Q. What's the best order for recording a band?

Published in SOS December 2010
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Sound Advice : Recording

Paul White

I'm going to be recording my band's new album and it's my first big project, so I'd like a bit of advice. It's a rhythm & blues band consisting of drums, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, acoustic guitar, bass guitar and lead and backing vocals. I have a limited number of mics, so I'll be recording sources separately. The question is: in what order do I do this? The band are pretty tight, but I don't think the drummer would like playing to a click track with no reference to the song itself. I seem to get mixed views on this: I know the normal way is drums first, but what would be best for this band?

Via SOS web site

SOS Editor In Chief Paul White replies: It always gives the best feel if the band play together, even if it's only drums plus a rough mix as a guide of the other instruments and a vocal, recorded down one mic, as these can be replaced later. Of course, you also need to minimise spill, so using POD‑style devices and headphones for guitars and bass can help in getting the guide parts down and avoids the need for a mic, though you may need a small mixer. Otherwise, put the drums in a different room from the guitar amps. Some people manage by recording just the drums and bass together, but trying to do the drums on their own is asking for problems, as the feel will never be quite right.

If the music is of a type where the drummer is happy to play to a click track, you could always record the separate parts to a click or guide drum loop, then have the drummer put the drums on last. But, again, you could lose all your feel that way.

SOS Reviews Editor Matt Houghton adds: With a genre like rhythm & blues, the feel of the playing is so critical to getting a good result. There are plenty of great recordings where most parts were played with everyone in the room to get a good vibe. As Paul suggests, you need the rhythm section, in particular, to be really hitting the groove, and with that in mind, I would certainly want to track at least the drums and bass together as a starting point. You could have both playing in the same room, using a solid gobo or two to provide separation between the kit and the bass amp, with the amp separated from the kit, but with the bassist standing in a position where he and the drummer have good visual communication. Alternatively, put the bassist in the room, but DI his bass, perhaps running it through an amp simulator for monitoring purposes. If you get an amazing take, it would be simple enough to use a good amp simulator such as IK's Ampeg SVX or Softube's Vintage Bass Room, or re‑amping, to make it fit in the mix, but you also have the opportunity of laying a new bass part over the drums.

While you could take the 'playing together' principle further, and put guitars, keys, vocalists and whatever else you wish in the same room, you'll often find that achieving acceptable separation becomes problematic, and maybe even a problem that outweighs the benefits of having everyone perform together. In my experience, you're better off having a vocalist and guitarist either in a different room than the drums, or in the control room, with the guitar DI'd and/or run through an amp simulator, so that the whole group is doing a live take into the monitor mix. You can always track those parts, in case you get a moment of magic — with the guitars, as with the bass, amp simulations or re‑amping are valid approaches here — but you'll still have the option to overdub those parts later, and many musicians will be glad of the chance to try a few different takes.

What else you record in what order will depend on the other musicians. Does the vocalist want to hear the other parts? Do other musicians take their cue off the vocals? If you make sure you record the guide parts as you go, those questions become less of an issue, and while I often advocate starting with vocals (or other primary elements) when mixing, I don't usually find that it makes such a difference when recording.Recording the various instruments in a band in the right order is important, as it will affect the feel of the track. Photo: Richard EcclestoneRecording the various instruments in a band in the right order is important, as it will affect the feel of the track. Photo: Richard Ecclestone

When it comes to tempo and click tracks, your approach will depend very much on the band in question. When you say 'tight', that might mean that the drummer can keep a rock‑solid tempo, or it might just mean that all the musicians can keep in good time with each other. In my experience, some bands that sound tight can actually accelerate and slow down considerably during a track, which may or may not be a good thing. The one thing that I would say, though, is that the thresholdsfor what seems acceptable when playing live is different than when listening to a record that gets played again and again. So having a click track or guide track for the drummer might be useful. Really, the best advice I can give is to discuss this with the drummer, go with what they feel comfortable with and simply be alert to any problems.

If you do choose to use a click track, my advice would be to feed it to the drummer alone, and then have everyone else lock in with him or her, which is what a good live band will usually do, after all. And do make sure that the headphones don't leak that sound into the overhead mics, which is something I hear a lot on material sent in to SOS!

Of course, it's perfectly possible to overdub drum parts, but I invariably find that when doing this you lose almost all of the magical glue that holds a track together. In this style, more than most, that will probably prove unacceptable. In fact, I can only recall one occasion where I've done it and obtained a satisfactory result.  .


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