Yesterday I received the following question from Kyle:

Everyone has their own flavor on how they record, in terms of tracking everything to a click track, recording a certain group of instruments at the same time, etc. My question is directly related to this.

decisions, decisions

A little background… I have a progressive bluegrass band here in Michigan and we are currently recording our second CD, with much original material.

The first CD was tracked one instrument at a time with a click track. This was mainly because I didn’t have enough mics. (now I have 4) While the sound clarity and quality was pretty good, there was this “disconnect” that I couldn’t pin down to any particular instrument. We went ahead and released it anyway because we needed something to sell but I wanted a “tighter” sound.

On the second CD, which I’m about 60% done recording, I’ve decided to try recording the guitar, mandolin and bass, then track everything else separately. The music is MUCH tighter. I don’t have isolation booths so I am getting some bleed-over, so the sound quality is not the greatest in comparison to the first project. Plus, you get more imperfections because what are the odds that everyone will play the same take perfectly?

My question is: in a perfect world, which method of recording should I be spending most of my time mastering? What method do you and most engineers use? I see pros and cons on both sides and would love to know what others out there are doing. Thanks Joe. Love the site man.

Kyle is asking a question that all of us will ask at some point or another. Do we go for that live feel and hope for the best? Or do we track everything separately and risk the music sounding a bit sterile and lifeless?

Here’s my email back to Kyle:

FANTASTIC question, Kyle.

The short answer is…I think you should master both tecniques. One client may be a band, and they may play really tight together and have a lot of energy. I would do my best to capture that energy live.

Your next client might be a singer/songwriter who only plays guitar and sings, but he wants you to put together a full production around his songs. Chances are you’ll record him first, then go through and add the other instruments…you COULD do this live, but it’d be a little more difficult “hiring out” the parts to other musicians and making them commit to rehearsing until they get the sound you want.

Granted, here in Nashville they’ll hire session musicians all day long. They’ll rehearse the song 2 or 3 times in the studio, then they’re ready to record.

Most of us aren’t dealing with musicians of this caliber, and that’s okay, but that would be a good reason to add instruments one at a time. There’s the potential to lose some of the energy this way, but it can also sound tighter.

In the end, every decision you make, whether you’re arranging, producing, recording, editing, mixing, or mastering, should be made by asking “what’s best for the song?”

If a band is at its best when they all play together, then there’s your answer. Don’t force them to overdub the tracks if the performance is clearly better when everyone’s playing.

I’ll take a good recording of an incredible performance over an incredible recording of a mediocre performance…any day.

Comment Question

Your turn to weigh in. Which way to you record the most? What problems do you face? How do you address these problems? Take 60 seconds to leave a comment now…thanks!

[Photo by rocketjim54]

  • Matt Chapek

    How do you deal with bleeding into the other mics if recording live? My concern is, say I prefer micing acoustic guitars and really the only things I typically track directly in would be Keys and Bass. How do you do this with out making it an editing nightmare in post? I understand you can always track vocals later and just get a scratch during the live passes but if I start tracking individually for better editing purposes why not do all of it that way? You say because they may lose that energy and emotion but I just need tips of protecting the signals from bleed through. I have tracked hundreds of guitars in my amp isolation boxes but that doesn’t always help with getting that FEELING with live passes. Any advice? Thanks.

    • Can’t really protect it from bleed completely. With electric guitar it’s easier because you can put the amp in another room fairly easily. Bass can go direct. So can keys.
      For me, tracking live involves drums, bass, electric, keys. Since I don’t have a separate isolated room, I don’t do any acoustic guitar or vocals during tracking. I’ll record those beforehand as “scratch” Tracks, then re-record as needed.
      That way I capture the vibe of several players in a room, but I also get the benefits of overdubbing when it comes to instruments like acoustic guitar.
      This month at Dueling Mixes we’re mixing a song that was tracked in one room, INCLUDING acoustic guitar. There’s a lot of drum bleed in the acoustic, so it makes for a fun challenge, but not a nightmare.
      Joe

  • John Davis

    Why isn’t there a way to record each musicians instrument into a separate track simultaneously while they all play, as well as make a separate “all inclusive” track that includes all instruments at once?

    • There is. Just route all the tracks to an aux and then route that aux to an audio track. Boom! 🙂

  • Hans Hulst

    What I mostly do with my band (check fragments here: http://www.hanshulst.nl/muziek.html ) is utilizing both methods at the same time. We track bass, drums and guitar live + a scratch vocal with our singer in the conrtol room. The rest of the players is in the same room, but bass is di, so no bleed, and the guitar amplifier is in another room.

    We make sure we get three complete passes. Due to the separation and the unity in tempo we can always men minor mistakes, for instance in the bass line. Mostly we decide on the best take right away and repair a bit here and there. Main priority is that the drums are fine. Punching in a bit of guitar or bass is relatively easy. So the deciding factor is always the drums.

    I think with this method you get the tight band feel and still have a lot of options to overdub or repair without worrying about bleed…

  • I use both methods often, when I’m recording my band I like to keep it at one take because during rehearsals we decided to record ourselves using a Roland R-05 to see what needed improving on the song. I noticed that although the playing wasn’t fantastic (it was one of the first practices on that song) the “groove” sound amazing, we were all locked in with each other and the song was very tight even though the wasn’t even a particular tempo we were aiming for the tempo only changed a few BPM. When recording the song properly we had the exact same equipment and placement but had everything miced up, sure there was bleed from microphones but not as much as was thought. I and one of the bass players (don’t ask) were on DI, the way the studio was configured the DI could only be herd via headphones so I was essentially mute in the live room (the bass player was also in a miced amp). the result was amazing, because we got a really good sound in the live room there was not much mixing needed… everyone wins 😀

    but on my own stuff I layer stuff as I can’t play all the instruments at once, the “jam” is lost but its the only way I can work with my own personal stuff. its not worse or better… its just different.

  • I end up recording all tracks separately because of the singer/songwriter feel. I do run into the problem of it sounding a bit passionless, however. Not sure how I would get around that if I wanted to EQ and compress vocals and guitar separately, though.

  • Bouben

    My experience is, that you can have a feeling of a whole band tracked separately track by track if your recording environment (room) is similar for each instrument and recorded with properly positioned mics (one guitar is too close, another too far..etc.). Also, mixing process plays a very important part in it. But playing live make improvisations in a studio possible and that is something I would prefer any time if I had enough equipment.

  • I generally prefer to record as live as possible though I spent years writing music that was MIDI plus overdubs.

    I just finished up recording in a jazz guitar ensemble, 5 guitars plus rhythm section playing very challenging arrangements of bebop solos. We went back and forth on the best way to record. The band was very well rehearsed, It is difficult to nail perfect takes with this music. Playing with a click was too stiff. The drummer holds the time really well so he got a countoff in his headphones and we went from there. As it turned out we were able to comp sections from takes and still retain a live feel. The bass player was in a booth but the rest of us were in the main studio without cans (except the drummer). We will live with the bleed! I think it is going to turn out well. A bunch of guest soloists are coming in. We’ll see how it all turns out. LA Wirechoir featuring Tim May, Grant Geissman, Tom Ranier, and a host of others…

  • Craig Fraser

    For me it depends on the style of music that’s being recorded.

    Most of the jazz trio type stuff that comes into the studio has, generally, solid players who can lay down a great performance take after take. I prefer to capture them “live” and the players usually want that as well.

    For modern rock, new-country, pop etc. I prefer to get them on a click and capture just the drums and perhaps bass 1st, then overdub the rest. The players aren’t often “session calibre” so they need extra passes at the material to get a passionate performance or performances that I can comp into the track. Also, having everything pocketed for those styles makes timing out delays and fun effects etc. waaaaaay easier.

    If you feel out the energy/personality of the people involved in the project and let them know the pro’s and con’s of each style, you’ll end up with something that everyone is happy with.

  • C.Gunn

    I have been recorded both ways over the last 20 years, and also play New Acoustic music. The band sound is definitely going to capture magic, but 9 times out of 10 it’s best to do a combo in my experiences with a “band” that is a unit. Record a scratch track playing all instruments and take a listen. Any retracking can be done one at a time and still preserve the energy – ie each retracked instrument plays with the original recordings’ energy. Not a perfect solution, but has worked well for us .

  • What I did for the last project was put the drummer, bass and guitar player in the same room for eye contact and recorded the bass and guitar direct (all wearing headphones of course). In the control room i had the vocalist and the horns all playing live into a single track just to help guide the drummer. The goal was to get a good drum performance and if I got lucky the bass and guitar would be usable as well. The drums turned out pretty good so I’ll start overdubbing the additional parts. (bass, guitar, keys, horns and then vocals)

  • Letzter Geist

    i almost always do one track at a time recorded to a click. this is mainly because i only record myself and sometimes bring in other members of my band to record other parts. i like this cause i can kind of record on my own schedule and not have to wait for all 5 members of the band to show up all at once. it does kind of loose its energy this way but overall i think it sounds great.

  • Freekvrijhof

    mostly overdubbing each instrument, just because; first ;I haven’t got more microphones second; I haven’t got enough musicians. maybe it sounds a bit less energetic, but it does the job for now.

  • I like recording everyone together and then overdubbing in keyboard, guitar parts and vocals. It helps keep the bass and drums in a groove together. I still use a click track if possible, in case something needs to comped in editing. However, in my own set-up I often have to record one track at a time due to space and equipment limitations. It can work great, you just have to work at it.