John Bradbury: Session Musician

In the latest of a series of articles by Brighton Phil Leader John Bradbury, he tells us about his experiences as a session musician when he’s not playing with the Brighton Phil.

It is no less than 33 years since I left the safety of BBC employment and became a freelance musician. Synthesizers and artificial electronic sounds had not then been developed to the point where they were capable of replacing some of the work of an actual musician, so TV and film studios were still booking large bands and orchestras using real musicians with real instruments. Everybody seemed to be very busy and, provided they played well and always turned up on time, there was a good living to be made.

A typical day could have been a TV jingle (advertisement) in one of many tiny Soho studios from 8am till 9am, a three-hour film session from 10am at CTS Studios in Wembley, another film session in the afternoon at a different studio in Barnes followed by a live TV show in the evening at Teddington or Lime Grove. It was fantastic. I loved every minute of it. You didn’t get any sleep of course, but it was so exciting.

Unfortunately, things have changed radically.

In what way?

In those halcyon days, London session musicians had built up such a reputation for the ability to create a near-perfect result on the first run-through followed by a perfect rendition on the first take (recording) that they were able to bask in a monopoly of commercial music-making. Of equal skill were the sound recording engineers, composers and arrangers.

Those skills in London are, if anything, even more in evidence today, but orchestras abroad have gradually become aware of the huge earning potential for commercial music and have been sharpening their skills, building hundreds of studios and undercutting on the fees.

Add to this the fact that a great deal of film and TV music is now created on electronic keyboards and synthesizers which are so technically advanced it is often difficult to hear much difference from the real thing.

So you can see why fewer musicians are required while, at the same time, the value of fees paid has dwindled substantially.

Has anything improved?

The music used to be written by hand; sometimes beautifully clear, but often very difficult to read. Nowadays the parts are produced with computer software giving perfect results every time.

30 years ago studio lighting was a problem, but it seems to have dawned on the powers that be that when the musicians can actually see the music, they will produce the required standard in a shorter space of time!

Smoking is no longer allowed in studios or concert halls. When I first started as a freelance it was sometimes difficult to see the conductor through the fug of cigarette smoke. Some players had perfected the art of holding the violin bow and a lit cigarette in the same hand while playing!

Do you prepare differently for a recording as opposed to a concert?

Yes, very differently. Recording sessions are booked at the last minute through the diary service in three-hour chunks. A 15 minute break is taken after one & a half hours, and a full hour is given between sessions. Usually, the only information given by the diary service is the place and the time.

We know from experience that the music will be used for any one of the following: film soundtrack, computer game, TV advert or programme, Disneyland theme park music, backing tracks or accompaniment for singers, soloists or groups. But there is no chance to see the music beforehand as it will still be in the process of being written and prepared right up to the moment we start the session.

As you can imagine, it is very important for any session musician to maintain their self-belief and playing standards, as it would be all too easy to become over-awed by the situation of performing at sight with a microphone hovering eighteen inches above the instrument.

By contrast, concert work is booked months in advance. All relevant details are supplied. The Brighton Philharmonic is so efficient that an electronic copy of all the music can be emailed to any player on request. We know who will be conducting and where each player will be sitting, and we have the luxury of one or two rehearsals to sort out any problems.

It can be a bit of a bind having to dress up in concert attire, but that is more than compensated by the thrill of playing to a live audience.

What is it like recording film music?

The combination of musicians within a session orchestra varies to suit the requirements of the producer and composer (and accountant), which is why each musician is booked individually for each session.

So let’s assume that I have been booked for two sessions at Abbey Road Studios from 10–1 & 2–5. I usually arrive with 40 minutes to spare, and make sure that my name has been ticked by the contractor. I walk into the studio, and there will be up to 100 music stands and chairs in position. I try not to trip over the cobweb of cables and transformers on the floor while avoiding a veritable forest of microphone stands and acoustic screens. I pick any seat that takes my fancy, and place my violin case under it. I check that my headphones are plugged in, and make my way to the canteen for a spot of breakfast with my colleagues.

By 9.55 the whole orchestra is ready to play the music which they have never seen before.

The ‘conductor’ is usually the composer or arranger, although his main task is to relay instructions from the producer to the players. We don’t pay much attention to his beat as we play in time with a ‘click track’ (variable metronomic click) through our headphones. This ensures that we are synchronized with the film and with each other.

With big-budget American films, in addition to the director, composer and arrangers in the studio, there is often communication with the main director in LA, who may well still be in bed watching, listening and commenting via satellite link.

We hear most of this cacophony of voices in our headphones in addition to any previously recorded music or rhythm tracks, but our main focus is always on the click-track.

So this is a highly specialised form of music-making that requires highly specialised musicians to cope with the stresses and strains of it all.

Do you get to see the films you’ve worked on?

When I was first involved in film sessions we could see the film on a huge screen in the studio as we played, and it was up to the conductor to make sure we were in step with the action but, since the advent of click-track technology, we rarely see anything of the film unless we pay to see it at the local cinema!

Photos of Air Lyndhurst Studio

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