I Want Horns on My Record – Now What?

As a professional trombonist, vocalist, and horn arranger, I’ve been on many recording sessions since moving to New York City in 2000.  Some are easy on me — and on the musician or producer who hired me.  And some are like pulling teeth.  So here is a short guide on how to make these sessions as smooth as possible.  My focus is on recording horns, but many of these tips apply to all types of sessions.

Know What You Want

Knowing what you want is the key to a smooth session.  And knowing what you want involves knowing where you are.  Is this an overdub session?  Are the arrangements final except for horns/strings/kazoo?  Will the instrument you’re recording be featured, or will it be in the mix for background texture?

The more you can prepare ahead of time, the better.  How many tunes will you need horns on?  Think about where in the song you’ll be having horns.  Are all of the horns on all of the tunes?  All of the parts?

This definitely requires some project management!  While there are certainly programs available to help you with scheduling, deadlines, and all of the interweaving parts, I’ve found that by simply writing down EVERYTHING that needs to get done, I’m able to more clearly understand the necessary steps in the process. For example, you can’t record horns until you have horn parts written out.  You can’t write the horn parts out until you’ve decided which horns to use.  And so on…  Break things down into the smallest pieces, and then those small pieces will be easy to accomplish.

Think about how much time you need in the studio.  Generally, quite a bit of time at the beginning of a session is lost to setting up and checking levels.  So, one four-hour session may be much more productive than two two-hour sessions.  Depending on the complexity and scope of your recording project, a good rule of thumb is to allow an hour per song.  If you are super-prepared, and/or your parts are absolutely crystal clear and simple, it may be a good deal less than that.  If things are complicated or lengthy or unclear, it may be a good deal more than that!

Electronic charts are great, because they eliminate the dreaded handwriting issue!  You can also email them to the horn players ahead of time to look over.  You’ll want to have parts transposed in the key you are recording the song in, and you’ll want to have them transposed again into the home keys for each instrument (for example, trombone music is typically written in bass clef, concert pitch, but tenor saxophones read treble clef parts a ninth down from where they are written).  If you need help conceptualizing or writing parts, you can consult with the horn players ahead of time.  Berklee Press has a great series of books on writing music, including one on making your parts easier to read.  There are also many great arranging and orchestration books to consult if you need help.

I’ve done plenty of sessions where the employer has a vague idea that horns would sound cool, but doesn’t really know what to ask the horn players to play.  That’s okay, too, but should be discussed ahead of time with the horn players – you’ve now just asked them to be arrangers and writers on your tune, and should expect to compensate them for that!

Hire the Right People

Now that you know what you want to record, you need to find the right people to bring your vision to life!  How do you find them?

Perhaps you already know them and have played with them.  Other times, horn players are recommended by fellow musicians or by producers or engineers.  There is also MySpace, as well as assorted other online ways of looking for musicians, but I find that most people hire people they know or who come recommended.

One way to make things go smoothly is to hire people who already work as a section.  I work regularly with three different horn sections, and playing with people I already know well means that we will add group nuance (including easy intonation and phrasing with each other) to your tunes without much effort.  Hiring three people who don’t know each other to play together for the first time on your recording is a bit riskier.  That means that these musicians will be learning to play together on your time, and on your recording.  It’s easiest to hire a section together, or to hire one person and ask him or her to contract the others.

Whether you’ve followed the previous recommendation or not, having all of the people in the room together will help make for an easier session, especially if phrasing is important.  It’s much harder for the second or third horn player to catch all the nuance of the first without being in the same room with them.  It’s doable, but will take more of your studio time to get it right.  (Unless you’ve sent them the rough tracks ahead of time and asked them to listen closely to certain parts.)

Discuss money ahead of time.  Will the musicians be paid per song, per hour, or a flat rate for the entire project?  Sometimes you can do a combination of these, i.e. a flat rate for the project, but if that project goes over the allotted number of hours, an hourly rate goes into effect.  Hopefully, you have budgeted your recording, and know what you can afford.

The final thing to consider is attitude and professionalism.  Will these people be easy to get along with?  Will they help you realize your musical vision by showing up on time and prepared?  You should be clear about what you expect.

During The Session

Have a plan!  In the studio, time is money (or “mime is money,” my favorite line from Spinal Tap).  Think ahead of time about the order of recording.  You may want to do something easy to warm up and get that feeling of having knocked something out.  Then do the hardest thing, the thing which requires the most concentration.  After that, go ahead and do the rest of it.  You may want to revisit some of the tough sections later, after the section has gotten into the energy of the session.  You also may want to have reference tracks available to give a sense of the vibe you’re going for with your track(s).

When recording a horn section, we will either play all together with baffling between us; play all together without baffling, perhaps around a single microphone (makes fixes a little tougher); or start by building from the bottom up (i.e., bari saxophone, then trombone, then trumpet).  Just as you would record bass and drum parts before adding lead guitars and vocals, you want to establish a foundation for the phrasing and energy of the horn parts.

You can save time by setting up microphones before the musicians arrive, so they merely need to adjust the mics.  Have stands available.  Have pencils available.  Have water (and caffeine if it’s early!) available.  Have the charts printed and in order of recording.  Build in short breaks to rest and revive those chops.  Make it comfortable for the players, and they will feel at ease more quickly!

You can also check to see if your engineer can set up the tracks you’ll need ahead of time.  Lots of time is spent in the studio waiting for engineers to add new tracks to a ProTools session.  Having a good engineer is key; we horn players really need good communication from the booth.  Are we recording yet?  Are we starting 2 bars before the passage, or 4 bars?

Despite your best efforts, sometimes there are technical difficulties or other delays in the session.  But getting stressed out is not helpful.  If you are concerned about time, decide on the most important thing to accomplish, and steer the course of the session that way.  You may not be able to accomplish all you want in the time you’ve got; you can schedule a second session or simply scale back what you need done right then.

When you’re done, thank those musicians!  Ask them how they’d like to be credited, and don’t forget to send them a copy of the finished product!

Wrapping Up

It’s all about communicating well.  Know what you want to add to your music, and be able to write it out or at the very least explain it clearly.  Find great people to help you execute your vision, and pay them for their talent and expertise.  Have a plan to utilize your studio time effectively.  And then enjoy it!  Some of the most fun times I’ve had have come after several hours in a studio when everyone starts to really loosen up and make music together!