Recording a Band: Think Clusters!

Nov 18, 2015

Blog Recording a Band Think Clusters!

Over the last several weeks we’ve been taking some time to explore some tips and tricks for doing some recording at home. We started this journey with some of the more commonly home recorded instruments, like the guitar, drums, and keyboard. From this more obvious list we then branched out into the orchestra, exploring the nuances of recording for things like the brass section or strings. This week we are going to continue investigating recording techniques, but we are again going to take a new direction. Instead of focusing on tips for a particular instrument, or even class of instruments, this week we will explore recording an entire band at once, versus recording each part individually and combining them later. While today will focus mostly on “garage” bands, much of what we will discuss can be used for small classical ensembles as well.

Whether to record a band live or to record each instrument individually is a common questions musicians and amateur producers are faced with when it comes time to get to work. Each has its advantages. Tracking each instrument individually and one at a time allows for perfect isolation of each sound, and focuses everyone’s attention on getting each part perfect. On the other hand, recording a band all together allows the members to “feed” off one another, getting the creative juices flowing, and potentially creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts. While each of these may be tempting given different circumstances, there is a third option which may yield the best sounding results most consistently. This third option is to break the band down into smaller clusters or groups, usually dependent on their role in the band. Let’s go through each option one at a time.

Recording The Band Together

Depending on certain circumstances, recording the entire band as a single unit may be your best option. This choice works especially well for certain genres that sound best when the music is allowed to breath and swing a bit more. You would want to use this style for genres like jazz, blues, or swing. This technique is also great for those upbeat, energetic songs of pop or rock. The whole band jamming together gives a more organic, natural feel to the recording because each artist can feed off the energy in the room and off one another. Groups that perform live together often may benefit from this as well, simply because they are used to playing together, rather than apart. Another factor that may influence your decision is your budget and schedule. Recording as a group might be your only option if your money or time is short. What you’re looking for as an end result might also factor in; live or cover bands might just want a quick recording that gives a sense of what they sound like live for the purposes of getting gigs and attracting venues.

Recording One at a Time

Probably the biggest benefit of recording each instrument in turn is the possibility of perfection. With each instrument recording their own track they can focus on their own performance without the distraction of the other instruments, or even the other band members, resulting in the best performed recording possible for each individual element. Again, genre and style will play a deciding factor in using this technique; slower, more deliberately paced music would benefit best from individual tracks. And again, as with recording the whole band, there might be some other contributing factors to choosing this technique, in this case, your equipment. If you are in fact using a home studio, or some other small studio, the number of performers you can record at once may be limited by the number of available headphone feeds, recording channels, or, depending on the number in your group, the actual size of the space. This technique is also a favourite of multi-instrument artists. These performers often record all (or at least most of) the parts in a song themselves. This leaves them little other choice than to record each element one at a time, and build the song up track-by-track.

Recording in Clusters

This third option is the most commonly used, and usually produces the best results, regardless of genre. When recording your group in clusters, it’s best to start with your rhythm instruments, like your drummer and bassist (and then your rhythm guitar and keyboard), sharing a room. Even though these two will be wearing headphones with their own individual mixes, these two instruments (and really any rhythm instrument) often perform best when they can “feel” the sound from each other in a single take. Once you’ve got all your rhythm instruments captured, and you’ve picked the track you’re keeping, you can fix any small mistakes, like missed guitar or keyboard notes, by redubbing those sections before any mics are moved.

Once you have a rhythm performance you’re happy to use as a foundation, it’s time to focus on individual performances like layered rhythm guitar overdubs, lead and backing vocals, horns, strings, and any soloist. Of course, calling some of these “individual” performances is a bit misleading; some of these, like vocal harmonies, horn sections, and string arrangements should be recorded as clusters for the best sound. It is easy to record these instruments one at a time, but since these kinds of artists are used to working as a group, recording them as a group will give you their best performance. Experiment with mic placements, overdubbing, and even shuffling the positioning of musicians in the recording space for optimal sound. On the other hand, vocals, acoustical, and any other softer instruments should be recorded individually to prevent bleed from other, more forceful instruments.

So, which way is best? That’s hard to say, as you can see, each technique offers its own advantages and disadvantages. That being said, for ease, we highly suggest the combined method, recording basic rhythm instruments in clusters, while utilizing individual recording tracks for leads parts. This style manages to retain the energy and chemistry of a live band, while also delivering crisp, clean leads that don’t have to worry about the pressures of competing with the other instruments in a live setting.