Successful Tracking Proceedures
Renaissance Recording Homepage / John Wheeler's Band - Hayseed Dixie Site
Depending on whether you are tracking to analog (4-track cassette, 8-track reel, 24-track reel, etc.) or digital (ADAT, DA-88, Hard Disk, etc.), the exact procedure for sending signal to the particular tape machine will differ somewhat. In general, you want to get as hot a level going to the recorder as possible without exceeding the input threshold. In analog, it is sometimes desirable - such as with drums - to slightly overdrive the tape and gain what is often called tape compression; this natural limiting effect occurs as the tape "soaks up" excessive peaks. Distortion in the analog domain occurs gradually, thus in some cases a slight amount of tape distortion of the signal is worth the trade off in exchange for smoothness and warmth. In digital, however, this is not possible. Once you hit zero, that's all, and distortion is immediate and quite ugly - if you've ever clipped the input on a DAT or ADAT, you know exactly what I mean. In digital, therefore, it is often necessary to apply a certain amount of limit between the preamp and the recorder; you should use only enough to do the job, as once it's been recorded it cannot be undone later. Since ADAT is the recording format I use - and since it is quite common - this is the specific format I will discuss below; however, the basic principles and techniques will apply across most all formats. Just a note: If your recorder will accept balanced (+4) inputs, you should use them. ADATs will accept either (+4) or (-10). In terms of signal clarity, it is well worth buying the ELCO cables to access the (+4) ins and outs. Also, many signal processors will run either (+4) or (-10) - look for the switch, usually located on the back of the unit. The one aggravating thing about running (+4) is that your mixer will have to be compatible. I suppose this is an issue more appropriately addressed when you are putting your gear together; however, I mention it here because I've run across a few people who could have been running balanced and didn't know it. Enough preliminaries - let's get to it. First, it is impossible to fully stress the importance of using the right microphone the right way. Refer to the Microphone Selection & Placement page if you are uncertain. All right. You've got the players together and you're set to begin. If you're going to have drums, they should be the first thing recorded if possible. Since the whole musical piece will be built around the rhythm section, I think it's also best to have the drummer and bassist play at the same time in the same room eyeballing each other. Every recording I've ever done this way just has a better feel. In fact, I've cut drums, bass, and 2 electric guitars at the same time in the same room many times and some of these are among my favorite recordings. "But how do you keep the tracks isolated?" Well, some very good engineers will say I'm wrong, but I don't really care if there's a little bit of bass or guitar in the drum overheads. If the guitar amps are close miked, the bass is run direct, and drums are all close miked as well, the drum overheads are the only things that are really going to be subject to much bleed. If someone is going to be singing while the basic tracks are going down, you'll want to put them in a separate room - as you will if you're tracking, say, an acoustic guitar - but chances are that this will only be a scratch vocal track. I've never met a singer who ever belted out a vocal track they were happy with in one continuous pass (not that some of them couldn't have). So put everybody in a room looking at each other, turn the guitar amps toward the wall, run bass and keyboard direct, close mike everything, and set some levels. A word on EQ & effects: I never - absolutely never - EQ anything on the way to the recorder. If you're not very sure of what you're doing, you'll paint yourself into a corner. The same applies to effects (reverb, etc.). Print the tracks dry and add effects and EQ as needed in the mixdown. This does not apply, however, to compression / limiting, which is often necessary and discussed below as it applies. Drums: Get the drummer to play. Bring up the levels on each channel one at a time until they're just below zero on the loudest peaks. Then all of them off about 4-6 decibels - I've never met a drummer who didn't play harder once everybody started playing together. If the snare is peaking sometimes and landing 10 decibels lower at other times during passages of the same intensity, you have an uneven drummer and you'll have to insert a compressor on the snare channel before the tape machine. Forget about "fixing it in the mix." If it ain't right going down, it's never going to be. Bass: Before you even start, patch in a compressor - you're going to need it. For tracking set the ratio about 6:1 and the threshold where only the peaks are smoothed out. This is a case where you can always compress it a little more in the mix; what you want is to do is keep one or two loud note from blowing the whole track. Electric Guitar: You shouldn't need any compression here. Just watch for to the loudest passage in the song and set the level accordingly. Electric guitar tracks are the only place where I'll record something with an effect; sometimes the guitarist will have his / her own effects rack and will be going for a specific sound. I still prefer to print it dry, but in the case of distortion pedals or delay, sometimes it's necessary to let the cat go with it. Vocals: Chances are the keeper vocal track will be done as an overdub after the basic tracks are cut. You'll want to limit the vocal on the way down (the highest ratio you have, the fastest attack time possible, a threshold setting that just grabs the peaks). Try to make the singer feel as comfortable as possible, and keep plenty of water available. If the singer insists on some reverb send them a little to their headphones, but record it dry - reverb is notorious for masking pitch problems.
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