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Record Scratch Tracks To Guide Your Arrangement

4:21 pm Home Recording

Sometimes I write a song that comes with an arrangement “included.” That is, specific instrumental and backup-vocal parts “come to me” right along with the chords, melody, and lyrics. (Songs based on riffs or other signature melodic figures are often like this.) In this case, recording the song is simply a matter of laying down the needed parts one by one as they were originally conceived, or as close as I can get to it!

Most often, though, the “song” as written is basically just a melody and lyrics accompanied by chords strummed on an acoustic guitar. All decisions about instrumentation, textures, harmony, and so on are left to be determined when I finally record the song. But when that time comes, how do I decide what to actually play?

I have a standard sequence for recording a typical song that I can always fall back on. First I record a click track (to be erased later) and a strummed guitar to establish the rhythm and the chord pattern. Then I add drums, then bass guitar or a keyboard bass. A pad-type keyboard comes next, followed by a lead part on guitar or keyboard. Finally, I add a couple of backup vocals, one or two lead vocal parts, and maybe a tambourine or maracas. And there’s my typical song!

Assuming that I am making up the arrangement as I go, the various parts always get made up in the same order with this approach: rhythm guitar, then drums, then bass, etc. The later parts tend to be more inspired because more of the song is “there” when I make them up. In contrast, when I’m doing the drums I don’t really know exactly what I’m drumming along with because I haven’t made it up yet!

Track Scratch Fever

Maybe this is the way you record too. There’s nothing really wrong with this approach, but here is a recording method that can result in more interesting arrangements: record a number of intermediate “scratch” parts as you work on the song, with the intention of erasing them later. Earlier, I mentioned recording a click track to help keep the beat and then erasing it later, to be replaced by something else. My “scratch track” method extends this concept to instrumental and vocal parts.

So how does it work? Well, the key ideas are:

* Don’t use everything you record in the final mix.
* Erase certain tracks after they have inspired other tracks.
* Get a lead vocal on there early.

It’s hard to leave anything you’ve recorded for the song out of the final mix. After all, it was hard to get it right and it’s right there, ready to go. I so know, Dude. But it’s worth bagging it if the song comes out better as a result, right? Just think of the tracks to be omitted as “scratch tracks.”

The most common form the “omission method” takes for me is leaving out that first strumming guitar when I mix the song. That part is great to use as a reference while I’m recording, but does every arrangement need to have a part like that running through the whole song? Obviously not. Oftentimes, when I drop the strumming out, the arrangement “opens up” and becomes ever so much better. Beware of cluttering up your final mix with “reference” parts!

The Great Erase

Going beyond merely leaving things out, you can also erase tracks you have recorded, after they have contributed to the arrangement. For example, I may begin by recording a click track and that same strumming guitar as before, although now I am thinking of both of these as reference or scratch tracks.

Let’s say I record a second guitar playing a melodic part that occurred to me while I was strumming, and then I record two cool keyboard parts that are intertwined with the second guitar part. Now, I erase the second guitar. Wow! I am left with two keyboard parts that go together in an interesting way because they both go with the (now absent) guitar part. The point is, I never would have come up with that particular dual-keyboard part without the catalytic effect of the here-and-gone second guitar.

One specific scratch part I recommend laying down as soon as possible is the lead vocal. I would record it right after the strumming guitar, or whatever your first “reference” track is. This is not considered to be the final vocal track, although I often do end up using it. Rather, it is there to inspire and synchronize other parts that may play off the vocal melody, like little answering guitar riffs. How can you make things like that up if there’s no vocal to respond to? Get one on there.

I think you get the general idea. Try treating the arrangement as a fluid thing, with various parts coming and going while you work on it, instead of something to be put down track by track. If you can get used to not using everything you play, this approach is golden!

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