Best Order To Record In? [Reader Question]

2011 Jan 24, 2011

Since most home studio users are working with an affordable audio interface with only a handful of inputs and microphone preamps, we are relegated to recording a band one person at a time. Which honestly isn’t a bad thing at all. It in fact gives you some advantages: allowing you to use your best mics and pres over and over, letting you record a full band in a smaller space (i.e. a bedroom), and provides time to focus in on each performance a bit more.

But this multi-tracking one-at-at-time process leads to a great question from one of my readers, Chris:

What is the best order of recording each instrument, because I’ve tried getting the rhythm guitar down first and then I tried the drums but I wasn’t sure which was best. Also, is it best to record each track on there own with a metronome in the headphones or have other tracks playing as well? -Chris-


Via Courtney Dirks Flickr

A Good Guide Track Goes A Long way

When it comes to order of recording, nothing really matters until you have a good guide track. A guide track (or a scratch track) can consist of simply an acoustic guitar and vocal performance to a predefined tempo or click. It can also be a demo recording of the band bounced down to an MP3. All that matters is that you put something in your DAW that your band members can “play along with”, especially those who are going first with nothing else recorded.

I usually ask the singer of the band to send me an MP3 demo of him playing/singing the song to a click. I import that into a Pro Tools session, edit it a bit to be sure it lines up with the desired tempo, and then I’m ready to go for my guide track. I now have something to mix into the headphones of the first musician up to the plate, which in my opinion should be the drummer.

Start With Drums

A good band listens to their drummer. And a good drummer listens to the click to not only keep time but to set the precedent for groove and overall dynamic. I find the most natural sounding recordings have come when I started with drums and let everyone else listen to the drum performance as they record later on. Every nuance, and dynamic set by the drummer will carry over to the emotion and feeling of the bass, guitars, keys, and of course vocals.

The drummer will only really  need the previously mentioned guide track: click and music/vocals. The click keeps him in time, and the music and vocals tell him where he is in the song. His or her headphone mix shouldn’t be hard to get right, so set it and then work on getting a great drum sound.

Then Everything But Vocals

What you record next doesn’t matter. Many like to lay bass guitar down right after drums. Sometimes I do that. Many times I like to have the guitarists lay their parts down so that the bassist can think about his or her bass lines in relation to the full scope of chords and tones captured by the guitars. Keyboards, brass, strings, percussion, synths, etc. would all fall into place here. Which order your record these guys in doesn’t matter as much as it does to the actual band members. Figure out what THEY would like to hear to be inspired and go from there.

And briefly touching back on Chris’ initial question, I do prefer to keep the click in everyone’s headphones a bit even after drums are recorded. The click is the glue that keeps it all together so it should be a goal to play alongside for everyone. But this is my opinion.

Lead Vocals And Beyond

You always want to end with vocals if you can. The singer needs to hear the entire band to really appropriately and convincingly deliver the lyric and melody of the song. Plus many times in recording sessions, the arrangements shift slightly and this requires the vocal to adjust alongside it. The singer needs to hear this in his or her ears to make the appropriate changes.

I like to capture all my lead vocal takes before I do any harmonies or extra vocals. That way I know that the main melody or vocal is set and from there I simply try to dress up certain parts and add some vocal candy throughout.

All That Matters

Regardless of how you record your band, or what order you do things in, the end goal is the same: a natural, believable recording that sounds like we all played it together…as a band! Do whatever is necessary for you and the band to make this result happen. Try things and if they don’t work, dont’ do them again. It’s not that complicated, nor is it a rule that you must follow. Let all your decisions ultimately serve the song and trust your ears.

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