I suppose that if you don’t record music, this post might not mean very much to you. It’s about a technique called “overdubbing”. Overdubbing is the process of recording something once, and then making another recording alongside of the first, by playing along with the first recording and at the same time, recording what is being played now. The second recording is called an overdub. You can do that for as long as you have vacant tracks on a multi-track tape machine, or to the limit of the performance of your computer and software, if you have a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW).
Overdubbing is an exceedingly common technique, in music production. Very rarely are even live performances published without further overdubs, these days. Overdubs are used to correct mistakes (“drop-ins”) or to fatten up tracks, by doubling or even tripling the parts. Lead vocals are very frequently “double tracked” through overdubbing the lead singer, to give the vocal more prominence. Backing vocals are almost always overdubbed, to even out the choral effect.
In home and project studios, some tracks are constructed almost entirely from overdubs. A single part is played by the lone musician, then the next, then the next and so on. It produces a particular sonic aesthetic, in my view.
There are two very effective experiments that can show the effect on performance of overdubbing, versus live interaction between musicians that are playing ensemble.
Experiment one: Take a band that has three people in it that are capable of playing guitar and begin playing twelve bar blues as an improvisational jam session; with one of the guitarists playing the bass instead (you can have drums). The rules are that the bass sound cannot be changed. No tweaking of the amp settings, the effects, or the volume and tone settings on the bass guitar is permitted. Record the result, as played live. Now, have one of the guitarists swap his guitar for the bass, with the bass player. Now play the same improvisational piece again and record it. Finally, let the remaining guitar player be the bass player, while the other two play guitar and play the same improvisational piece again, recording a third version. Now listen back, paying attention to the sound and prominence of the bass guitar part. I guarantee that the three pieces will sound extraordinarily different to one another and that if you listen to the bass parts on the three recordings, all recorded on the same guitar with the same amplifier and effects settings, the actual part will sound very different in each of the three cuts. The bass will have been played entirely differently by each of the three guitarists. Some will have played hard, some soft, some with lots of attack and some with a softer tone. All of this sonic difference comes from their hands and minds alone. They will have been playing in reaction to what the rest of the band is presently playing and attempting to shape the sound of the ensemble in their own way.
Experiment two: Choose a song and rehearse it, in a rehearsal studio, recording the result. Now play it in the same rehearsal space, but this time with girlfriends or people you want to impress in the same room. Record that version as number two. Now record the same song played on stage, live in from of an audience. The fourth recording will be one recorded in a recording studio, as a band. Finally, recording five should be made in a recording studio, but with each part recorded individually, while no other musicians are playing, as a series of overdubs. In other words, record the drums, then the bass, etc, with each part played in isolation. Listen back to the five versions of the same song, played by the same musicians (usually on the same instruments). You will notice very quickly that each of the five versions has an entirely different feel to it. Some will be exciting and raw, some clean and clinical, some less engaged and bored and others full of mistakes but sizzling with life. Notice that the fifth version, while perhaps note perfect, probably has the least life, dynamics, feel and interplay present in it. It’s the flattest and most sterile.
This is the trouble with overdubs: It might be the cleanest way to capture an instrumental part with full audio isolation, or the only way available to make a track, if you do not have a band, but something important is lost, in the process. It might also be the best way to correct bum notes and mistakes made while playing the part. You might be able to construct one entire longitudinal part by dropping in, phrase-by-phrase, given a lack of ability to play the song in one go, end to end. But it doesn’t sound the same as if the band had been playing, to people they want to impress, in an exciting atmosphere. It just never does.
What makes least sense of all is to have a band, but to never rehearse the song or play it live, before taking it into the studio and recording it, part-by-part, never playing it at all as a band. Writing songs in that way, in the studio, part-by-part, is an even more impoverished experience, in prospect.
That’s all very well, but there are lots of examples of great music that was made in a DAW, or multi-track recording studio, by overdubbing extensively. If you think about those rich, beloved Queen harmonies, or Brian May’s guitars, these sounds couldn’t have existed at all, without overdubbing. Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” couldn’t have been made, without them. Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” was heavily overdubbed and remains much loved. Gotye’s work is constructed, track-by-track, but is very popular. Let’s not also forget that the inventor of multi-track overdubbing, Les Paul, couldn’t have produced the lively, space age hits of Les Paul and Mary Ford, without the ability to overdub. Overdubbing is ubiquitous.
There are many aspects to a musical performance, or ensemble of individual musical performances, that contribute to the dynamics, contour, emotional impact and passion of a song. As a musician, you tend to play with more intensity and sensitivity, when others are playing at the same time. You also play to balance the overall sound and to match the mood of the other players’ musical outpourings. There’s something worth preserving, in all of that. How do you capture or even simulate those things, when overdubbing?
A band is an interactive thing. Band members interact. There is a lot of unspoken and unwritten give and take going on. A DAW, on the other hand, doesn’t interact with you much at all. The backing track you are recording against is fixed and doesn’t vary or respond to what you are playing at all. You give, it takes. I guess that’s why they call individual overdubs “takes”, right?
When you are using overdubs to remove or blur harsh edges, you can get them to “flatten” the music, in some sense. It’s like polishing a stone. You can make the music devoid of passion, smooth, slick and perfect, if that’s the effect you are trying to achieve. And many people like that effect. On the other hand, to other ears, it can sound artificial, overworked, safe, bland, blunt and lacking any form of risk. In short, it can be very unexciting.
So how do you overdub, but keep the music lively, exciting, edgy and interesting? Is it even possible? There are examples of overdubbed music where, arguably, the musicians and producer have achieved a happy compromise between overdubbing and producing great music. What are some of the things that you can do to get that outcome?
Here are some suggested solutions:
1) Record as a band first, then overdub only what you absolutely have to. The Beatles did it this way. They recorded a number of takes, playing the song as a band, and then “sweetened” the best take with overdubs, to create the released version. This, if course, assumes you have a band, a room big enough to record it in, with acoustics good enough to permit isolation of each track you record, even though the band is playing at once. In this approach, overdubbing is used as a condiment, rather than an ingredient. It produces a pretty good compromise.
2) If you don’t have a band, you could record a solo guide track, as a performance, to give the song its form and shape. If you treat it like a performance, rather than a solo recording, you can retain some of the passion, especially if you wrote the song. You can even record with an audience, if this is practical and it helps. This allows other musicians and/or instruments to be added as overdubs and for the guide track to be entirely replaced, in the end, but the song retains some of the character of the first performance captured. What makes this difficult is that if you use a DAW and don’t record to the metronome (because the metronome can be the very thing that squashes the life out of the performance), then today’s DAWs can make it exceedingly difficult to add MIDI parts and tempo changes, because the first recording will not be synced in any way to the DAW’s own grid, tempo or downbeat positions. DAWs are not that great at working out where your downbeats are, where your accents and stresses were, how your beats were actually spaced in the bar, or what your tempo and tempo changes were, across the length of the recorded piece.
3) If you have no choice but to construct your music track-by-track, part-by-part, instrument-by-instrument, then record the parts, but when you are done, re-record the first parts again, only last. That way, the song may have developed a form and shape, during its making and you can add more spice to the second performance of those earliest tracks you laid down. In other words, you can improve the feel of the earliest tracks you recorded, by re-recording them, relative to the more finished work. In some senses, you can “re-interact” with your own song.
4) If you’re into painstaking detail, you can programme a MIDI part first, including all the song dynamics, tempo changes and the contour of the song’s development, in minute granularity. Having constructed this MIDI part, you can then play in the overdubs, conformant with the MIDI part’s feel. This is a slow and artificial way to work, but has the advantage of allowing easy additions of MIDI parts and audio edits, because the tempo, downbeats and MIDI timing grid are all well defined. It has the disadvantage of not being very spontaneous, however.
5) If your DAW has groove matching features (e.g. PreSonus Studio One Pro v2 – http://www.youtube.com/v/VYDJ_UpPFVY), play your music in, as a performance, then let the DAW create a groove that conforms to where you placed your beats and emphases, in each bar. That also gives you the ability to match MIDI parts to the feel of your live performance and preserves the subtle variations in timing and beat placement that go into creating a good live feel, but it does little for the song’s contour and emotional development. It’s better than nothing, though.
6) Comping (i.e. composite take editing) and loop recording is the process of letting the DAW run, repeating a particular section of the track, and automatically and continuously recording your playing, each pass. That way, you rapidly build up multiple takes, without stopping. This gives you a chance to warm up and get into the groove. After a few loops, you may be playing “right in the pocket”, just because you are now more rehearsed. DAWs that have this feature let you edit a single take out of all of your takes, so you can choose some of the spontaneous bits in the earlier takes, if you want, while keeping the better executed sections from later takes. It’s all done through editing. A DAW that does this is Cubase 6.5 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1wJCvjPsNA&feature=related)
7) When you play your overdubbed part, imagine you’re in the moment, playing the part of a live musician, as a character. Using your acting abilities can help you forget that you’re in a quiet studio, trying to capture the perfect, mistake-free take and actually convince yourself that you’re on stage, in front of screaming fans, putting out your best playing. This little Jedi mind trick can make a huge difference to the part that gets recorded.
8) Fix it in the mix. If you are playing self-consciously, to avoid any little mistake in timing or intonation, or if you are throwing away take after take, because of tiny fluffs and bum notes, consider keeping those overdubs anyway and using the DAW’s Celemony-alike pitch and timing editing features to tweak the occasional problem. Otherwise, you might be increasing the frustration, with each take and getting no better a performance, as people concentrate on not screwing up, instead of on playing the most openly they can play. (Here are three DAWs and their approach to this form of editing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0N_bNp4cv4, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbhQ7Ap5-TM, http://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_783634&feature=iv&src_vid=Q_VElRfTZ4k&v=MkpaM3fmYF0)
9) Actively map out and plan the song’s contour, its high and low points, its breakdowns and tempo changes, on paper, ahead of recording the song. Having this reference, made in pre-production, can be invaluable, in the studio. At least it communicates to any collaborators what the song writer’s or producer’s intention is. If you mark up the points of drama, resolution, tension, light and shade, at least musicians can be mindful of these points, during their overdubs and adjust their playing accordingly.
10) Don’t get distracted by the mechanics of playing to sync and within the recording headroom available, when overdubbing your part. Let the engineer take care of the levels. If you are in a project studio, set up your recording channel to accommodate the likely peaks in your playing, ahead of time, or use a little compression and limiting on the channel. The important thing is not to play in lock step sync and tune, with safe, constrained, characterless articulations; it’s to give a good performance that is near enough in timing and pitch. Tiny mistakes or slight deviations from time or tune will actually add to the character of the overall song.
11) Have a jam session, using the song you are about to record, before you record the release version. Permit and encourage improvisation and record this jam session. This gives you a reference recording that may have some novel performance elements in it, which you might want to recreate in the clean version. You should pre-rehearse your song, even if you are a one man band, because this free form recording may capture some character elements you want to preserve, when it comes to recording the track for real. If there are other musical collaborators to jam with, but who won’t appear on the finished track, you can borrow their musical ideas (with permission and acknowledgement!). Time spent in pre-production always pays dividends in the studio, even if it is your own project studio and studio time costs you nothing. If you record the pre-production jam session, you could even consider using it (or parts of it) as an erasable guide track, which can form the scaffolding of the song, as you record your overdubs, part-by-part.
12) Most importantly, when you overdub, let go of it, when it’s good enough. Take 37 is not going to be significantly better than take 36, typically, and usually it’s much more boring, lifeless and overworked. By the time you get to take 37, you’re also bored, sick to death of the song, disinterested and thinking about being elsewhere. This applies especially if you are a one man band, singer, songwriter, and self-producer. Don’t let fatigue destroy the feel of the music, especially when takes 1 or 2 were just fine.
So, overdubbing is an essential musical production tool, but it has some nasty side effects that you need to mitigate. When overdubbing, you can attempt to make the music too perfect and lose all of its character and charm, in the process. Some of the rough edges give the music its texture. It gives it an organic vulnerability and sounds authentic. Making your overdubs in such a way that you preserve those aspects of your music is a delicate art, but one well worth developing.
As Mick Jagger is reported to have replied, when his band was criticised, by a recording engineer, for their inability to play in strict tempo, “The Rolling Stones is a band, not a clock”.