6 Steps for Successful Audio Mixing

Mixing is an art form that takes a lot of time and skill and even though we may spend a long time on any given mix it is a good plan to be able to have a strategy for commencing a mix down session. To some degree this is going to be influenced by the genre of music that is to be mixed but there is a lot one can do to start off on the right footing to create mixes that are likely to have good traits as opposed to bad traits. We are going to discuss mixing strategy and these pointers will assist with consistency and efficiency.

1) Gain structure 

This is fundamental and both technical and artistic, we will focus on technical reasoning for now. We want to avoid noise and distortion which occupy the extremes of the systems which we will use for recording and mixing. Too quiet and we risk hiss, too loud and we risk the dreaded crunch. In analog gear 0Vu was the level to aim for, people are often surprised when I say this equates to approximately a peak level of -10dBFS. (though it depends on transient information and the frequency content of the source)

DAW manufacturers do not help us by making  -10dBFS on the metering in their DAW’s look very  low indeed. Fact is if you keep your levels around -10dBFS you will be mixing at around the same electrical level as those professionals who mix on a big analog console. I suggest thinking very carefully about your gain structure when recording and mixing and a great tip is to always record and mix at 24 bit resolution. At 24 bit there is absolutely no need whatsoever to hit the level meters hard in record or mix stages. It serves no purpose (with the caveat of saturating a specific device for subjective effect) other than to diminish your headroom and create a higher chance of distortion in either the analog or digital domain.

2) Gain structure……. again ! 

So pointer 1 explains why good gain planning is good, now we need to consider how to practically achieve good gain structure. Arguably mixing starts in recording, thats what learned engineers know and teach. So when you record, record at 24 bit and leave headroom. Take level from a practice performance and peak at -12 to -14dBFS to allow for the enthusiasm of a “real take”.

This leaves your signals at just the right level to start mixing with plenty of headroom. Use a ‘peaky’ source in your mix down session like your snare and kick drum and use them as a reference to start your mixing. Let’s say you peak your kick at -12dBFS then add your snare then the rest of your kit, great…. except you are likely to want to process with EQ or compression at some point. This obviously changes level, so bear in mind you do not want to move your reference too far from where you started. So as you eq and compress try and bear in mind your -12dBFS ref and keep the peaky sources in this ball park. You do not have to do this religiously after all the goal is some head room not a bad sounding mix balance based on numbers ! It’s a balance, the right level to leave headroom and the juggling of level and balance that mixing by it’s very nature requires.

3) Throw up the faders 

Mixing is an iterative process for many so it is difficult to describe “how to mix” exactly. However you must start somewhere and no better place than introducing the faders with sources on and obtaining a rough balance. A rough balance is important as it allows you to consider what problems  exist and what ones can be rectified with your tool set. It starts the brain firing off in the right direction as to what sculpting might occur. Usually this is a process which happens extremely fast. You might get a quick succession of thoughts… like… “kick drum is muddy, snare needs some brightness, cymbals are harsh, a short reverb would be nice on snare from plug in “X”, overheads sound a touch wide, a touch of de-essing required on lead vocal, guitars have excessive hiss on them in the pauses, things like this.  If you need note them do so, but often if they are enough of a problem they will stick in mind or be rectified within a couple of minutes. In this way I think software is an advantage as it is very quick to load a plug in and act.

So assuming technical ability a rough mix can be a prototype mix within the hour if you have your chops together. That first hour has always been one which invokes slight excitement and nervousness in myself as you fathom what the sources have the potential to be. The judgement on the the individual sources and shaping them to become something greater when well blended is very exciting. This is where you gauge the potential of the sources and how hard you will need to work to obtain a sonic vision be your own or a producers.

4) Group your instruments

Groups are useful, predominantly for globally adjusting the level of a set of like instruments on a single fader but also for global processing. This could be using send effects such as reverb delays, chorus etc. and of course insert processing like compression or equalization. It is definitely worth setting up a few groups for your drums, guitars and vocals even if you are not sure you will use them at the outset.

5) Color is quicker

Making your project easier to navigate is going to make things more efficient. It might be a good plan to create some colour coding of tracks and channels. You may wish to develop your own colour templates which relates either to your own music or other types of music if you mix professionally. An electronic music production may have differences to acoustic r rock music for example. Once you have decided on a colour scheme that makes sense in your own mind you will find, mix after mix this becomes embedded in your way of working. This can speed up project navigation very nicely and keep the thoughts, impressions and remedial actions in a flow which gets results.  It can be a good idea to colour your groups something specific and as a whole as there tends not to be too many of them.

6) Masterful processing

Stereo master bus processing is very personal, some people like to mix with nothing on the master bus whereas some like to use their favourite eq or compressor. This can of course be digital or analog on the way to your monitoring. I recommend keeping things subtle and if you find yourself using anything that could be deemed as extreme the chances are you probably need to work a bit harder with your mix sources first.

Limiters are extreme processes, by and large they are not necessary to create a good mix. I can understand the reasoning behind them finding their way onto a master bus. A few reasons are that you are doing your own self finalizing so you want to hear how the mix responds when being driven into a limiter or you might want to get a rough idea of what the track might sound like when professionally mastered. Some people simply like the sound of a limiter, after all not all limiting is bad.

With limiters it is most important to consider not boxing yourself into a corner. Mixing into a limiter for whatever reason will effect your mixing decisions. Drums and bass/present vocals will especially will especially be effected. Novice mixers will crush their mix to hold things in place (even limiting on channels), this will stunt your mixing skills progress in my personal opinion. It will also hinder any self mastering or professional mastering procedures. One reason some mixes sound good is often because there is space, interaction, dynamic interplay and transient information that adds excitement and power. Extreme use of limiting reduces all of that.

I would say to use bus compression and equalization you need to have a very true monitoring environment. You should be confident of the accuracy of the response of your monitors in room otherwise you can easily compound problems that already exist. This may make them more difficult to rectify later should you realize there is a problem with translation.So use these processes with care and attention to subtle tweaks rather than extreme changes. If a compressor or equalizer is adding something subjectively euphonic to a mix then there is no problem whatsoever. However if they are there to increase perceived volume only they are best left bypassed.

If you use the right gain structure there will be no need to protect digital zero with a  limiter  as ample headroom will be built in to the stereo master bus.


Mixing is often a very personal technique but applying some well grounded technical information and continuity between projects can bring enhanced results. This makes the way you mix more efficient and can definitely assist in achieving more consistent results and keep the mic down work flow logical and efficient.

How To Be a Studio Musician Without Leaving Home

Musicians are always looking for ways to supplement their income and find new performance opportunities. If you have always wanted (and more so if you already are) to be a session musician, but didn’t have the right contacts or weren’t located in an active scene, you might want to look into offering your services as a virtual session musician.

A virtual session musician provides their interpretation and instrumental or vocal performance to anyone, anywhere in the world in need of their particular expertise. It is not rare to find songwriters, producers, or solo artists in need of extra instrumentation to complete their production.

How hiring a virtual session player is advantageous to the employer:

  • The quality of the musician is not limited by proximity to studio.
  • No hourly studio rates to pay or union rules to workaround.
  • Receive high quality tracks from specialists.

How offering your services as session musician is a great gig:

  • Ability to work from your home studio for clients all over the world. Leave your equipment setup and tweak for specific purposes.
  • Work on your own schedule. Take the time to experiment with parts and send only the best performances.
  • Set your own rates and accept payment online.

Of course it would not be fair to only mention the positive aspects of online session work. The most obvious disadvantage of creating a full production in this manner is that the magic could disappear. When you gather great musicians in a room together, they interact, play off each other, and create a vibe that translates into emotion in a recording. That being said, great performances are still being created online.

The process in a nutshell:

  • Songwriter records guitar and vocals to a song she wants to be considered for film.
  • She finds a drummer in NYC, a bassist in Berlin, and an electric guitarist in LA, who she thinks would be a good fit for her song and contacts them in this order. Each player has great experience and can produce great recordings of their instrument.
  • She provides each one with a simple MP3 of what she has so far, a tempo map, and basic references of what she wants where (charts or midi generated tracks are nice).
  • Each player takes the time to review the song, record their performances, and send the tracks back for review.
  • The songwriter requests any changes and the changes are revised tracks are promptly sent back.
  • With her completed tracks, she now forwards the song onto a virtual mix engineer and finally to an online mastering engineer.

How to begin offering your services?

Ensure that you can record your instrument WELL.
You don’t to have a studio with 96 inputs, or a cabinet of vintage mics, but you do need to have enough quality mic preamps, microphones, and knowledge to record your instrument well. You may need to do some research and experimentation to find the best approaches to recording your instrument, but once you’ve got it – you’ve got it. You don’t necessarily have to worry about processing it as this will be done by the mix engineer, your goal is to get a solid, clean recording of a great performance which compliments the production.

Offer the service on your website.
The basic steps you need to complete are to create a rate sheet, gear list, provide audio examples of your playing, and setup a Paypal account to receive payment from clients. Add anything else to show off your skills and convince potential clients to hire you. Try to answer their questions before they have to contact you such as your revision policy, if you provide processing, what your turnaround time is etc. The more you can differentiate yourself, the better.

Offer your services on other sites.
eSession.com is setup specifically to allow individual musicians and engineers to offer their services online. They provide easy search capabilities and a very cool plug-in called “Virtual Glass” which allows realtime video and audio streaming from within your digital audio workstation. Also check out IndabaMusic, a newer collaboration site with a built-in, online audio workstation.

In addition to specialty sites, make sure that your social networks know that you offer this service. Participating in online forums and simple including a link to your site in your signature can be a great way to drum up business. Connecting with producers and songwriters directly should be your main goal.

Whether you plan on making this your full time gig, or just offer the service to get occasional gigs, offer you services as a virtual session musician can be a great way to build up your contact list and play on numerous, international projects.

5 Tips to Keep Your Gig

Much has been written recently on the topic of networking, and as a freelance musician, I fully understand and appreciate the importance of constantly seeking new sources of work.

But what about keeping the gigs you already have? Assuming you have a handle on the most commonly discussed factors like punctuality, reliability, playing in tune, keeping your chops up through regular practice, and even personal hygiene and social skills, there are other less obvious traits I’ve discovered (many through trial and error) that can make a lasting impression.

Unlike musicians who perform and compose their original music, a sideman’s key to success is understanding, meeting and ultimately exceeding the expectations of the artist to stand out from the thousands of other players available for the job.

1) Immerse yourself in the material.

This issue is a personal favorite, and one I feel very passionate about.

As a freelancer, there may be weeks when you’re learning material for 4 different bands, and full immersion simply doesn’t seem feasible, but I highly recommend listening to the songs at least enough to recognize each one by name. A blank stare at the mention of a specific tune can make it appear that you’re planning to mail it in.

I’ve found songwriters to be very appreciative when a band member demonstrates that he or she isn’t hearing something for the first time at rehearsal or intending to just sight read the charts and hope for the best.

There’s an excellent article on this site by Matt Baldoni titled, “Learning Music Quickly and Efficiently,” which thoroughly examines this topic and details a ritual I’ve successfully followed for years.

When people ask what music I’ve been listening to lately, my response is usually, “The songs I have to learn for shows this week.” It ‘s definitely a sacrifice that can seem excessive, and perhaps even a little obsessive, but if you ace the gig and get invited back regularly, the steady work is well worth the initial time investment.

If it turns out to be a one-time thing for reasons beyond your control (the songwriter moves away, decides he can’t afford a band and goes solo, etc.) the effort still isn’t wasted because you establish a reputation with your musical peers as someone who does his homework.

2) Be a supportive team player.

During a typical week, I record, rehearse and perform with a wide variety of people in a handful of different projects. When songwriters choose to hire full-time freelance musicians, they’re usually aware that our survival is dependent upon keeping busy with multiple bands, and willing to accept a smaller overall time commitment in exchange for efficiency and professional musicianship. That being said, I believe that during the two hours you spend in the club or practice space, the artist deserves 100% of your energy and enthusiasm.

If the bandleader has a carload of PA equipment, grab a heavy speaker, and unwind a few cables. If there’s a rush to start on time, offer to help with the set list.

If you’ve already recorded and uploaded a rehearsal to supplement your own learning, it only takes a few extra minutes to email the files to your band mates. Not only does this ensure that everyone is on the same page (especially with last-minute arrangement changes) but it also shows that you’re genuinely interested in the overall success of the performance, and not just in it for a quick buck.

You can separate yourself from the competition by consistently going above and beyond for the people who hire you, and becoming a valuable, and hopefully irreplaceable, part of their support system as a team player. If you maintain that reputation over an extended period, it’s possible that someone may even value your contribution enough to have flexibility with booking and plan shows around your schedule.

3) Play the part you were hired to play.

A few years ago, I got a call from a drummer friend to fill the bass position in a singer/songwriter project. As with many bands of this type, it quickly became apparent that my role was to provide a simple, solid foundation with the kick drum. After the first rehearsal, he expressed relief and thanked me, explaining that the previous bassist was an accomplished fusion player who used the songs as a vehicle to showcase his ferocious chops and rarely ever played a root note–clearly not playing the part the singer/songwriter wanted to hear.

In other situations, with wedding and corporate event bands, I’ve seen world-class jazz virtuosos fired because they felt it was beneath them to learn a Billy Joel song or insisted on re-harmonizing the chord progression of a Journey power ballad.

One of the most difficult challenges for younger musicians, especially recent music school grads with a high level of proficiency and a strong improvisational background, can be adapting to a sideman situation where a “less is more” approach is required. If you agree to work with an original or cover band and the idea of playing a three-chord song just like the recording makes you cringe, remember that you’re getting paid to execute the material a certain way.

It’s not always about you, so whenever possible, be flexible, be aware of what’s expected of you, and most importantly, be willing to check your ego at the door.

4) Be thorough with your pre-gig communication.

Another way to make a good first impression and instill confidence in your musical employers is to be thorough with your communication and address any aspect of the set list or the material itself that isn’t clear.

With original gigs, I usually start out by asking if there are mp3s and/or charts for the songs, and whether they accurately reflect the most current arrangements. Even if charts exist, I compare them to the recordings, and frequently end up making my own if I discover discrepancies or omissions.

In subbing situations, clear communication can be even more crucial, especially for weddings and club dates, where players are often expected to show up and nail a list of 40-50 songs with no rehearsal. Most seasoned musical directors will include the keys and artist names with the title and tell you up front whether they generally stay true to the original.

When you receive emails containing audio files, always listen to the attachment, and never assume anything, even if you’re convinced that the version in your iTunes library is the definitive one. Within the standard club date and wedding repertoire, there are multiple versions of many popular songs.

For example, if the song list includes “Soul Man,” you can avert a potential train wreck by asking if they’re doing the original Sam and Dave version or the Blues Brothers remake. The latter is in a different key, and repeats the intro for four extra bars after the bridge.

There are also common titles shared by completely different songs (“Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars and Billy Joel), as well as extended dance mixes, acoustic versions, and even an occasional customized edit a bandleader might make to fit a special dance request or guest entrance. Never assume anything!

5) Have patience and a sense of humor.

There’s a good reason for the immense popularity and widespread quoting of This is Spinal Tap among musicians. I read once that The Rolling Stones couldn’t bear to watch the movie because it hit too close to home, but I personally love to exchange stories about double booking debacles, no-shows and blown lighting systems.

Obviously, when you’re in the middle of a set, a technical meltdown is anything but amusing, but when you’re sharing stories of past shows, are you more likely to recall that funk gig where everyone nailed the outro section of “What is Hip,” or the retirement party where the jeweler downstairs went ballistic because the bathroom flooded and leaked all over his display counter?

One of my first paying gigs during college was a beach party for some wealthy young clothing company executives who offered $20 per man and free boxer shorts as payment. Every few years, when I mention the event to any of the other musicians from that night, nobody really remembers what we played, but everyone recalls very clearly (and with hearty laughter) that the band set up on a narrow concrete pier in a lightning storm, and made it though about 5 songs before the skies opened up and the guests lunged forward to cover our equipment with wet, sandy tarps.

When you perform several nights a week, year after year, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter plenty of adversity. A large part of paying dues as a musician is repeatedly dealing with humbling experiences, like getting ripped off by shady club owners, or arriving to play at a crowded house party with the promise of great exposure and learning that you’ll be singing to a pile of coats in a remote bedroom.

If a band loses a weekly engagement because one of its members has a volatile temper and engages in altercations with belligerent drunks over Skynyrd requests, there’s a good chance that person won’t have their job for long or won’t be asked back at all if they’re a sub. There will be nights when you want to sell your drums as firewood, or slam your guitar down mid-song and make a dramatic exit, but your ability to keep a cool head and see the humor in these absurd fiascos will endear you to your fellow musicians and demonstrate that you’re mature, professional and emotionally stable.

All of these tips basically boil down to having your act together and being so dependable and reliable that, when you’re committed to a date, the person hiring you feels more relaxed and confident. Obviously, self-discipline, musicianship and dedication to your instrument are very important, and helped you land the gig in the first place, but to keep it, you need to exhibit a greater sense of professionalism that can’t be learned in a practice room.

How Do I Get a Job After Music School?

T., a guitarist and soon-to-be music school grad, wrote us last week with this question:

I’m getting my degree soon, but I feel that I don’t really have a lot of actual work experience to flesh out my resume. How far do you think a degree can take me and where would be the best place to help get some work with my skills?

That’s a good question, T., and I’m sure there are other MW readers that are in the same boat.

So, you’re about to leave music school and you need a job. You don’t have a lot of credits on your resume and you’re not sure how to get started.

Let’s start off with what jobs are available these days. I often think about jobs in the musician industry split into to categories:

  1. Your music
  2. Other people’s music

Your Music

There are two of us that maintain MusicianWages.com – Cameron Mizell and myself. Cameron is an expert in category #1, so instead of rambling on about things I don’t know, I’ll defer to his incredible breadth of knowledge.

Here are some of Cameron’s articles that will help you create a career with your own music:

Also read the archives of Cameron’s articles, I’m sure you’ll find a ton of useful information.

Other People’s Music

Although I do write and record my own music, I make my living playing other people’s music. I freelance as a Broadway musician, a church musician, a for-hire accompanist, a music director for theatre, a vocal coach, and many other things.

So let’s say you’re like T. and you’re about to graduate college and you want to be a freelance musician like me. Aside from experience (which I’ll get to later), what do you need to succeed?

  • Sight-reading

    I would say that this is the real value that I give to my employers – if you take everything else away, this is the one thing that they are really paying me for. I show up and I play whatever they put in front of me. It saves them time and money – it cuts down on prep and rehearsal time, it allows them the convenience of thinking about other things, and allows them the flexibility of changing music at the last minute.

    If you’re sight-reading isn’t up to par, you can improve it. I’ve written about the subject before, and it basically boils down to practice. The more you sight-read the better you’ll become.

  • Recommendations

    I never audition or apply for positions in my business, all work is passed around through word-of-mouth. That can be really frustrating for someone starting out, but I promise it gets easier. Make sure that you keep in touch with your fellow classmates from your music school – those will be your first contacts. As they find work, they will pass work to you and vice versa.

    Giving away work is worth pointing out – you should have a small list of colleagues that you pass work to now and then. They’ll do the same for you when they have gigs they can’t take.

    There are some colleagues that will take the work and never pass anything back to you – and those are probably the wrong colleagues to have on the list. Generally, creating a sense of generosity and community around you is much more effective than creating a sense of competition.

  • Geography

    Look, if there isn’t any work where you are, you should move somewhere else. If you want to work as a freelance musician, I’m very sorry, but you just can’t live anywhere you want. You’re career will always be limited by the amount of work available (divided by the number of musicians) in your city. I just don’t see any way around that.

    When I was just out of college I moved back to my home town in the suburbs of Chicago. I took all the gigs I could get. I music directed local theatre shows, I played cocktail music at the country club, I accompanied at the local schools, I joined a band, I taught lessons. I made about the same amount of money as my friends that had entry-level day jobs. It was cool for awhile.

    But check it out – I was playing every gig in town. I’d already hit an income ceiling and I was 25. I tried Chicago for awhile, but I felt like the scene in that city was locked up tight and paid worse than the suburbs. So I left.

    I worked the regional theatre market for awhile, and eventually settled in New York – not because I necessarily wanted to live in New York – but because there was a lot of work here for my skill set.

    I think I’ll always live in New York. I can make a living here. Other players like me are making a living here. It’s not a musician utopia or anything like that – but there is a need here for musicians and I am a musician – so this is where I ended up. Luckily, I’ve also grown to really enjoy living here.

    You don’t have to live in New York. There’s a good discussion in our forums about the best cities for musicians. See what other musicians have to say.


Ok, so now on to your actual question – how far can a degree get you and how can you get more experience.

Your degree is a piece of paper, and it won’t get you a gig. What you really paid for at your college, as I touched on before, is the connections you have with your faculty and fellow students. This is for real – stay in touch with your fellow students. That’s where your work will first come from.

There are several entry-level positions for freelance musicians. None of them are particularly well-paid or comfortable, which is why they are relatively easy to get.

  • Cruise Ship Musician

    Cruise ship musician is the route I took. It’s pretty easy to get a cruise ship job – you take an audition with a talent agency and then wait for a call. Read this article for more info on how to book the job.

    If working on a cruise was a totally amazing, satisfying, well-paying gig, nobody would ever leave it. But in reality, it can burn you out within a few contracts (see: What Was There To Be Dark About?). But if you are just looking for some experience, it’s perfect. Take a contract or two and hone your chops in the real world. Think of it as your internship.

  • Theme Parks

    There are other gigs like the cruise gig. There are summer gigs at theme parks. Try this link at Backstage.com and search for “Theme Parks”. Expect the gigs to be long, hot and poorly paid. But don’t worry, just work the gig and get the credit on your resume. You gotta pay your dues.

  • Non-Union Broadway Tours

    Non-union musical theatre tours are a step or two up from entry-level. They can be pretty cool gigs if you get on a good tour. They can be brutal if you don’t.

    Jobs at this level start to be word-of-mouth placements for musicians, but you can submit your stuff. Networks is a major non-union touring company. Bookmark their jobs page and send your resume and website to musicresumes@networkstours.com. You can also visit BackStageJobs.com (search for “Musical” under the Departments category), they sometimes list these kinds of jobs.

    Also, dive into this discussion in the forums for more info about non-equity tours.

  • MusicianWages.com Jobs Board

    I have to give a plug to our musician jobs board here at MW. We have a growing list of musician jobs categorized by instrument and location. Subscribe to the RSS feed and have the jobs sent to your feed reader. I moderate that list myself, so it’s only good stuff going up. You might find a gig there.

I hope that helps – good luck T!

5 Traits of a Professional Musician

Being a musician is awesome. It’s almost a crime that people are allowed to play music for a living. But like crime, music doesn’t usually pay. To get the gigs that pay, and keep getting them, musicians need to exude a high level of professionalism that is often a lot less glamorous than the sexy life of a rock star. While these qualities might seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how many prima donnas out there don’t get it.

1) Follows directions well.

Because most musicians make a living playing music for other people, they have to be good at doing what those people want. If that sounds vague, it is. Whether you’re hired to play a wedding, write a jingle, perform as a sideman, be a studio musician, be a pit musician on Broadway (or your local community theater), you have to be good at taking directions.

More often than not, those directions are poorly communicated by people that don’t know music, but a professional musician knows how to translate any kind of instruction quickly, without getting frustrated, and make the client happy. Other times you’re getting quick directions from a music director that knows exactly what she wants, and your ability to adapt quickly is key. These are one way communications where there’s either no time to ask questions. Performing well in this type of scenario will get you recommendations and ultimately more work.

2) Well organized.

In a nutshell, keep a calendar and learn how to tell time. There’s nothing more frustrating or embarrassing than tardiness. In a world of great players scraping together $50 gigs to make ends meet, schedules are usually both busy and erratic. Everyone is trying to squeeze a rehearsal in before teaching a lesson and then get to a gig later that night. But if you can’t keep track of everything and be where you need to be on time, you’ll lose work. Plain and simple.

Additionally, you will probably need to keep track of a large amount of material. Many sidemen play in multiple bands and have to learn both original music by songwriters that hire them, and cover songs for weddings or corporate gigs. Storing all this music in your head gets easier with practice, but in the beginning you’ll need to learn how to organize it. Matt Baldoni, a successful and very busy freelance guitarist, wrote an article on learning music quickly and efficiently.

There’s a saying among musicians that goes something like this:

An amateur practices until he gets it right, a professional practices until he never gets it wrong.

3) Good communication skills.

When dealing with people that don’t know anything about music and not much more about the business, you have to be able to lead most of the conversation. Offer suggestions, draw up contracts, and know how to say what you want without coming off as brash or greedy. Don’t be too proud to ask questions.

At the other end of the spectrum you’ll be dealing with other musicians. Show up to the first rehearsal with the music prepared. If it’s your gig or you are the music director, make sure your music is written neatly or created in a program like Finale or Sibelius. Make sure the sheet music communicates the road map of the tune clearly (repeats, coda, etc.). If you expect the other musicians to learn from a CD or MP3s, make sure they have the proper tracks and are aware of any key changes or cuts that are not on the recordings. These things will make the first rehearsal run as smoothly as possible.

4) Plays well with others.

This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised. Not only should you be able to play your butt off, you should be able to tone it down and play what’s called for in the music. Stereotypically speaking, guitar players are notorious for turning their amps up too loud and never shutting up. Singers zone out when they’re not singing and miss their entrances. Drummers are too loud. Horn players don’t listen to each other and sound sloppy as a whole section. This is all Music 101, but it’s often over looked.

While it’s very important to nail your solo, it’s more important to blend in with the ensemble or make the soloist sound better. Playing tastefully and in the appropriate style will get you more calls than being able to shred.

5) Prepared for the job.

Ultimately, the big difference between a professional and everyone else is preparation. This is the same in any field. A professional salesman is expected to know his product. A professional marketer is expected to know her target audience. A professional custodian is expected to know what kind of cleaner to use on what surface. Likewise, a professional musician is expected to show up for the gig with the right instruments, dressed appropriately, and prepared to nail the music. Let me repeat part of that. A professional musician dresses appropriately. Whatever the gig, make sure you know what to wear. Flip flops are probably a bad idea unless a grass skirt is involved.

In summary, if you want to establish yourself as a professional musician, step back and evaluate these five qualities. Music is a highly competitive field, and mastering your instrument is simply the first step to becoming a working musician. For those that want to take their craft to the next level, the thing that sets professionals apart from the rest is what they can do beyond playing their instrument.

When To Take an Unpaid Gig

You get a call. It’s a friend of yours, they are throwing a big party, and they want you to play for the guests. They don’t have a lot of money, though, so they can’t pay you. But you can pass out business cards and try to sell CDs. There will be lots of important people there and it’ll be great exposure they say.

You get another call. [Paper]tiger Jams {Explored}
Creative Commons License photo credit: Cameron Cassan
It’s a local non-profit. They are throwing a fundraiser at a fancy venue and they want you to provide entertainment for a couple of hours. They can’t pay you, but you’d really be helping out the cause if you would do it.

A third call comes in. It’s a local venue. They are having an event next month and 5 bands are playing a 30 minute set each. They’d like to invite you to perform. It doesn’t pay, but everyone gets a free drink and you can set up a merch table in the corner.

So what do you do? Do you take these gigs? You know that you have to make a living, but you know you also have to get out there and play for people.

People Die of Exposure

In my experience, taking a gig for “exposure” has questionable value. What kind of exposure are you really getting? I mean…are you playing the Tonight Show? The local news? Or are you playing for a group of 20 people that are generally not your target audience?

There’s a big difference between general exposure and specific exposure, and I think that’s the thing to consider in these situations. People that call you and use this term often mean it in the general sense.

Definition of general exposure:

There will be a room full of people, and there will be you. You will play your music. It will travel through the air between you and the people, and the people will hear this music. In this way you will expose yourself to these people, and it’s conceivable that they will care one way or another.

But I’m telling you, this kind of general exposure is usually not valuable. If the situation is not targeted to the kind of audience that you are looking for, you’ll waste your time. Say you are a sci-fi string band and you get a call to play at a Star Trek convention – that is good exposure. But say the same band gets a call to play the Christmas party for a ladies luncheon group. Sure, it’s possible that someone at that luncheon will be a sci-fi fan and care, but the odds are not good.

Definition of specific exposure:

There will be a room full of people that love the kind of music you play. They will resemble your target audience in every way possible. You will play your music and they will listen to your music. It’s very likely that many of them will want to know more about you, sign up for your email list and maybe buy an album.

My point is that you should be very, very cautious anytime someone uses the term “exposure” in the sense that it is some kind of compensation. Oftentimes that is the sign of a pro bono gig that will waste your time. It’s your responsibility to make sure that the exposure they are peddling is relevant and valuable to you, in a specific way, before you take the gig.

Will You Enjoy It?

I’ll tell you a story. When I first came to New York I got a call from a celebrity. She’d been on TV, on Broadway – my mother was a big fan. Imagine my surprise. She asked me if I would play at a non-profit event at the Plaza Hotel. She couldn’t pay me, but there’d be a ton of rich people there (it’d be great “exposure”) and I’d get a free meal. And bonus – I could bring 2 guests to the dinner.

I played some cocktail jazz during the event, passed out a few business cards, chatted to some of the guests. At dinner I brought 2 friends for an incredible meal. We sat next to the celebrity and a city councilman. We all took gift bags full of perfume at the end of the night. I followed up with the celebrity and city councilman afterwards. I gave the perfume to my girlfriend.

Altogether it was a cool event. I’m glad I did it – but certainly not because of the “exposure”. I never got another call afterward from anyone involved. The truth is that is was a lot of fun. I was able to treat 2 friends to a fancy dinner, I played at a historic venue, I met a celebrity, and I gave my girlfriend a bag full of perfume.

I enjoyed it – and that’s a perfectly good reason to take a free gig. Being a musician can sometimes get you into the hippest situations.

Meeting New Colleagues

It would be great if you took a free gig and suddenly you had 100 new, dedicated fans who, from that day on, buy everything you ever create. Great plan, but let’s assume that won’t happen. Ah! – but what if something better happens?

In everyone’s career there are key people, friends, usually, that help further your success. I’m talking about colleagues and collaborators. You are both heading down the same road, but maybe there’s a time that they travel quicker toward success and they bring you along. And then at another time you are traveling faster down that road and you take them along.

These relationships are really important in a musician career – the best successes usually involve a team of people like this. Playing free gigs is sometimes a great way to meet these kinds of friends, colleagues and collaborators.

I’ll tell you another story. I volunteer regularly for a non-profit in New York that puts on big productions at least once a year. They contact musical theatre composers and lyricists and ask them to write new music for the events. I music direct the production, and we find great musicians to perform with us.

Throughout the process I meet and work with tons of new people. Some of them I really click with and we become fast friends. Months down the road maybe they are working on something else and they give me a call to music direct, or play piano, or whatever. And maybe this time it’s a real gig that pays.

That’s a best case scenario! I took a free gig, I met a ton of colleagues and we collaborated later on something else. I think the key here is that the free gig was a big production involving a lot of artists all working toward a common goal. Compared that to the Plaza Hotel gig where I was the only musician in the room and there weren’t any colleagues to connect with. Two gigs, I’m glad I took both, but for very different, specific, reasons.

What Is In It For You?

You can’t just play everywhere and anywhere for free. This is a career. People expect musicians to play for free much too often. There is value in what we do, and most of the time we should get paid for it. When someone approaches you with a free gig think specifically about what value the situation holds for you. They are getting something out of it – what about you?

Let’s take the 3 situations I opened with. I can’t give you definitive answers, but I can give you the questions you should consider.

Ok, first situation – someone calls for a private party and wants you to play for free. My first question would be: why can’t they pay? It’s a private party, not a fundraiser for a good cause. It’ll probably be a room full of 20-30 friends, drinking and having a good time and…uh…that’s called a gig.  It’s supposed to pay money.

Sure you can sell CDs, but who’s going to buy a CD in that situation? It’s not a house concert, they aren’t specifically there for the music. Who knows if they’ll even like your music?

Personally, I wouldn’t take that gig.

Second – a non-profit calls for a fundraiser. First question: do you believe in the cause? You’ll be donating your time to the organization, and you should think of it just like you’re donating money. Forget the “exposure” you’ll get – the people that attend the event will be there for the cause/organization and it’s unlikely they’ll also spend a lot of energy on you too. So it really comes down to whether or not you want to donate to the cause.

The third call – a local venue wants you to play. This could be good. Do you know the other bands on the event? Are they a similar genre, or at least a similar target audience, to you? Are there musicians in the other bands that you’d like to meet? Do the other bands have a creative team (manager, publicist, etc.) that you would like to meet?

If this is a situation where you could meet colleagues and future collaborators – I say take it. If it sounds like the venue is just trying to fill a spot and there’s nothing in it for you – your instincts are probably right.

What If Someone Else Calls?

A 4th call comes in. It’s for a real gig with a band you regularly play with. Unfortunately it’s for the same night as the unpaid gig that you’ve already committed to. Now what?

If the unpaid gig has enough value to you that you committed in the first place, this shouldn’t matter. Nobody should ever cancel on a valuable gig – and if it wasn’t valuable, why’d you take it in the first place?

This is a problem that is so common that you should plan on it happening before you take any unpaid gig. Expect that someone will call you with something that does pay for the same night as the free gig and make your decision with that in mind.

Live Music Is a Valuable Thing

The truth is that live music is a valuable thing. These days people have constant access to music – but it’s not usually live music. There is an energy in live music that humans just can’t get enough of. People love live music so much that they will pay money just to be in a room where it is happening.

So when someone approaches you to give away this valuable thing for free, it’s fair that you should still expect something in return. Maybe the compensation is new fans, new experiences, or new colleagues.

On the other hand, if there is nothing in the situation for you, don’t take the gig. If you take an unpaid gig and it ends up being a dead end – no one bought a CD, no one seemed interested, there wasn’t any worthwhile networking, it didn’t manifest any future gigs – then maybe you took the wrong unpaid gig. Before you take an unpaid gig, ask yourself: what’s in it for me?

DIY Musician & Working with a Producer

In these modern times, musicians have ample, low-cost resources at their disposal that allow us to write, record, distribute and promote our own music (often referred to as “Do It Yourself” or “DIY”). But is it always a good idea to do everything yourself? If you are looking to make your album sound as good as possible, when is it the right time to bring in a producer, and how does it work alongside the DIY model?

What does a producer do, and why might I need one?

The producer of an album is like the director of a film: it is his or her responsibility to oversee, and often interpret the creative material, bring out the best in the performers, and deliver it all in a cohesive final product that’s (hopefully) as good as it possibly can be. While there are many variations in the role that the producer can play, it’s fair to say in a general statement that the producer is an added member of the band who can maintain an outside perspective and help guide the performances.

Gary in the studio with producer Chris Hobson

The benefits that a producer can bring to the table will differ from project to project, and from producer to producer, but here’s the main reason why you might need one: a new set of ears. Just because you can do everything yourself, it doesn’t mean you should. Having another (potentially more experienced) set of ears along for the ride yields ideas, sounds and approaches to your music that you might never have thought of. While it is possible to produce yourself, recognize your abilities and your limitations. You may be a great singer or instrumentalist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are a talented producer, and production is an immensely important part of the recording process. Sometimes the right producer is the difference between an okay-sounding record, and a professional masterpiece.

How do I find the right producer?

It used to work like this: a band plays shows and develops a following, gets discovered by A&R people, gets signed to a major record label, and then the label puts the band in a studio with a producer, both chosen by the label. That model has all but vanished, requiring that artists and bands who want to hire a producer find one on their own. It can be a difficult and daunting task, but remember that producers are in the same boat – many are on their own as well, looking for bands to work with. Here are some approaches to finding a producer, and what to consider while doing so:

Go With What You Know

One of the best places to start looking for a producer is in your own music collection. Look at the credits for albums that have a sound like you want to achieve, and then use the web to learn more about each producer. While many may be big-names who don’t fit into your budget, you might be surprised by how many of them are accessible and cater to independent artists and bands. It never hurts to ask, and email is an easy, polite way to do so.

Indie + Indie

In addition to major label releases you have in your collection, listen to independent releases by bands in your area and you might find a producer who is just getting started or has a few albums under their belt, and is hungry to work. This level of producer might work more in the range of your budget, and isn’t necessarily poor in talent. Remember, even George Martin, Mutt Lang and Rick Rubin all had to start somewhere.

Ask Around

If social networking has taught us anything, it’s that a quick post asking a question can get you a lot of results, and fast. Ask your fellow musician friends (and ask them to ask their friends) if they know of any producers they can recommend for your project. An added benefit from this approach is that you can hear first-hand accounts of what it was like to work with a particular producer, much like a product review. That kind of input should be taken with a grain of salt as everyone’s experiences are different, but it can help you narrow down a potentially large pool of choices.

Know Your Budget

The DIY model can be deceptive when it comes to finances. It can be pretty easy to make an album for next to nothing, but realize that a producer will most-likely want to get paid. Be realistic about how much money you want to (or can) spend on the entire project, subtract estimated known costs (studio time, mixing, mastering, physical manufacturing, etc) and what’s left is your budget for a producer. In some situations, a producer’s fee might include things like mixing or even mastering – that will be addressed a little later.

Make Sure It’s the Right Fit

Finding the right producer can be a difficult task, and for good reason. In addition to covering their fee, it’s also quite necessary to have the proper marriage of-sorts between an artist/band and their producer. You’ll be spending a lot of creative time together, so not only do you need to be like-minded musically, but you need to simply be able to get along. When you’ve got a list of potentials, meet with each one or talk over the phone and discuss your vision for the project (in whatever detail you have). Discuss things like organic versus scientific, analog versus digital, favorite records, style/approach preferences, open-mindedness versus specific ideals… In other words, get to know each other and find out if you can be friends. Chances are you’ll have a gut feeling early on in the conversation whether or not it’ll work.

What Else Can You Offer?

Many producers also wear other hats, and this can help give you more bang-for-your-buck. A common skill set with producers is the triple-threat: producer, mixer, engineer. Those three talents tend to go hand in hand, and can allow you to streamline your project, both in terms of schedule and budget.

Many producers are also musicians themselves and might be able to lend a hand in the tracking department. Hiring a producer who can play an instrument or two and sing some backing vocals can make things a little easier on you. Remember, however, to make sure that you are comfortable with these extra skills outside of producing. If they say they mix and can play some keyboards for you, make sure you’ve heard examples of those abilities and that they will work for your project.

Lastly, find out about potential hook-ups a producer might have. They may work out of a particular studio that gives them a great rate, have a portable recording rig, or know of studio musicians that can help supplement your existing band. These things can really help a DIY project come together.

Play Some Music

Not only do you need to make sure the producer is right for you, the producer should have an interest in your music and (hopefully) be excited about it. Throwing money at a producer who doesn’t really like what you do is not the best recipe for making a record. Play some of the songs you want to record for them (a rough demo or live in person) and see if you can peak their interest. Hopefully any producer worth their salt will want to be into what you are doing and ask to hear some stuff before committing to the project. However, there are people who will just “go through the motions” without integrity or individual attention – decide how important those elements are to you and find a producer who reflects them.

Payment Plans

Every producer will have their own possible scenarios/rates to work under, and the function of this section is not to tell you which one to choose, but rather to give you an idea of some typical options. Also, you might suggest one of these options to a potential producer who doesn’t offer it already.

The big three producer’s rates are:

  1. By the hour
  2. By song
  3. By album

Take a look at your material and your budget and figure out which one works best for you. Working by the hour might be best if you are not really sure what you are going for and want to give a producer a test run. It could also end up being the cheapest way to go if you are well prepared and highly efficient. Paying per song might be best if you want to do an incremental album, an EP, or if you aren’t sure how many songs you’ll want on the record. It’s also good way to ensure that each song gets the attention it needs without having to keep an eye on the clock. Finally, paying by the album might work best if you already know what you’re going for as a whole, and maybe are looking for a thematic or concept record approach. You might also encounter producers who discount their per-song rate after committing to doing more than a certain number of songs.

Credits and Points

While this topic is often discussed as part of a producer’s fee, I felt it needed its own section. The costs addressed in the previous section can be referred to as “up-front money,” whereas this section deals with “back-end money.” It is important to discuss with your potential producer if they have any interest in a percentage of your publishing, and/or writer’s credit. These areas are the determining factor for how money gained from the album’s laurels is divided.

An example of this would be a song from your album being licensed for a use on a TV show, or another band doing a cover of one of your tunes. Some producers will charge a smaller fee in exchange for publishing credit as a way of investing themselves in the project. Also, if the producer works with you on your songwriting, they may wish to have a percentage of writing credit to reflect that. Be comfortable with how you wish to release credits in these areas – they are legally binding and come into play in the unpredictable world of the future.

Lastly, it is somewhat of a tradition for producers to receive “points” on a record. In laymen’s terms, a point is a percentage of earnings from the sale of your album. A typical amount is 3 points (3%), so if you sell $1,000 worth of product, your producer would get $30 of it. A typical and friendly specification is that money from points is only collected after the costs of making the album are recouped. Giving a producer points can be a smart alternative to giving away publishing, and it also shows the producer that you are willing to reward them long term for helping you to make an awesome record.


Most producers will bring this up themselves when speaking with you, but it is important that you and your producer draw up some form of contract to protect both of you in your endeavor together, in case things unfortunately go south. The contract should outline everything that you’ve decided upon with your producer. The main bullet points are duties (or “services to be rendered”), payment amounts and schedule, royalties and credits, and some sort of clause that limits the amendment to your contract without both parties consent. You can get as detailed as you and/or the producer want – understand it fully before signing to ensure that you, your music and your money are all protected. This can be a bit more complicated if your band is large and everyone is equally involved, but it is an important part of the process, and it also shows that you are professional and serious about your project.

That’s a whole lotta info to consider, so before I wrap this up, let me fill you in on how I arrived at all this with a quick recap of why and how I chose to work with a producer on my current album in-progress:

I made my first album almost completely on my own, only outsourcing the bass player, drummer and mastering chairs. When beginning to assemble songs for a second record, I realized that I wanted more people involved, and hoped that doing so might help improve upon the weaker areas of my first album. I started asking musician friends for recommendations, as well as asking for potential collective involvement from them. It evolved into looking at producers I admired, and then into finding a producer who had done a really good-sounding record with a fellow singer/songwriter I had met. Email led to a phone call and in-depth discussion, and then I sent him rough demos of my stuff. We started brainstorming ideas, came to an agreement, drew up a contract, and signed it. I’m very happy with the producer I chose to go with (his name is Chris Hobson – chrishobsonrecording.com), and it’s an experience I’ve really enjoyed.

It can be a challenge to relinquish some elements of control with your music, but if you find the right producer, it won’t feel like pulling teeth (Chris’s approach is: “I’ll tell you what I would do, but ultimately it’s your record, and you need to be happy with it – I want to make the record that you want to make”). Be honest with yourself about what you do well, what you do not-so-well, and decide how much control you want to give up to someone who can complement you in those areas. It’s your music, your album, and your money – do what feels right by all of those things.

Note: For related reading, Cameron Mizell briefly addressed working with a producer and more in his article “Preparing For the Recording Studio”.

Create Invoices, Get Paid

As a freelance musician, or freelance anything, making sure you get paid for your services can be a tedious task. Individuals or small contractors might be overwhelmed or not very organized and you’ll have to follow up to make sure the check gets in the mail. Large companies tend to have a lot of red tape, and your invoice has several departments to pass through before a check is processed. To speed up your payment, look like a true professional, and make your own book keeping more organized, you should get in the habit of creating detailed invoices for every job performed.

What goes on an invoice?

In it’s most basic form, an invoice is simply a bill stating how much is owed to you and where to send payment. For the sake of professionalism, I recommend including a little more information. Some companies may require certain information before they can process an invoice, so it never hurts to ask before submitting. The information I include on all my invoices was, at one point or another, required by a client.

  1. The word “INVOICE” – This is easily overlooked, but how else will people know what you’re giving them? Some large clients might require a properly labeled document for processing.
  2. Date – Record the date you are sending the invoice to your client on the document, and perhaps even the date(s) of the services performed.
  3. Invoice Number – Similar to a check number, the invoice number will make it easier to refer to the specific job performed.
  4. Purchase Order Number – Also referred to as a P.O. #, these are used on invoices for products. For example: If you design a poster for somebody, you do not need a P.O. # for your service. However, if you’re the printer that sells the actual posters, then you may need a corresponding Purchase Order number.
  5. Bill To: Address – This is the address of your client–the person or company you are charging for your services. Even if you’re emailing your invoice, it’s still good business practice to include the Bill To address for the sake of specifically identifying that client. On some occasions, if I’m just billing an individual person, I will use their email address and phone number instead of a mailing address.
  6. Amount Due – Don’t forget to tell them how much they owe you!
  7. Services Performed – My invoices include a basic table that breaks down the job and how the Amount Due was calculated. I use four columns:
    1. Time/Amount: How many units of measurement I’m charging for (hours, sheets of music, etc.)
    2. Rate: To specify how much I charge for one unit of measurement
    3. Service/Job Description: A brief summary of the work performed. Sometimes I might include a separate page for a more detailed description.
    4. Line Total: This should be the Time/Amount multiplied by the Rate. Add up each line total for the Amount Due.
  8. Payment Terms – This may vary from client to client. My default term is “Due upon receipt.” Terms for Net 30 means the payment is due within 30 days of the invoice date, Net 60 would mean the client has 60 days to pay, and so on. You may also request payment by a certain date. A good rule of thumb is to ask for payment upon receipt unless the client has asked for a different set of terms before services are rendered.
  9. Payment Instructions – On my invoices, I simply have the words: “Please Remit Payment to:” followed by my name and mailing address. This verbiage is a formality required by some of my past clients, so I include it on every invoice.
  10. Tax ID (optional) – If this is your social security number, I do not recommend including it on your invoice. This information should be on file if you’ve turned in a Form W9 for tax purposes. But if you have a business tax ID, it doesn’t hurt to put it on the invoice to help processing.

Is there a standard layout for invoices?

The short answer, no. I’ve seen invoices that are no more than the above information listed down the side of a Word document. I’ve also seen very creatively branded invoices. The most important consideration is that your invoice is easy to read. Invoice templates can be found in standard accounting software programs, or you could use the Tables feature in your word processing program to do something similar. If you haven’t seen an invoice before, look at a packing slip from Amazon or any company that ships you something you bought. That is pretty much how most invoices look.

If you want to get creative, be consistent and keep the important information away from your fancy design elements. I used to work in the Creative department at a record label that employed a handful of designers on a regular basis. Each of their invoices was uniquely branded, but also very easy to read. I noticed a few advantages to their branded invoices. First, people remembered whether or not they’d seen the invoice, which helps if the invoice has to go through several people’s hands before it’s paid. Also, branding your invoice simply looks more professional. Putting your logo in front of the people that hire you one last time just might help you get another gig.

What file format should I use?

If you can email your invoice, I recommend sending a PDF. That way it can be opened on any computer, and it can’t be altered. I’ve also received invoices that are no more than the information mentioned above in the body of an email. That might work, too. When in doubt, mail your invoice!


Here is a basic invoice template as described above. There are two formats, both are available on Google Docs which you can download and edit on your computer:

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!

Top 10 Gigs You May Not Have Thought Of

1. Transcribing songs

There are a few different ways to get paid for this.

I once worked with a singer-songwriter who didn’t read or write music, but worked with musicians who did.  His situation called for written lead sheets, so we would sit down together once or twice a week and write down his songs.  He’d play them (slowly), and I’d input them (quickly) to Finale.  In the end he’d have professional lead sheets and I’d charge my hourly rate.  It was a good gig – one of those odd jobs for musicians.

Another thing I’ve done is transcribe and arrange songs for musical theatre singers.  Sometimes singers really want to audition with a particular song that they’ve heard on the radio or YouTube, but either they can’t find the sheet music, or the sheet music is totally lame.  Arranging singers’ “books” for auditions can be good jobs for musicians with great ears and notation chops.

Is there a similar gig you can think of in your scene?

2. Applying for grants from local arts councils

A few years ago I received a $1,000 grant from my home town’s arts council to play a recital at the library.  I had to come up with a theme for the recital, fill out a one-page form, and the check came a few months later.  I hired two guys and made it a trio event – it was a great gig!  That particular arts council gives away grants each year to a number of local artists.

Check out this article on grants for musicians.  There is some really great advice in there.

3. Church gigs

When I first showed up in NYC, I had some ideas of what I thought I’d do here.  I planned to hustle theatre and other contracted musician jobs, and if that didn’t work out I’d temp or teach.  Good plan; good back-up plan.

A job I certainly hadn’t thought of was playing organ for a primarily Spanish-speaking Catholic church in the Bronx, but that’s what happened.  It turns out that New York church-goers take their music very seriously, and pay much better than the churches I’d known in my home town.  At the going rate of $100/service (and sometimes 7 services a weekend at larger churches), the Catholic church pays better than some off-Broadway shows.  Organist gigs and some worship band jobs are worth looking into if you haven’t considered them before.

4. Hotel gigs in Dubai

I promise you that I have never heard of this one either.  Check out the info from Natalie, one of our readers, who was good enough to explain the job in our forums.

5. Accompanying at schools

Sorry if this particular one is piano-centric, but that’s what I know best.  In fact, before I’d starting touring and traveling with theatre, I’d made a lot of my bread as a piano accompanist at the high schools, middle schools and 2-year colleges near where I was living.

There are countless music programs in cities across the country that are lead by teachers that either don’t play piano themselves, or have the budget to hire separate accompanists. These gigs can be great jobs for musicians that can play piano well, and working with kids (but not having to be the teacher!) can be a very rewarding experience.

In my experience, the best school accompanying jobs are college-level (even community colleges) because they have the budgets to pay you what you’re worth.  I have also seen some full-time high school positions with benefits, which could be great for someone looking for stable work.

6. Clinics/master classes/assemblies/business seminars

I’ve lumped all these things together, not necessarily because they are all the same, but because they all involve a similar hustle.

I know of a conductor in NYC that gives business seminars on leadership by bringing in a full orchestra and showing how a performing orchestra is a model of teamwork.  I have a friend in Chicago that is an inspirational saxophonist that is frequently hired for clinics and master classes at middle and high schools.  Schools look for educational and inspirational programs to perform at school assemblies.

What knowledge do you have that you can share?

7. Transposing music & various other copyist work

This is the younger cousin of #1 on this list, and also includes computer notation skills.  Key changes most often happen for singers (not to single y’all out, sorry), but also for those times that your music director wants the oboe part re-written for the clarinet, etc.  It takes some quick inputting to Finale or Sibelius, a few clever mouse clicks, and BAM, you’ve got an easy job for a musician.  There are a lot of people out there that never have the opportunity, time, or whatever to get past the learning curve of Finale or Sibelius.  They are often happy to pay you to do it for them.

There are often other, miscellaneous copyist jobs here and there if you have notation skills (and obviously there are great big, successful copyist jobs too, but you’ve probably thought of those).  I used to do some work for a choir near Chicago that wanted a jazz bassist to play with their group.  They hired me to write out (and transpose up 8va) the bass notes from the piano part.  Now there’s a gig you didn’t expect, right?

8. Page turner

I’m serious.  It’s a job.  NPR wrote a story about it. According to the report it pays $50-100 per concert in Minnesota (where the story was done).

9. Recitals for local social groups

I was hired once by a women’s league that wanted a jazz musician to play a recital at their luncheon.  The year before they’d hired a inspirational speaker, and apparently the guy had been a perfect bore.  Feeling some pressure to come up with something a little livelier, they’d found me on a recommendation.

There are lots of social groups (leagues, committees, sci fi conventions, who knows?) that have periodic meetings that need interesting entertainment for their membership.  See if you can find some in your area and ask them if they’d like to hire your group for a recital.

10. Teaching lessons on a secondary instrument

This idea is so widespread that I maybe shouldn’t include it here, but for those of you that haven’t thought of this yet – you don’t have to teach lessons on only your primarily instrument.  If you had to, don’t you think you could teach beginner piano lessons?  Or guitar?  Or whatever instrument you know a little about?  If you have a firm foundation in the fundamentals of music and a familiarity with a second instrument, I bet you can keep a few lessons ahead of your beginner students.

I don’t mean to advocate teaching something you don’t know anything about, I’m just saying that a beginning pianist doesn’t need their first lessons from Glenn Gould.  You should give it a shot.

What do you think?  Do you have any unexpected musician jobs to add to the list?

Home Recording for Indie Musicians with Indie Budgets

The cost of creating a home recording studio has dropped significantly in the last 10 years. Coupled with the low cost and ease of distribution via the internet, the amount of self-released music by independent musician has increased dramatically. You needn’t look any further than a company like CD Baby, one of the leaders in distribution for independent artists to realize that, while the major label and traditional brick-and-mortar retail sectors of the industry are suffering, companies are growing on the backs of independent musicians.

This is both good and bad. On one hand, more interesting and niche-oriented music is being released. Music that makes up a tiny part of the market, simply because it has a very specific and rather small audience, can still be created and widely distributed. On the other hand, there is a lot more low quality and, let’s face it, bad music flooding the market.

Traditionally, the prohibitive cost of recording gave record labels the exclusive ability to choose what music was recorded and released commercially, weeding out amateurs. This wasn’t always a bad thing. In the mid to late 20th Century a lot of great music was recorded, and a handful of labels focused on the forefront, or perhaps fringe, of artistic innovation. Yet as the labels grew and transformed into corporate behemoths, the focus naturally shifted to recording the music that would sell best to secure the bottomline. Even so, innovative, avant-garde and counter-culture music, all decidedly having less commercial appeal, still finds it’s place in the industry; recently it’s just been shifting back into the independent sector. Now, with the lower cost of recording, individual artists can do whatever they please and make their music available across the world, commercially or otherwise.

There are a couple points of debate when it comes to home recording vs. a professional studio recording. I’d like to address these first, because they are issues I’ve weighed heavily before recording any of my albums. For the record, I’ve recorded in several scenarios. My first album was done in a “live” setting at a music venue with a great sound system, where the band set up on stage, a live mix was set, and we recorded straight to DAT. I’ve also recorded my jazz trio in a studio, vintage boards, mics, the whole deal, and we played live but with complete separation between guitar, drums, and organ. Finally, I’ve recorded five albums at home or in a friend’s apartment using a laptop, audio interface, and one microphone, tracking each part separately. In each case, I hold myself to very high standards. I want to be proud of the final result, and I don’t want people to know what was recorded in what setting. Ultimately, the average listener should have no reason to be concerned about the production of the album because it just sounds right.

1) Concerned about sound quality?

One of the first issues people have about home recording is that it just won’t sound very good, or that it will sound amateur at best. But others will argue that today’s home studio has far more technology than the studios that gave birth to legendary albums 30, 40, or 50 years ago. Achieving excellent sound quality is really no longer a problem. Furthermore, even without superb audio fidelity, many recordings have become and remain iconic. Robert Johnson or Son House were recorded with one mic, straight to the lacquor or cylinder that was used to press records. Much of the early music in American history, the blues, ragtime, jazz, was all recorded with a live mix created by careful mic placement. In a situation where a home recording trumped the studio album, Bruce Springsteen recorded Nebraska (released 1982) on a four track in his friend’s kitchen, initially as a demo. After he recorded the songs with the E Street Band, those involved felt the demo was the version that should be released, due to the original, raw sound. In fact, there have been many lo-fi albums over the years that achieved critical acclaim despite their sub-standard or unusual recording quality. This includes debut albums or those early in an artists career.

On the contrary, slick recording technology found on any modestly priced recording software often ends up ruining a recording. Seth Godin really summed this up for me with a blog post called “The dead zone of slick.” As listeners, we connect to something real, something organic, and in many cases it’s as simple as the live sound of our favorite band. But all too often, musicians start tweaking the life out of their music using studio gadgets. If a slick sound is what you need, then you ought to do it properly. I recommend you honestly assess your music before deciding to shoot for slick. If it turns out you only want that production style for smoke and mirrors–to disguise the lack of depth to your material–then perhaps you should address the more serious issue of your music first.

Ultimately, it’s all about using your ears. Compare the sound with your favorite recordings, or at least recordings that sonically match what you’re trying to do. Embrace your limitations so you make them work for you, and don’t settle for something you’ll regret later.

2) What about a producer and engineer?

Among other things, the producer’s job is to help focus the artistic direction of an album during the recording process. In many ways, this takes the artists’ minds off everything except the music. Sometimes this means preventing too many layers of “slick” being applied, sometimes it means recognizing when something isn’t working and a new recording technique should be applied. Most importantly, it’s up to the producer to make sure a good, consistent sound is captured on the recording.

A good engineer knows all the techniques for capturing that sound. They know about the various types of microphones and where to place them on an instrument or amplifier. They understand acoustics. They are often the problem solvers when something doesn’t sound right. The engineer has to know his way around the studio’s equipment in order to capture the sound the producer and band are trying to achieve.

If you’re going to be recording yourself at home, then you’ll be inadvertently producing and engineering as well. The first step is to understand the equipment you’re using to record. Do you know how to get the best sounds with your microphones? Do you know how to operate the rest of your hardware? Do you know the primary functions of your recording software? Without any experts around to help, you’ll need to teach yourself to step away from the recording, evaluate the music, make some honest and conscious decisions about the direction things are going, and know how to make adjustments.

Again, I think you must trust your ears. You may not do everything “right,” but nobody knows or cares how you got your sound when they hear the final product. All that matters is whether the sound of your recording properly reflects the music you made. That’s what your fans will expect. As long as you capture you then it doesn’t really matter how you did it, right?

The Basics

As I said earlier, at the core of my home recording rig is a MacBook, an audio interface, one microphone, and some recording software. When it comes to buying these things, remember that in most cases you get what you pay for. I was using a fairly inexpensive interface that came with the recording software, and after putting up with it’s overheating problems over the course of four albums it finally gave up. I feel like I got my money’s worth, but could have saved some dough had I bought something better to begin with. Just read a lot of user reviews before you purchase, unlike yours truly. My microphone is a $99 cardoid condenser which I’ve been extremely happy with for vocals, acoustic instruments, electric guitars, harmonicas, and various percussion instruments.

I don’t want to make this a discussion about gear, but my point is that it’s possible to work with what you have and not spend thousands of dollars getting set up. The computer is really the most important piece of the puzzle, and as long as you’re not working on a machine from last century, chances are it’ll work with at least the most basic recording program. A lot of people make excuses that they can’t do this or that because something isn’t right. When I started recording, I had no idea if the microphone was the “correct” one for what I was doing, but I moved it around in front of my guitar, found a few spots that gave me different but all very good sounds, and went with it.

Whenever I’m recording a new or unfamiliar instrument, I use this simple aproach: Get the sound you want in the room, and put the mic right next to your head. Then go to the headphones and make some adjustments to the mic level and placement until the sound is faithfully reproduced. Press record. Make music.

There are two other elements that make for better home recordings. First, a quiet place to record is invaluable. Microphones will pick up every sound. Something you’re used to hearing throughout the day, like the quiet hum of the air conditioning, can make for unwanted noise when you’re recording. Secondly, patience is more than a virtue here, it’s a necessity. There’s no way to make good music if you keep getting pissed off at any number of distractions, be they your gear or your cat. Stay calm, take your time, and don’t stress yourself out!

Tips for Starting Out

Trial and error have taught me much of what I know, and a few things here might help you out when you start tracking your next project. Please share any other tips in the comments section below.

  1. The click track.  Take some time to get the tempo right, and if there are changes in tempo or time feel, learn how to create a tempo map.
  2. Make a scratch track. Once the tempo is set, make a rough recording of the song to help you hear the form. This gives you something to play along with when you lay down the first few takes of the real deal, so you can focus on playing musically instead of counting how many times you’ve played through the chorus.
  3. When in doubt, double it. Once you nail a take, do it again. This gives you the option of doubling the part if you need to fill out the sound (comes in handy at the mixing stage). Or if you hear a small mistake later on, you have a back up to patch things up with a crossfade.
  4. Save the best for last. Wait until the meat of the track is recorded before laying down vocals or solos. You want the performance of any lead voice to sound like the lead, and it will always turn out best if done last.
  5. Don’t add effects or automation before tracking is complete. Depending on the speed of your computer, this can cause problems as you continue tracking. Memory that is needed to record is instead being used to read automation or add to the tracks playing back. On playback, you’ll hear some unwanted noises on whatever you just recorded.
  6. Sleep on it. Before you give it your stamp of approval, distance yourself from the recording. I always listen the next day to make sure I’m happy before moving on.

Mixing and Mastering

These final steps will either make or break the efforts you put into tracking. Mixing is the process of finding a balance between all the different parts, both in volume and in panning (how far to the left, right, or center each part sounds). Mastering is a matter of sweetening the whole album through tweaks on the EQ, dynamics, and master levels. Once again, you need to rely on your ears for both of these steps.

Mixing is something you can learn to hear by carefully listening to your favorite recordings. Hone in on each individual instrument and note it’s placement and balance. It’s also a matter of experimenting. There is no wrong way to do it, but there are definitely some choices that might sound better than others.

The biggest problem I hear in people’s mixes (and I know that I’ve been guilty of this as well), is to make their own part too loud in the mix. This happens naturally because the mix you’re used to hearing in your head will always have your part loudest. It’s what you focus on when you play the song, and by proximity you’re probably hearing it louder than the rest of the band, and especially the audience. Just be aware of this and it’s easy to avoid.

Also, realize the sonic similarities between certain instruments and try to pan them away from each other. Guitars with a similar tone or range with other stringed instruments are going to rub against each other in the mix. That might be what you’re going for, but if it sounds too muddy, distancing the two voices on either side could fix the problem.

Mastering is the last process applied to the final mixes. When it comes to mastering, it pays to find somebody that knows what they’re doing. This is a very nuanced process.

In many ways, I was lucky enough to have a job at a record label that required me to listen very closely to the mixes and masters of nearly everything we released. My job was to note any ticks or irregularities in the sound quality, and it really honed my ears to some subtle differences in sound. Many times I’d discuss the issues with engineers at the mastering studio and they’d tell me what they would do to try to fix the problem. This gave me an idea of what to listen for in my own albums, and how to fix the problems. This is a skill that can be learned, but it takes practice.

Depending on the scope of your project and your ability to hear these nuances, you may want to consider budgeting to have your album professionally mastered. There are a number of services out there with a wide range of prices. Do some research early on in the recording process if not before you start. It will save you some scrambling for time and money after everything is recorded a mixed.

Today, there are a lot of shortcuts to mastering via digital compressors and limiters. I have always been weary of any standard preset in a machine because it doesn’t require any thinking. It’s also worth noting that albums today are mastered at significantly louder levels than 15 or 30 years ago. Call me a purist, but if the dynamic range has been sacrificed so a track can “compete” in the “marketplace” then our priorities are out of line. Proper mastering should take the material into consideration. Make sure your master enhances the music you’ve created, not take away from the artistry.

Knowing When It’s Done

There are two pitfalls at the end of a recording project:

  1. Find yourself rushing to finish because you’re out of time or money, and ending up with something you’ll hate a year later.
  2. Getting stuck in a perpetual cycle of tweaking the tiniest detail of every song until you’ve taken the joy out of the music for yourself.

In both cases, it’s hard to live with the music down the road. If this is something you’re going to sell or even just a demo used for booking your band, you need to stand confidently behind your work. Allow yourself plenty of time not only get everything done right, but also to give yourself some space to step away, listen to other music, listen to no music, play some music, and then come back to the recording. That will help you keep things in perspective.

With enough space, you’ll know when it’s done.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, the information here will encourage you to try some home recording. As I’ve written in many other articles (see here, here, here, and there), the low overhead of a home recording is a great way to create some revenue. It’s simply a matter of taking the time to first focus on the music, know what you want to create, and then setting out to do it. Excuses be damned, if I can do it, you can do it. Once the album is done you can start worrying about selling it or promoting it. Just focus on the music first.

The albums I make at home, which only cost me my time and $55 to start selling and distributing it through CD Baby, have created the kind of income necessary to afford a proper studio recording with my trio, which I mentioned earlier. For those recordings, I need to use a Hammond B3 organ with a Leslie speaker cabinet, a full drum set, and a big, fat tube amp sound on my guitar. Not only do I not have the equipment to do that at home, I don’t want to get kicked out of my apartment! So instead, I work within the limitations of my home and gear, make and record appropriate styles of music for that setting, and save the rest for an actual studio. While I’m sure many of you have bands or projects that might not be suitable for home recording, I also believe there is always something you can do at home, either a variation of your full band or another type of music altogether.

Don’t let appearances fool you. Home recording is not an amateur activity. It’s something amateurs might do, but in the hands of smart, creative, independent artists, it poses a serious threat to the status quo. So go arm yourself with some basic recording gear and join the independent music revolution!

A Guide to Being a Successful Sideman

There are many levels of sideman work, from playing in a small-town cover band to backing up Sting, and lots in between. Regardless of the size of the gig, the skills needed are mostly the same. Musicians who master these skills are among the most sought-after working sidemen and women in the business.

Here are some pieces of advice that can apply to just about any sideman gig, big or small, and help you become an in-demand working musician.

1.) Become a Stylist

The best way to ensure that you can get work as a sideman is to be competent in several musical styles or genres. The short list is: rock, pop, jazz, blues, R&B. You can also choose to build on that list with some specialties, like country, classical or funk.

Chances are, you’ll end up working in only a couple main genres with an occasional gig in another, but you want to start out with this mantra in mind: my specialty is not having a specialty. This leaves you open for many types of gigs, and once you get going you can steer yourself towards the genres you prefer. Keep in mind, however, that having a long list of styles on your resume doesn’t amount to anything on the bandstand if you aren’t competent in them. It’s better to play 3 styles well than to claim to play 7 styles but play them poorly.

This leads us to our next topic…

2.) Know Your Abilities

From the moment you get the call, make sure you understand your ability to play the gig. For instance, if you’ve never played country before and someone calls you to do a country cover band for a 4 hour casual, be honest with the contractor and tell them your limitations. If you show up for a gig you don’t have the chops to do and make it a drag for everyone else involved, you tarnish your reputation and your chances to be hired in the future. The music world is a VERY small world – the drummer on that country gig might play in a slammin’ pop band that you would be perfect for, but he will recommend against you after a poor showing at the country gig. So be honest with yourself and your ability to play the gig.

I was called once to play solo classical guitar for a wedding that paid really well, but I had to be honest and tell the contractor that I hadn’t played classical in several years and was not the best choice. He respected my honesty and then asked where my musical strengths were – I didn’t get the gig, but mission accomplished: I’m still on his list, and in good graces.

3.) Do Your Homework

Once you book the gig, it’s time to start preparing. Depending upon the gig, there will be material of some sort to learn. Sometimes it’s easy and they give you a CD or a website to download mp3’s from. Sometimes you have to track the music down yourself and buy it. Sometimes there are charts, and sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes the charts they give you are good, and sometimes they are terrible and you either need to fix them or make your own. Sometimes there is a rehearsal, and sometimes there isn’t. Whatever the case, the bottom line is this: it is up to you to learn the material backwards and forwards so that you can nail the gig when it comes time to play.

Like I mentioned in #2, your performance at the gig plays a big part in your continued success. If you only lightly prepare and only sort-of know the tunes, faking the rest, it will show and you run the risk of losing future work. Similarly, if you do your homework and learn the gig inside and out, it will show, and you will portray yourself as a professional who can be counted on in a sideman situation.

Learn the music. Period.

4.) Learn to Memorize

This goes along with #3, but is so important I felt it necessary to give it its own section.

There are so many things that happen on stage (both musical and non-musical) that can make having your eyes glued to the page a real disadvantage. Granted, there will be some gigs where memorizing the charts is unrealistic (i.e. big band jazz or classical gigs), but the lion’s share of gigs as a sideman will be situations where you will be playing basic songs or parts that can be memorized with a little effort.

I was fortunate enough to have the importance of this tool instilled upon me by a mentor of mine at the University of North Texas, Dan Haerle. When you memorize the music, you not only know what to play without looking at the chart, you also know what’s going on musically. Yes, there are those gifted few who can read charts with incredible musicality, but for the rest of us, looking at little black dots has a tendency to take us away from the meaning of whatever music we’re making. If you know a song from memory, understanding the different sections and transitions, you can play dynamically with the flow of the song as well as react to possible changes that may happen in the moment (i.e. the singer wants to do another chorus).

Taking your eyes off the page also has the incredible side effect of opening your ears.

5.) Learn to Sing

This may seem a bit silly, or maybe you feel uncomfortable with the idea, but adding “vocals” to your musical resume is massive when working as a sideman. I can’t tell you how many times contractors, musical directors and other peers have asked me if I sing when inquiring about gigs. Being able to provide background vocals (and/or the occasional lead) in addition to your instrument is very attractive. When choosing between the keyboardist who can sing and the keyboardist who can’t sing, guess who the contractor/musical director/client is going to hire? This is especially relevant when auditioning for higher profile pop or rock gigs, but is equally beneficial in the cover band scenario.

If you feel uncomfortable or inadequate as a singer, guess what always works… practice! Sit down with your instrument or at a piano and sing scales every day. Sing along with music in the car. Sing along while on a gig where there isn’t a mic in front of you. It isn’t a must, but it is definitely a huge plus in the sideman game.

Oh, and if you are already a vocalist as your primary instrument, the same applies to you but in reverse: learn an instrument! Singers who can play some auxiliary guitar or keyboards are primed for work as background vocalists.

6.) Be Professional

Okay, the word “professional” can have several connotations attached to it, so let’s clarify. Again, I have to cite my mentor Dan Haerle for this one, and in fact I’ll quote him:

“There will always be another musician who will show up on time, has the right attitude, wears the right clothes, brings the right gear, knows the music better than you do, and plays better than you.”

It sounds a bit harsh, but it’s true. A large part of your success as a sideman is based on your ability to do a lot of things that have nothing to do with music! Showing up on time (which means 15 minutes earlier than the scheduled time), having a positive attitude, wearing the appropriate clothes for the gig, bringing the right kind of gear (that works!), returning phone calls and emails promptly, being respectful of your musical director or band leader as well as the rest of the band, and acting appropriately on stage are all part of being a professional musician.

Again, this is another example of a facet of being a sideman that can set you apart from the rest. If a musical director has a choice between two guitarists, and one has the reputation of being very professional and the other doesn’t, who do you think will get hired? I guarantee that professionalism always wins. In fact, I know of situations where a lesser musician was hired because they were more professional than their more musically skilled counterparts. That’s the difference between a musician with a bunch of chops, and a sideman.

A sideman is a talented musician who also understands his or her role in the band/gig/situation, and acts accordingly. A good example of this is guitarist Dominic Miller, who has been playing for Sting since 1991. Dominic is an incredible player, but if he was a drag to be around, do you think Sting would still be using him?

7.) Auditions

In every level of sideman work, you will encounter the requirement to audition at some time or another. The good news is that everything you’ve read so far about being a sideman applies directly to auditions.

Treat the audition like a gig and apply everything you’ve read so far to it. One thing to remember about auditions: don’t take it personally. Many auditions are in “cattle call” format, which means there will be upwards of 20 or more musicians auditioning in addition to you. If they don’t pick you, don’t take it personally.

I’ve come to realize that in every audition I do, everyone there is capable of doing the gig – they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t musically capable. Often times, especially in higher profile auditions, they’re after a certain look/image/personality, and you’re either it or you’re not. But don’t be discouraged – you may not have the right look for one gig, but be perfect for another. Do your best – prepare, be professional, and you won’t go wrong.


With all that said, here’s a bit of closing general advice that I’ve picked up over the years: things always change, and you will never be able to predict everything that can and will happen. So pay attention and learn from every situation you find yourself in. I’ve given you an overview of what I’ve learned from being a sideman, but your situations will be different. Be prepared to adjust, and learn from it.

Every gig, even the ones that are a real drag, presents an opportunity to hone your skills as a sideman, both musically and non-musically. Take all the experiences you accumulate and put them in your proverbial backpack that you will keep with you throughout your musical career as well as your life in general. There is a reason why the older working musicians who have been around for a while have…well, been around for a while. Experience is an incredible teacher, so never miss out on an opportunity to learn from what you are doing. The best musicians that you and I admire have a lot of life experience in addition to musical experience. Sure, you’re playing music to make a living, but don’t forget about the connection between life and music that made you pick up the instrument in the first place.