By Chris Gowland
Really? Yes, really. A co-worker of mine once provided an interesting answer to the question:
“How should you go about eating an entire elephant?”
The answer was “you just start”. Recording a song might be as daunting, but your initial approach needs to be a bit more calculated and methodical. If you botch the foundation tracks, you can bet that the rest of the process will be torturous and may have to be scrapped altogether. In my last two blog posts I described choices for entry level recording platforms and outlined a general process for achieving high quality results from almost any of them.
Now its time to get down and dirty and record some tracks and try to avoid some downstream headaches.
Track 1: The Metronome
A.k.a. the “click track”, this establishes the tempo for the song and especially for young players, is critical for grounding all subsequent tracks to the beat of the song. This track will be played back as each player lays down their instrument track but won’t be audible in the final recording. If you’re on a PC-based DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or all-in-one porta-studio type platform, chances are you’ll be able to just turn on a click track as an option and it will click away as you record. Otherwise, you could record an electronic or mechanical metronome with a mic onto an empty track just like any instrument.
You’ll need to set the tempo in beats per minute (BPM) and I’ll warn you – double check this before you move on. If you have a rough recording of the band playing the song in practice or live, use it as a tempo benchmark but be aware of the Red Bull factor. Live show jitters and excitement tend to make those performance recordings a bit on the fast side so drop it back a notch from there. I’ll never forget listening back to ”Something from Nothing” on The Crank’s first CD after having recorded it in the band’s first session off site in a “real” studio. The song had a bit of adrenaline-induced turbo charge that none of us felt as we laid down the tracks. It turned out fine in the end, just had a little different feel than we had planned.
Track 2: What – We’re Only on Track 2?
If the tempo is right, but the monotony of the click track doesn’t do justice to the groove of the song, an optional step at this point is to have the drummer lay down a simple “groove track” to the click track that has more “feel” to it. If someone in the band can “beat box” (it’s that thing, you know, where they thump their chest and make percussion sounds with their mouth) you could even record a track of that for the base tempo – as long as it is consistent throughout. On that note, if your drummer can’t lay down a whole track of the drum groove, just take a single well-played measure of the track and copy/paste it over the song duration. Once you have a groove track, mute the original click track and record the rest of the tracks against this backdrop – that will eventually be replaced by an actual drum part with fills and variety.
I think you’re ready to hear this now. You should expect to spend about 3 times as long on the first few tracks compared to later ones. It’s just the way it goes, but be patient. If you get these wrong, nothing else will go right and you’ll end up throwing away a lot of hard work. On “Downside Up”, The Cranks probably could have called “Under Radar”, “Under Radar 2” for being a little too anxious to charge ahead the first time through the initial tracks. Glad we started over, but yikes that’s frustrating. Now go back and triple check that tempo!
Go give these techniques a try and get something started. I’ll be back with part 2 next week – including some unexpected strategies for creating tracks 3, and 4.
Has anyone out there used anything else for a click track that worked particularly well?