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Less Can Be More

Hugh Robjohns and I often visit colleges and universities to talk to students and occasionally to look over their recording projects. We’re often surprised by just how many tracks get used in some projects, even when only three or four musicians are involved.

Paul White in his studio, 2017.Both Hugh and I started recording back in the days when a four-track, open-reel tape recorder was considered the height of what a private studio could ever hope to own. When recording a band, the usual approach was to record three tracks with the band’s rhythm section and maybe a rhythm guitar playing live, bounce those down to the fourth track and then record two new parts over two of the originally recorded tracks. Drums would often be mixed and then recorded to a single tape track and a popular dodge was to mix the rhythm guitar and bass onto a single track as EQ could be used to make slight alterations to their perceived balance. The same procedure could be repeated to record two more tracks over two of the three now redundant original tracks, again bouncing these down to the remaining original track.

That freed up two tracks for overdubs — usually lead vocals and guitar solos. This approach involved much ‘burning of bridges’ as it was necessary to visualise the balance requirements of the final piece when bouncing down as there was no going back once the original tracks had been re-used. Getting an eight-track machine, and later a 16-track machine, really took the pressure off — then along came the DAW with a much greater maximum track count — and that most wondrous of things, the Undo button.

What Hugh and I have noticed is that having so many tracks available has raised the temptation to put off many decisions until the final mix, but the trade-off is that you end up with a huge number of tracks to deal with. A recent example included six or more tracks of the same basic acoustic guitar rhythm part recorded with a bunch of different mics and perhaps a DI for good measure. Then there’s the temptation to start mixing the different mics, which invites all kinds of phase-related problems. The same thing has been observed with electric guitar parts and drum kits so it isn’t unusual to find over 100 tracks used for a simple guitar, drums, bass and vocals recording. Usually just tuning the drum kit properly makes a much bigger difference than having four different sets of room mics and two sets of overheads.

Managing so many tracks isn’t easy, and while having some contingency tracks can be a good idea (such as clean electric guitar and bass DI feeds for reamping), the end result is generally better if care is taken to position the appropriate mic in the appropriate place to start with so as to capture the desired sound from the outset. A bit more time spent at the start of a session makes the rest of the job go much more smoothly and makes mixing far easier too.