How to Make the Most of a Recording Session with Live Players

Tina Guo  •  October 1, 2014

As a session musician, I perform cello, electric cello and erhu sessions, both live and remotely via my home studio, both solo and with full orchestras. From student films to pop songs, video games to big budget features, I love working in a variety of studio settings and have a few pointers on how to make the most of a recording session with live musicians.

Of course, most sessions do not consist of a 100-piece orchestra at a scoring stage. The majority of my session work takes place in private studios, usually the composer’s or even at my home studio here in Studio City, Los Angeles. If you do not have financial backing from a big studio, there are wonderful musicians available for remote sessions on every instrument. I myself have worked with a pianist from England, a vocalist from Germany and another vocalist from Los Angeles recently for my own projects. Of course, Los Angeles to Los Angeles isn’t exactly “remote,” but with traffic at most hours of the day…it may as well be!  This can be an efficient way of getting a good quality live musician to add the human feel to your project without the cost of renting a studio, additional engineers, etc.  

Once you’ve booked your musician(s), it’s time to prep for the recording session. Since most musicians charge by the hour for their time, it’s important to have everything streamlined as much as possible. Proofread parts you've provided to the musician carefully. Anything above two or three ledger lines should move to a different clef to make reading easier. Sight-reading music with nine ledger lines above the staff is not fun, and it wastes time. 

Another important point that I experienced just today doing a remote session for a great composer in Berlin is being careful with accidentals. Below is a small excerpt from one of the cues. As you can imagine, trying to sight-read the note changes, shifting between B-flat and B natural, with some accidentals carried over within the bar (therefore unmarked), at a very fast tempo was difficult. I had to spend about ten minutes carefully practicing through the entire cue, which was in the same style. It would have been much faster if the B-flat was notated as an A-sharp, and would not have required any practice time. Normally, not notating each accidental within a bar is normal, but for recording sessions it’s a good idea to make every note with accidental clearly marked.

Tina Guo, Staff

Sometimes composers will send me sheet music and performance notes along with the Logic file, wav files, Midi files or a combination of all three. I find that speaking about the parts is good, but having the exact notes for each section with bar number references, and also having them marked in the score, is most detailed and efficient. When I receive a score rendered without any dynamic or bowing markings, I personally listen to the track and play what I feel is appropriate - but also making note of the type of sound (smooth, passionate, calm, etc.) is useful if you’re trusting the musician to make their own bowing/dynamic choices.

If the live musicians are playing on top of samples, sometimes it’s a good idea to have them play without click if there are other rhythmic elements in the track to keep timing. Because of latency, the click does not always line up with sampled orchestra, for example, and the musician’s performance may feel more in the pocket and feel more coherent with the other parts of the cue or song if they play without the metronome.

Of course, there is no right or wrong way to run a recording session with live musicians, and each player is a unique individual who brings a certain feeling and skill set to your project. If you have an instrumentalist or vocalist coming in to do improvisation, it’s best to do that kind of session live and in person. Audio references to the feeling and sound you want to achieve are also very useful. 

I feel very blessed and truly lucky to have worked with many wonderful composers in film, television, video games and other media projects; and I hope that this article was useful in some way for your future recording sessions with live musicians!

October 1st marks the release of my latest album, Tina Guo & Composers for Charity, a collaborative effort with 13 amazing composer friends who each contributed an original piece for cello solo in a rich variety of genres, styles, and moods.  We are donating 100% of the proceeds of this digital release to The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation in support of their work in our under-funded school music education programs. Composers on the album include Neal Acree, Bill Brown, Lorne Balfe, Nuno Malo, Austin Wintory, Jeremy Rubolino, Russell Brower, Penka Kouneva, R. Armando Morabito, Lisbeth Scott, Jeff Rona, Dan & Deryn Cullen and Pinar Toprak. I contributed an original composition as well.   

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Tina Guo has developed an international, multi-faceted performance and recording career as a classical cellist and heavy metal electric cellist, erhuist and composer known for her distinctive sound and improvisatory style in major motion picture, television, and game scores. She is featured in the commercial for the new 2014 Mazda6, the 2014 United Airlines commercial, and was also a featured soloist in Cirque Du Soleil's Michael Jackson "The Immortal" World Tour from 2011-2013, performing in sold-out arenas around the world. As a classical cello soloist, Tina Guo has appeared with the San Diego Symphony, the State of Mexico National Symphony, the Thessaloniki State Symphony in Greece, the Petrobras Symphony in Brazil and the Vancouver Island Symphony in British Columbia. She also performed with violinist Midori Goto in Dvorak's American String Quartet at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and completed four national tours of Mexico and Italy performing the Shostakovich, Dvorak, Haydn and Saint-Saëns cello concertos. Tina performed alongside Johnny Marr of the Smiths and Hans Zimmer at the Premiere of Inception, and in a sold-out concert for Dreamworks with Hans Zimmer and John Powell, featuring her as soloist on electric cello and erhu. She recently performed for the League of Legends World Championship to a sold-out arena at Staples Center in Los Angeles and an audience of 33 million streaming online. She also recently performed with Ariana Grande, Lupe Fiasco, Jennifer Hudson, Common and Alicia Keys. Tina lives in Los Angeles with her husband and hopes to get a puppy in January. www.tinaguo.com

Tina Guo & Composers for Charity came out October 1st, 2014. Find it on iTunesloudr.fm or Google Play.