How do you feel about your playing when you sit down to record. Are you confident that you’ll capture good takes, that you’ll play your ideas with consistency and great feel? Does the thought of the red recording light coming on fill you with a sense of panic and dread? Maybe you can play live gigs with confidence yet in the studio you feel anxiety and nervousness that you never normally have to deal with?
Studio bass veteran and live performance legend Nathan East once mentioned that he tries to play ‘live like I’m in the studio and in the studio like I’m playing a live gig’. I take that to mean that he plays live with the consistency and the ability to ‘self-edit’ as he goes, as if he were laying down a track that would exist in recorded form permanently, and plays in the studio with the energy and excitement you’d hear on a live gig.
The challenge is in being able to combine these two areas; being able to play with excitement but reigning in any unnecessary over-playing and making sure the feel stays great.
Of course, it’s all about preparation. The better prepared we can be with our playing in general, the less we have to think about taste and feel in any situation we find ourselves in. Preparation can take many forms, from copying the playing of various musicians who demonstrate a particular style or feel, making note of the way a certain bass player plays with the same drummer on different recordings, to technical exercises on your instrument designed to give you strength and confidence whatever the music might present. An ability to improvise well will help you to play ideas as they come to mind in the heat of the moment on a recording. The better your ability to create on the fly and the greater your knowledge of the instrument, the more immediate and accurate these flashes of inspiration will be.
Practising improvisation doesn’t mean you have to only improvise or play only improvised music. Just think of it as another tool which you can draw on both live and in the studio, as the need arises. In a similar way, developing sight-reading skills doesn’t mean you’ll only play theatre gigs and classical music, but it’s another valuable and useful skill to work with in these various settings.
Preparation will make a recording session much easier and more natural to deal with but also experience counts for so much. When we think of it, most of us play more gigs than we spend in the studio, recording. Most of us would say that we are more competent as gigging players than as studio musicians. It goes without saying that alongside our personal (and mostly solitary) practise time, playing with other musicians does so much to develop various aspects of our musicianship that playing alone cannot. In the same way, working regularly in a studio environment teaches us much about how to behave, play and perform in that environment.
For most of us, opportunities to record in studios is less frequent than the chance to play a live gig but it’s easier these days to at least practise recording ourselves at home, in the same way that we might practise harmony or technical exercises on our instruments. If you have some basic equipment you can easily set up a drum-loop and get used to recording yourself playing a simple bassline to the rhythm. Then, learn to listen critically to what you’ve recorded. How does it feel? Does your bass part push or pull ahead or behind the timing of the metronome or drum part? Do you like the sound of your bass? Are some parts of the music more technically accurate than others; do some parts sound more comfortable to you and some parts uncomfortable? Is your bassline too static, too boring; does it need more excitement or is there already too much going on that you could cut down?
Recording yourself regularly at home will give you the opportunity to develop a critical and analytical ear. Be honest with yourself; if it sounds bad, you have the opportunity to record it again, for free, with no pressure. Better to work on these things privately before you find yourself in a situation where others are relying on you to get it right. Before long you’ll have developed skills which you can transfer to live performance. Take this way of thinking to the stage and your live playing will be filled with more strength, authority and confidence.