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One Track, Several Parts: The Art Of the Premix

6:00 am Home Recording

One of the rules of home recording states: There are never enough tracks. Even if you are using the latest whiz-bang computer setup, there will still come a point where you just can’t add any more tracks without crashing the whole system. (Of course, this point may not come until you try to add Track #79!) Obviously, the problem is much more acute if you are using a standalone recorder unit with 4, 8, or 16 tracks. You may ask, How can I “shoehorn in” just one more part?

The best way to get those extra parts on there is to combine two or more instruments on some of the individual tracks, “premixing” these combinations to free up tracks for additional recording. (See my article Record A 16-Track Song On Your 8-Track Recorder for a very methodical approach to cramming lots of parts into a limited number of tracks.) The question is, which parts does it make sense to combine on a track? And what should I not do? Here are some tips that will help you get the most out of your track stacking.

1. Take the time to do a really good premix.

Keep in mind that once you combine these parts, they will stay combined. It is definitely worth it to labor over the EQ settings, relative levels, fader moves, and any effects you are adding just as you would if you were working on the final mix. In fact, you are! Make it a good one.

2. Combine a mostly-bass part with a mostly-treble part.

A classic example of this approach is the seemingly unlikely pairing of bass guitar and tambourine on a single track. The bass guitar has mostly bass frequencies, some midrange, and almost no treble, whereas the tambourine has mostly treble frequencies, some midrange, and almost no bass. At mix time, the treble EQ control (boost or cut) for that channel will affect only the tambourine and the bass EQ control will affect only the bass, in effect giving you independent control over the two parts, just as if they were on separate tracks!

3. Combine parts that effectively comprise a single “part.”

If your song has background vocals in two- or three-part harmony, with each background vocal now on its own track, premix all of them onto a single track, carefully checking the relative levels to make sure the vocal balance is right throughout the song. You may have to make some “moves” on the channel faders to keep the levels matched. This is great, since it not only makes the song sound better but also becomes one fewer thing you have to worry about at mix time.

The same “single part” approach could be used to create a “section” of a particular instrument, like two flute tracks, or three guitars, or maybe even five violins!

4. Combine parts that you can apply the same effects to during the premix.

Most standalone recorders only have one or two auxiliary send-return loops for connecting effects units. Even in the case where the recorder has built-in effects, there are often only two Aux Send functions, or only enough processing power to enable two effects at a time. This limits the number of different effects you can apply at the same time during mixing. If you set up a reverb effect and a delay effect, there’s nowhere to connect a chorus, for example.

One way around this is to apply one or two effects as you combine several parts onto one track, “printing’ the effects onto the target track. Since you are making a (pre)mix anyway, why wouldn’t you add some effects?

You might want to put a “far away sounding” reverb on that set of background vocals to distinguish them from the more “upfront” reverb you plan to use in the main mix. Or put a chorus effect on one of the violins in that “violin section” now, since you can’t add it later.

5. Don’t combine major, “front line” parts with anything else.

In the music I record, the lead vocal and the lead guitar or keyboard are the two front-line parts. Your music may feature different parts up front. For me, no matter how much premixing and track stacking I do, I always want to end up with the lead vocal on its own track and the lead (whatever) on its own track.

One reason for this is that I can apply effects like reverb to these parts at mix time without affecting some other part that might not need that effect. Similarly, I can make moves on the level faders or even the EQ without causing some other part to mysteriously change at the same time.

In short, it’s hard enough to get lead parts to “sit” correctly in the mix without adding the burden of a “tag-along” part! Keep those front-line parts isolated.

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