Recording the Basic Tracks
Laying down the basic tracks restarts the music production process, but this time with a more critical ear. Issues of timing, dynamic, pitch, tone and performance are all under the microscope. Basic tracking sessions are designed to lay the foundation of a song. The focus will be primarily on the rhythm section, in particular the drums and bass. The process outlined here is most typically associated with band recordings, but many of the techniques can be applied to all recording situations that involve one or more musicians.
Like all other parts of the music production process, preparation is always key to making a professional recording. It's really all about gathering information and resources. Gather as much information as possible about what you are attempting to do and that the people who need to know it fully understand their roles in the studio. You need to make sure that all necessary resources are readily available.
There are two basic paths one can take with a basic tracking session. The choices are largely governed by one basic principle: THE BUDGET. The budget will determine whether the tracking session can be booked in a professional recording facility or must be done in a home recording environment. Let's take a closer look at both.
The Professional Tracking Session:
When booking a studio that is set up to records basic tracks, most of the recording resources are readily available and good to go. However, don't assume this means that all is going to go perfectly as planned. When booking a track session, most studios will have a list of microphones and a floor plan that shows the layout of the recording space, control room and the isolation booths. Make sure that you are able to visit the space before recording and take note of some very specific issues.
- How big is the live room?
- Do you notice any weird tonal changes to your voice when you talk?
- Can you hit a snare or kick drum to get a sense of the tone of the room?
- How many isolation booths are there?
- Are there good sight lines between the musicians from the booths to the live room and control room?
- Does the studio stock any amps for guitar and bass?
- Are they in good working condition?
- Are all the microphones on the list included in the studio booking?
- Are they shared with another studio in the facility?
- If so, are they all available for the time you are booking?
- Is setup and breakdown time included in the price of the booking?
- Is an engineer included in the price?
- Will a full time assistant engineer be available?
- What happens if you go over time?
- Can the gear be loaded into the studio the night before the session?
These are some of the basic questions that must be answered before booking a studio to record basic tracks. Be very clear about what you get for the rate you are paying and what will cost you extra. If you need to bring in additional resources from outside the studio, such as your own personal microphones or amps, make sure they are clearly labeled so as not to be confused with the studio's gear.
Is the Studio Designed to Get the Sound You Are Looking For:
For the novice recording artist or producer, the most difficult thing to judge when booking a studio is the sound quality of the recording space and control room monitors. If you know people who have used the studio for basic tracks, ask them what their experience was, and what to look out for. If you are using the studio's engineer, get a demo reel from them so that shows examples of tracking sessions done at the studio. Get a cd and listen at home if you can. Most studios have better monitors than you have at home and you can easily be fooled.
A big recording space is not necessarily a good one for basic tracks and it is important to notice any strange tonal qualities that exist in the recording space. If your voice suddenly sounds hollow or overly resonates the live room when talking to the studio personnel, this is a bad sign. It means the recording space may have modal problems. (Specific frequencies a room will resonate at.) A good recording space should make your voice sound vibrant and alive, not hollow. Walk around the space as you talk to get a sense of the acoustics of the whole room.
If all of this information completely terrifies you, then you may need to hire a professional engineer to help you find a suitable recording space. A professional engineer with recording experience will quickly notice problems in a recording space and give you advice that will save you hours of your time, loads of money and a lot of headaches.
The greatest asset an artist or producer can have in a recording situation is to consult a professional. Never seek the advice of a studio owner or manager to determine what will work best for your project. The reason is simple, in a very competitive market they are focussed on getting you to record in their facility. Once you are in, you are left to deal with making the basic tracks work with the resources that are available.
A professional engineer will guide you with information about what to look for when booking a studio for the tracking session. If you are looking for a big drum sound like Led Zeppelin, you will not get it in a small space no matter how reverberant the space may be. It is important that you understand the parameters of what you are looking for when booking a studio. Take an engineer out to lunch and pick their brain, get suggestions for studios that fit the sound you are going for that work within your budget. Consider their advice and opinions carefully. Remember, the difference between a good production and a great one is a lot of subtle decisions that add up over the course of a production.
In the Studio:
Because tracking sessions require a larger recording space and a lot of resources, most home setups cannot effectively accommodate a full basic tracking session without compromise. Aside from a suitable recording space that is free of environmental noise, one has to consider acquiring extra microphones, cables, stands, headphones, preamps and more inputs to get into the recording device. If your home recording setup cannot meet these basic needs you will have to consider combining your resources with friends or renting the necessary equipment from a local dealer to record your basic tracks.
The approach to recording in a home studio environment presents many challenges that are not typically encountered in the commercial recording environment. Most home environments are designed with rectangular shaped rooms. Parallel surfaces in a recording space creates many problems including flutter echo, standing waves and room modes. It is important to place instruments carefully to avoid or minimize the effect of room modes and standing waves.
Making it Work:
There is no question that recording basic tracks in a home studio environment is vastly more compromised and difficult than recording in a commercial facility. That does not mean, however, that the results cannot be as good or even better. Even the best designed commercial recording facilities present their own challenges, and getting the sound you are looking for will always require some careful planning.
The home environment also requires some ingenuity. It is more like McGyver, however, than it is like CSI with all the latest gadgetry. Either way, you can accomplish your goal and get great results for your basic tracks with style points being the primary difference. To help you along your path to making a better home tracking session, here are some keys to success.
- Carefully place the instruments:
In smaller recording spaces (anything smaller than 20 feet by 20 feet is a small space) I find the best way to guide your drum sound is with the kick drum. In small recording spaces, the kick is most obviously affected by room resonances which are very predominant in rooms smaller than 20 by 20 feet. (More on this in Acoustics) Move the kick drum around facing the center of the room in every place that you can get it with one thing in mind. Remember that the rest of the drum kit and the drummer must be able to fit where you set it up.
Hit the kick drum until you find a place where the drum tone is strongest without being muddy or over resonant. Basically, you are finding the placement that best resonates the drum shell when struck. Set up the rest of the kit around this placement. The same approach applies to all other instruments. When getting sounds for your basic tracks, always let your ear be the best judge of whether something is good or not. Even if it looks 'wrong', go with the sound before aesthetics. Sometimes interesting sounds can be achieved 'accidentally' by allowing your ears rather than your eyes be the judge. Unless you are taking photos for the CD artwork, no one will ever know or care how you got there.Follow the same process when placing bass and guitar amps. If an amp sounds muddy, put it on a chair or table to minimize the effect of the floor resonating the amp. If the amp sounds to thin, it can be moved closer to a wall or corner where the early reflections will add extra low frequencies to the tone.
- Use of Gobos:
Gobos (short for go-between) are free standing absorptive or reflective barriers that are placed between instruments. These can be used to help tighten or control the reverb or resonances of the room from overly affecting the sound going into the close mikes. Generally, it is a good idea to create a semicircular wall around the drum kit from the back side. Never obstruct the sound of the drum kit with gobos in front of the kit.The idea here is to minimize early reflections back into the close mikes that can negatively color or flatten out the sound of the drums. If any part of your drum kit is closer than 10 feet from any surface (other than the floor of course!), you will have problems with early reflections. These early reflections create a comb filtering effect that makes the instrument sound indistinct, muddy, thin or undefined. In a home recording situation you can use mattresses, Couch cushions or even suspended packing blankets to help minimize these negative effects.If you are recording multiple instruments in the same room for your basic tracks, using gobos between the instruments will help to isolate the bleed from one instrument to the next and give you more control of individual sounds in the mix.
- Miking Techniques:
Whether you want to use three mikes or thirty mikes for your basic tracks, you can get great sounds by understanding what is most important to look for. To me, the most important mikes for a drum kit are the overheads, followed by the Kick mic and finally the Snare mic. Everything else is filling in whatever is missing. If these basic mikes are not set up well, everything else will typically create more chaos.The overhead mikes should capture the essence of the drum sound for your basic tracks. It is the only true stereo perspective you have of the kit. In addition to capturing the sounds of the cymbals, they also capture the sound of the snare and kick in the room. Play with different mic positions including X/Y, Spaced Pair and ORTF. See what works best for your recording space. Sometimes, setting up mikes above or behind the drummer will give you a better perspective of the kit as the drummer would hear it.In a way, the more mikes you use, the more difficult it will be to get a good sound for your basic tracks. Close mikes are there to add detail to the overhead mikes, but because they also pick up every other part of the drum kit, you will get loads of off axis phase issues. This will have a tendency to whittle down the fullness of individual elements of the kit. If you focus on a great overhead sound and then the kick and snare respectively, everything else will only need a minimum of effort, if at all.Don't forget the phase reverse switch. Most USB and Firewire interfaces do not have a phase reverse switch built into the unit. This is a travesty if you are using more than one mic. Make sure you have some phase reverse XLR turnarounds on hand at all times. Because signals travel in waves over time and space, the signal reaching your overhead mic from the snare drum is most often at the compression cycle (in phase) when the close mic is receiving the rarefaction cycle (reverse phase) of the waveform. What the hell does this mean?Basically, one mic is trying to push a lot of compressed air through your speaker at the same time another mic is trying to create a vacuum of air particles. In other words, one mic is trying to push the speaker outward while the other is trying to pull the speaker inward. This results in a cancellation that leaves the snare most often sounding hollow and lifeless. Be very aware of this as you go through your drum sounds. Be sure to check the phase of all mikes to the kick and snare until the fullest sound is achieved.
- Getting Sounds and Adjusting Levels:
Be sure to leave plenty of headroom when setting levels for your basic tracks. Many USB interfaces clip well before the digital dBFS clip light goes on in the recording application. There are many reasons for this, mostly due to inexpensive components and inadequate power supplies. Remember, the performer will always play louder in the recorded performance than when getting sounds. Set your levels at least 3 to 6 dBFS lower than where you want them to end up when getting sounds.Never attempt to set sounds for any song unless the musician is playing the exact part at the correct tempo. This is the most common oversight I see with novice engineers recording basic tracks. If the drummer is playing at 125 bpm, but the song you are going to record is at 90 bpm, you will tighten up the sounds too much and the drum sound won't breathe properly. If you reverse the situation, your sounds will be too loose and open and when performing at the faster tempo the sounds will become muddy and indistinct.No one sound will work for every song, you will need to make adjustments for each track. Try to record songs that are similar in tempo and vibe together. This way, your adjustments from song to song will be minimized. Adjust the acoustics of the drum room to compensate for the tempo. The faster the tempo, the deader the room will need to be. The slower the tempo, the more reverberant a room should be. Make use of as many packing blankets, rugs, pillows, mattresses as you can have at the ready to make these changes.These are just a few tips to help you get pointed in the right direction with your basic tracks. As always, use your ears, not you head when making decisions. Your head will talk you into horrible decisions, your ears will tell you what is right or wrong. Don't be afraid to tear everything down and start over if it just isn't working. Even the best laid plans designed by professionals with years of recording experience can yield horrible results. If everything you try is just not working, then start over with a completely different approach. What sense does it make to waste hours of time trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. Aside from being completely liberating, you will learn a ton of new ways to record.
- Communication and Headphone Mixes:
There are very few things that can mess up a great recording setup more than bad headphone mixes and a lack of good communication. It is worth the extra time to get a headphone mix that works for everyone when laying the basic tracks. If that is not possible, then create two or more even if they have to be mono mixes. Make sure the everybody can hear themselves as well as everybody else.Talkback mikes are a must in the studio to allow free communication between takes. These mikes do not have to be recorded and can be shared by musicians if necessary. It may be necessary to run them through a small mixer so they are added to the headphone mixes. The engineer is usually responsible for opening up the talkback between takes, but using inexpensive mikes that have an on/off switch can sometimes be a more convenient solution.
- Miscellaneous Thoughts:
Remember that your basic tracking session is meant to lay a new foundation for the rest of the recording. The most common issue that arises with basic tracks is that musicians will have a tendency to overplay because they are not hearing the whole production. They will naturally try to fill holes in the song that are meant to be filled later with other instruments. If this is the case and you have a demo with all of the planned parts recorded, use this as a reference in the studio and point out that it is important to stick with the plan and not try to overplay your part in the production.Make sure that everybody is comfortable with their headphone mixes and have everything they need at the ready before you start recording. You want your musicians to be 100% focussed on their performance, not on the fact that they can't hear themselves in the headphones. Keep a close eye on this and ask regularly if there is anything anybody needs.Finally, a little advice on using a click track for your basic tracks. Tread carefully when asking musicians to play to click tracks. If the drummer practices regularly with a metronome then this should not be an issue. If not, then use the click to introduce the desired tempo and let the rest happen. You can easily edit a performance back to a click and still preserve the feel if done carefully. You will never be able to make a lifeless performance sound great once bludgeoned by a click track. If you find the drummer struggling to maintain consistency with the click then take careful notice of how it affects the song. Maybe the song needs a faster tempo to get the desired feel. It can be much harder to fight the natural tendencies of a musician than to just go with it, get the feel you want, and deal with the rest later.
As you can see, recording in a home studio requires much more preparation and planning than working in a professional studio. Essentially, you are trying to recreate what happens in a carefully designed recording studio in your home environment. This can be a great challenge even for a professional engineer, never mind the novice. Always let your ears be the best judge. If something sounds good to you, go with it. Don't concern yourself with looks or whether it is an "excepted" method for recording.
Finally, use reference recordings. If you are trying to get a particular sound from another recording, have it available to you when getting sounds. Even if there is no chance of capturing it exactly, at least you will be focussing your efforts in the right direction.
Once you have laid the basic tracks, it is time to prepare for the next phase of the music production process, Overdubbing. Overdubbing allows each part and performance to be focussed on in detail. Any variations of performance, pitch, tone and timing can be scrutinized until the desired effect is achieved. Click below to read more about this important phase of the music production process.