Beefy computer processors. Humongous track counts. More virtual instruments and plug-ins than anyone could possibly ever need. And it’s all relatively inexpensive.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather be a recording engineer in 2011 than 1981. There are so many advances in technology, so many cheap ways to get really good-sounding music. But is there a downside to all these options?

Absolutely.

Just because you can use 64 tracks on a song doesn’t mean you should. Granted, some songs really do need all those tracks to pull off the producer’s vision. But if you’re like me, sometimes you feel like all of your songs need to utilize all of this power you have at your fingertips. If your session has less than 24 tracks, you feel like you need to add some more to feel like you’re doing it right.

Wrong.

The Evolution of a Song

Let me play you an example of this.

When I was working on my album Out of Indiana, I had this one song that just wouldn’t behave. The song was called “Home.”

Here’s the very first recording of the song. It’s just a demo I recorded the night I wrote the song. Real simple. No click track. Just one mic. The goal was to just get the song recorded so I wouldn’t forget it. Here it is:

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This was probably my favorite song from the album. But once I was ready to start the actual recording process, I kept running into brick walls.

Unlike any other song on the album, I would work on this song, try to add all sorts of instruments, but nothing seemed right. Here’s my first attempt:

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Skip ahead to around 1:00. I added B3, bass, electric guitar, accordion…you know, the usual production stuff for me. Then I added some stacked background vocals on the chorus. All this kind of stuff had worked well on all the other songs on the album, but after hours of messing around with it…I just didn’t like it.

So, what did I do? I scratched everything but acoustic guitar and vocals, and I started over.

I came up with this:

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Start listening around 0:45. I added a string section, some noodly electric guitar parts, piano, a brushes drum kit and bass come in the second verse. Then on the 2nd chorus I bring in those background vocals, some strumming electric guitars. So on and so forth…

Still didn’t like it. It just sounded forced. It didn’t necessarily sound bad, but it sounded like I was trying too hard. This version actually sounded kinda cool around 3:00 when it builds back up to the final chorus, but I just wasn’t happy with it.

What’s a boy to do?

After giving this song several chances, I decided it worked best as a simple guitar-vocal. The final mix had three tracks: lead vocal and stereo-miked acoustic guitar. And it is by far my favorite version.

Here’s the final, mastered version from the album:

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Did I make the right choice? I think so. Perhaps you liked one of the other versions better? Or maybe you can hear the perfect production ideas in your head? I simply couldn’t improve the song myself, so I kept it very simple.

It worked for me.

Comment Question

Leave a comment below and answer this question: Are you working on a song and making it too complex? Are there ways you can simplify it? Tell us how.

[Photo by hooverine]

  • Jay

    I saw a pic of Mccartney when he recorded “Blackbird”. from the picture, if i remember right, they used 1 small diaphram condenser at about 45 degrees higher than him. One (1) mic, count’em…one. :) So I tried that..rather than doing a guitar track and vocal track, strangely enough, it works. The downside is you both the vocal and the guitar track right. Take it from me, use a click track! :) Don’t be like Dylan during his nashville sessions. :) They had to write up arrows and down arrows on the page so the session guys who came in to overdub could follow. :) Well, unless you are great like Dylan, then it doesn’t matter. :) :) I am not! :)
    Dang, wish I could sing like Joe though!
    Jay

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  • Augusto Correia

    The vocal/guitar track is the better by far.

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  • Jonas Jasi jansson

    Nice song. Think that last one was mostly suitable for this song. However that one with the build up in the end was nice to. If you would have had some of that kinda in the “in betweens” between the choruses and verses and bridges and well.. yeah you get the deal? Some small amount of that. Not so many instrument as you had but like… A bass track and some REALLY simple brush drums would have brunged out some extra.. And when you started singing again you could just do some melting in into the song and end it.. Just like a background music kinda. Almost untouchable :)
    Cheerio From sweden!
    Jonas Jasi Jansson ;) Search it on myspace :)

  • Midiman

    I liked the one of the other versions, but I agree with you on the final one with just the Acoustic Guitar and your Vocals! Wow! This really proves something I had asked on a forum about using all of those tracks-I always knew it didn’t take 25 to 50 tracks to make something nice and you have proved it right here! Thanks Joe! Be blessed!

    Midiman

  • Midiman

    I liked the one of the other versions, but I agree with you on the final one with just the Acoustic Guitar and your Vocals! Wow! This really proves something I had asked on a forum about using all of those tracks-I always knew it didn’t take 25 to 50 tracks to make something nice and you have proved it right here! Thanks Joe! Be blessed!

    Midiman

  • Andi

    great song, but I have to say, version 1 is my favourite, no joke!
    there, you can feel the moment!
    natural reverb, not to perfect…..

  • Hans Hulst

    I liked some of the ideas in both the second and the third fleshed out versions. Especially in the third version I heard a lot of potential. What didn’t work were not the arrangement ideas, but the fact that stuff just wasn’t locking. There were some timing issues, especially in the third version.

    I do think the song deserved more of an arrangement. Especially since admittedly this is one of the melodically stronger songs. It’s harder to get a guitar/vox song on the radio than a fleshed out arrangement with development and a climax…

  • Alex Charles1

    Well Mate, I have to say that I knew from the demo what was… and still is… ’cause it’s on the final mix. I’m looking forward to getting that kind of sound on my new MBOX PRO 3.
    It’s inspiring listening to your music and reading your tips. I’m so glad that audio is not full of all that noise they like to call music today… I can really pay attention to it and at the same time being blessed by a good song. The vocal’s great.

  • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

    He’s right that foam doesn’t really do anything for low-mids and lows. However, in my experience it DOES have its place in a studio. When I first broke down and bought some foam years ago, I noticed an immediate difference in the stereo image of my monitors. The high frequencies weren’t bouncing around all willy-nilly around the room, and I could hear panning changes much more easily.

    Did it improve my mixes? Maybe a tiny bit. The reality is that while you want to tame high frequencies a bit, the lows and low-mids are where all the issues lie. Bass trapping and broadband absorption are crucial to helping smooth out the low-frequency response of your room.

    I actually created a training course on this with a professional acoustical consultant. It’s got a lot of great info you should check out. http://www.UnderstandingYourRoom.com

    • dave

      Thanks Joe- I’ll check it out!

  • Jon

    Thank you for sharing this. I loved hearing the other versions, but I agree, you made the right decision in the end. Great song.

  • Tim Parkin

    I’m a great beleiver in that you use whatever resources you need to acheive the final result. Therefore, if you feel you only need a few tracks, then fine, more then use them, or somthing complex with 80+ tracks then fine, but don’t over complicate things just for the sake of it.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      “Don’t over complicate things just for the sake of it.” LOVE it.

  • rcamorim

    This is an interesting topic, although I don’t totally agree with it (I mean, all the time).
    Sometimes less is more, even in music, but not always.
    Can you imagine Moody Blues “Nights in white satin” being played with only one acoustic guitar, without the orchestra and chorus behind?
    Can you imagine Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (the whole album) only with one single instrument?
    Or Van Halen’s “Jump” without “all the meat”?

    Sure there were a lot of artists who made incredible songs with only one instrument, but even there, it’s easy for me to remember the original “yesterday” as performed by The Beatles as a great song, but it really shines (IMHO) with “the full thing” in Michael Bolton’s version.

    If you think about it, multitrack is no different than a real orchestra, where you have a lot of layered instruments and sounds.

    Should you use a lot of tracks just because you can? No!
    Does this mean that simple = better? No way, IMHO!

    Cheers

  • http://www.facebook.com/kaparte Kneil Aparte

    I think it’s all about keeping your songs organic. Michaelangelo once said that every piece of stone he sculpted was simply bringing out a form that was just hidden in the block and he simply brought those pieces to life. So, I think the same can be said about a song. Every song asks for something different be it mid-side mic, mono mic, or an accordian. it’s just simply bringing that piece to life as best as you can.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DreamsilentUK IVinnie Vincent

    Great post Joe, something I’ve also definitely learnt myself over time making and recording music. Goes back to a previous post you did about Arrangement – I will never stop espousing that Arrangement is everything! Leaving space helps instruments and vocals to breathe, and even in heavier styles of music can create stark contrast which adds dynamic and punch to the track.

    This reasoning was part of the reason I love my 16 channel desk so much. I’m constantly aiming to get even the busiest tracks I do down to 16 channels to fit within the limitations of my desk. Some people love endless limitations and unlimited tracks, but me I love limitations and aiming to strip something back to exactly whats necessary.

    Absolutely love this song too ;)

  • Shawn

    I agree. The song works best as a simple guitar and vocal.

  • Topjunkies

    Keep it simple. Instruments / extra tracks are to compliment the song. Having said that I’m working on a song now with 30 odd tracks yet it still sounds yet it sounds sparce. So…. whatever serves the song is best. We are recording a song right now, just vox, bass, acoustic guitar w/ a bit of piano. Our lead guitarist spent hours coming up with a beautiful solo. Even though its a great solo it clutters up the song so we kept it as is. Our guitarist wasn’t to happy but are they ever? lol.

  • Singerno11

    Yes I’m working on one of my songs and I’m stuck with wheather to add any more Tracks?…The song itself is a Love Song I wrote for people that live on an Island. Everytime I add more Guitar or Strings they seem to remove the flavor & passion?…..Maby
    LESS is MORE)…?
    Any advise would help! Thank You.

  • Mike

    I think you did the right thing. The final version is fantastic, simple and clear. Congrats Joe

  • John

    Less is often more…love the album Joe

  • Vince Panico

    I liked the mastered, simple version a lot. It got the point across and will probably sit nicely between the production numbers on the album – or maybe as the last song with a long fade out at the end. The problem that I heard on the production version was that everything was hitting on the same beat. That song would sound great with a lot of sycapated rythms (I am lost without spell checker). The drums and bass should not follow the guitar comps, they should compliment. Instead of strings, use a viola, or just a nice piano. Great job and thanks for the listen.

    Vince

  • Edward

    I love the simplicity of your final version. Although I could hear all kinds of other instruments in my head, this one is just awesome being simple. So is a guitar and voice the only possibility to keep something simple? Less is more as you say.

    I struggled with this very question last year on a song, and I added and added until garbage came out. YIKES! So I deleted and deleted until I was where you are, however I was still not happy. I added very faint bongos and the song took off.

    I would like to say one thing on simplicity if I may. I was walking to class at the University of Colorado on a cold and misty day listening to a Michael Jackson song back in 1983. I was really enjoying the song but I had to stop the tape (yes it was a cassette). I heard an ice cream truck somewhere nearby and I was floored by some idiot was selling ice cream in that kind of weather.

    I didn’t hear the truck anymore so I continued the song and discovered the ice cream truck sound was in the Michael Jackson song. I was so simple and faint that the flavor it added was outstanding. It was more of a feeling and not so much a discernible part. You really had to listen to hear it.

    So you asked, Joe, how I simplify my songs. Simplicity to me is not always “less is more”. Sometimes its where I place an instrument or vocal and how loud it is and how often I let it play. I learned this from a Professor who challenged the class to listen to several songs and pick out as many instruments as we could. We were all amazed by how much was “in the background”.

    I do hear some Bongo’s on your song though.

    Edward

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      HA! What Michael Jackson song was it?

  • http://twitter.com/HastingsCutoff Joe Cushman

    My biggest problem is not knowing when to stop adding parts to songs. I have this big problem with not being happy with conventional song structure, so I start adding riffs/leads/breakdowns/ambient sections/etc. Just so I don’t feel like I’m a writing a Verse/Chorus type song. This works for a lot of my stuff, but there’s also plenty of songs I’ve worked on that are at their best as just meat and potatoes rock and roll.

  • http://www.bobbyphillipps.net/ Bobby Phillipps

    I think it depends on the nature of the song. Some songs benefit from simplicity, some from being more lush and full. I write a lot of instrumental guitar rock, and some songs do just fine with a doubled rhythm, one lead, maybe two, drums and bass. Other songs, I’ve layered tons of different tracks doing different things. In the verses for one of my more recent tracks, “The Joker” I threw in a lot of background guitars to spice it up a little. http://bobbyphillipps.net/post/1690474571/citizens-of-the-internet-i-present-to-you-my

  • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

    I believe this was the M-Audio Luna and the Focusrite TrakMaster Pro. Nothing super-fancy.

  • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

    Thanks for the comments, Q. I completely see what you’re saying. That’s why I named this article: “Less is More? SOMETIMES.”

    Going the simplest route EVERY time would certainly be lazy and potentially boring.

  • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

    Which is hilarious, because “I Won’t Fly Away” has SO many tracks, and “Home” had hardly any. :-)

    • Hans Hulst

      Well, with “melodically potent” I refer to the composition not to the arrangements ;-)

      If you’re seriously involved in tracking songs and you hear a good composition it will generate melodic ideas for new parts automatically, just by listening to it. Both of these songs have this effect on me. Which is a complicated way of saying I like the songs, I guess ;-)

  • Bob

    Yeah sometimes less is more better. I can hear additions in MY head for this song, but by itself it woks I think. Does it follow the theme of the album? That’s sometimes a sticky thing too.

  • Garrett Sale

    Im a sucker for using way to many tracks, i used to use all of my available tracks on every session. Over time it has occurred to me, though, that you cant make a poorly written song sound good with tons/interesting production. And you can definitely take away from an excellent song with too much production, which you demonstrated very well in this post. Great song. You gave it all it needed.

    P.S. its amazing what the mastering did for the presence of the acoustic guitar

  • Kevin

    Nice job Joe. On the post and the song.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Bodah/760009773 Mark Bodah

    awesome post! SO easy to go overboard. and create white noise in the end…

  • http://twitter.com/chris_winter_ Chris Winter

    This post probably couldn’t come at a better time, a track I’m working on now has around 18 instruments playing at once (counting drums as only one) during parts of the song… I’m trying to figure out what sounds better, where etc. and trying to cut down what’s not needed.

    like joes third version I think my song sounds good in some parts with all these instruments going at once but im kind of stuck as the moment with what to lose… I will get there eventually, any suggestions? here is what I currently have: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1005317/need%20you%20draft.mp3

    (yeah Its not that good but I never class myself as a composer…) all the instruments are currently virtual ones until I get the arrangement sorted and its also not mixed at all yet.

  • http://www.intheboxproduction.com/ Heath Close

    Sounds good Joe. I think your right, sometimes too much going on takes away from the song. Your mastering sounds good, you master that?

    edit – i see in a previous comment you had an engy do it…

    I would have liked to hear that tamborine stay, or maybe a shaker, that would have sounded good but still simple, but im just bieing picky really. It sounds great the way it is.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Thanks Heath. I’m not saying that the song couldn’t have benefited from SOME production. But for whatever reason I just couldn’t make anything work. :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/hafizi.maula Mohd Hafizi

    Thanks joe for this post.. I got to tell you, honestly u really hit me in my head, recently I’ve been throwing a lot of stuff on the arrangement just because I want it to be not sounded empty, and by listening to the songs you made, is actually makes me realize the less was actually BETTER, as u did mentioned it’s sounded forced, yes finally I realized about what I have done after all this time.
    Anyway I’d really like the final version compare than others.
    thanks for the post joe :)

    • Noah

      yes, empty space is sometimes an crucial part of a song.

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  • Sbrave

    Is that your Taylor? Sounds great!

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Yup. That’s my 314ce.

  • Trent

    When you say “mastered” did you send it to a professional or did you “master” it yourself? Just curious.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      I actually had a mastering engineer master it. Glad I did.

      • Trent

        Are you willing to tell my who did it?

  • Thomas Maier

    Really liked the organ in your first attempt. Perhaps with an accoustic bass or fretless bass instead of an electric and just a second voice for the chours …
    And, what a beautiful song.
    Thomas (Brussels)

  • Koen

    Mostly a mastered version sounds better anyway, don’t you have a non-mastered version? It’s better to compare all mastered or all not mastered tracks to get a good picture of the songs

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Yeah, I just couldn’t find it. The point was not so much the master vs unmastered as the over-produced vs simplified.

  • Kevinblaine

    I can’t help but think this post is directly related to the conversation we had last night… ;)

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      :-) Not really. I planned this one a few weeks ago.

  • http://www.timshannonmusic.com Timothy-shannon

    Joe:

    It’s a toss up between Come Quickly and Home for my favorite tune, but I have to agree with you about the simplification. By far the last version is the best. The guitar hook is excellent and the rhythm guitar mute is just enough to keep the song moviing. Thanks for this post, I am glad I am not the only one who struggles with this. Want to know how I keep it simple? I let my wife listen. She always has a great opinion on whether I have ruined a song or not. Most of the time when I am “done” she comments on the business of the song. I still haven’t arrived at the spot where I can hear my own stuff for what it is.

    Thanks again,

    Tim Shannon

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      That’s EXACTLY what I did. I played these different versions for my wife, and with each one she said, “Eh…”

      :-)

  • Steve Hebert

    As always couldn’t agree more.

  • Bfunk1978

    Oddly enough, Home is my favorite track on the whole album, Joe. I really, really, really dig it.

  • Josh Deng

    Great post! It’s great to hear different iterations of your song.

  • Themodelbody

    I think you are right in that the sample was better in this case…. It was to over the top on the other mixes…..