“Spur-Of-The-Moment” Tracking

Some people think that today’s music is too premeditated. And I must admit, if I could only play live or only record, I’d (very) grudgingly take live performance because of the magic and spontaneity that are the hallmarks of a rewarding live performance.
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Some people think that today’s music is too premeditated. And I must admit, if I could only play live or only record, I’d (very) grudgingly take live performance because of the magic and spontaneity that are the hallmarks of a rewarding live performance.

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This was brought home to me with the EV2 project, which consists of me and Brian Hardgroove from Public Enemy. We could get away with just the two of us because in addition to Brian being a great drummer, I was using Gibson’s Digital Les Paul (I’m now using their Dark Fire guitar), and processed the hex outputs with amp sims in a laptop to create a monster sound—with the three lower strings going through an octave divider, the top four bussed to a clean chorus sound, and the standard magnetic pickup outs feeding a DigiTech GNX3000 multieffects for leads. So, even though it was just a duo, because I play with a thumbpick and fingers (a legacy from starting off on classical guitar), the sound was huge because I could articulate bass, rhythm, and lead parts simultaneously.

This led to an improvisational freedom I’d never experienced before. Change keys? Sure. Stretch a solo? Sure. As long as Brian and I synched, we didn’t have to concern ourselves with any kind of arrangement.

So how does this relate to tracking? Unfortunately, Brian needed to move back to New York, which limited our live performance options. But I couldn’t go back to playing how I played before. Even when tracking solo projects in the studio, I wanted to maintain that duo feel, and play in a looser, more spur-of-the-moment way. Yet how could I do that without someone else?

Playing Live . . . with Ableton Live

One day I was designing some hex patches for Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig, with the full bass/ rhythm/lead sound, and started noodling around on guitar. I firmly believe in designing patches in context, so I opened up a drum loop to play against. Because I wanted to listen back to the patches, I went into Live’s Arrangement view, and hit record.

Then a funny thing happened. I kept playing, and playing . . . stretching further away from my original licks. Some of the playing was inspired; some of it was awful, as I groped to find something that never got off the ground. I ended up recording about an hour’s worth of playing, but when I listened back, there were definitely some cool potential loops in there: a measure here, a few measures there. I put Live’s loop braces around them and saved them. Most importantly, they had a really live, spontaneous feel to them because they were so completely non-premeditated.

I felt I was on to something. Then one day in the studio after seeing a documentary on Buddy Holly, I started playing with the riff for his “Words of Love.” Remembering my previous recording experience, I set up an appropriate drum loop and started playing the various sections for the song. Over about 45 minutes it got an increasingly hard rock vibe; then I stopped recording, and started whacking away at the tracks to isolate the best loops (Figure 1). Next came saving the loops, and eventually, there was a collection of loops which when taken together provided all the sections for “Words of Love.”

But these loops had a very different vibe. The pseudo-“live performance” aspect gave the loops a loose, “real” feel. When I switched over to Sonar and started bringing in loops to create the song’s rhythm track, I realized that the music did not sound loop-based at all. On playback, it sounded as if I’d recorded them linearly, except that the end result was much more “alive” than usual. Looped-based music applied to a song from the ’50s, arranged as hard rock? Sure, why not—it worked!

Moving On

For solo projects I’ve pretty much stopped tracking linearly, except for the initial recording of the long, linear tracks with Ableton Live. If I want a specific riff, I’ll just keep playing it over and over; eventually, I’ll nail it or even better, come up with some kind of cool chord substitution that leads the song in a different direction.

Yes, it’s loop-based music . . . but it sure doesn’t sound like loopbased music. Next time you need to record a solo project, give this technique a shot. Who knows? It might work for you as well as it has for me.