If your music deserves the best musicians, the Internet provides the means to find them. We test the three leading on‑line session services.
Technological change has had a profound effect on music over the last decade. Downloading and peer‑to‑peer sharing have contributed to nosediving CD sales and the decline of the singles market, while at the same time, home studio technology has made it possible to realise ever more ambitious recording projects on ever-smaller budgets.
The same revolution has also changed the lives of many professional musicians. With recording budgets shrinking and studios closing, it's harder than ever to earn a living as a 'session man' in the old mould. The silver lining, if there is one, is that there is still a demand for quality musicianship, and the Internet now makes it possible for musicians to sell their services directly to anyone who wants to buy them, anywhere in the world.
Nevertheless, it's definitely a buyer's market. So if you are a buyer — in other words, a producer or songwriter looking to add remote talent to your recordings — what's the best way to spend your money? It turns out that there are several very different approaches to working with session musicians on‑line, and in this article, I'll be comparing some of the leading web sites that offer on‑line recording services. For a little light relief, I'll put the results up to be downloaded from the SOS web site (see box, right), although, for reasons I'll explain, you probably shouldn't put much weight on them in choosing a service for your own music.
Before I introduce the services I tested, a brief word on what this article isn't about. There are a number of web sites aimed primarily at fostering creative collaboration between musicians, usually with little or no money changing hands — examples include digitalmusician.net and kompoz.com. Hopefully we'll find space to cover these in a separate article at some point. There are also various plug‑ins and applications that allow you to set up real‑time remote recording, such as Source Elements' Source‑Connect, eJamming Audio, NINJAM and Bitwaves MusicBeam, but these won't handle the business side of finding and hiring session players. Finally, there are a lot of musicians, especially drummers, who offer their services independently via their own web sites.
In this article, I'm going to narrow the focus to web sites that offer professional recordings of at least the basic instruments that make up a typical rock and pop arrangement: drums, bass, keyboards and guitar. I tested three services, each of which turned out to have a quite different focus and philosophy.
As well as tracking individual instrument parts for you, all of these services also offer complete production of your tracks from start to finish. However, I suspect that will be of less interest to the typical SOS reader, so I tried to approach all of the services from the point of view of a songwriter/producer who is happy to record his own vocals and guitar, and to mix the results, but doesn't have the facilities or playing ability to track real drums, keyboards or bass.
Sometime last year I was seized with the irrational desire to write an old‑fashioned Christmas song. Having only ever got around to recording a horrible demo, I decided this would be the perfect testing ground, even if it turned out to be rather unseasonal! I had recorded basic guitar parts that were OK, but my MIDI drums were sounding pretty tired, I don't own a bass, and I wanted to hear what a proper keyboard player could add. (The answer, it turns out, is "quite a lot”.) I also wanted the whole thing to have a coherent sound, along the lines of those 'dead but warm' productions from the '70s. In order to create a level playing field, I noted all this down and sent the same instructions to all the services on test.
The most straightforward of the services on test is The Missing Track, which calls upon the skills of a small group of musicians. Hiring The Missing Track is a pleasant and very informal process: you fill in an order form on their web site, they get back to you with a quote, and so forth. Once you've agreed exactly what they'll be doing for you and how much you'll be paying, you'll get a Work Agreement, and you can upload any demo files you'd like them to work to. You should then get your finished files within a week.
Like most of their rivals, The Missing Track will record and produce a song from scratch if you wish; alternatively, they can provide any or all of drums, bass, guitar and keyboards. I found the informal nature of the service very helpful in narrowing down exactly what I wanted. You're not forced to choose between a number of preset options; instead, you can explain what it is you're after in your order form or subsequent emails. Likewise, if there's anything they're uncertain about, they'll send you a friendly email to clarify matters.
The Missing Track is also likely to work out the most affordable of the services on test. A complete production, including recording, arrangement and mixing, works out at a very reasonable $269, and rates for individual instruments are similarly competitive. Each individual instrument will cost you $45, with the exception of drums, where $65 gets you individual files for kick, snare, overhead and room mics. For the test track, I asked for drums, bass and Rhodes piano, which would therefore have clocked in at $155 in total. When you think about how much it would cost to rent even a small studio for a few hours, not to mention paying conventional session musicians, the word 'bargain' springs to mind. The parts, incidentally, were all delivered as stereo stem tracks, with some processing, such as gating on snare and kick, already applied.
At these prices, you might expect to get inferior results, but I didn't detect any corner‑cutting. You can, of course, judge for yourself by listening to the recordings on‑line (see box below), but I felt that all the parts were well recorded and well played, and of course with a small group of musicians who play together all the time, you get the benefit of coherence between the instruments. On the down side, of course, the palette is limited, and if you want a horn section or real strings, you'll have to go elsewhere. Separate tom mic tracks would also have been useful. Nevertheless, I liked The Missing Track a lot, and would be very happy to use their services on a 'real' project. In fact I'd go so far as to say that I feel slightly uncomfortable about how low their prices are — it almost seems too good to be true, and makes me wonder how it's possible to make a living at these rates.
Studio Pros began life as a specialist service called drumsforyou.com, offering — guess what? — professional drum recordings for your own tracks. Founder Elad Fish has since broadened the remit of the business to include bass, guitar, keyboards and, most recently, a horn section. They'll even provide vocals if you wish. Like The Missing Track, Studio Pros also offer a complete production service for your tracks. This costs $720, and now seems to be the main focus of their activity. They were clearly very keen for me to try out this aspect of the service, even though I'd only asked for individual instruments.
The process by which your production is created is, in some ways, more formal than is the case with The Missing Track, though it's all pretty straightforward. The first step is to create an account, after which you can upload a demo recording of your song, and your notes describing what you're after.
At this point, my original plans for a direct comparison between the services on offer received a curveball, because the next step is that one of Studio Pros' producers — in my case, Elad himself — calls to discuss the project. Having listened to my original demo, he (correctly) pointed out that the key of the demo made the 'B' section too high for me to sing comfortably, and suggested a change to the arrangement such that the first half be in a lower key. This is exactly the kind of advice that is very welcome in a 'complete production' context, but I'm not sure I'd expect it in the context of hiring session musicians to play on my tracks. Elad insisted that his team could and would make the new arrangement work, so I didn't put my foot down! I reiterated the information I'd given in the notes as to the style of recording I was after, and let them get on with it.
The Studio Pros site is a rather more sophisticated affair than The Missing Track, and your production proceeds in a fairly well‑regimented fashion. At every stage, you're offered the opportunity to approve what they've done by ticking a cheery box labelled along the lines of "Yes! That sounds great! Now on to the drums...”, or comment and request a revision.
First of all, you're offered a 'sketch', which in my case consisted of the melody and chords played on electric guitar. The idea, presumably, is that you can check whether Studio Pros' understanding of these elements is correct before they're set in stone. Thereafter, you receive previews of each of the instrumental parts in turn, again with the option to approve or request revisions. Studio Pros guarantee to complete each stage within 48 hours.
In practice, this system has good and bad points. On the plus side, you really feel involved in the production process, and it's both interesting and instructive to hear your song assembled from the bottom up. On the down side, you have to commit to one instrumental part before you get to hear the next, and the system whereby you approve or disapprove each stage is a little black and white in its operation. I suppose you could simply disapprove if you want to make a minor correction, but it seems a bit dramatic to do so just because you want one or two notes changed.
As I've mentioned, Studio Pros steered me in the direction of their complete production service for the purposes of this article, but the site does let you order drum, bass, guitar and keyboard tracks individually if you'd rather. I didn't try this, but again it seems to revolve around a step-by-step process that begins with filling in a form on the Studio Pros web site.
With regard to the production decisions that Studio Pros were keen to make, the jury is still out. I still haven't entirely overcome my reservations about the additional key change they added — I feel there's a limit to the number of unprepared key changes that work in one song, and I'd already reached that limit in the original arrangement! What's more, it turned out that their new version only shifted the first half of the song down a semitone, which made not a lot of difference to how easy it was to sing.
However, there's no dispute that all the instrumental parts Studio Pros delivered were straight out of the top drawer. As with The Missing Track, you have the advantage that all the musicians concerned know each other and work together all the time, bringing to your music that all‑important shared understanding. This seems to extend to choice of sounds as well as notes, and Studio Pros' instrumental parts seemed to me to possess an impressive weight and substance, yet at the same time to fit together beautifully in the mix. You can, of course, judge for yourself by listening on‑line.
And talking of mixing, Studio Pros were keen to show off the skills that are included in their full production service, so they did their own mix of the song, as well as delivering the individual parts so that I could do my own. (You have to pay a small extra charge for them to deliver these files.) This was actually the one stage where I did request a revision, as the initial mix strayed too far from the original brief. I had been after a '70s kind of vibe, and what they delivered was a much more modern‑sounding mix — not a bad one, but not quite what I'd requested. I suggested changes, mostly focusing on using less reverb and compression, and got something much more to my taste second time around.
The most ambitious and complex of the services on test here, eSession is a huge web site that fulfils several distinct roles. In part, it's a shop window for session musicians: anyone can sign up and tout their wares, and there is a 'job board' and user forums to help clients hook up with one another. Prospective hirers can browse a searchable database of musicians, complete with audio examples and lists of credits. Once you've found the perfect crew, eSession provides back‑end support such as file hosting, invoicing and credit‑card processing to make these transactions easier. A further strand is the Virtual Glass plug‑in, which allows users to collaborate in real time.
As with Studio Pros, the first step is to set up an account. You can get basic access to most of eSession's services for free, but the site is clearly designed to tempt users into buying a Subscription Plan. Three different levels of subscription are available, and are designed to cater for correspondingly heavy use of the site, providing more disk space, fuller technical support and more free Work Requests (of which more in a moment) per month.
Musicians — and engineers, producers and songwriters, who can also offer their services on eSession — are divided into two categories, eMembers and eTalent. The former is the default category, but those who can show that they have at least 15 major label credits can be classified as eTalent. One of eSession's big selling points is that they have managed to persuade some indisputably top‑flight musicians, such as bassists Tony Levin and Harvey Brooks, to join as eTalent members. And not only can you ask these luminaries to play on your songs, but you can also request 'mentoring' for your own fledgling skills.
If you have a project you want to pursue on eSession, there are two methods of finding musicians to work with. One is to post on the Job Board and wait for 'talent' to come to you; the other is to search the database for promising musicians and approach them. I took the latter route, using the filtering to narrow down the range of drummers, bassists and keyboard players until I found some likely candidates. Obviously, you can filter musicians by what instrument they play, and in what style; you can also specify artists they must have worked with, eliminate those whose minimum rate is likely to prove too high, and so on.
Search results are presented in tiled pages of 16 matching entries. You can see a photo and audition each musician's audio sample from this page, or click on their tile for more details. This all looks very swish, although there are a few irritations to the way it works in practice. One is that hitting Back in your browser doesn't take you back to the previous page of the search results: it returns you to the top‑level 'dashboard' eSession window and loses your search altogether. Another is that many of the audio examples are not particularly helpful when it comes to making an informed judgement, which is hardly surprising when a single example has to serve for everything a person has to offer. Although there's plenty of information available in personal profiles, unless you're already familiar with someone's work, any choice made through this sort of search will inevitably involve something of a leap of faith.
Once you've chosen your willing victims, the next step is to send them Work Requests detailing what you want them to do. It's free to send Requests to eMembers, but Requests sent to eTalent cost $25 a pop for basic (non‑subscribing) eSession members: the three levels of subscription include a certain number of free Work Requests per month. This seems fair enough, both as a means of preventing star musicians being bombarded with spurious requests and as a fair fee for arranging deals that might otherwise involve booking agents or other middle men.
The musicians you've sent Work Requests to then reply, either to politely decline or (hopefully) with an Offer detailing how much they're willing to do the work for, when they can get it done by, what tools they have available to them and so forth. All three musicians I approached responded swiftly and positively, and with costs that seemed reasonable to me, so I didn't haggle, though the Negotiations page lets you do so if you want. When you've agreed terms with your musicians, you pay half their charges up front, and the other half on receipt of the finished files.
The business of exchanging files and so forth is handled via a Java applet called the Song Page, which takes a little while to load. This collects together relevant information and files for each of the songs you're working on using eSession, and also displays the contents of your own computer's hard drive so that you can easily upload and download files. There are various destinations in which files can be placed, such as the Stem, Mix and Master Banks and the Session and Media Bins. These can contain sub‑folders of their own, and it wasn't always entirely clear to me what belonged where. For the simple session work I was after, I stuck to the Stem Bank and the Media Bin alone, and that seemed to work, so I'm guessing that the Mix and Master Banks aren't relevant unless you're actually hiring mix and master engineers.
Unless you're using the Virtual Glass plug‑in, of which more shortly, communication with your chosen talent is handled using eSession's own messaging system. Incoming messages are forwarded to your own email account on receipt, so you know when someone is trying to contact you, but you need to log in and go to the Message page in order to reply. This aspect of the site is fairly primitive in its current form — there are, for instance, no options to view related messages in a threaded format, or to quote parts of a message in a reply to it — and I found that the Send button sometimes needed to be hit several times before it did anything. If I were engaged in a complex project, I would ask all concerned to communicate via email instead, but it works well enough for straightforward tasks.
Once they have recorded candidate parts for your song, the musicians upload MP3 files to the Media Bin, which showcase their parts mixed loud against any guide tracks you've asked them to use. If you're unhappy, you can request revisions, while if you like the results, you can proceeed to the checkout stage: they upload the full‑resolution files in isolation, you pay the balance, and the files are unlocked so that you can download them. This is quite a nice way of ensuring that clients don't do a runner without paying the musicians, although it's not always easy to judge the merits of a bass or drum part in an MP3 where it's mixed 20dB louder than it should be! I ended up requesting slight revisions from the drummer and bassist I used, though these were entirely a matter of taste — the playing and recording were very good throughout.
When it came to working with keyboard player Mike Norman, I used the opportunity to try out the Virtual Glass plug‑in. My experiences are related in the box overleaf; suffice to say that it's a clever idea with a lot of potential, but not all 'broadband' connections in the UK will be able to handle it. Mike, incidentally, was a true star who not only recorded five takes of the Rhodes parts I'd asked for, but added a brilliant Hammond part on his own initiative, at no extra charge. That's definitely the kind of thing that makes you want to work with someone again!
Unlike the other services covered in this article, eSession is what you make of it. In other words, you'll get the best results if you're willing to put a bit of work into getting to know the tools available, searching out the most appropriate musicians for your song, thinking about the best way to organise and order the sessions, and communicating your wishes. If, on the other hand, you want to hit a few buttons and have perfectly formed backing tracks spew out of your PC, this is probably the least suitable of the services on offer.
Certainly, I found that eSession required more of an investment in terms of time and mental energy than the other services, and there are respects in which the site could be more straightforward and easy to use. (For instance, although I'd specified 44.1kHz as the sample rate of the original session, that information somehow bypassed all the musicians, so all the files I received were at 48kHz.) But that must be set against its many unique plus points: the availability of a huge number of talented musicians, the variety of instruments on offer, the no‑hassle handling of financial transactions involving people all over the world, and so forth.
When we ask SOS readers what they dislike about the magazine, the most common objection is that we refuse to tell them what to buy. And that's because the only true answer to the question 'What's the best synthesizer/microphone/DAW?' is 'It depends.' It depends how much money you have, it depends what you'll be using it for, it depends how much time you're willing to invest in it, and on a whole lot of other factors besides. And you probably won't be too surprised to learn that the same turns out to be true of the on‑line session services I've looked at in this article.
Would I use any of them again? Yes, I would. In fact I'd use all of them again, in the right circumstances, and I feel they all have different strengths. The Missing Track offers incredible value for money, particularly given the quality on offer, and a very informal and relaxed service that makes them a pleasure to work with. At their current rates, the only real competition is getting your mates in to do it for nothing — and even then, the idea of getting good‑quality drum tracks delivered for $65 might prove more appealing than the hassle of setting up kits and moving microphones around. On the down side, if you want to pick and choose your musicians, or record something that's not drums, guitars, keyboards or bass, you'll have to look elsewhere.
It's a subjective judgement, but I felt that in terms of the quality of playing and recording, Studio Pros' tracks were even better. If I were ever to actually release the song, I would be happy to use any of the three; but I think I would choose Studio Pros' version ahead of the others, assuming I could acclimatise myself to the additional key change. It's impossible to generalise this, and your mileage may well vary, but to me, the musicianship and recording skills on offer ooze class.
If you have the budget and you simply want to hand over a scratch demo and have someone turn it into a record, Studio Pros should be your first port of call. However, the focus of this article was supposed to be on hiring session musicians on‑line, and in some ways, Studio Pros' focus seems to be directed more on full productions. Of course, things may be different if you order individual tracks from their web site, but my experience was of a fairly pipeline‑like approach to production, backed by a keenness to offer advice on production and arrangement. Said advice is clearly backed by a wealth of experience, but if all you want is instrumental parts that fit in with your own production ideas, you may need to be a little assertive to get exactly what you want, rather than what they think you need!
What, then, of eSession? Well, as I've already discussed, the quality of the results is likely to reflect your budget, your organisational skills and your willingness to get to grips with what is a much more complex web site than the others. Let there be no doubt that great results are possible, though, and eSession is currently the only place you'll find top names in the session world waiting to do your bidding. It also offers a much, much greater range of instruments. After all, unless you're on an oil rig or stranded in the desert, you can probably find a half‑decent rhythm section in your neck of the woods — but what if you need a duduk solo or a xylophone part? And, of course, you can offer your services to others too. Finally, if your Internet connection can take the heat, Virtual Glass offers something the other services here lack: the ability to direct a session in real time, face to face. I can see this being a big plus for producers who are used to having this sort of contact with their musicians.
Whereas the other two services I've looked at are ideal for one‑off jobs, I think the benefits of eSession make more sense when you consider the kind of user who might take out a subscription. For instance, if you were a TV composer working on a lengthy ongoing series, an eSession subscription would provide a fantastic way of incorporating new elements into your music each month, preventing things from going stale and broadening the musical palette on offer. Likewise, I'm sure it has much to offer the library music composer, or anyone else who regularly needs a fresh injection of new talent — and once you get to know the site, it offers the tools you need to manage a complex session where lots of people need to work together.
If you surf to /sos/jul09/articles/onlinesessionsaudio.htm, you'll find audio files representing the work of the three different sites on test. In order to try to provide a reasonably level playing ground, I deliberately did very basic mixes, with no effects beyond a little reverb on the snare and vocals, and attempted to match the levels of all three. However, there are some noticeable differences: Mike Norman's Hammond part really lifts the eSession version, while Studio Pros' interpretation incorporates an additional key change and a different guitar part. Since Studio Pros were very keen to demonstrate their own mixing talents, I've put their mix up for your delectation too.
For many musicians, a big plus point of eSession is that all members can sell as well as buy. So if you're an ocarina whizz but can't play the bouzouki to save your life, you can hope to offset what you lose on the swings against your profits on the roundabouts. You don't need a paid‑for subscription to do so, although if you end up doing a lot of work for others, the benefits in terms of disk space and file transfer costs would make it worthwhile.
The eSession caste system offers clear advantages to those who can demonstrate 15 'professional' credits and thus qualify as eTalent members. Contrary to Internet rumour, this information is not derived solely from the Allmusic database: Gina Fant‑Saez, eSession CEO, told me "We are lenient about where these credits are achieved, whether it be recording, post work, jingles, live tours, etc. We first look at Allmusic and ArtistDirect.com for recording experience, but then we Google each eTalent applicant, we look and listen to their MySpace pages (if they have one), check out their personal web sites (if they have one) and we simply verify that this person is indeed a professional. So Allmusic credits are not required, but we do need to see and hear some way to verify an eTalent member's professional experience, and then they are required to complete a profile in order to be approved.”
For the eTalent member, there are two sources of income. It costs $25 for non‑subscribers to send a Work Request to an eTalent member, and simply responding to such a Work Request earns the eTalent member $10, even if the response is 'no thanks'. When a Work Request is agreed, 15 percent of the session fee goes to eSession as a charge for brokering the deal and handling the payments. So, for instance, if an eTalent member received a Work Request and agreed to do the job for $200, he or she would actually receive $180 — 85 percent of the $200 plus $10 for responding to the Work Request.
Still in beta at the time of writing and thus available for free to all eSession clients, Virtual Glass will eventually be a subscription‑only feature. The beta I tried currently works only in Pro Tools on Windows and Mac, though it will ultimately cover all of the common plug‑in formats. The principle is a little bit like having a VoIP client or similar running as a plug‑in within your DAW. You insert it on a stereo Aux track within Pro Tools, and if there's any guide material in your session that you want your talent to hear, create a send from the guide tracks to the input of the Virtual Glass Aux channel.
The Virtual Glass plug‑in itself is fairly straightforward. You select talkback audio and video sources that will transmit your voice and image to the talent, with a variety of bit and frame rates available, depending on how robust your Internet connection is. Happily, the talkback and video sources don't have to use Digidesign hardware inputs — Virtual Glass will happily accommodate the built‑in camera and microphone on a Mac, for instance. Log in with your eSession user ID and password, and when your chosen musicians are also on‑line, they'll pop up in your 'Buddies' list, whereupon you can request a connection. Once this connection is established, you'll see and hear each other's video and audio feeds, and should be able to send instant messages by typing in the pane at the bottom left of the Virtual Glass window.
My experiences with Virtual Glass were hampered by the fact that neither SOS Towers nor my home broadband seemed able to meet the minimum requirements of a 1.5Mbps download speed and 384kbps upload speed. We did eventually manage to establish a connection, which worked reasonably well at my end apart from some disconcerting jumps in audio level. However, keyboard player Mike Norman at the other end reported frozen video and increasing problems hearing, so after talking over the project and running a few ideas past one another, we opted in the end to complete the session off‑line.
This is likely to be a problem that plagues many UK users, because advertised broadband speeds are rarely achieved in practice, and upload speeds, in particular, are seldom even mentioned. Broadband comparison site Broadband Genie offers a test where end‑users can determine the true speed of their Internet connections; they told me that "39 percent of all the speed tests that were run on our site were under 1.5Mbps download and a whopping 63 percent were under 384kbps upload. Even of packages marketed as 8Mb and above, 31 percent of the tests were still less than 1.5Mb and 53 percent less than 384kb.” Outrageous, but definitely not eSession's fault!
The Missing Track
- Pros: Amazing value for money; very friendly and informal service.
- Cons: Limited range of instruments on offer.
- Ideal for: Producers and songwriters seeking good‑quality instrumental parts on a budget.
- Pros: Very high quality of playing and recording; strong production skills.
- Cons: Production follows a 'pipeline' approach which is, in some ways, less flexible than other services.
- Ideal for: Anyone who wants to hand over production of their material to someone else and get top‑quality results.
- Pros: Huge range of players and skills available to suit all budgets, including some star names; you can offer your services too.
- Cons: More complex to use than the other sites and occasionally frustrating; many UK broadband connections inadequate to run Virtual Glass.
- Ideal for: Producers and composers who need access to a wide variety of session musicians and the ability to manage complex projects.