Recording Foundation Tracks

(Part 2)

By Chris Gowland

Part 1 of this topic focused on the first track or two to be recorded – the critical metronome/click track that can drive the feel of all remaining tracks. Let’s move on from there.

Track 3: 

I suspect I may be alienating some of you by now, but stick with me. The reality is that you can do a few different things here depending on the comfort and ability of your players. You now need to discover for yourself what works best for the band. To start, consider this simple equation:

Energy and Emotion of Song Performance =
(Performer Comfort + Confidence / Song Strength) * Contagious Enthusiasm x Pi

Obviously, from this we can derive that multiple band members playing together may draw on each other’s enthusiasm and deliver greater performance energy and emotion than if they recorded their parts alone in separate takes. Playing concurrently in sight of each other can evoke more feeling and let them lock into each other in a way you can actually feel in the recording. So for this track, you might want to capture the bass and rhythm guitar parts concurrently, or the rhythm guitarist and vocalist.

Redfish Bluefish Artwork
Spontaneous artwork from the vocal booth

In addition to The Cranks, my kids play bass and drums in another band called Redfish Bluefish. When we recorded their EP Good Morning Sunshine, we were able to get great results by laying down bass, drums and rhythm guitar all at once. With this approach, some extra effort had to be taken to isolate each instrument’s sound on its own track. You don’t want instruments to ‘bleed’ across tracks taking away the ability to control each one individually. We kept the drum sounds from bleeding into other mics by putting Connor in a separate room – but the key to the energy came from hooking up a webcam so he could see the rest of the band and feel connected! We also had the lead vocalist, Hanna, locked away in the furnace room and gave her a big drawing board and sharpies. The result, she was completely at ease in her creative zone and delivered great vocals…as well as some awesome artwork. It’s really all about comfort.

Go ahead and try laying down several tracks at once if your system can record multiple concurrent tracks and if space allows you to avoid each instrument’s output bleeding into the other’s input.  The choice of a single track at a time or more of a live capture of several really depends on what makes the players comfortable and confident, yet allows them to be the most energetic and expressive in their playing (see awesome equation above).

Back to Track 3: The Chicken…No, the Egg…No the Chicken

Let’s say you’re going to go with a single track at a time. Which comes first? If your guitarist, when playing all alone to just a click, frequently loses her place in the song, you might need a vocal track as a reference, but your vocalist hasn’t developed perfect pitch, and needs to sing along to a key reference (the guitar), so…uh back to the guitarist. This is always tricky. Solution – have the singer sing live First Instrument Tracks: Pick One(without even recording) to provide the cues to the song structure where verses and choruses begin and end and your guitarist will be able to focus on playing instead of worrying “is this the 2nd or 3rd verse?”. Capturing this track is called a ‘scratch’ vocal and can include simple instructions like “instrumental comes next” if the lyrics don’t provide enough of a roadmap.

I know. I’m bucking the system.

It is more conventional to record the rhythm section (drums and bass tracks) before tackling other instruments. This locks down a strong, steady foundation that will allow more expressive instruments to ‘sit in the mix’ and introduce emotion and dynamics. But we’re talking about young players and a less than pro studio, so there are reasons to break with tradition. An inexperienced drummer will likely get lost in the song without any reference tracks, and recording drums may use all of your inputs and mics, making it impossible to concurrently record bass or have a vocalist providing live cues. For those reasons, I’ve often had better luck getting a rhythm guitar and ‘scratch’ vocal down. I find young players tend to follow along to those more easily for subsequent tracks, and if the rhythm track lacks dynamics or energy, you can always go back and replace it later and just accept that it was an investment that got you out of the starting gate. A good question to ask is “who has the steadiest rhythm in the band?” That will tell you what your first track should be.

So try a few approaches. Occasionally walk away for a while and come back to listen with fresh ears. Just don’t give up or move on until the foundation feels truly steady and solid. Without that, every other track you record and every edit you try to make will feel like trying to work against a moving target.

So, what tracks do YOU do first when you start a song?

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