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Basic tracks

The process of recording basic tracks in the recording studio.

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Any dictionary will tell you that a band is a group of musicians who play together. 'Together' is the operative word here because in a multitrack recording studio it is quite possible to record each instrument separately. If you do it this way however you will probably end up with a recording that has all the instruments playing all the right notes in all the right places, but it lacks that indefinable something that makes it sound like a band. It is usual therefore to record the basic instruments - drums, bass and rhythm guitar - all at the same time to get the feel of a real band playing together, and then add vocals, solo instruments and embellishments one by one as overdubs. The basic instruments form the so-called 'backing track' or 'basic tracks' - often referred to simply as 'the track'. 'Tracking' is the process of recording the backing tracks, although some people use the word to cover overdubs as well so that it means the entire recording process apart from the mixing.

Setting up to record the backing track takes some time, and it is common to finish recording all the backing tracks for an album before starting on the overdubs. Setting up the drum kit alone, with however many microphones the engineer chooses to use, could take the best part of a day depending on how picky you are going to be about the sound. As a producer, you obviously want to get a really good sound on the record, and a skilled engineer will be able to offer you a good drum sound in a couple of hours. But if you have a particular sound in mind that you want to achieve, then it may take some time experimenting with mics and mike positions to achieve precisely what you want. You are the producer, so you're in charge. Take as long as you like, but remember that you're responsible for sticking to the budget too!

Setting up the other instruments and the mic for the guide vocal is straightforward in comparison, and you should be able to relax and collect your thoughts while the engineer and his or her assistant work on the mics and mixing console. When everything is ready, then one of the key moments in the production process has arrived. The band are going to lay down the backing track for what will hopefully be their next hit single. This has got to be right, and you are the person who has to make it so. Let the band play through the song a few times so that they can get used to the headphones and check foldback levels with the engineer. You will be thinking about the sound of each instrument, and each drum of the drum kit, from both technical and musical points of view. While realising that you are not hearing the final mix, you will be considering how the instruments blend, and whether the tempo is the same as it was in the rehearsal studio. You may need to discuss subtle musical points with one or more of the band. Maybe the bass player is dragging notes out when they would be better cut short. Perhaps the guitarist hasn't settled into this rhythm yet and will need a few more runs through. Maybe they are all just a little bit nervy because they don't have much studio experience and they have forgotten that if they make a mistake, the engineer can wind back the tape and they can try it again.

By David Mellor Tuesday February 1, 2000
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