In a world where bling is king, amassing more stuff than your neighbor is the surest path to celebrity. But do more tracks ensure more-better recordings? Layering sounds is a time-honored technique in the studio, and scores of popular albums are stuffed to near bursting with stacks upon stacks of MIDI and audio tracks. The technique is so established, in fact, that many recording peeps wouldn’t even consider something as mad-crazy as releasing a track populated with just a single guitar, keyboard, or vocal.
And yet, have you ever asked yourself whether an audio production really needs the equivalent of 13 diamond rings crammed onto ten stubby fingers? Are the gaudy gold baubles purchased at a mall jewelry shop obscuring the elegant and beautiful glow of a bona fide Tiffany design?
Metaphors aside, the test here is whether you’re actually thinking about your sonic spectrum, or automatically defaulting to methodologies you read about in magazines such as this one. Overdubs, sweetening elements, textures, layers, doubles, counterpoint lines, and so on can absolutely add interest and vibe to a recording. But that doesn’t mean these tasty morsels of aural candy are required ingredients of any musical production. Heck, that approach is not much different than believing the sential rock-guitar sound is always a Les Paul through a cranked-up Marshall.
A curious engineer/producer should constantly seek to discover which performances, tones, and arrangements bring a song to life. In this creative arena, there is no “default.” What worked on one song, might not be the best initiative to foist on another. And avoiding safe, conventional practices should not be a process limited to musical parts. It should also inform mic selection, mic placement, signal processing, and every other aspect of life in the home studio.
Challenge Your Need to Procreate
After I finished basic tracks on a recent studio project, the band’s talented and inventive guitarist was desperate to overdub counterpoint lines and noises under a rhythm riff that absolutely ruled all by itself. The tone was fat and sassy, the part was memorable and propulsive, and the overall groove was Led Zeppelin good. So why did this artist feel the part needed so much more support? Well, I asked him. And he had no answer. No overdubs were tracked. Happy ending.
The “takeaway” on this point is that I was around to ask the critical question and demand a reasonable answer. It’s obvious the artist would not have forced such a conceptual confrontation on his own—he was too absorbed in the idea of laying down textures. As a result, there was zero consideration of whether those overdubs would truly pump up the impact of the track, or serve to needlessly obscure the kick-ass lick that was already front-and-center.
Of course, enforcing productive debate is one of the producer’s jobs, and it’s easier when the producer is an outside party who is solely evaluating the quality of the recording. But if you are the decision maker, then you have to train yourself to ask and answer any critical arrangement questions.
Here’s a tip: Try allowing at least a day where you don’t record anything, or even listen to the tracks. Then, write down a few annoying questions as if you were a complete outsider to the project: Are all the parts necessary? Does anything sound too thick, too muddy, or too thin? After the vocal (or lead instrument), what is the main element of this work? Is that main element clearly audible and uncompromised by other elements in the mix? Be brutal. Regard nothing as precious. If you go into the process knowing that you want to keep certain parts, then the exercise is useless. The goal is to surprise yourself with a more objective assessment of what’s in front of you.
The Old Quality vs. Quantity Battle
Back in the days when 4, 8, 16, or 24 tracks was all the real estate you got, people still managed to create some pretty astounding records. But, heck, maybe you believe “Day Tripper” would have sounded better with 16 more guitar tracks, or that “Foxey Lady” would have been much sexier with undulating layers of synth strings. The perception of audio excellence is obviously subjective, but you should at least determine a song’s basic needs before you blindly pile on guitar, percussion, keyboard, and vocal tracks for no other reason than habit.