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May 2024
Vol. 23, No. 8

Smoke Signals

Recording Matters, Part 4: Recording Basic Tracks

by Jeff BerkleyMay 2024

Hi! My name is Jeff Berkley. I’m from San Diego, California. I am a musician, songwriter, engineer, and producer. I spend four or five days a week at Satellite studio producing records. I’ve made lots and lots of them. I’m very lucky to be able to find magic in all sorts of different types of musical situations, levels, styles, and vibes. Somehow, I can focus on what’s authentic and draw it out. I have no idea how I got here, but I sure did luck out!

This is part four of my attempt to articulate my own recording method to you. As I’ve said before, it’s just my method. It works for me. It seems to work for others as well.

So far, we’ve chosen, written or co-written, edited, and “memo demo’d” the songs. We’ve chosen a producer and studio. Last month we talked about choosing and preparing musicians.

Now, it’s time to track, which is just another word for recording the basic tracks.

What are basic tracks? For that matter what are tracks?
The word “tracks” has evolved over time. I seem to remember hearing about the derivation of the term in Jim Papa George’s Recording 101 class at Southwestern College. The word tracks comes from multi-track tape machines. It refers to the individual strips or lanes on the tape. Each lane can have a different thing recorded on it. there are different machines that carve out those lanes in the tape in different ways. If you’re using two-inch tape and recording on a 16-track machine, then you can record 16 things at once on the tape and play them back isolated from each other.

Sometimes the word tracks is used to refer to a whole song. It’s definitely a multi-use word. For our purposes today, tracks are the individual elements of the song. Some people might say channels, but it’s just a short way of referring to the elements of a recording.

These days, when we record, we are using some kind of multi-track DAW or tape machine. This allows us to record each individual element separately and have individual control over the sound of each thing.

Now, that doesn’t mean they are played by the musicians separately. It just means that each thing is funneled into its own individual track or channel. When we play things back, we can isolate each individual element and serve it up to the listener like dessert!

What are basic tracks? These are the tracks that are recorded in the very first step. They are the foundation. Generally, the basic tracks are recorded with as many of the root band members or rhythm section as possible.

The lineup changes for several reasons. Sometimes it’s just a singer and a guitar or a singer and a piano. Those can be the basic tracks. You can have other melodic instruments play live or you can add strings or other melodic instruments in the overdub process.

In those cases, the drums aren’t leading the rhythm. The rhythm section is all built into the guitar part or the piano or banjo or whatever part it is. Sometimes it’s a combination of those things. Sometimes it’s a banjo and an upright bass. Sometimes it’s harmonica and accordion. Whatever establishes the rhythm and keeps it moving along gracefully. These things should be there when we are carving tracks into blank tape or blank screens.

If it’s just a scratch vocal with scratch guitar, bass, and drums, that’s great. If you have the means to record everyone at once, that can save lots of time because all of the decisions get made in the moment as opposed to painstakingly manufacturing those moments with overdubs.

Over the years, I’ve found that if there are going to be drums, they should probably be there for the basic tracks.

The last thing you want is to have the drummer chasing the tempo. The reason to have a solid, musical, and grooving drummer is so that the whole band can fall into their pocket.

I can’t overstate this. Choose your drummer wisely! If you are a drummer reading this, you are the heroes of every recording. That doesn’t mean others aren’t in the spotlight, but they could definitely not do any of their magic without you doing yours first.

Sometimes recording is about being flashy and having rad chops and all that stuff. Usually though, when it comes to drums, 99.9% of the time it’s about having a groove that inspires an emotional and physical response. Every song has a magical pocket. That doesn’t mean the tempo doesn’t change throughout, but there’s a place with every song where the tempo just rolls along without any kind of thought or effort. It’s vibe, groove, and pocket. It’s all of those terms we’ve heard over the years. It’s about the space between each hit. It’s more feeling than doing. My favorite drummers are also dancers unknowingly. I see them moving their bodies during the song in a way that is rhythmic and has beauty and grace. The drum set or percussion instruments become part of their body. This is what I’m looking for in the basic tracks. I definitely spend a lot of time, during these sessions, speaking with the drummer and working out the way things will move from section to section. Usually, I speak in vague terms that will spark specifics in the players. Not just for drums, but for everybody. I’ll say things like “what if you did a little less on the kick drum and didn’t use high hat in this section?” Then they will think about that and figure out how that works with their interpretation of the song as well as how it will support and affect the other musicians.

Also, the drummer’s velocity or feel are the foundation upon which everyone else in the band builds their velocity. This is where dynamics come from. Usually, the drummer is taking their cue from the song and the singer, making all their decisions based on the vocalists, words, or the solo instrument. Trying to frame those performances is where the art is for a drummer.

It’s no different for the other players. They all listen to the memo demos and interpret the chord structure with different kinds of chord voicings, riffs, and rhythms.

The bass player is listening to the drums and melodic instruments to put down the roots of the melodic tree. The bass is the glue between rhythm and melody. The bass sets the harmonic narrative of the song. It points out the chord structure and harmonic path. It gives root notes for the vocals and other melodic instruments to queue off of. It does all of that and also adds passion and grace as well as power and intensity.

Again, the bass and the drums are vital and must be handled by folks that are only there to frame the painting.

Guitar players, keyboard players, and other melodic instrument performers are also making instant decisions in the moment. They are queueing off of the rhythm section as well as the chord structure and melodic structure of the song and vocal part. They’re trying to stay out of each other’s way, both rhythmically and sonically.

So let’s say the keyboard player is doing a really pretty piano part. Maybe it’s kind of in the low mid-range, the guitar player will probably pop up into the highs to support the chord structure from that direction. At the same time, they are trying to stay out of each other’s way. Also, they’re trying to stay out of the way of the vocal while simultaneously trying to support it.

On top of that, most songs have solos and even some kind of solo type of riffing or call-and-response kind of thing in the verses. There are always holes between the vocals, where a solo instrument can do its thing.

I love to have different colors on different verses. Let’s say a bluegrass band is playing. The first verse usually has a lot of space, and everybody is pretty sparse. In the second verse, the banjo might respond to the vocalist whereas in the third verse and chorus it’s the fiddle.

Rock ‘n’ roll and jazz are the same. Even hip-hop records have all sorts of elements popping in and out throughout the song. This builds dynamics as well as building and releasing tension.

It all comes from the term “polyrhythm.” I learned this term when studying West African percussion. Everybody’s playing together but nobody’s playing the same thing. It’s like puzzle pieces that are all different shapes but fit together to create a beautiful or sad or funny or angry picture. It’s like a redwood forest full of shared roots. Everyone supports each other and each other’s space.

I know what you’re saying, wait, what about the singer?? Oh, they are the key to success!

They are usually in the vocal booth. I like to have them set up with a really good mic and be able to catch if they happen to nail it, but very often folks like to go back and overdub vocals at a later date. This happens for several reasons. Sometimes the words aren’t done, sometimes the song changes in the studio in a way that means the vocalist needs to go and work on changing the vocal a bit. Sometimes there’s just so much energy and so much fun going on that the vocalist doesn’t get there by the time the band does. Overdubbing vocals is the norm but sometimes we get the vocals during the live takes!

Mostly, having the vocalist there is essential for the band. They may know the chords of the song, but without the vocal to queue off of, they’re almost always going to overplay. I’m a huge believer in a scratch vocal!

Another essential thing is a good headphone mix for all the performers. If you can give them each their own discrete headphone mix, where they get to choose exactly what’s in it, great!!

Not everybody can do that, so it can take a while to get an inspirational headphone mix. Spend the time; it’s worth it.

Anyway, it’s all about establishing the character, groove, and feel on the basic tracks.

Generally, I will book two to three hours for set up of the full band on basic track day. If it’s just one song, you’re only gonna be doing a partial day of basic tracks. If it’s a whole record, you may be there for three or four days.

For bigger budget projects I’ve spent weeks on this process. Every step along the way can take longer if there is enough budget to allow it. Spending more money on a project usually means that you want to spend more time on it. In the recording world, time is money. At least for the big Studios. That’s one wonderful thing about home Studios!

As far as the process of actually recording the tunes, it’s usually somewhere between an hour to an hour and a half, per song, to listen to memo demos, talk about charts or arrangements, parts and tones, make adjustments to the tones and then start recording takes. In my experience it’s usually four or five takes to get the basic tracks “in the can”.

Again, bigger budget records can spend more time on this. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with projects that would only record one song per day. Rehearsal and set up in the morning, lunch, recreation, and tracking into the evening. It’s fun to do it that way and spend several weeks just grooving and getting magical takes! That’s very rare and usually you’re trying to get the most in a small amount of time.

That’s where people and their attitudes can really make a huge difference. There are certain performers and studio players that just walk around in constant vibe. The magic just flows out of them from note one. That is a wonderful trait for a recording artist. If we’re not careful, we can spend a lot of time and money on issues, interpersonal relationships, and folks that have a hard time getting out of their own heads. I have to check myself in those ways for sure. Every recording artist has found a way to cope with those things.

Another main component to a successful recording artist is someone who can be flexible and make adjustments that the artist or producer may need. The musicians and performers don’t always know what the big picture is. The producer will do their very best to explain it to everyone and get everyone on board, but it isn’t always apparent until things start to get played back through the speakers. As they say, hindsight is 2020. With most amazing studio performers, there’s a balance between their own really great ideas that the producer and artist didn’t think of as well as doing things that the artist may not have thought of and making them magical and wonderful! Taking others’ ideas and making them one’s own is a gift. Most successful studio performers seem to have that gift.

Going back a couple columns I talked about making sure to choose your musicians and producers based on what you want on the song. Once you know what that is, you can choose the musician, producer, and engineer who do the things you’re after. Trying to get someone in the room who doesn’t do the thing you want and then expecting them to do is kind of crazy.

When I’m listening back to the takes, I’m listening from a very holistic place. Trying to hear the song, the performances, the arrangement, the parts, the groove, the personality, the emotion, how it relates to the songs around it and how it represents the vision of the artist. I’m thinking of the mix and how the colors are fitting together.

Once we get a few takes, we can tell immediately if the tempos are right or if we need to choose a different guitar tone or a different keyboard vibe. Sometimes the piano is in the same range as the acoustic guitar or the Hammond organ is sitting on the vocal or Pedal steel or something. All of this is immediately apparent when you hear the song back through the speakers. Everyone can hear it, and everyone knows what needs to be done without much speaking.

There may still be some things to add like solos and thickening things like extra guitars and doubling and backing vocals and all that stuff. With the basic tracks, though, you should be able to really hear the fully formed song with character and vibe intact during playback.

Generally, at the end of basic track days, I’ve gotten four or five really great takes of each song. I can then pour through all of those performances to find the best moments of each take to create composites. That’s called comping or editing. That’s the thing we’ll tackle next month.

All of these different methods are things I’ve learned over a lot of years. They work for me. They won’t work for everybody and, in fact, there are 1000 ways to do everything. This is just my way. To me, the recording process is still a way to create a magic spell instilled with authentic love and passion. These are the things that feed our souls and give us joy.

Recording matters!

Jeff Berkley

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