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]