This is the first article in a series examining three key components in the music recording process: tracking, mixing, and mastering.
Tracking is the actual recording of an instrument or voice that will be used in a song or tune. Each instrument is given its own track or file on the computer. In some cases the instruments are recorded at different times and play to a rhythm track that was recorded earlier. In acoustic music the rhythm track may include the rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and click track, which will be heard by the artist through headphones during recording. The click track is generated by the software and computer and provides a highly accurate tempo. Playing or singing to a click track can be a severe test to an artist used to “doing their own thing.” Ideally, each instrument and voice will have its own track. In some cases, an instrument may have more than one track.
Drums sets are often set up with microphones assigned to each drum and cymbal. Different microphones are usually used that accentuate the particular sound; for example, a microphone that brings out the highs would be used to record the high hat. Acoustic guitars will often have one microphone on the body and one on the neck. The purpose is to give a fuller richer voice to the guitar. When recording a group, the group are sometimes recorded together — for example, using one microphone for all the vocals and leads — to produce a live-music sound. Alternatively, each instrument and voice can be recorded separately and mixed together later, using the dreaded click track to hold it all together. The goal of the recording will determine the way a CD is tracked. There are some general principles that, when followed, result in the best product.
- Pick a location where the sound can be controlled — preferably, a recording studio. Often there is sound insulation to keep outside sounds out and to prevent inside sounds from bouncing back, helping to maintain a “clean” sound. When you walk into most studios, you might notice a lack of sound, like the sort of quiet one experiences when it snows.
- Choose the most suitable mic for each instrument and voice. Some microphones just make a voice or instrument sound better. A studio should have as wide a variety of microphones as possible. There are some high priced microphones, especially for voice, really can demonstrate why they cost what they do. Some microphones may be just niche microphones used for a single purpose. Trial and error works well here. Record a voice or instrument playing the same music by the same person with a number of different microphones then compare the results side by side (aka, A-B testing). We have found that some instruments sound great recorded with what might be considered a lower-tier microphone.
- Microphone placement is key. Slight changes in microphone placement can greatly effect the sound. Also, while recording a musician may unintentionally move and change the sound. A talented, experienced sound engineer watches closely for such changes. “Move a little to your right please.” “Move a little closer, please.” When playing you may not notice the difference; however, from the booth, the difference can be huge. (This is a topic worth much more investigation; check out Microphone Techniques (Shure) & , and 10 Microphone Placement Techniques for Acoustic Guitar (Cakewalk).
- Get as complete separation of sound from instruments when playing together. When playing together in the studio, the engineer will use a number of techniques to separate the sound. When recording two musicians a wall can be put up between them to separate the sound. Avoiding spill — the infusion of one instrument into the track of another — helps later in the mixing process.
- Record quality music. Even the best musicians and top-shelf instruments can’t make a poor song sound good.
- Use the best instruments and voices available. The music will only be as good as the sounds used. Be aware that a great live jam instrument might not be desirable in the studio. An instrument that sings out in a jam may be too “boomy” in the studio.
Ian Shepherd has written an excellent article about tracking; see 10 Techniques For Achieving Outstanding Music Mixes on his Production Advice website. Per Ian, the title is a bit misleading as the article is about tracking. Remember, good mixes come from excellent tracking.
The next article in this series will cover mixing.