A Challenging Session During Covid

Note: 8/21/2023: I began writing this the day after the session and decided to maintain that immediate perspective, even though I've been too busy to finish it up for a week.
Further note: I've come back in 2023 and added detail to fill out the story.

Yesterday dawned with an interesting studio session lined up for me: I was to record parts for a television show score. I got an email with the session specs and some background from the scoring composer. It seems that he had written all the “cues” for a show with keyboards in a light pop style. Cues are the small pieces of leitmotif music that align with actions, characters, or thoughts in a show to emphasize and draw attention to them. The show producer heard the composer’s cues and asked for him to produce them again with more guts, in a more rock style. That’s where I came in. The composer sent me sixteen (!) cues as wave files and booked three hours for the session. His instructions were: “Try to just exactly reproduce what I did on the keys on your guitar. You can break my parts into lead and rhythm to make it easier. No matter what the instrumentation or mood of the music in the file, I’d prefer that you stick to electric guitar for all the selections. Also, if the cues don’t have endings, could you add endings?” I’ll pass on the story of the session and perhaps you can benefit from the lessons learned.

My job is to analyze sixteen parts performed on various keyboards, transcribe them to guitar, learn them, perform them, and record them, in three hours. Go!

Early into the lockdown the company sent me home with a laptop locaded with my work software and a Focustrite Scarlett 212 Interface to keep me out of the studio center as much as possible. Depending on the demand, I run my sessions at home or in my studio at work. All sessions involving outside talent or calibrated monitoring (such as mastering) happen at the studio center. If it is just me doing light work, I do it at home.

Working on an audio for video project at home

Looking at my tight schedule for the day I decided to try something different and do the session from home so I wouldn’t have to transport the gear to the studio. I brought down the Helix and three of the best candidate guitars from the guitar room to the living room where the DAW station is based. Despite the fact that I was able to free up a little more time for the session the workload still felt a bit daunting. I downloaded the composer's stereo guide mixes in mp3 format from WeTransfer and we were off.

Immediately, challenges emerged because the composer provided no scores or lead sheets, no click tracks or count-ins, and no tempo notations of beats-per-minute to guide me. Each of the songs had my guitar parts entering on the first beat so I absolutely needed at least a click to allow me to count into the song. So, for each cue I had to establish the tempo by turning on the DAW’s click track and adjusting the BPM by ear until it matched the track. It’s a small thing but on a limited budget for time, the small things can begin to add up. Time is time.

Working alphabetically, the first four cues were variations on the same theme, designed to introduce each of the show’s stars as they arrive on screen. The composer changed the feel of the melody and the timbre, going from a mellow, popish sound on the first one to a rocky sound on the last one. It changed for each, in both timbre and arrangement. The first three I played fingerstyle on a Telecaster, going from a clean, compressed sound to a gentle crunch sound to a driven sound as I stepped between the characters. All my sounds on this project came from four basic patches I have created on Helix for sessions: Fender Clean, Fender Crunch, Fender Driven Lead, and Marshall 50 Watt Plexi Crunch/Lead. Because the fourth cue’s iteration was supposed to be more hard-edged and forward, I switched off to a Les Paul Standard with crunch to play it. That character is the big, strong masculine type and it matched his presentation well.

I have to say that these selections were quite “pianistic.” The composer used two hands, using left-hand bass stabs to cover his chordal movement with his right hand. Of course, as a guitarist I don’t always have that option. In some cases, when it came down to a pattern that required that sort of coverage, I broke the bass notes and the walking chords into two parts and recorded them separately to save time. Given the time challenge it didn’t make sense to spend a lot of time trying to get a perfect performance of a complex walking bass and chords on a single pass. Still, there were still some cues that were so pianistic that it was tough to convert them to guitar. To help me get as much done as possible I did a bit of triage, putting the least susceptible to translation off until last. Another challenge showed up in the choice of song keys for the pieces: Many were in E flat or its cognates. It’s no problem at all to play an inversion or capo to get to the flat but you’ll recall that the composer asked me to create endings for the cues that didn’t have them. For E flat cues that wanted to resolve to the tonic chord, E flat, I tuned the guitar down and overdubbed that final chord alone to get the fullness I wanted. Interestingly, and not particularly intuitively, the Les Paul with its shorter scale seemed to handle being tuned down just fine but the Tele seemed to get a little flabby. I would have thought the longer scale would do better.

Out of the sixteen cues, my favorite cue was a smoky bar jazz number featuring a Rhodes electric piano comping chords with a vibraphone lead dancing above it. I used a Gibson ES-335 on the neck pickup with a clean Fender Deluxe Reverb amp to comp the chords. To replace the vibraphone leads I added a compressor to create a classic jazz/blues lead sound. The vibraphone lead line was built around classic blues licks so I was able to transcribe it pretty easily, calling on Larry Carlton for inspiration.

By the end of the allotted session time I had pulled off eight of the cues. I probably could have pulled off more if I hadn’t had to contend with the technical challenges. To be honest, I really wasn’t surprised that I didn’t get through all of the material. Three of the remaining cues were simply too pianistic to convert in a short time. One consisted of a bell sound strained through a Leslie speaker system playing a long, atonal sequence. That was the first one I decided to pass on. That left four that I may get another swing at. Once I approached session end I did all my exports, one of each element, making sure to export mono parts mono and stereo parts stereo so the composer could integrate them into his DAW timeline. Then I bundled up the exports and sent them to the composer via WeTransfer. I will see these projects return to me at a later date because I will be mixing them.

Despite not completing all of the transcriptions I ended the session with a fulfilled smile on my face both from simply playing my guitars and from enjoying the fun of conquering a challenge. A certain amount of my final joy might just have been because I ended my playing with that smoky bar jazz number that I enjoyed so much. You’ve got to remember to reward yourself to keep up morale!