The last time we talked about recording, we covered the massive amount of prep work you have to do before you even step into the studio. Now it's time to talk about the main event: tracking.
The hallmarks of a live performance, including window-rattling drums, squealing amps, drunken crowds, and for that matter, drunken bands, are a pretty good rug under which you can hide the various imperfections of a given song. When you take those same songs and performances into a studio, every aspect of the song gets a white glove inspection. New flaws and details become painfully apparent.
What you play in a bar is going to sound totally different in the studio.
For example, singing through a beat-up SM58 and road-weary stage monitors is in no way comparable to singing into a $5,000 condenser mic routed through boutique preamps and played back through near-field monitors in an acoustically-treated control room. As a vocalist, I can tell you that you are going to hear things you have never heard before, and it can be quite jarring.
The same goes for all other instruments and performers. Your guitars, drums, trumpets, fill in the blank... will sound much different through the equipment in a good studio at the hands of an experienced engineer vs. what is on the average dive bar stage under the supervision of a drunk sound guy.
Be ready to cringe, rearrange, and edit.
I once heard someone refer to the studio as the "5th instrument." Like an instrument, recording has its own nuances, notes, and colors that get mixed into your music. The more time you spend in a studio, the more you'll be able to play with different color palettes and tools to produce more interesting results.
Most people can't walk into a studio and produce award-winning work their first time out. For example, No Doubt's "Tragic Kingdom" took almost 2 years to record in 11 different studios.
If you've ever listened to a song at a live show and heard the studio recording of the same song, you probably know exactly what I'm talking about. Maybe the song was arranged with an accordion and a choir in the studio, but the band can't afford to bring the accordion player and choir on tour. As a result, the live arrangement features a guitar and a keyboard, and takes on a totally different feel.
Some musicians and audiences aren't comfortable with this paradigm. They feel that the studio should only capture exactly what a band brings on stage. That may work for some bands, but generally speaking, I don't share that opinion. In my mind, recording and playing live are two separate but equally important skills.
Some bands are powerful and energetic on stage, but sound kind of soulless and tame on their recordings. Other artists have incredible arrangements and textured recordings, but sound hollow in front of an audience.
Recording in a studio is like making a movie. Playing live is like the Broadway adaptation of the film.
Personally, when I'm listening to a recording of a band, I want to hear the best possible version of that song, even if it can never be reproduced on stage. I view recording as a movie, and live performance as the Broadway adaptation. There are tools available in the studio that don't translate to stage.
You have far more time to add layers in a studio. You can bring in guest musicians. One guy can play multiple parts or instruments. You can filter out all the mistakes, and the sound is engineered at a much more stringent level.
By contrast, a stage performance will always have its own energy that rarely finds its way to a recording. You can't really capture the deafening, chest-rattling thump of a bigger venue's speaker array on an mp3. That moment when the vocalist makes a joke or delivers a haunting performance during a live show doesn't always come to life in your earbuds.
Whether you perfectly reflect your stage show or create a unique unreproducible product is something you and your band have to decide on before you get to the studio.
Do you want to use unique instrumentalists that you can't afford to bring to your shows? Do you want to hire guest vocalists from other bands to be featured on your tracks, knowing that they can't commit to your tour? There are no wrong answers as far as I'm concerned. It's a matter of taste.
The two most common methods of recording are playing live, or recording one instrument/vocal at a time (tracking). They both have their benefits and their drawbacks. Let's go over how they work.
You'll start by deciding which instrument should serve as a guide/bed/spine track on which all the other tracks are built. It can be an acoustic guitar, a piano, really almost anything. In many cases, the guide track will be re-recorded later, or taken out entirely, so a flubbed note here or there won't usually be too big of a deal. It's just meant to be a general reference point for the other musicians.
For my band, we usually record a rhythm guitar and my voice so everyone can pick up vocal cues. If we're recording with session guys, I may even call out "chorus" or "bridge" when we're laying down the bed tracks. That's especially helpful with unique or flexible song arrangements.
Some engineers record the bed track(s) while simultaneously recording bass and drums. This is a great way to save time, and to make sure the rhythm section is tight. Another workflow is to do the bed track, then add the drums, then the bass, then guitars, followed by keys, then vocals, and finally perc. You sort of work your way from the low end to the high end.
Doing it that way helps to ensure that every instrument has its own seat... the drums and bass sit on the low end, the guitars and keys sit in the middle, the voice and perc (and maybe strings) sit in the upper middle to high. (Keep in mind these are broad generalizations.) It's certainly not critical to do in that order, it's just a little more straightforward and organized than laying things down at random.
Most people will record the bed track to a click, which is just a metronome that's played back through your headphones when you're tracking. Keep as tight to the click as you possibly can. This is no time to be sloppy. If you're even just a little bit off, that can push all the other parts off, and the song could end up sounding... well... off.
When you play live without a click, you might slide ahead or behind the beat as a result of the energy of the crowd, your nerves, or just the organic nature of musicianship. It's no big deal in most cases, because everyone can catch up or slow down, and 9 out of 10 times the audience may not even notice. Metronomes, however, are nowhere near as forgiving. If you get ahead or behind a click, you're going to know it.
Working with a click can be a pain up front, but it's worth it when it comes time to edit.
Working with a click is sometimes a real pain, and people often try to beg their way out of it, but having edited several albums, I can assure you that it makes editing exponentially easier. The relatively small frustration of lining up with the click at the beginning will far outweigh the misery of editing without it down the road.
The major drawback of recording with the click is that it can drain energy out of a performance. It can make a part, or even a whole song, sound mechanical. I've talked with many musicians who flatly refuse to use a click because it's not organic or "musical" (but somehow editing on a computer is okay???), while I and others can't stand to record without one.
If you record without one, don't be surprised if your engineer curses your name repeatedly during the edit/mix phase, or if a relatively simple edit sounds terrible because the 2 takes are at different speeds.
I strongly recommend that you practice all of your songs with a click both on your own, and with the band before you get to the studio. It's not as easy as it may look. Some people have a natural ability to be able to sync with the click where others are completely stumped by it even after dozens of tries.
You simply can't account for the muscle memory that develops from playing without a metronome, and how difficult it can be to re-train your brain to play with one. Put in the work at home, and not in the studio.
TAKES & COMPS
The best practice I have seen for recording tracks one at a time is to get 3 to 4 takes of a given instrument or part. Just have the person churn them out, bing bang boom, right in a row. Many musicians want to do a take, then come into the control room and listen to what they did, then go back and do another take.
I would suggest that you get the 4 takes, then sift through what you've captured. Listening back to each take can burn up a lot of expensive time. Of course, this method assumes that you've worked out your parts before getting to the studio. If you're still trying to figure out the song, it may not work too well.
Once you've got your 4 takes, the performer and the engineer (and the producer and/or the band if applicable) can listen through the takes and piece together a final comp from the various parts. You grab the verse and chorus from take 1, the bridge from take 3, the last chorus and solo from take 2, etc.
Some people like to drill down even further, and do the edits bar by bar, but that can take a great deal of time, and it might mean that the person needs to work on the part a little more before committing to it.
It's probably pretty obvious that recording live means everyone sets up and plays together. It's a great way to capture a dynamic vibe, or a band that likes to jam. It's a lot of time investment up front to set up all the mics and get everyone organized.
It's also kind of tricky, and in many cases, impossible to eliminate or reduce bleed from amps and drums. Not every studio can handle this type of thing, as it requires multiple rooms, and a lot of isolation or acoustic treatment.
Recording live is tricky to pull off, but is a great way to capture an energetic performance.
If you're using this method, everyone in the band has to be on their game, and the engineer really has to know what they're doing. One flubbed drum fill can ruin half a dozen good performances. If the guitar falls off the click even slightly, you may have to go back to the beginning. That kind of thing can be incredibly frustrating for everyone involved.
That said, the energy captured in a live pass can rarely be duplicated by tracking. When everyone is in sync, some kind of organic voodoo awesomeness creeps into the recording, and it really makes a big difference.
It's also a great way to capture unique moments that might feel artificial in a tracking setup... Maybe the drummer unleashes an animal yell in the middle of a jam, or the vocalist riffs on a melody in a way he'd never do when isolated in a vocal booth.
As with the 5th instrument discussion, live vs. tracking is a matter of taste. Figure it out with your band and your engineer before you hit the studio.
One of those "you are a total n00b" lessons that I learned during my first session in a real studio was the importance of locking in the rhythm section. I was playing a guitar part in time (mostly), but my attack on the strings didn't always lock in tightly with the snare. While playing a different acoustic part, I was strumming too aggressively which was competing with the high hat.
The producer explained to me how it's usually a good idea for the bass to hit with the kick drum, and the rhythm guitar to hit with the snare. He encouraged me to try to cut down the strumming and let the instruments breathe. These are broad generalizations that won't always apply depending on style and genre, but in this and many other cases, it made a huge difference.
The same goes for finding the right rhythmic seat for the vocal melody. A lot of singers/lyricists try to pack too many words into a phrase, and as a result, the line sounds rushed or forced. It's usually very simple to swap in/out a few words/notes and find a much better fit. I've talked about this at greater length in one of my articles on lyrics.
The best way to lock in is to rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse. Pay attention to what other people are playing. Play with a metronome. Slide the tempo up or down 1 or 2 beats per minute (bpm) if you're having trouble staying in sync. Change up parts if you're tripping over each other.
During my last recording session, I was struggling with an acoustic guitar part that had never given me any trouble before going into the studio. I'd practiced it for months, but you wouldn't have known it from the way I was playing. I was getting frustrated, and I could hear through the control room mic that my bandmates were confused as to why it was stumping me. The engineer said, "man, the red light burns."
It's true. I have a lot of experience with videography, photography, and recording, and in all cases, the most prepared, knowledgeable, and skilled individual can seize up once they get in front of a camera or a mic.
Recording is doing your job perfectly over and over in a fishbowl while your friends and boss look over your shoulder.
In the past, I've said that recording is basically having to do your job perfectly over and over again in a fishbowl, while your boss, your coworkers, and your friends stare over your shoulder. Not everyone is ready or able to handle that. As a bandmate, try and be understanding of that fact. Some people have no fear when recording, others have serious anxiety about it.
If you're the person underneath the penetrating glare of the red light, I think the best way to handle the frustration and failure is to breathe. Your mind can get too focused on the stress of knowing that you're being watched, or the fear of listening back to what you're doing wrong, which pulls your attention away from the instrument and the performance.
Focus intently on a few breaths, in and out. Get up and walk around the studio. Slap yourself in the face repeatedly. Take your attention off of the stress. Get your bandmate to tell you an inappropriate joke. (I've done all these things.) Then go back and take another swing.
One of the engineers I've worked with believed that you should anger someone into a good performance. When I would try and sort out something in my vocal delivery, or the way the mic or headphones were set up, he would say something like "how about you just try to sing on pitch, and quit making excuses?"
Well, that's certainly one way to approach things... but it didn't help me get a better take. It actually went in the complete opposite direction. Most singers will tell you that they sing best when they're loose and relaxed, and sing their worst when they're tense and anxious.
It's my personal feeling that you should try and talk through a problem, and be supportive of someone who's struggling so that they loosen up and get comfortable, but who knows, maybe the "piss you off" approach works for some people.
When I was a kid, and imagined what recording would be like, the images in my head involved wild parties, celebrities, drugs & alcohol, and fawning groupies. The reality did not line up with these fantasies. I don't want you to misunderstand what I'm about to tell you... recording is hands down my favorite aspect of music. Having said that, let me tell you that for those of us who aren't KISS in the 80's, recording is...
...long days in a cramped room with poor temperature control.
...listening to or playing the same part over and over... and over again.
...getting in mild and severe disagreements with the other participants about whether that 2-bar guitar noodle contributes enough to the song.
...sitting on a beat-up couch, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the engineer to readjust the drum mics.
...getting sick of the songs you used to love because you've heard them hundreds of times as you've rehearsed them, then played/sung the various parts, then edited, then mixed.
I'll reiterate that I love the whole process. I just don't want you to be disappointed when you get to the studio and realize that since you're not a multi-million dollar recording artist, the recording experience might not include all of the elements you see in rock documentaries, rap videos, and your daydreams. It's difficult, but rewarding work.
Like a cross-country road trip, if you go with the right people, and have the right gear, the journey of recording can be an exhausting but infintely enjoyable adventure. However, if you can't stand your bandmates, your engineer doesn't know his trade, or your songs aren't polished, you may be in for a rough, winding, and expensive ride.
Either way, we're getting there. Stay tuned for the next post on mixing & mastering.
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