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“It’s really hard to record guitar, particularly distorted guitar. It’s one of those evasive things to try to get it on tape well. The first stage is to listen discerningly to what the sound source is really doing, and then figure out the appropriate mic and mic position.”- Eric Johnson

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Tracking for the Mix
Things you can do during tracking to make mixing easier.
By Dave Martin

There are a number of things that you can do in the tracking and overdub stages of a project to make your life easier when it is time to mix. The most important, of course, is to record good tracks in the first place.

Record with a method

Anytime you have to make an adjustment to a track to compensate for either a bad recording or a bad performance, you’ve taken time and energy away from what should be the primary task—presenting the performers and the song in the best possible manner. In the simplest terms, this means that engineering mistakes and performance mistakes should be corrected well before the mix begins.

Whether you comp multiple tracks together to create finished tracks or whether you “punch your way to success,” you need to make sure that there are no pops, clicks or cut-off syllables that will become ever more obtrusive when you mix. In addition, sudden volume or tone changes created by comping various takes of a single instrument together can be minimized but seldom eliminated at the mix stage (OK, this isn’t strictly true, but it takes a lot of work and a lot of time).

My typical clients, whether they’re songwriters recording demos, artists putting together a CD, or corporate clients ordering custom tracks, are usually under either tight time or budget constraints which require that the time spent mixing is minimized. (How fast? It’s not unusual for me to be asked to mix a 15-song project in a single day.) Since one key to working fast is having some sort of a standard method of working, a few things have become part of my standard workflow when tracking a project. When I set up for a mix, I’ll typically be mixing anywhere between a minimum of 5 and maybe as many as 25 songs as part of the deal with a given project. The less patching I have to do, the fewer changes I have to make between songs; the less automation I have to deal with, the faster the mixing process can go.

Track layout

On the surface, it seems logical to use the tracks on your recorder (or DAW) sequentially—a certain number of tracks will be used when recording the basics of a given song, and you simply move to the next available track for each overdub. But with a little planning, a more ergonomic approach can be used. Over the years, I’ve developed a ‘standard’ track layout; this is loosely based on the fact that I use TASCAM DTRS machines, with 8 channels per machine. Each DA-78 machine is primarily used for one class of instruments. These instruments, if used, are always recorded to specific tracks (and therefore always show up on certain channels of the console). It’s not necessarily logical, but there’s a consistency to it.

The first machine (tracks 1–8) is used for the click track, bass, acoustic guitars and color instruments—fiddle, mandolin, steel, dobro. The second machine (tracks 9–16) is my standard drum layout. The third machine (tracks 17–24) is for keyboard tracks as well as added drum tracks (a room mic, a second kick drum mic) and any percussion. The fourth machine (25–32) is used for vocals, and the fifth machine (33–40) is primarily electric guitars. Tracks 41–48 are seldom used, but are available for whatever didn’t fit anywhere else.

There are a number of advantages to working with a consistent track layout. First, if there’s a fiddle anywhere on the project, I know that it’s going to come up on channel 3 of the console. I can add whatever processing is desired (eq, compression, effects sends, etc.) and know that throughout the project, that processing will be set up and ready to go with only minor tweaking (if it’s not used on a given song, I can simply mute the track as I mix that song). Second, on my console, buss assignments and mutes can be saved as a “project;” any tracks which need to be bussed together—drums, keyboards, background vocals—will always be at the same location on the console, so recalling buss assignments used for mixing is simply a matter of recalling a mix scene.

Since patching in all of the outboard gear—on individual channels, on busses and on various aux sends—can take an hour or two, it’s a great time saver to only do it once for a given project. While you can have a standard track layout for mixing that is unrelated (more or less) to the tracking sessions, it saves time to simply record the tracks where they’ll eventually be needed at the mixing stage. It’s possible with most console patch bays to “cross-patch;” by plugging the output of each tape machine channel into the desired console channel, you can mix with your own standard track layout. This is the method that most of the big-name mix engineers use—whatever the track layout when the project comes in the door, the various instruments will be cross-patched to their usual console channels.

I try to be consistent with the tracks I use for each instrument. For example, if a piano is used on a given song within a project, it will be recorded on channels 17 and 18, the first two tracks on the DA-78 machine used for keyboards. Assuming that I’m happy with the piano sound, that sound will remain fairly constant throughout the project. Once I’ve patched in whatever processing I may use on the piano, I won’t really need to mess around with the eq and panning while mixing the rest of the songs which are part of that project. Only levels will change drastically.

Bass (electric or acoustic) is recorded on track 5, and acoustic guitar is on tracks 7 and 8. The lead vocal goes on track 25, and backgrounds will start at track 26 (unless there are multiple tracks of lead vocals), and electric guitars start on track 33. There is (or at least, once was) a reason for each of the instruments to be recorded on the track to which I assign them—catch me at a trade show, and I’ll be happy to explain in excruciating detail the history of my track layout. But for now, it suffices to say that while I’m tracking and overdubbing, I remain aware of how it’s going to affect the setup of the mix. And since I was speaking of electric guitars, it’s worth talking about how a little foresight during the tracking stage can really make a mix easier.

Electric guitar

I mentioned earlier that I set aside 8 channels for electric guitars. This may seem excessive, but here’s the approach that I take: I look at each different guitar sound as a separate guitar which should go on its own track. If the electric guitar part has one sound during the verses and a different one on the choruses, I’ll record each sound on its own track. If there’s an effected guitar at one point in the song—tremolo, flange, delay or whatever—I’ll put that on a separate track. If (on a country song) the fill guitar has a different sound than the lead guitar, they each get their own tracks.

Here’s the advantage: by doing electric guitars in this manner, (a) I don’t have to deal with level changes between sections that would necessitate writing automation, and (b) I can process the electric guitar sounds for each section separately. By splitting the guitars up so that each sound has its own track, I generally don’t have to either use automation or manually ride the faders throughout the song. I should mention that there are other solutions, but they take more time; one easy one is bussing the guitar tracks to multiple faders on the console, and then using mute automation to bring each separate sound up on its own fader. That sort of thing doesn’t make for fast mixes, however...

Acoustic guitars

There may be hundreds of ways that acoustic guitars can be recorded—and all (or most) of them are correct. Here’s the way that I do it, a method that makes mixing the acoustics as pain-free as possible. First, I tend to record guitars in stereo—or at least binaurally. One mic generally goes somewhere around the 12th fret, and the other is placed somewhere around the level of the player’s chin, pointing down toward the body of the guitar. (Purists wouldn’t call this ‘stereo,’ so ‘binaural’ is a workable alternative name, even though it’s not technically correct either...).

After the preamp, I’ll use a bit of light compression, generally a Manley ELOP in a stereo configuration. This means that the amount of gain reduction on either channel is affected by the signal present on the other channel. A few minutes working on mic placement, preamps, and the compressors will achieve a wide, natural stereo guitar sound, and one that sums well to mono.

Oh—whenever you’re working in stereo, make sure that your stereo tracks are mono compatible. If your console has a ‘mono’ switch, use it to check your stereo signals; if not, check for mono compatibility by panning both channels to one side. If the sound is OK when this is done, then you’re fine. If the tone changes drastically, or seems to disappear, move one or both of the mics so that this doesn’t happen. But back to the subject at hand; the basic acoustic guitar track gets recorded by two microphones to two tracks.

If, as often happens, you want to double the acoustic guitars on a song, the first track is recorded in the above manner. But don’t set up two more channels to record the second acoustic track: besides taking up two more tracks, you should remember that when there are two acoustics doing more or less the same thing, they’ll typically be panned hard left and right. Therefore, the easy way to double the acoustic guitar is to simply take one of the previously recorded tracks out of record, and put the second acoustic track on top of one channel of the first pass of acoustic.

Look what happens; by disarming one track (with the push of a single button), you didn’t have to move any microphones, you didn’t have to re-patch anything, you didn’t need to change the settings on the preamp or the compressor, and you didn’t even have to change the pan setting on the console—you just hit one button and the second guitar pass is ready to record.

And as a bonus, the guitarist will hear his first guitar on one side of his headphones, and the new pass will be on the other side. This makes it much easier to hear what he played on the first track as well as what he’s playing on the second pass. This method saves quite a bit of time when recording the two acoustics, but also saves time when mixing. And here’s why.

When I’m patching up to mix a project, the acoustic guitars remain on the same two channels of the console for the entire project (in my case, tracks 7 and 8 of the first DA-78). My basic mixing signal path for the acoustic is a Millennia Media TCL-2 compressor followed by a Millennia Media NSEQ parametric equalizer. These are stereo units, and each of the guitar tracks is processed in the same way (the TCL-2 is used in its stereo mode, rather than dual mono).

Because of the mic placement, the two channels sound different from each other, but that’s not an issue—the stereo guitar sound sounds quite natural. When there’s only one guitar on a track, this setup works great. And when the guitar is doubled, it still works great; the mic placement (and overall sound) of the second acoustic is though it were one side of a stereo acoustic. So I don’t have to change the panning of the acoustic guitar tracks when the acoustic track is doubled and I don’t need to change the settings on the outboard gear—it works whether there is one or two acoustic guitars on a given song.

Final thoughts

Though I try to record and mix with a fairly consistent working method, that doesn’t mean that all of the tracks on a project sound more or less the same; it’s simply that instead of trying to ‘fix it in the mix,’ we tend to make the production decisions much earlier in the recording process, at the tracking stage. If a given song calls for a different bass sound than the one before it, a different bass is used. If a song requires a specific (or unusual) drum sound, we set up and record the appropriate drums (though great changes can be made simply by bringing up a room mic, or by making the overheads the dominant drum sound rather than the close-miked drums). It’s the same with guitars, keyboards, and all of the other instruments.

Even with the acoustic guitar scenario outlined above, I seldom change the recording method; instead, we’ll use a different acoustic guitar when we want a different sound. Since there are generally 4 or 5 acoustics at the studio on any given day—Martin, Taylor, and Santa Cruz 6 strings (along with a couple of classical guitars and a 12-string), its easier for me as an engineer and more fun for the musicians to choose the appropriate guitar than it is to take the time to change mics or mic placement. This keeps the tracking and overdub sessions moving along, and it creates a smooth flow going during the mix sessions. And for me and my clients, that makes working this way A Good Thing.

I’ve talked about just a few examples of how close attention at the tracking stage can make mixing a project less troublesome. There are many more ways to make mixing a project less of a headache, and the joys of discovering them will more than justify the effort.

Dave Martin is a producer, engineer, and owner of Java Jive Studio in Nashville. Check out www.javajivestudio.com to learn more.

 




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