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What to Do When a Musician Can’t Pull Their Weight

There are times in production when someone on the session isn’t cutting it. This can present a sticky situation.

The circumstances may vary as do the options for a solution, but let’s look at several possible scenarios.

A Bit of an Awkward Situation

A songwriter comes to you to produce some songs. They have a few musicians they want to use on the recordings. I’m usually in favor of this. It’s not my default to immediately want to bring in only my people. I like working with new people with different ideas and perspectives.

Sometimes though, there is a player that doesn’t have enough studio experience.

Usually, the artist doesn’t know beforehand.

Conflict of a Man

Having someone that can’t pull their weight is going to end up costing the artist more money. It’s going to take a lot of time to put a band aid over the giant boo boo that will exist.

Here is an example:

I was cutting a record a few years ago with an artist. The artist had a guitarist that they wanted to use. When they came to the session we hit a few snags. His attitude was somewhat standoff-ish.

I get that people get uncomfortable sometimes, but when you’re making a record you need to be flexible. Leave the ego and insecurity outside of the studio.

As we started tracking, it became clear that the playing wasn’t great.

The player was not able to adapt to changes or new ideas and the timing was all over the place. It was also hard to get a decent tone dialed in (most great tone comes from the fingers).

We finished the session and I sat on it overnight. When I woke up the next day, I took a good listen to the previous evenings work. It was clear to me it was going to take a whole lot of editing to make it right. And even after all that, it wouldn’t be completely right.

Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth

This put me in the awkward position of having to talk to the artist. I called the artist and I asked them how they thought the session went. Did they noticed any issues? Luckily, they did.

This opened up the door for me to give a couple of suggestions. As I saw it, there were two options:

  1. Keep the guitarist and pay a lot of extra money for me to edit the tracks in time and tweak the tone.
  2. Let the guitarist go and hire someone who was flexible and experienced in the studio.

In the end, the artist chose to replace the guitarist. Partly on my recommendation and partly on the budget.

Things like that can really slow down a session. And if someone has a standoff attitude, it’s not gonna be fun.

Secret Agent Man

This obviously gets more complicated when the weakest link in the chain is part of the creative machine. You can’t release them into the wild. They are a moving part of the project.

In this situation you have two things you can do: edit, edit, edit. Or.. Here’s where it gets dirty (and is really a last resort): bring someone in to re-record the tracks in secret.

I know, I know, it’s horrible. This practice has been going on for years. And before you get all idealistic, think about how much editing would have to be done. I don’t want to get a repetitive motion injury because someone never practiced with a metronome.

You do the math. You’re paying the studio, producer and musicians to be there. That’s a minimum of three people you’re paying when things aren’t connecting.

You kinda have to be sneaky with this if the weakest link is a principle member. The tracks will have to be played exactly the same without the mistakes and sound the same. It’s not time for experimentation.

Band on the Run

This can be an issue if you dealing with a band too. You can’t just release someone in the band without a world war.

This kind of covert operation is never my default operation. First choice is to pick people from the get-go to work on the project that are a perfect match.

Talent Show

It might be a good idea to have a rehearsal/audition before the sessions start if you don’t know the musicians. Get to know the sound of the players. Spec out if they can cut it. And make a plan.

Melody Has Big Plans

I find it’s best to always be honest with the songwriters. I let them make the final decision when it comes to replacing people.

The two biggest reasons to get replaced on a project? A bad attitude and bad timing.

Good timing is everything. It may be a difficult discussion to have, but you’re on the artists side. You have to look out for them if you see a problem down the line. They’re trusting you to get a great sounding record.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com

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  • Saddle

    Sometimes this turns into what I call the ‘karaoke’ complex. Every drunk or tone deaf person in the bar tells them they are great, everytime they get up and sing. They start to believe it after a while, and then are not ready to handle the reality in a pro environment. Happens to players too… as you just covered. Nice article.

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