by Bruce Bartlett © 2006
"We're rolling. Take One." These words begin the recording session. It can be an exhilarating or an exasperating experience, depending on how smoothly you run it. The musicians need an engineer who works quickly yet carefully. Otherwise, they may lose their creative inspiration while waiting for the engineer to get it together. And the client, paying by the hour, wastes money unless the engineer has prepared for the session in advance.
This chapter describes how to conduct a multitrack recording session. These procedures should help you keep track of things and run the session efficiently.
There are some spontaneous sessions -- especially in home studios -- that just "grow organically"
without advance planning. The instrumentation is not known until the song is done! You just try out different musical ideas and instruments until you find a pleasing combination. In this way, a band that has its own recording gear can afford to take the time to find out what works musically before going into a professional studio. In addition, if the band is recording itself where it practices, the microphone setup and some of the console settings can be more or less permanent. This chapter, however, describes procedures usually followed at professional studios, where time is money.
Long before the session starts, you're involved in preproduction -- planning what you're going to do at the session, in terms of overdubbing, track assignments, instrument layout, and mic selection. Let's go over the details.
The first step is to find out from the producer or the band what the instrumentation will be and how many tracks will be needed. Make a list of the instruments and vocals that will be used in each song. Include such details as the number of tom toms, whether acoustic or electric guitars will be used, and so on.
Next, decide which of these instruments will be recorded at the same time and which will be overdubbed one at a time. It's common to record the instruments in the following order, but there are always exceptions:
1. Loud rhythm instruments -- bass, drums, electric guitar, electric keyboards
2. Quiet rhythm instruments -- acoustic guitar, piano
3. Lead vocal and doubled lead vocal (if desired)
4. Backup vocals (in stereo)
5. Overdubs -- solos, percussion, synthesizer, sound effects
6. Sweetening -- horns, strings
The lead vocalist usually sings a reference vocal or scratch vocal along with the rhythm section so that the musicians can get a feel for the tune and keep track of where they are in the song. The vocalist's performance in this case is recorded but probably is redone later.
In a MIDI studio, a typical order might be:
1. Drum machine (playing programmed patterns)
2. Synthesizer bass sound
3. Synthesizer chords
4. Synth melody
5. Synth solos, extra parts
6. Vocals and miked solos
Now you can plan your track assignments. Decide what instruments will go on which tracks of the
multitrack recorder. The producer may have a fixed plan already.
What if you have more instruments than tracks? Decide what groups of instruments to put on each track. In a 4-track recording, for example, you might record a stereo mix of the rhythm section on tracks 1 and 2, then overdub vocals and solos on tracks 3 and 4. Or you might put guitars on track 1, bass and drums on track 2, vocals on track 3, and keyboards on track 4.
Remember that when several instruments are assigned to the same track, you can't separate their images in the stereo stage. That is, you can't pan them to different positions -- all the instruments on one track sound as if they're occupying the same point in space. For this reason, you may want to do a stereo mix of the rhythm section on tracks 1 and 2, for instance, and then overdub vocals and solos on tracks 3 and 4.
It's possible to overdub more than four parts on a 4-track recorder. To do this, bounce or pingpong
several tracks onto one. Your recorder manual describes this procedure.
If you have many tracks available, leave several tracks open for experimentation. For example, you can record several takes of a vocal part using a separate track for each take, so that no take is lost. Then combine the best parts of each take into a single final performance on one track. Most DAWs let you do these extra takes on virtual tracks. It's also a good idea to record the monitor mix on one or two unused tracks. The recorded monitor mix can be used as a cue mix for overdubs, or to make a recording for the client to take home and evaluate.
Once you know what you're going to record and when, you can fill out a session sheet (Figure 1). This simple document is adequate for home studios. "OD" indicates an overdub. Note the recorder-counter time for each take, and circle the best take.
Figure 1. A session sheet for a home studio.
In a professional recording studio, the planned sequence of recording basic tracks and overdubs is listed on a production schedule.
Example production schedule:
1. Record bass, drums and keyboards with scratch vocal.
2. Overdub rhythm guitar.
3. Overdub lead guitar solo.
4. Overdub sax solo.
5. Overdub lead vocal.
6. Overdub two backround vocals.
Another document used in a pro studio is the track sheet or multitrack log (Figure 2). Write down
which instrument or vocal goes on which track. The track sheet also has blanks for other information. If you are using a DAW, you can enter this information by typing it on-screen.
Figure 2: Example track sheet (multitrack recorder log).
Microphone Input List
Make up a microphone input list similar to Figure 3:
Figure 3. A microphone input list.
Later you will place this list by the mic snake box and by the mixing console. Be flexible in your microphone choices -- you may need to experiment with various mics during the session to find one giving the best sound with the least console equalization. During leadguitar overdubs, for example, you can set up a direct box, three close-up microphones, and one distant microphone -- then find a combination that sounds best.
Find out what sound the producer wants -- a "tight" sound; a "loose, live" sound; an accurate, realistic sound. Ask to hear recordings having the kind of sound the producer desires. Try to figure out what techniques were used to create those sounds, and plan your mic techniques and effects accordingly.
Instrument Layout Chart
Work out an instrument layout chart, indicating where each instrument will be located in the studio, and where baffles and isolation booths will be used (if any). In planning the layout, make sure that all the musicians can see each other and are close enough together to play as an ensemble.
Setting Up the Studio
About an hour before the session starts, clean up the studio to promote a professional atmosphere. Lay down rugs and place AC power boxes according to your layout chart. Now position the baffles (if any) on top of what has gone before. Put out chairs and stools according to the layout. Add music stands and music-stand lights. Run headphone cables from each artist's location to the headphone junction box in the studio. Place mic stands approximately where they will be used. Wrap one end of a microphone cable around each microphone-stand boom, leaving a few extra coils of cable near the mic-stand base to allow slack for moving. Run the rest of the cable back to the mic input panel or snake box. Plug each cable into the appropriate wall-panel or snake-box input, according to your mic input list. Some engineers prefer to run cables in reverse order, connecting to the input panel first and
running the cable out to the microphone stand. That procedure leaves less of a confusing tangle at the input panel where connections might be changed. Now set up the microphones. Check each mic to make sure its switches are in the desired positions. Put the mics in their stand adapters, connect the cables, and balance the weight of each boom against the microphone. Finally, connect the musicians' headphones for cueing. Set up a spare cue line and microphone for last-minute changes.
Setting Up the Control Room
Having prepared the studio, run through this checklist to make sure the control room is ready for the session:
1. Pull all the patch cords from the patch panel (if any).
2. If necessary, patch console bus 1 to recorder track 1, bus 2 to track 2, and so on.
3. Check out all the equipment to make sure it's working.
4. Label the blank recording medium with the artist, date, and reel number. If you're recording on
a DAW, type in this information on screen along with the file name.
5. Insert the blank medium in the recorder.
6. Normalize or zero the console by setting all switches and knobs to "off," "zero," or "flat" so they
have no effect.
7. Switch on phantom powering for condenser microphones.
8. Set the console input-selector switches (if any) to "mic" or "line" as needed.
9. Attach a designation strip of masking tape across the front of the console. Referring to your mic
input list, write on the strip the instrument each fader affects (bass, kick, guitar, etc.). Also label the submasters and monitor-mixer knobs according to what is assigned to them.
10. Turn up the monitor system. Carefully bring up each fader one at a time and listen to each microphone. You should hear normal studio noise. If you hear any problems such as dead or noisy microphones, hum, bad cables, or faulty power supplies, correct them before the session.
11. Verify the mic input list. Have an assistant scratch each mic grille with a fingernail and identify the instrument the microphone is intended to pick up. If you have no assistant, listen on headphones as you turn up one mic at a time and listen for background noise.
12. Check all the cue headphones by playing a tone or music through them and listening while wiggling each cable.
This is the typical sequence of events:
1. For efficiency, record the basic rhythm tracks for several songs on the first session.
2. Do the overdubs for all the songs in a dubbing session.
3. Mix all the tunes in a mixdown session.
4. Edit the tunes and master the album.
After the musicians arrive, allow them 1/2 hour to 1 hour free setup time for seating, tuning, and mic placement. Show them where to sit, and work out new seating arrangements if necessary to make them more comfortable.
Once the instruments are set up, you may want to listen to their live sound in the studio and do what you can to improve it. A dull-sounding guitar may need new strings, a noisy guitar amp may need new tubes, and so on. Adjust the studio lighting for the desired mood.
Before you start recording, you might want to make connections to record the monitor mix. This recording is for the producer to take home to evaluate the performance.
When you're ready to record the tune, briefly play a metronome to the group at the desired
tempo, or play a click track (an electronic metronome) through the cue system. Or just let the
drummer set the tempo with stick clicks.
Start recording. Note the recorder counter time. Hit the slate button (if any) and announce the name of the tune and the take number.
You might have someone play the keynote of the song (for tuning other instruments later). Then the group leader or the drummer counts off the beat, and the group starts playing.
The producer listens to the musical performance while the engineer watches levels and listens for audio problems. As the song progresses, you may need to make small level adjustments. As stated before, the recording levels are set as high as possible without causing distortion.
Balancing the instruments at this time is done with the monitor mixer. The monitor mix affects only what is being heard, not what is being recorded.
The assistant engineer (if any) runs the multitrack recorder and keeps track of the takes on the track sheet, noting the name of the tune, the take number, and whether the take was complete (Figure 1). Use a code to indicate whether the take was a false start, nearly completed, a "keeper," and so on.
While the song is in progress, don't use the solo function, because the abrupt monitoring change may disturb the producer. The producer should stop the performance if a major flub (mistake) occurs but should let the minor ones pass.
At the end of the song, the musicians should be silent for several seconds after the last note. Or, if the song ends in a fade-out, the musicians should continue playing for about 30 seconds so there is enough material for a fade-out during mixdown.
After the tune is done, you can either play it back or go on to a second take. Set a rough mix with the aux knobs. If you connected your multitrack to the insert jacks, use the faders to set a rough mix with EQ and effects. The musicians will catch their flubbed notes during playback; you just listen for audio quality.
Now record other takes or tunes. Pick the best takes. To protect your hearing, try to limit tracking
sessions to three hours or less.
After recording the basic or rhythm tracks for all the tunes, add overdubs. A musician listens to previously recorded tracks over headphones and records a new part on an open track.
If several open tracks are available, you can record a solo overdub in several takes, each on a
separate track or virtual track. This is referred to as “comping” or “recording composite tracks.”
After recording all the takes, play back the solo and assign all the overdubbed tracks to a remaining open track set in record mode. You will bounce all the solo tracks to a composite track. Match the levels of the different takes. Then switch the overdubbed tracks on and off (using muting), recording just the best parts of each take. Finally, erase or archive the original tracks to free them up for other instruments.
If you are recording on a recorder-mixer, usually you can record several takes on virtual tracks,
then comp those virtual tracks during mixdown. If you are recording on a computer DAW, you can
simply cut and paste the best parts of each take onto a single track, then archive the source tracks. Cakewalk Sonar Producer lets you record several takes on one track, view all the take waveforms as “lanes” in that track, select the best parts of each take, and create a composite track of those parts.
Drum overdubs are usually done right after the rhythm session because the microphones are already set up, and the overdubbed sound will match the sound of the original drum track.
Overdubbing in the Control Room
To aid communications among the engineer, producer, and musician, have the musician play in the control room while overdubbing. You can patch a synth or electric guitar into the console through a direct box, and feed the direct signal to a guitar amp in the studio via a cue line. Pick up the amp with a microphone, and record and monitor the mic signal.
When the session is over, tear down the microphones, mic stands, and cables. Put the microphones back in their protective boxes and bags. Wind the mic cables onto a power-cable spool, connecting one cable to the next. Wipe off the cables with a damp rag if necessary. Some engineers hang each cable in big loops on each mic stand. Others wrap the cable "lasso style" with every other loop reversed. You learn this on the job. Put the labeled recording in its box. Also in the box, or in a file folder, put the designation strips, track sheet, and take sheet. Label the box and folder. Normally the studio keeps the multitrack master for possible future work unless the group wants to buy or rent it.
Log the console settings by writing them in the track sheet or reading them slowly into a portable recorder. At a future session you can play back the recording and reset the console the way it was for the original session. Consoles or DAWs with automated mixing can store and recall the control settings.
Copyrighted 2006 by Deltamedia. May not be reproduced in whole or part without permission.