... the overall dynamic structure and vibe of the song will have changed and tracks will just sound like they are competing all the time with little regard to the arrangement and structure.
Many of the online session musicians that I use deliver well recorded toneful tracks that are well arranged with emotive moments and, most importantly, to brief but many don't always consider nor match the performance dynamics of other instruments in the mix I provided.
Fix It In The Mix
This is such a throwaway term. Poorly executed performance dynamics in the tracking stages that don't match the energy and dynamics of other instruments in a mix are usually unsalvageable. Fader adjustments and compression techniques won't provide a get out of jail free card in these cases. What I've found to be a common trend with online session musicians is a push in dynamics. To me, it feels like they want their parts to be heard over everything else. A disregard for performance dynamics in tracking results in parts that become too musically featured in a mix.
Virtual Instrument Demos
This article sounds like I'm giving online session musicians a bad name, I'm not. I've worked with countless talented musicians online. The quality of their parts can only be measured by the quality of the briefs we provide them with. If there are specific requirements, such as performance dynamics, then it is worth programming a demo track of the part so that the musician has a clear example to work from.
Don't underestimate the power of performance dynamics in tracking stages as it is this that brings tracks together later on in the mix making songs sound organic. The producer that ensures that instruments work together dynamically in tracking stages usually end up having a much easier job balancing tracks in the mix.