There’s a reason Jack White’s music is tracked live and rarely tuned. There’s also a reason why Katy Perry overdubs her vocals and has them tuned and pocketed to perfection.
And believe it or not, it doesn’t have to do with talent.
In fact, one could objectively argue that Jack is just as talented at being Jack White as Katy is at being Katy Perry. So what’s the difference? And why the extremely different approaches?
It’s all in the tracking technique. And it comes down to choosing the right method. Are you choosing the right method to get the best production in your sessions?
Let’s get one thing straight – there is no “best way” to track a particular song. No matter what the song is, you can use any one of these methods.
There is, however, a “right” method if it results in the product, sound, and vibe you are searching for with a particular song or session. If you want tight, crisp tracks like that of Jessie J, I wouldn’t recommend having your band over and setting up a single mic in the garage. On the other hand, overdubbing every instrument can sound a little too clean for certain approaches.
The first step to choosing the right approach is to identify what your end goal is for the project. I like to categorize it into three broad categories: polished, semi-polished, and unpolished. Three alternatives might be produced, realistic, and live.
Polished or produced tracks are like those of Dr. Luke, RedOne, and Usher. They’ve got air-tight productions and smooth sounds. Semi-polished or realistic tracks are slightly more natural sounding, similar to Daft Punk’s recent Grammy winner, Random Access Memories. Unpolished or live productions are the most “hipster” recordings (and we use that term in the kindest of possible ways:)- think Jack White… Live, raw, or rocking.
Now that you’ve chosen your end goal, you’ve got to know how to get there. This is where the tracking technique comes in.
For uber-polished productions, overdubbing and programming are your friends. Rarely will you record two or more sounds together. Don’t even try live drums – programming will get you there much faster and less painfully (unless, you know, Omar Hakim stops by). Overdub everything and keep it tight and dry. (This method works especially well for those of you who don’t have access to A-level players like the aforementioned producers do.
For semi-polished productions, it’s a good idea to track certain elements live while overdubbing others. Tracking your rhythm section together might be a good idea – drums, bass, and maybe keys or rhythm guitars. Then, overdub vocals/lead instruments. This is helpfully for keeping your overdubs clean while giving a real human feel to your tracks.
For unpolished productions, the more live, the better. A lot of bluegrass, folk, or raw-rock music sounds best this way, so don’t over-complicate things. If you’ve got a great set of musicians, multi-track them live and let the music breathe. Or if you’re cutting super raw bluegrass, just set up a stereo pair of mics and let them do their thing!
Once you consciously make these decisions, you’ll have a better start at tracking what you’re aiming for. Of course there are some in-between areas, so experiment with what fits your studio and style the best! Happy tracking!