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A Week In The Life Of A Session Programmer

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a professional MIDI programmer/musician? How do you get your sessions? What kind of gigs come up? What sort of problems arise? What sort of technical and musical knowledge do you need? Mike Collins spills the beans.

As it happens, I am currently very active on the session circuit, but I still usually have a couple of days free most weeks, which allows me time to contribute articles and reviews to various magazines, such as Sound On Sound. Whilst chatting recently with the Editor, Ian Gilby, he thought it would be very interesting for SOS readers, who may well be aspiring session programmers/musicians themselves, to read all about a typical week in my working life on the session 'scene' in London.

So this is what my schedule looked like for the week in question:

Junior Reid, Livingston Studios, 2pm till 2am.
Who Loves You
Big Life Records. Producer: 'Louie Louie'

The Chimes, Livingston Studios, 12 noon till 12pm.
Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.
CBS Records. Producer: 'Louie Louie'.

The Chimes, Livingston Studios, 12 noon till 8am.
Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.
CBS Records. Producer: 'Louie Louie'.

Recovering till about 5pm, then making phone calls!

Mort Shuman, Rooster Studio, 12 noon till 12pm.
The World Is Waiting For Love.
WEA Records. Producer: Deon Estus.

Mort Shuman, Rooster Studio, 12 noon till 12pm.
You Need Love.
WEA Records. Producer: Deon Estus.

The Eurythmics, Sarm East Studio, 12 noon till 8am.
Sweet Dreams.
RCA Records. Producers: Dave Angel and Dave Dorrell.


On the Thursday, I was about to go out to attend a Performing Rights Society meeting when the phone rang. A pleasant-sounding lady, who turned out to be the wife of Jerry Boys (owner of Livingston Studios in Wood Green), explained that she was looking for a MIDI programmer, and had been told by Bill Foster of Tape One Studios that he knew of a programmer called Mike Collins who lived in Wood Green. She had found my number in the local telephone directory and was wondering if I was the same person. Once I had assured her that I was, she asked me if I was available for some session work at the studios, starting right away.

Well this was it, back into action again. I spoke to Jerry Boys and quoted my standard fee of £250 for 10 hours' programming work, and he said that it would be quite acceptable to the record companies involved — Big Life and CBS. The producer would be a guy called 'Louie Louie' from New York, and he couldn't start work without a programmer to operate the Akai S1000 sampler and to handle the sequencing and so forth, which would be needed on the sessions.

The time was around 1.15pm so I called a taxi, and quickly packed up my Macintosh SE and Jambox 4 MIDI interface. I decided to bring my DX7II synthesizer, and my MIDI'd TR808 drum machine as well. They are so useful on remix sessions where many producers want to add TR808 sounds, and the DX7II is an ideal MIDI master keyboard.

When I got to the studio, I realised that I had not thought to change out of the fairly conventional grey suit which I had dressed in to go to the PRS meeting, and consequently I looked rather out of place, surrounded by a hip young producer from New York and reggae singer Junior Reid. But, they didn't hire me for my trendy image, just for my technical and creative skills, and the only person who actually started 'taking the piss' was Neal Easterby, a young Brit living in New York who was present on the sessions as assistant to Louie's manager, who was back in the US. Anyway, any excuse for good-natured banter is always a good ice-breaker when meeting new people, so perhaps it was a good idea after all!

Louie Louie had been asked to work on a track for Junior Reid's forthcoming album, and he wanted to lay down various tracks onto tape, including drum breaks, rhythm patterns, and bass samples, and to record some live guitar on the track.

The first thing I did was to set up my gear and synchronise my Performer MIDI sequencer software to an existing SMPTE timecode on tape. This was a fairly easy job using the Jambox 4 SMPTE/MIDI conversion facilities, and within half an hour or so all the gear was rigged up and synchronised to tape. I played the bass line in first whilst listening to some guide tracks already on tape. This was a very simple pattern which I only needed to play once, and then copy and repeat using the sequencer before laying it on tape.

Performer screen showing 'Who Loves You' track list.

Then it was time to work with the S1000 sampler. Louie had hired in a Technics SL1200 turntable and a DJ preamp, and he had a collection of albums with interesting drum beats which he asked me to sample and play back in the right places in the track, using the sequencer. Once we had the basic beats in place we added some sounds from the TR808, and the track started to come together.

At this point (late afternoon), a session guitarist turned up, and Louie asked him to play along to the track. This guy was pretty good, although he did have some trouble with his wah-wah pedal at first, which (understandably) seemed to make him feel rather nervous. In the end he played great, and went home looking much happier.

As soon as he left, Louie asked me to pick out a good guitar 'lick', sample it into the S1000, and loop it in the sequencer so that he could mix it into the track as a 'hook' sound, wherever he needed it! All that work for just one lick!

It was now time to go for a meal in the cafe at Livingston's new building in Guillemot Place. This was pretty good, and in all we had about an hour's break. After the meal, we went back to the studio to add more looped samples to fill out the drum track, and to do a rough mix of the track to finish off the day's work.

Performer screen showing 'Who Loves You' bass line in the Notation window.


At the end of the Junior Reid session, Louie told me that for the next two days he would be remixing the Chimes cover of the U2 hit Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. He asked me what other instruments I played, and I told him that I played guitar as my first instrument, with bass guitar as my second. I actually took up keyboard playing seriously around 10 years ago, when I was working as a songwriter at Chappell Music Publishers and needed to use synths on my song demos, so I only count keyboards as my third instrument — even though I mostly play keyboards on sessions at the moment. I got the idea that Louie might want me to actually play some live stuff on the Chimes track, so I was looking forward to the following day's session very much!

I arrived back at Livingston Studios around 12 noon on the Friday, and this time the session took place in the large studio at the original Livingston building in Brook Road. This has a much larger control room than Studio 2, where we recorded the Junior Reid track, so I found a small table on which to set up my DX7II, Macintosh, Akai S1000, and the Technics turntable at the back of the room. I was able to sit behind this rig, facing the monitors, so I could communicate with everyone in the room and hear what was going on perfectly.

The engineer, Ren, was the only person there when I arrived, and he played me some of the Chimes multitrack so that I could get some idea of what was on tape. Louie turned up at about 1 pm, and explained that he intended to replace most of the track with new parts, while retaining the original vocals, piano, and string parts.

Straight away we got into sampling drum beats from his collection of late 70s funk records. Louie would pick out the likely things to sample, and then I would 'capture' them in the S1000, top 'n' tail the samples, loop them, and adjust the trigger points in the sequencer and the pitch of the samples, to get them to play in time with the track.

Performer screen showing Event List windows for Brass and Sax samples. Note that the clock locations are offset from normal quantise values so that the samples play back correctly.

This last operation took up a lot of the time on the session, and after several hours we were all straining our ears to judge the timing accuracy of these loops. I was glad of Performer's 480 clock resolution, each of which clocks represented about 1.5 milliseconds at the tempo we were using for the track. Quite often we had to shift tracks by just a couple of clocks to get things to 'feel' right! In the end, nearly all the tracks had different amounts of shift, and hardly any notes fell onto the usual quantise values. I would roughly place the notes to trigger the samples at first, but quantised to sensible values, and then move the tracks using Performer's Shift command until they started to sound right. If they still didn't sound right, I would adjust the replay pitch of the sample, or even trim the sample more finely, to get everything accurately in sync.

All the samples were then recorded on different tape tracks once they were playing correctly, allowing me to wipe the S1000's memory and record the next bunch of samples.

Towards the end of the Friday session, Louie asked me to go home and get my bass guitar, because he had an idea for a new bass line. He said that, naturally, I would be paid an extra fee for the bass overdub, and we agreed on a figure of £100. I came back to the studio 20 minutes later clutching my 1959 Fender Precision Bass — with the top string missing! It had snapped a couple of days previously and I hadn't had time to get a new set of strings. At first I thought this might be a problem, but when Louie sang a few notes to me which he felt would make a good bass part, I realised that I could play them on the three lowest strings without needing to use the missing top string! The luck of the Irish, I suppose!

I went straight into the studio and devised a bass part for the track, based around the two-bar lick Louie had sung to me. This took about an hour or so to record, with me trying out ideas which Louie would either accept or reject. This was even more fun than the MIDI programming, and made a very welcome break!

Then in walked a sax player. Louie hadn't mentioned that he had booked someone in to blow a solo on the track, but it did seem like a good idea. This guy was first-rate, even though he was a little nervous initially, and he played brilliantly from start to finish after only a couple of warm-ups.

When the sax player left, Louie asked me to sample just one bar of this brilliant sax solo and to loop it in the sequencer, so that he could drop it in as a hook anywhere in the track! I couldn't believe it — it seemed almost sacrilegious not to use this guy's amazing solo in its entirety, although I had to admit that Louie had picked out a particularly catchy sax lick.

By this time it was around 7pm, and time for the Livingston evening meal again — not quite as good as last night's meal, we all thought. Then we went back to the studio to do some more sampling, before finishing at midnight.

On the Saturday, Louie listened to the track and tried out some mix ideas while I saved and reorganised the S1000 samples, and formatted some new disks. After a couple of listens, he decided that the track needed some guitar.

I had brought my 1960s Epiphone Riviera guitar and Ampeg VT22 amplifier down to the studio with the bass guitar the night before, so again Louie sang me a riff idea and I went into the studio to develop this into a suitable part. This took a little longer to work out, because the first ideas didn't sound right with the track. Eventually, I tried a muted picking part which seemed to interact well with the bass and drums, and suddenly Ren (the engineer) stopped the tape and asked me what type of delay unit I was using to get the repeated notes on the guitar. At first I couldn't understand what he was talking about, until I realised that he thought that I was using some sort of delay unit rather than playing all the notes, because they sounded so even. Louie liked this new lick, so I played it throughout the track so that he could fade it in wherever he wanted it. When I came back into the control room, Louie told me that he had intended to loop just two bars of this part, but that it sounded so suitable played live all through (complete with human feel errors) that there was no point in looping after all.

Performer screen showing 'Still Haven't Found' track list.

Meantime, Louie had come up with an idea for a piano part, so he went into the studio to try it on the Yamaha grand. Louie is not a keyboard player himself, so he used two fingers to play this extra piano bass line. After trying it for a couple of minutes, he asked me to come into the studio and make his idea work. So I learned how to play what he had for the first chord, and then I developed this into a workable piano part, which followed the bass line throughout the track. I was a two-fingered piano player as well — it seemed to be the easiest way to finger the part, so why not?

Again, Louie explained that he had intended to record just a couple of bars of the piano lick and then loop it, using the sampler and sequencer. But when he heard me follow the improvisations I had played on the bass guitar, he had realised that it was better to have me record the whole part live to tape!

After this interlude, we got back to the sampling and sequencing in earnest, and Louie and Ren started to work on the mix. It turned out that Louie had to mix both 7" and 12" versions by the end of Saturday's session, and that I would be needed in case any last minute sequencing or sampling was required. We ended up working until 8am on Sunday morning, but everyone felt that the session had worked out extremely well, and the Chimes remix was sounding just great!

There was a twist in this tale, however! When I sent my bill into CBS Records, they said that they had only authorised two days' programming at £250 a day, so they were not prepared to pay for the extra 10 hours' programming on the second session, nor were they prepared to pay for the guitar, bass, and piano overdubs! Neal Easterby rang me to ask me to reduce my bill, and I offered to cut it by 25% if he gave me a credit for my work on the record label.

At the time of writing, six weeks after the session, CBS have told me that they don't think it is possible to give me a label credit, and that they are unhappy about paying my fee until they can recover the difference (between the budget they had allowed and the bill I sent) from the producer. Ray Davidson at CBS suggested that I ought to have confirmed my fees directly with him before going ahead with the work — but he admitted that it was impossible for me to do this out of office hours, which is when Louie asked me to do the overdubs and to stay for an extra 10 hours! I do believe that CBS will see reason in the end, and pay me what I am owed, but this just goes to show how careful you have to be when arranging fees for your work!


Sunday had to be a day of rest after the hectic Saturday night, so I managed to stay in bed until about 4pm, although I did have to take a few phone calls during the day to confirm arrangements for the coming week.

One of these calls was to confirm the next couple of days' sessions at Rooster Studio in Sinclair Road. The Session Connection agency had booked me for this, on behalf of Deon Estus, ex-Wham bass player, who was working on a couple of songs with legendary American songwriter Mort Shuman.

Back in the '50s and early '60s, Mort wrote material for Elvis Presley, The Drifters (Save The Last Dance For Me), The Small Faces (Sha La La La Lee), and many other songs such as Tears On My Pillow, mostly with his long-time songwriting partner 'Doc' Pomus. In the late '60s Mort moved to Paris, married a French girl, and continued writing and recording for the European market. He had decided to revitalise his UK/US career by working on a new commercial album here in London, and these two tracks were co-written with Deon Estus.

The sessions at Rooster were due to start at about 12 noon, so I arrived around 11.30am to set up. This time I brought my Macintosh II computer with Opcode DX/TX synth editing/librarian software, my Yamaha TX816 rack and DX7II keyboard. I also brought my MIDI'd TR808 and MiniMoog synthesizer.

It turned out that all the sequences had already been prepared on an Atari/C-Lab sequencer. Deon had worked on these at home with an up-and-coming young programmer called Gordon. They had used an Oberheim Matrix 1000, an Akai S950 and Casio FZ10M, Alesis HR16 and Roland R5 drum machines, and a Korg M1 synthesizer for the sounds. Now they wanted to record these sequences onto 24-track, adding extra sequences and sounds, and making any last minute edits.

At first I wasn't quite sure what they wanted me to do, as Gordon (who had originally programmed the sequences) was actually at the studio as well. It turned out that he had not really worked on master recording sessions previously, and wasn't sure how to sync the C-Lab software to SMPTE, or how to set up the separate outputs on the various MIDI units, as he had just used the stereo outputs for the home demos. So that's what this gig turned out to be for me — sorting out all the MIDI gear so that everything was playing back correctly and from the correct outputs. It took quite a while to get everything set up in the Rooster control room, which was quite small.

There were two songs: the first was a bright up-tempo number, sounding something like a Whitney Houston track, and the other was a very slow and moody piece, which Deon had programmed entirely using his MIDI'd bass guitar!

On the first song, I replaced the original Rhodes patch from the Korg M1 with the brilliant TX816 factory Rhodes patch. Then I doubled the bass line with a deep MiniMoog bass patch, which really filled out the bottom end. Deon had used a sample of a MiniMoog bass sound which had a nice raspy edge, but which lacked the depth of the real Moog sound. The combination of the two was just perfect for the track!

We hadn't quite finished the first track by the time the session ended at midnight, but it was time for a break anyway, so we arranged to carry on the following day.

Back in the studio at 12 noon on the Tuesday, there was just one new track to record in order to finish off the first song. This was a sort of bell-like part which Deon played live into the sequencer, once I had found a DX7II sound to double up his M1 patch. Then we turned our attentions to the second song.

Everyone took a break for about two hours while I went through all the instruments with Gordon (the other programmer), loading the sounds, setting up the outputs, and checking all the sequences. Once everything was ready, Deon, Mort, and Nick the engineer all came back in, and we laid down all the layers of synths which Deon had originally sequenced using his MIDI'd bass. These sequences all went down to tape very smoothly now that we had got into the swing of things, and we actually finished the session about an hour or so early!

Performer screen showing 'Sweet Dreams' track list.


Thankful that the previous day's session finished sooner than expected, I was up early the next day to get ready for my last session of the week — a remix of the classic Eurythmics track Sweet Dreams. This track has always been one of my favourites, so again I was really looking forward to the session!

The idea for this track was born when a young guy called Dave Angel recorded a version in his bedroom, using home recording equipment. He just played everything live to tape, spinning in sections of the original Sweet Dreams record from a turntable. Even though the quality was rough, Dave pressed up 500 copies which all sold within a week or so of release, and the record achieved quite a bit of airplay on pirate radio stations. The track came to the attention of Dave Dorrell and The Eurythmics and, as a result, RCA Records agreed to a remix being produced by Dave Angel and Dave Dorrell at Sarm East Studio.

Dave Dorrell had met me 'in action' at the Chimes session, and (pleased with what he saw) had booked me straight away to do the programming on the Eurythmics session. I used my Mac SE with Performer, my trusty TR808, an Akai S1000, plus Dave Angel's small Casio synth, to re-do the synth parts, drum beats, and the many samples which Dave Dorrell wanted to add.

Dave Angel played his original (very tricky) bass line into the sequencer for me to loop. He used one finger from each hand to play this, rather like a drummer beating a drum — which was not surprising, as he is actually a drummer. I tried to play the lick but couldn't manage the tricky timing between the low notes and the high notes. I could play each line separately quite easily, but I found it very tricky to play them together, although Dave Angel had no trouble at all. (Try it yourself to see what I mean!)

Once the bass line was recorded, we put down a basic TR808 beat to work to. The next step was to record the vocals. The original Sweet Dreams 8-track tape could not be found, so Dave Angel 'spun in' the sections he wanted from the original record straight to tape. The engineer, Ren, filtered out the low end so that the original backing track did not disturb the new one too much, and this worked just fine. Then it was sampling mania again!

Dave Dorrell had lots of ideas for samples he wanted to add — sped up, slowed down, and even reversed. We ended up carrying on until 8am to finish off all the recording, although for the last hour or so Dave Dorrell and I took turns to go for 10-minute catnaps whenever we were not specifically needed in the control room.

Performer screen showing 'Sweet Dreams' bass line.


So, finally, my hectic week was finished! I felt totally exhausted but satisfied. I had played some great music on my favourite instruments, programmed sounds on a range of synthesizers, and helped to create some interesting recordings using plenty of today's hi-tech MIDI equipment. I hadn't had anytime for socialising or other leisure pursuits, but I am not always as busy as this, and I was able to take things easier the following week.

The only sour note was the bill for CBS — I received the fees for all the other sessions within about two or three weeks.

I hope this article has provided an interesting insight for you into the working life of a MIDI programmer/musician, and good luck to those of you who want to go on to make your living from session work — you'll certainly need it!

Previous Article in this issue

Laser Music Processor

Next article in this issue

Masterbits Vocal Sample CD

Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Sep 1990

Donated by: Bert Jansch / Adam Jansch

Feature by Mike Collins

Previous article in this issue:

> Laser Music Processor

Next article in this issue:

> Masterbits Vocal Sample CD

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