Limitless audio. That’s the beauty of digital recording. I can record a lead vocal as many times as I want. I can have a guitarist come in and play a hundred different versions of a guitar solo. Then I can stay up until the wee hours of the morning, sifting through all the different takes to find the perfect one.

That’s a good thing, right?

Well, it can be. However, having all this hard drive space at our disposal can simply lead to more time-wasting than music-making.

It’s All in the Takes

Back when studios were primarily centered around analog tape, the engineers didn’t have the luxury of unlimited tracks or “copy and paste.” 

When it came time to track lead vocals, for example, the engineer would be lucky to have a few empty tracks available to record several takes. (By takes I mean recording multiple versions of the same part.)

It wasn’t uncommon for there to be only one track available for the lead vocal. What next? They would record the part until they got a great take, then they would “punch in” any parts that needed to be improved. Punching in required a lot of practice and skill. If you didn’t punch in at just the right moment, it could potentially ruin the track.

Now, with systems like Pro Tools, you can record as many takes as you want. You can have the singer sing through the song five or ten times if you want, then you can copy and paste the perfect “comp” after the fact.

Decisions, decisions

Just because we have the technology to record a ton of takes, does that necessarily mean we should? Like everything in recording, it depends on the situation. I’ll share a couple of examples from my experience where one approach made more sense over the other. I’d love to hear your stories in the comments section below.

Lead Vocals

Few sessions are as critical to a project as the lead vocal session. You want the vocalist to be on his game. You want him to be comfortable. 

For this reason, it’s a good idea to do multiple takes. I say no more than five. Have the vocalist warm up, then simply record five takes. You can record them to different tracks or different playlists. What I find is that the singer normally loosens up after a take or two. Usually the last three takes are great, and you’ve got enough to piece together a stellar performance later on.

I’ve done this in many vocal sessions, both when I’m recording another artist, and when I’m recording myself. It allows you to relax and record. However, it takes a lot of work to go back through all the takes and piece together a good comp.

A Quick Bass Part

Just last week I was asked to record bass on a quick 4-hour session. (It was actually in Studio A at the Sweetwater Studios.) The artist had four hours to track guitars, drums, vocals, bass, and piano for one song. The song also had to be mixed during the 4-hour time slot.

Obviously, we didn’t have the luxury of time on our hands. We recorded everything “analog” style. I practiced one take, then we hit record. I played until I messed up, then we’d stop, hit rewind a bit, and go from there. 

Was it a perfect performance? No. But it was still good. Rather than knowing in my head that I had five chances to get it right via multiple takes, I had to make myself focus to nail the part the first time. 

If you’re dealing with good musicians, or if you’re short on time, recording with one take like this just might be the ticket. Obviously, you may not get the very best performance, but I think you’ll be surprised what you come up with. (Heck, the Beatles didn’t have Pro Tools, and I think they did okay for themselves.)

Loop Recording

Loop recording is another way of doing multiple takes, and I couldn’t finish this article without at least mentioning it. It’s especially helpful if you want to nail down a specific part.

For example, let’s say there’s a 12-bar guitar solo after the second chorus. If your guitarist is like me, he’s not gonna nail it in one take. You can set Pro Tools (or any other DAW) to loop record around those twelve bars. It’ll basically play back and record the part over and over until you hit stop, and it will keep track of all the takes the guitarist performs. It’s a quick way to get a lot of takes without having to start and stop recording every time.

A word of warning: I’ve gotten lost many a time in the land of loop recording. I’ll think to myself, “Hey, I’ll just do a couple quick takes of this guitar part.” Then I’ll sit there for thirty minutes, trying to come up with a part, then trying to play it perfectly. It rarely works out, and I end up with a lot of wasted time and a pile of guitar takes that I’ll never use. 

Loop recording is good for trying out parts, but it’s better to figure those parts out during pre-production, not when you’re in the middle of a recording session.

Which method do you prefer? Do you record a lot of takes? Leave a comment. I’m really curious to find out how everyone deals with takes.

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  • Everett Meloy

    I record 3-5 times and have never tried to record is sections. Good ideal will try it out.

  • Rob

    Unfortunately for me(or fortunately depending on your perspective) my guitar takes are best the first time or second time, and it’s downhill from there.

    This is why I have a home studio. If I went to a pro studio, they’d throw me the hell out!

  • As a relative newbie to home recording (about 6 yrs. in) I’m still struggling to figure out some of the basics that folks who went to Full Sail or Berkley got in the first few weeks. I really appreciate the candid tone of your articles. Answers to questions in layman’s terms.

    That being said, I am wondering how to manage takes from loop recording. Seems like the temptation is to rack up 20 takes that will be difficult, if not impossible to manage in the editing stage. I am using Sonar, and the takes just pile up on the same track, making them really hard to analyze separately. I’m sure there’s a setting I could change that would place these takes somewhere else, right?

    I have been recording a local singer/songwriter lately and storing her vocal takes as an extension of the same track, separated by a few seconds that I cut out later. Then I can create a comp quickly and easily after auditioning the three or four pieces.

    • My main suggestion would be don’t do 20 takes. Loop recording is kinda convenient, but it makes you keep all takes, even the ones you didn’t mean to. Rather than letting it pile up 20 takes, just do 3 or 4. Your life will be much easier.

  • Stu

    Hello,

    Currently I record as many takes as necessary to get a perfect take (one that sounds best to my ears).

    I have a ton of hard drive space, so I’m not concerned about filling up my hard drive. And I ‘houseclean’ regularly, to get rid of takes that don’t cut the mustard.

    This is inefficient if you consider Pro Tools’ editing abilities, and considering I have very little time to spend recording. But until I learn to effectively use the editing power of Pro Tools the best approach for me is to continue to make as many takes as is required.

    Once I learn how to edit and ‘punch in’, etc., then my time will be better spent editing instead of making additional takes.

    Unfortunately Pro Tools is not something that is learned overnight so I will have to work somewhat inefficiently before I can start to work more efficiently, etc.

    Stu

    • Stu – Once you get more comfortable with Pro Tools editing, etc. I think you’ll find that you can get away with less and less takes. 🙂

  • Hi Joe! First off, thanks for visiting my site. When I record, I typically do a variation of the two ideas you list in the “It’s all in the takes” section. I’ll have the singer do complete main vocal lines until I “feel” that there’s a good take in there. This is usually no more than 4 or 5 takes. Then, I’ll quickly comp the parts on the fly. If I find there is a small line off, I’ll do punch-ins to clean it up.

    I’ll then proceed into doubling, harmonies and ad-libs. I rarely have the singer come back in at a later date to fix things. If I do it, it’s only if they insist. It’s difficult to match the feeling and the conditions of the original recording, and I feel that this makes the newer sections stand out too much.

    Cheers!

  • Great article Joe. This is something I’ve been going over in my head the last few days and wondering what others do. Recently, I’ve been recording my latest EP in Garageband, and I’ve actually been using a combination of loop recording and one take. Since Garageband doesn’t have a “comp” feature I will loop each part a few times, then pick the best take(the main reason I use it, I found myself wasting time comping in Logic).

    • Hey Scott. Sometimes simpler is better! Let me know when you finish some stuff. I’d love to hear it.