Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Multitrack Recording 101

It's official. The recording of "Elemental" has begun. I'm nowhere near my funding goal, but I'm moving forward with the money I have and hoping I eventually gain enough support to finish it. (To become involved in the making of this CD visit and I will be eternally grateful!)

I realize there are a lot of folks out there who have no idea how the recording process works, so I'm going to blog about it to educate those who are curious and to capture the journey of this particular project.

While some bands still go into a studio to record together to capture their songs as they are played live, many (if not most) do what is called multitracking. To multitrack is to lay down one instrument at a time. If one records the instruments at the same time, each instrument needs to be miced and isolated (or relatively isolated) from the other instruments, otherwise the mics pick up the other instruments (we call this "bleed"). If there are any mistakes on one instrument, it's harder to fix them if they are picked up on the other mics. Also, it can be harder to EQ the instruments individually if there's too much bleed.

I've always multitracked because I've never had the budget to go into a pro studio where each instrument can be recorded in a separate sound-proof space. Also, in the past my musical partner Tom was playing more than one instrument and unfortunately, we never found a way to clone him. Thanks to the availability of home recording gear and lots of moving blankets to deaden the space (my "fort-building" skills from childhood came in handy) I've recorded at home, in the drummer's basement, and even in a Sunday school room in a church. If you have the know-how, the right equipment (or good make-shift equipment), persistence, creativity, discernment, resourcefulness, a boatload of patience, and a quiet space, you can make a professional-quality recording anywhere.

So, how does this work? Since each musician will be recording to something that is recorded and there won't be any cues, you typically want to record to a click track. This is a metronome track (or in my case, a really basic drum machine track because I can't play to a metronome). I choose the exact tempo for the song, which is often something I agonize over since it's going to be "set in stone," then I record myself singing and playing guitar to that click track. This recording is called a scratch track and it's really just a blueprint used to build the song.

The first "real" track I capture is the drum track (if there's going to be drums on the song) since it is the rhythmic foundation the rest of the song will be built on. The drummer records to the scratch track. Then I record the bass, then my rhythm guitar. At this point, I can record lead instruments (guitar, piano, cello, etc.) or my vocal tracks. When I record the vocals, I record to the drum, bass, and guitar tracks that have been laid down and the scratch track is tossed out (scratched - hence the name).

Musicians generally record multiple takes of a song and whichever track is deemed best is used. Tracks can also be comped (composited), which means that you can splice together the good pieces from multiple takes. For instance, if you record two takes and you flubbed a note or a strum was a little late on the first one, you can replace the section with the mistake using that section from the second take. Sometimes this can be tricky depending on the instrument and what it's doing at the time, but a good engineer who knows his software can make it happen pretty easily unless the sound quality is too different between the two takes (for instance, if the instrument was farther away from the mic on one take or the musician was playing it very differently and the sound quality of the takes doesn't match).

So, that said, I am multitracking "Elemental" as I have always done. Except when I'm not...

Yesterday, we (Sean Gill, my patient engineer/sounding board/reality-checker) took the studio on the road to Doug Roche's house to record drums, bass, and piano in a "live" environment. It was a first for me and definitely much more fun than recording one person at a time. More about that in my next posting. Stay tuned...

If anyone has any questions about the process, the songs, or anything related to this project please post it and I'll be happy to answer it for you in my next posting.

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