In Studio: Track Band Together, or Separately?

This article was written originally for the blog at Carvin Amps and Audio. I repost it here, and encourage you to check out Carvin’s amazing line of products!

By now it’s an age-old question: should we track the band together as if we were playing live or should we try to get the cleanest signals and performances possible by tracking separately?

The truth is there’s no right or wrong answer. How you go about recording depends not only on you –  your chemistry, skill, and tightness – it also depends on the studio. Is the space tight enough that bleed will be a major problem? Will you be able to properly hear each other? Is there a drum booth? Do you need eye contact can you get it?

Your genre is a big determiner here too. Jazz ensembles and jam bands who improv a lot and feed off each other may need to track together regardless of the tradeoffs. Pop groups who need to sound as clean as possible may want to opt for fully separated tracking.

The good news is, it’s really an either-or proposition. In fact, in reality most groups use some sort of hybrid, and most projects exist somewhere on a spectrum between fully together and fully separated tracking. Here we’ll go over just a few common ways to answer this question.

Authentic Live Capture

The most extreme end of the tracking together spectrum. An authentic live capture seeks to track the band exactly as it is on stage with no overdubs. The advantage here are authenticity – you’re really capturing the group as it is on stage – and efficiency. A well-rehearsed group may even be able to knock out 10 songs in the time it takes to play 10 songs. Potential disadvantages include instrument bleed, performance errors, and edit issues.

Some ways to mitigate these issues include separating drums and amps into booths, using headphones to monitor, and playing to a click or reference track. Playing to a consistent tempo reference can be crucial for editing takes together or making fixes later. Isolating amps and other loud sources to minimize or eliminate bleed gives you the opportunity to overdub later – even if your goal is not to. Finally, rehearsal is crucial if you track this way. Tiny mistakes and inconsistencies come through loud and clear on a record, so if you’re recording this way, you need to be tight.

The Basic Band With Overdubs Method

With this method, the intention in initial tracking sessions is to play together as a band, but the focus in the control room is capturing the main foundation of the band. This usually means drums, bass, guitar, and piano if it’s in the band. In this tracking session, the vocalist is singing, everyone is doing their part, but the main focus is to get the foundation right. You don’t go back on a bad lyric or a flubbed note from the singer, because the singer will come back later to overdub the “real” vocal take. Backup singers may or may not participate in initial tracking, and extra fillers like bells or extra percussion wait until later to overdub. This method may be the most common method for bands, as it captures the chemistry of the band while still getting clean vocals.  Extra leads and solos may be overdubbed too.

Guidelines for mitigating bleed still apply here, as does the advice about playing to a click or other fixed tempo source.

The Rhythm Section First Method

In this method, start with the drums, bass, rhythm guitar, and piano if you have it. The focus is entirely on putting together a solid rhythm section, without the “distraction” of vocals and leads and what not. This method may be good if the vocalist also plays guitar, piano, or bass and doesn’t always feel comfortable doing both at once. It’s even more useful if the vocalist is the drummer, because capturing a clean vocal take in the midst of a drum kit can be pretty hard.

Play to a click and isolate as well as possible without messing up chemistry.

The Hip-Hop, Pop and Everything Else Method

If the group is not a band, the whole question is nearly moot. Beat makers make beats which are always locked to tempo, performers perform over the top of those beats, and there’s no question about separation, unless there are multiple vocalists.

If there are multiple vocalists, you’ll have to decide whether they should sing or rap together and if so whether they should be in the same room, share a mic, be in booths, etc. It would be easy to decide to give everyone their own mic, but there are plenty of times you might choose to let vocalists share. For example, a really skilled 4-part harmony might be better captured with a great omnidirectional condenser than with isolated microphones. “Gang vox” where a room full of people chant together might be hard to deal with if there’s 40 separate signals come mix time. Instead, that group might be better captured in a room with a stereo pair.

Two rappers feeding off of each other, however, might be better tracked in isolation, but perhaps together in the same room.

The completely separated method is the best and sometimes only way to go about things if you’re capturing sources in a variety of home studios or collaborating remotely.

These are just a few of the most common answers to the question of whether to track together or to track everything separately. As you can imagine, there are infinite ways you can tweak to make it work for your group. The best way to come up with the plan of action is to first think about the abilities and idiosyncrasies of the players, the genre, the end goal, and of course the budget. After all, if you’ve only got the studio for an hour total – the question is answered. Similarly, if you’re working with 4 or 5 people all in different towns, you know what you have to do. In any case, there’s no one right answer to the question “should we track all together or separately?” – only your best solution.

If you have questions or want to talk, just hit me up on Facebook @AaronJTrumm – or email me aaron @ recordinglikemacgyver.com

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