Today’s (very first, horrah!) blog post talks about the first step in choosing how to approach your recording experience. Whenever I’m starting with a new client, one of the conversations we inevitably have is whether to do a live recording (i.e. all musicians playing in the studio simultaneously) or if we should record each member/instrument individually.
My Answer is This
If you have the time, the in-depth knowledge of your instrument, and are comfortable with the music - then absolutely record live. The basic reason for this being that the natural inclinations, the one-on-one dynamics and the spontaneous energy of a group playing together are irreplaceable. As anyone can attest to who has been to an incredible concert, there’s just nothing like it. If you and your musicians are prepared for your recording, it can also lead to less takes, time and money (and who doesn’t want that?).
Though some people may not know the difference between a live and separately recorded track, many artists we celebrate today worked this way. The Beatles, early Elvis, The Band, RHCP, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, are just a few examples.
To showcase wonderful representation of live group recording, check out Frank Zappa’s performance of “Bolero” by Ravel :
…and Thad Jones’ “Greetings and Salutations”, off of his album New Life :
Here are two perfect examples of the energy you can only acquire through a live recording. There’s no way you could possibly get those dynamics - the ‘freedom of the moment’ from individual tracks. Unfortunately, this was Zappa’s last tour, but it’s obviously not due to lack of greatness. We remember you, Frank!
Now, there are some exceptions and cons to recording live and first thing’s first :
If You Are Not Recording Live, Use a Click-Track
A click-track is the 21st century metronome. It may be annoying, it may not feel natural, and you may have many many reasons why it doesn’t feel ‘right’, but just do it. Most singer/songwriters of today do indeed record with a click-track. Sure there are exceptions; Neal Young, Jeff Buckley and Johnny Cash for example. But they are just that: exceptions. I could go into a more in-depth perspective, but just take The Recording Revolution’s perfectly outlined argumentinstead.
If There’s a Mistake, You Can’t Always Fix It
When you record as a group, you make mistakes as a group. Recording live will only ever be the best choice if the group as a whole is completely confident in their chosen music. Things can sometimes be fixed, but the tracks will have to be chopped up by the engineer. This is when it becomes difficult, as many times you will lose milliseconds of recording material and gain a sloppy track by trying to play doctor. If you’re a perfectionist, more takes will lead to more time spent in the studio = more money spent in the studio. It’ll then be up to you to decide whether quality or your wallet is more important
Instrumental / Vocal Duos
This is an exception for live recording. When there is a vocalist recording with a single instrumentalist, my suggestion would be to record separately and to a click track. The argument stands that even if you are very comfortable with your music individually, you still have to second guess the performance that you are recording to/with. As a result, you generally won’t record as naturally as you would live (even if you record simultaneously to a click track). As it's always best to be prepared for future changes, this can also be extremely helpful if you decide to add extra musicians later in the game.
In the end, the most important thing is to be prepared for your upcoming recording. Practice with a click track if you need and with all of your band-mates as often as possible. This way you’ll save time, money and create a recording that you are all much happier with.