You don’t need to hire a studio to book a session musician any more. Session players are turning to online services to make the process even easier for their clients. Guitarist Rob Aitken explains how he works and how producers can get the best results when commissioning him to write and record guitar parts.
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Rob Aitken

Place of Work?

Home studio in London/Online Guitar Studio


Online session guitarist

How long have you had the job?

Four years

What does a typical day involve?

I work with producers around the world who hire me to record guitar parts for their songs via the web. Typically a producer will send me an MP3 or WAV of their track, minus guitar. They will also provide a brief and sometimes a written score to work from. I’ll load their track into my DAW, and set up whatever guitar the producer wants.

Most of my clients are people for whom I’ve previously worked in London – especially dance, house & nu-disco producers, although recently I’ve been getting more projects from abroad, making the work incredibly varied. In the past couple of months I’ve been working on projects based in Dubai, China, the US and Bolivia.

When we’ve established what the producer wants, I’ll record some basic takes. Then I mix down a preview MP3 to email back to the producer, with my newly recorded guitar. They’ll give me their feedback and advice for recording the next take. It usually takes a few times going back and forth before the guitar part is right, and I like to arrange Skype calls to make this as efficient as possible. When the producer is satisfied, I mix down just the guitar stem, and upload it for them to drop into their project file. Sometimes the producer will also pay for a guitar tab transcription of the parts I recorded, as they may be taking their music on the road with a live guitarist.

A typical day would be spent working on a few entirely different projects. For instance, recently I was recording a nu-disco tune using my Stratocaster setup then a chillwave session using acoustic guitars, followed by a soundtrack project. I also make time for writing library music, recording samples and loops, building new tone presets and teaching guitar in central London.

How does the commissioning process work?

When a producer approaches me with a new track, I need to know if there’s any deadlines attached (such as soundtrack projects and album releases). Then they will send me the track, written brief, and sometimes sheet music.

If there is anything unclear about their written brief, I’ll ask for reference tracks from the producer. Referring to guitar parts and styles from existing music is the most efficient way for a producer to explain what they’re looking for.

For example, a producer may typically say: intro and verses should be funky, tight clean chords like Chic ‘Le Freak’. Chorus needs to be Shaft-like wah pedal riff, followed by distorted guitar solo in the vein of Jimi Hendrix ‘All Along The Watchtower’.

How difficult is it to adapt to so many different styles?

I do find certain styles difficult but luckily I have the musical background to cover the most popular genres such as dance, pop, electronic, jazz, rock, classical, etc. I spent my whole 20s gigging, touring and playing in cruise ship pit orchestras, so I’ve had a lot of experience out in the field, travelling and meeting incredible musicians.

I think its important for session musicians to have first-hand experience on stage, playing the styles that they get paid to re-enact in a studio setting. Whether you’re a producer or an online musician, when you’re staring at a soulless computer screen you often need to use the memory of a live audience reaction to inspire what you create.

Highs of the job?

Hearing the final mix of a track that I worked on is always amazing. It’s even better when I see a track charting well on iTunes or Juno. I’ve had live gig work arise from online sessions, including festivals and touring. Most of all I love the actual process of recording and the creativity required.

Lows of the job?

Trying to explain what I do for a living can be tricky sometimes. People who aren’t involved in music production can find it difficult to understand, no matter how much I try to explain.

Who are the biggest influences in your career?

My good friend Andy Williams is one of my biggest influences. He is the producer behind Yam Who?, Ism Records and Midnight Riot. I started off doing session work in his Finsbury Park studio in 2007, and we have since been involved in some amazing projects together (including live work). When I first started recording with Andy, I was going into the studio with the overdrive pedal cranked up – playing parts that were often too busy and complicated. He helped me concentrate on groove, taste and simplicity, which always trumps technical wizardry.

I did some big live shows with Faze Action, and producer/bassist Robin Lee became a great friend. His approach to tone, timing and accuracy was something that I took away from those gigs. And again, his emphasis was on stripping down those unnecessarily busy guitar parts to produce something that slots into place perfectly.

How did you start working online?

Basically I was getting too busy to commit to studio bookings, and the online option worked so well. In 2009 I was gigging in the US for months at a time, yet I wanted to stay connected to all the producers in London who had previously hired me. Sending guitar stems online fitted into everyones schedule perfectly. Also, my friend Jonathan Howells from J3T drum tracks was turning this whole concept into a very successful brand, and it made so much sense. I still have time to teach, gig and write my own music.

How can we get your job?

I think it’s vital to have good old fashioned studio experience before you start recording stems via the web. I have a lot of previous album and soundtrack credits including Incognito, Odyssey, Yam Who?, Warner Brothers DVD, and even classical artists like Aled Jones. In any situation a client wants to hire someone with lots of experience, and even more so when they are paying for a relatively new concept over the web.

Get quick and efficient when working with Logic or Pro Tools, and make sure that you can produce the highest quality sounds when recording your instrument. Constantly upgrade your equipment so that you have the best microphones and guitars that you can afford.

Once you get a few producers on board and your unique strengths become clear, word will get around and people will come to you.

Find Rob at his personal website and Facebook.

31st January, 2014

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