A Peek into the World of a Los Angeles Studio Musician

by Steve Trapani

I am not sure what it’s like in other recording centers, but in Los Angeles there are a few hundred highly skilled musicians who are equipped to play any piece of music on any instrument you can imagine, and in any style that exists. Some have been on the scene for decades and some have arrived relatively recently. All of them are consummate professionals who are committed to maintaining and preserving a tradition of being able to “do it all.” Some have achieved a high level of notoriety and their names are known. Most of the best ones, however, are people you’ve never heard of — and they’d like to keep it that way. If you saw them on the street, you would never dream that they were capable of producing the kind of music that comes from their fingers, or out of their bells, mouths, or amplifiers. Many of them are people who I am proud to call colleagues and good friends. What follows is an attempt to bring the studio experience to life for those who don’t quite know what happens when the red “Recording” light comes on.

When you walk into a large recording studio for the first time your senses quickly become overwhelmed by all of the stimulation. Over there is the famous composer casually talking to the contractor whose name you only know from movie credits. Sitting in the chair next to yours is a musical icon whose playing you first heard on Michael Jackson’s albums and who now plays on virtually every movie soundtrack. Over there is the guy who played the bass line on the “Barney Miller” TV show theme. As if all this wasn’t enough to intimidate you, there are pictures on the walls in the hallway of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Barbara Streisand when they recorded their music in this very space. It’s pretty intense… but also very cool.

The rooms at Warner Brothers and Capitol Records are lined with beautifully finished wood on the floors and walls, but the inside of Sony and Fox are covered in plain plywood and hardwood acoustic panels. The lighting, ducting, and wiring are left exposed and it feels anything but fancy. The temperature in all of the rooms is on the cold side of “room temperature.” I believe this is to try and mitigate the heat being put out by the electronics. There are incredible microphones all over the place that you imagine must have been around since Sinatra and Judy Garland actually recorded their music. There is an amazing spread of cookies, fruit, and sandwiches in the corner, along with a big pot of regular, decaf, and an assortment of fancy teas.

Incredibly, there’s not much playing of instruments going on before the session begins. It isn’t exactly forbidden, but there is an unwritten rule that you don’t warm up much in the studios. Most of these musicians are accustomed to either warming up at home, or have gotten to the point where they are playing so much that there’s not a lot of warming up needed. The playing that is done is usually done so with a purpose — perhaps a musical joke between colleagues from 30 years ago. Perhaps a short lick or two (usually quite impressive) to make sure that everything is working correctly for them that day. Many brass players will be warming up with a practice mute or cup mute in their bells which provides a constant background of musical muttering.

There are headphones on all of the stands which pipe in a click track, which is a sort-of metronome, that is synchronized to the film along with any background tracks. These can include synthesized music, background vocals, percussion, etc. There are digital LED measure counters placed at strategic points throughout the room, which are also synchronized to the click, and which you can easily glance up at from your stand if you get lost. Usually the conductor is watching the film on a monitor right in front of his podium in order to fine tune the placement of musical cues. Sometimes there is film playing on a big screen behind the orchestra, and you have to be careful to not get distracted by the action when you glance at it during your rests.

Leading up to the beginning of the session, people begin putting their headphones on to make sure they are working. You can tell they are on when you can hear the room through the “podium mic” which is turned on so that everyone can hear the conductor’s instructions. Without it the rooms are so dry sounding (without reverb) that it easy for voices to become swallowed up into nothingness.

Playing a musical instrument in this dry acoustical environment is a specialized skill that takes some getting used to. Most performing spaces, except for the most acoustically dead practice rooms, have some kind of reverb or acoustic ambiance to them. It is hard to describe the quiet of a recording sound stage. The moment in between when everyone stops talking and rustling around to the beginning of the take is the quietest sound I have ever heard. It’s kind of what I imagine space must sound like. The closest thing I have experienced was on a very still early morning on the edge of the Grand Canyon where the vastness of the void below seemed to suck all of the sound into it. It seemed like you could hear leaves rustling on trees a half mile down in the canyon, or the flapping of bird’s wings in the sky high overhead.

In the studio, it can be terrifying.

Never before have you really thought about how important it is to start exactly in time with everyone else. Never before have you realized how loud your breath is. Never before have you heard your shoes scrape the floor, your pants squeak on the chair, or your cell phone buzz in “quiet mode.” In this environment all of these sounds seem deafening. And never before has there been such a penalty for having these noises heard. If you’re the one whose cell phone just buzzed as the sound was decaying at the end of a soft cue, making it necessary to re-record the whole thing, I can assure you that you have never felt more guilty about anything you’ve ever done in your whole life. Most of the time people are gracious in this regard, but sometimes it is a real drag for everyone involved, especially if it’s at the end of a long day or if it’s the tenth or twentieth take.

Making music in this environment is an art form. Every single musician in the room acts as an independent music making machine, not requiring any additional input from anyone else to create the sounds indicated by the music on their stand. At the same time they are totally in sync with everyone, making micro adjustments in pitch and time so that the finished product sounds organic. If you were to single out anyone, you would hear their part being musically played, totally in tune, and in time.

I have played in high level orchestras where the individual players are doing the same thing, but they have the benefit of one additional variable — the hall. They know how loud or soft to play to make the hall make them sound good. There can be a forgiving nature about a good orchestral hall where everything gets assimilated and comes out as an acoustic mesh.

No such safety net exists in the studios. You are laid bare for the world, or the sound engineer, composer, and anyone else in the control room (known as “the booth”) to hear. If you’re not making it, your mic gets turned way down, or even off.

Before I played in the studios I had my image of what these players were like. I imagined that they all played well, of course, but I thought that they were mostly just lucky to have happened to know the right people who could get them in the door to this closed society. I didn’t quite grasp exactly how well one needed to be able to play, or what specialized skill set was required in order to make it to the level of some of these top-call studio musicians.

One thing I hadn’t considered was the amount of specialization required to do this work in terms of expertise on not only your chosen instrument, but every instrument in your particular group. You don’t just play trumpet when you’re an L.A. studio trumpet player. You play Bb trumpet, C trumpet, piccolo trumpet, flugelhorn, and whatever other instrument is needed to make the music sound right. You also don’t just play classical style. Of course you need to be able to play a classical solo as convincingly as any orchestral principal trumpet player, but you also need to be able to play jazz, rock, funk, Latin, reggae, salsa, and just about anything else that you can imagine. You’d better have a few jazz licks at the ready too, just in case they need you to add in an improvised solo during the session. This isn’t an exaggeration. These are the minimum entry requirements to the L.A. studio scene if you’re a trumpet player. Being able to play Maynard Ferguson-style lead trumpet is also a huge bonus.

As a low-brass player, it’s not enough to just play tenor trombone or bass trombone either. Minimum entry in this world includes small and large bore tenor trombones, bass trombone, all the mutes for said horns (straight, cup, bucket, Harmon, plunger, solotone), and the ability to play all styles with a couple of jazz licks at the ready just in case. It seems to be assumed that you also know how to play euphonium, and having the ability to play bass trumpet, contrabass trombone, and tuba are an extra bonus.

This is not the way most of us were trained. Most of us chose either a classical or jazz path in college and we then devoted many years to perfecting our chosen style. Some end up winning jobs in orchestras, some end up gaining recognition as jazz artists, but few are able to keep all styles going for their entire education. Think “jack of all trades, master of none.”

What ends up happening in L.A., however, is that once you start doing some work you realize that the people who are at the top can actually do everything. Some also end up doing some very interesting specializations such as: conch shell, Native American flutes, ethnic percussion, whistle, saw, theremin, etc. At a very high level. It’s kind of nuts, really.

I think that you get your foot in the door by being able to do something really well – lead trumpet, orchestral trumpet, jazz trombone, orchestral trombone, etc. But I think you stay in the scene by being flexible and being able to play your respective doubles at a high level. For me, I really think I needed to be a very good orchestral bass trombonist (regular sub with LA Phil, San Francisco Opera, etc.), but I could also play tenor trombone, contrabass trombone, and tuba. I can also sight-read well and I can swing in a big band. Being good at one thing got me noticed, but these extra attributes are probably the main reasons that I am still working.

Perhaps what goes on in Los Angeles is similar as New York, London, or any other recording center around the world. I have some friends in the New York scene, and I’ve shared some beers with a few studio musicians from London, so I think I have a little of an idea of what it’s like in those places. I believe that what we have in Los Angeles is special. I think being in the same town where so much music, TV, and film is being produced might give us a little edge, at least in terms of having access to the directors, composers, producers, and many of the major studios. It certainly seems to be different in terms of the number of musicians being able to make a living primarily from their work in the recording studios. We have the instruments, the expertise, the knowledge of style, and the tradition. And we’d like to keep working in this beautiful, quirky, over-populated, but extremely deep pool of talent that is Los Angeles.

– Steve Trapani is a Los Angeles based freelance bass trombonist. He teaches trombone at Long Beach State, where he received his Bachelor’s degree in 1994 while studying with the former bass trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Jeff Reynolds. Steve has played in just about every orchestra in the state of California, and is a regular sub with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and LA Chamber Orchestra. He can be heard on television and film in such projects as: “Family Guy,” “American Dad!”, “Captain Phillips,” “Pacific Rim,” “Deadpool,” the last “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, and the upcoming “Terminator” and “Charlie’s Angels” films.