Recording Bands – Together or Separate?

by Jon Goad

When working in the studio, some producers/engineers prefer to record each instrument completely separate from each other. First, they’ll record the drums, then the bass guitar, then the rhythm guitar, then the keyboards, etc. It’s almost like building a brick wall, with each instrument representing a single layer of bricks. Each layer is stacked one on top of the other until the wall (song) is complete. This technique gives you maximum separation between tracks, but may take a long time for each player to complete their parts, which will ultimately affect the cost of the song if you’re paying the studio by the hour.

Others like to record the entire band at once–with all of the musicians playing in the room together at the same time. The separation between tracks may not be quite as good as with the first method, but it also has its merits. In general, it seems to create more of a “live feel”, and helps the recording to sound more like the band does when you actually hear them play live. Since you may also be able to keep the tracks from multiple instruments for a given take, working this way usually takes much less time to complete a song, and therefore it won’t cost as much in terms of studio time. In both scenarios, each instrument is still recorded to its own track/s so the songs can be properly mixed later.

I prefer to take a “hybrid” approach when it comes to recording bands. First, I’ll record the basic rhythm tracks together. Then, we’ll go back and fix mistakes, do any overdubs for layered parts, record any guitar solos, and then finally record the vocals. Many top producers, such as Kevin Shirley (Aerosmith, Rush, Kiss, Journey, Iron Maiden, Dream Theater, Black Crowes, Joe Bonamassa, Mr. Big, etc.) prefer to work this way, so this is a proven method.

More specifically, I like to set up all of the rhythm players (drums, rhythm guitar/s, bass, etc.) in the room together, and give each of them their own headphone mix, which will include a click track, some of their own instrument, and some of the other instruments. I might also set up a vocal mic in the control room for the singer, which the players will also hear in their headphones, just to help everyone stay together. I can create completely separate mixes in each set of headphones, so each player can decide exactly how much of each instrument and click track they want to hear. When recording, I’ll record all of the instruments, but the only performance that’s really critical is the drums. I’ve got some acoustic baffles that I’ll put in front of the guitar and bass amps, so the drum mics don’t pick up enough of them so that they’re really audible. When the drums are done, we can go back and fix mistakes and do any overdubs for the guitar and bass tracks, or completely redo them if necessary.

While cutting the basic rhythm tracks, I’ll ask the guitar players not to play any solos. They will usually just drop out and stop playing completely during the solos, or they’ll keep playing the rhythm part, which we may or may not ultimately use. The reason for this is that unlike the rhythm parts, the solos will often be audible enough in the other mics that they won’t be covered up when we do the overdubs. Also, most guitar players don’t have their solos set in stone anyway, so when we actually do the solos (during the overdub process), we’ll just keep recording multiple takes of the solo until they play it to their own satisfaction. Finally, when we’ve fixed any mistakes, recorded any layered parts, and recorded the guitar solos, then we’ll record the vocal tracks to finish off the song.

As I said, each method has its own set of pros and cons. Recording everything separately gives you maximum separation between tracks, but you sacrifice some of the “feel” or “vibe” of the song. It also usually takes much longer in terms of time. Recording everything together generally goes faster and gives you a better feel, but you may sacrifice some of the separation. In any case, hopefully this article has given you a better understanding of these two different approaches to recording bands, and you’ll be better equipped to decide which method you would prefer to use in the studio.

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