We spend a lot of time talking with the engineers and studio owners who are responsible for capturing the performances of our best recording artists-but what about those unsung performers, the session musicians? Getting misty-eyed over the possibility of a truly ear-grabbing, millennium-ending rendition of "Auld Lang Syne," we thought it might be fun to check in with a few of New York's premier session players (see box below). Have the rapid-fire changes that have so deeply affected the way music is recorded changed them as artists?
Our round-table panel includes some of the most highly regarded studio players the City has to offer, although calling Will Lee, Rob Mounsey and Crispin Cioe session players is limiting, since they are all highly regarded artists as well.
Has technology, specifically the MIDI revolution, changed the way you play?
Will Lee: Absolutely, and I can think of a specific example right off the top of my head. Alannah Myles had a hit a few years ago called "Black Velvet." The fretless bass part on that track was so precisely played that it kicked my ass. It made me a better player. The producer, David Tyson, hired me to play on Alannah's next album. I flew out to L.A. and was intimidated when David told me he was the guy who put down the bass on that track-but it was sequenced! It fooled me completely and made me realize how good a part can be using the technology.
Rob Mounsey: A touchy question for singers who can't sing in tune-not to mention instrumentalists who can't play in time!
In most of the music-making I'm involved in, the technological tricks are designed to be invisible to the audience, although there are times when we do want the techno-acrobatics to be obvious. One major recent change in my own work habits: I am able to offer expert Pro Tools editing and processing at my own studio, even on an acoustic-style project such as the last Natalie Cole record or the just-completed George Michael sessions.
I think performing to computer-created tracks has actually taught recording musicians to play in time more accurately. My own obsessive study of music and audio has improved my ability to hear detail in my own performances-sometimes to my frustration, as my ability to hear exceeds my ability to perform!
Crispin Cioe: There's no question that I'm playing differently than I was 15 years ago. I definitely think a musician reacts unconsciously to playing over digital/sampled/virtual, as opposed to live tracks. Digital clips high-end frequencies in different ways than analog, for example, and that results in different intonation and blending considerations.
Solo-istically, it's not a bad thing. Sometimes my horn can be the only "real" sound on a track. If that's the case, the producer's usually looking for me to supply the emotion, and that's fine with me. I'm an emotional guy...
As far as sampled horns go, the Uptown Horns have done a couple of "sample deals" over the years, so we're not unfamiliar with the terrain. But unless the application for sampled horns is totally, pointillistically staccato, I think sampled horns generally suck, and I think most good producers know that. That's why we still exist along with Tower of Power, the Memphis Horns, etc.
Even a super-with-it, now kind of guy like The Fugees' Wyclef Jean knows the difference between Pro Tools and pro players. He called us in to come up with riffs and arrangements that were ultimately sliced and diced in true hip hop fashion. The interplay between music and technology is what makes for some of the more interesting pop stuff around today.
What does a studio need to have-equipment, ambience, personnel-to get the most out of your talent?
Lee: It has to have the ears of the person who's responsible for the project. I've always been a guy who wanted to have the most equipment possible-more toys, more potential. What it all boils down to is there are guys who have very little equipment and can do a whole lot with what they have. Knowing what your equipment can do and how to utilize it is more important than having a lot of toys.
A guy I've worked with, a great drummer and writer named Terry Silverlight, comes to mind. We've played on Nancy Wilson records together, and I've co-written and sung on lots of tracks with him. I'm amazed at what he does with a little reel-to-reel recorder, a sequencer and boatloads of talent.
Mounsey: As far as performing in the studio with a group, the recording engineer who can supply a really good-sounding headphone mix is worth his weight in Platinum. Elliot Scheiner, for one, is fantastic to work with in this regard. It makes it so easy and so much fun for the musicians to play if they can really hear. Good coffee and a few fresh bagels also helps a lot.
Cioe: Maintenance is paramount. Everything's got to work right so that the most important elements to getting good performances flowing are totally unimpeded. That means studio management and engineers who understand the first thing musicians need is good sound in their headphones-always and forever. Without that, strike one.
Next, engineers so experienced and gifted that they know all the palettes and colors that great players draw on, and can change mics, amps, EQs, effects, editing strategies and so forth, on a dime. I did a session for a high-profile rap group not long ago, in a high-profile NYC studio, where the hot-shot engineer actually told us: "I'm excited. I've never recorded live horns in a room before." As if...
What's the most important piece of gear in a recording studio?
Mounsey: I'd say some good mic preamps. Also, a good coffeemaker [see above].
Cioe: I guess if I were forced to pick the single most important element for what I do, it would be good mics, because that's always going to be the entry point for my recording chain.
How do you feel about working analog vs. entirely digital?
Lee: Digital is a powerful tool these days, with much better sound quality than ever before. As we speak, a combination of both is the best, to my way of thinking. I prefer using tube stuff on the input side before the signal hits digital tape or hard disk, but I can go either way.
Mounsey: Analog vs. digital is probably the most outdated and insignificant conflict since "liberal vs. conservative." Many projects now are hybrid projects that combine elements of both. Also, in the ProTools-TDM world, where I spend a lot of time, there are various strategies for imitating the warmth and smoothness of analog tape saturation, vacuum tubes and so forth.
Digital editing and processing are definitely here to stay. The ease and speed of use that they offer have become indispensable. Not to mention, no more waiting for tape to rewind. Good riddance.
Cioe: My home studio, where I do mostly song demos and write cues for film, is completely computerized: Mac G3, Digital Performer, JV 2080, MOTU 2408, MOTU Digital Timepiece, etc. So I'm not a total Luddite about digital. But at the same time, I think Neve boards still sound incredibly great. And Neumanns, AKG 414s, RE20s-the classics still work for me. But I'm always open to whatever an engineer prefers, as long as the sound kills. It seems that some admixture of digital and analog is what the ear finds most pleasing.
But I suppose, given my druthers, I'll always come down on the analog side. I have a soundtrack out now from an independent film I scored called Burnzy's Last Call [on Cellsum/Ripe & Ready Records]. The film takes place in a bar, and the entire underscore is "fake oldies" coming from the saloon's jukebox, featuring songs I produced and co-wrote with George Gilmore, the film's screenplay writer, and singers that include David Johansen, Debbie Harry, The Smithereens, Graham Parker, Evan Dando and Lou Christie. I recorded on 16-track analog, and the closest I came to digital was using some vintage keyboards modules for things like mellotron.
Do you expect to see many changes in the way music is recorded in the next ten years or so?
Lee: My dream of dreams is that great songwriting rule the airwaves.
Mounsey: I'm sure that in 2009 we'll be doing things we can barely imagine now. We're all permanent beginners from here on out.
Cioe: The movement I perceive is toward hard disk/drive recording, in conjunction with music being delivered more and more via Internet download. But as I mentioned, I also think crucial analog elements will never disappear from the recording chain.
Any end of millennium thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?
Lee: See you!
Mounsey: 2000 is just a number. Big deal! We knew it was coming. Let's all just get over it.
Cioe: Whether it's the reed section in the Guy Lombardo's Loma Linda Orchestra or the Uptown Horns playing at the Palace in Detroit with the mighty J. Geils Band this Y2K, people are always gonna want to hear a bunch of saxophones crooning "Auld Lang Syne." They can't take that away from me...
Will Lee, the premier session bass player in New York, has a resume roughly the length of the Manhattan white pages. His work can be heard on several tracks of Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, James Brown's Get Up Offa That Thing and Phoebe Snow's Second Childhood.
Rob Mounsey operates an extremely successful jingle company, Flying Monkey. As an arranger, keyboardist and producer he has worked with Paul Simon, Natalie Cole, Michael Franks and Eric Clapton.
Crispin Cioe is a sax player and a founding member of the Uptown Horns, who have toured and tracked with the Rolling Stones, The Fugees and Wilson Pickett.