Two veterans of the online session world share their top tips for success.
We’ve been recording online for over 18 years, both individually and as a rhythm section. In that time, we’ve racked up thousands of credits for over 700 clients, ranging from bedroom artists to Hollywood film composers. We both played on the recent BBC/Netflix show The Serpent. In this article, we share five key tips to help ensure you stay busy as an online session musician.
Communication is key
Being easily contactable at all times gives the client peace of mind. It sounds obvious, but getting back to clients quickly is also vital. Because you can’t be with them in person, you need them to trust that you will be professional. Good timekeeping (in the non‑playing sense!) is perhaps the easiest way to show that you are someone to be taken seriously. You are also part of an important musical collaboration and, being remote, need to be especially aware of what the client wants from you and when they want it by.
Jon: I always switch the producer/composer’s contact details to ‘VIP’ on my iPhone during a project. This means that my phone will alert me the moment I get an email from them. I had a situation where the soundtrack to the film Momentum was being mixed in LA and the composer needed me to re‑send a few of the drum stems. My phone kindly alerted me at 3am and I managed to get the new drum and percussion stems to him within 45 minutes of his original email.
Dan: I had an event where a producer was presenting a song to a record company in the afternoon and needed a very last‑minute bass line to add some life to a demo. I needed to record and send the bass line within an hour for him to be able to add it to his mix, and being easily contactable allowed me to do that.
Being easily contactable at all times gives the client peace of mind.
Offer a choice of gear
We use what we think will be the best gear for the job, but clients sometimes like having a choice. It goes without saying that the gear should be well maintained and ready to go.
Jon: I am constantly adding to my arsenal of percussion so I can offer the traditional kit sounds most people want but also all kinds of different textures and sounds using anything from timpani, tablas and congas to tubular bells, concert bass drum, and so on. This especially opens up film and TV work as composers love the live feel and specific parts that samples sometimes can’t achieve.
The basis of the studio drum kit consists of my 2003 DW Collectors kit along with a large collection of toms, snare drums and cymbals which tonally cover a wide range of genres. I also have a secondary snare drum, kick drum and a set of remote hi‑hats on the kit, which allow me to achieve a totally different kit sound on the verse and chorus of a song. This setup streamlines my recording process and gives my clients a vast range of sonic options.
I’ve got 16 microphones placed around the kit and room, which plug into my UAD Apollo mic pres/converters. That sounds like a lot of mics, but I would rather capture the sounds of the room and kit in order to give the mixing engineer plenty of scope to blend a wet or dry mix as they need. It may be that they might just use kick, snare and stereo overheads, but at least they have options.
Dan: I find my 1978 Fender Precision bass works for many jobs, but recently I’ve been using my trusty Music Man Stingray 5. It works so well for pop, rock and even blues. My clients tend to leave the gear decisions to me — they’re after a solid, tasteful performance that sounds great in the mix — but in case they do want something specific, I own around 20 bass instruments of one kind or another. That enables me to offer double‑bass, electric upright, fretless, six‑string, acoustic bass guitar or a particular vintage tone. One client won’t let me record without using my old Rickenbacker!
I usually run through an Avalon U5 DI into a Universal Audio Apollo and then into Logic. There are options when tracking a second signal via the Avalon, but the idea is always to record a second, more characterful channel. That way, the client can use one signal or blend to taste. The second channel could be a 1966 Ampeg B15 — the holy grail of bass amps — a Jules Monique tube preamplifier, or even a plug‑in like Ampeg’s SVX or the Universal Audio bass amp emulations.
Adapt to different personalities and ways of working
You need to be prepared to morph into different working situations to suit a project.
Jon: I had to record drums and percussion for the soundtrack to a BBC TV series where the composer wanted certain kit parts to be recorded separately to achieve separation and clarity between those instruments on the kit. This gave him more options when editing and arranging the parts before the orchestra went in to record. I also have regular Skype meetings with producers to discuss their preferred mic placement for each project in order to get the sound they are after. I find this puts the control back into the clients’ hands.
Dan: We work with top professionals as well as hobby musicians. The latter can be the most inspiring to work with as they are extremely passionate about their projects. But they may not always be able to communicate what they want you to play as well as the pros can, and their backing tracks may not be as polished. You have to adapt to the different situations you are presented with.
A film composer once sent me a 3000‑bar Logic file with an accompanying PDF of the score: scary‑looking, but extremely useful and therefore relatively straightforward. I’ve also received backing tracks that were played more or less completely free‑form, without a click and lacking in harmonic content. You have to get the job done regardless.
Aim for a fast turnaround
You should never rush a session, but people want their audio files quickly so they can get on with the production of their tracks. This is especially true of the TV, film and library composers we work with. The ability to record to a very high standard and get the files across in a short time period is essential. Collectively, we have over 200 clients worldwide which means that a vast amount of them are sleeping whilst we are recording. This is very convenient for our clients in places like America and the Far East as they can wake up with a new recording in their inbox to approve and suggest amendments. If they want, they can then chat to us on Skype to iron out any details and then we can get back to work.
Dan: This is something I pride myself on. Whenever possible I like to get the bass lines delivered to the client within 24 hours ‑ sometimes even within a couple of hours. I enjoy their surprise when I manage it! I do think it is important to deliver the goods in a short space of time.
Jon: This is an essential factor in my business. I always make sure that I deliver the stems for a drums and percussion session when I say I will. This in turn gives my clients a peace of mind and builds trust which helps to develop a great working relationship.
The ability to record to a very high standard and get the files across in a short time period is essential.
Treat it like a business
Whilst the process is undoubtedly creative and fun, as an online session player you are the engineer, player, fixer, coder, web designer, manager and sometimes producer. You are involved in every step from securing the work in the first place to chasing invoices, offering discounts, working on the SEO of the site... You must be prepared to work at it, learn new skills you never thought you would need (or even knew existed!) and be passionate about giving it your very best each and every time you hit Record.
Jon: A big part of this is marketing yourself in a way that gets the balance right between letting people know that you are there and not annoying anyone. In the last few years I have had to teach myself how to use Photoshop, After Effects, WordPress and Premiere Pro. These have been invaluable for creating my own adverts, videos, and updating my website. My passion for my online session business always spurs me on and it is exciting to see what new and exciting projects are just around the corner.
Dan: I love the business side of the job as I get to guide it from a multitude of angles and learn skills that are new to me as a musician. Although I very much still do and love live and studio work, I feel more in control of my online session business and want it to keep growing. Over the next few years, more and more people from around the world will be coming online and, as I see it, online sessions will continue to grow as more people make music from their own studios. It is a rapidly emerging market and a very exciting one to be part of.
One year into lockdown and it’s clearer than ever that remote sessions are here to stay. They’re affordable, pandemic‑proof and a convenient way to produce music using a worldwide network of talent. Don’t be surprised if you see more and more established musicians offering their services online.
Jon Howells: www.j3tdrumtracks.com
Daniel Hawkins: www.onlinebassplayer.com