Interesting conversation I had with a bassist from SoCal this last weekend. We were discussing the provisions of recording live and quantizing a performance versus recording a straight live performance with mistakes and all.
Late me state the position I have heard from numerous mix engineers in the genre of metal and hard rock. Their position can be summarized as follows:
- Everything must be played to a click track and quantized down to the nearest 16th or 32 note.
- You must start with drums only
- Followed by bass
- Then you must lock in the performances of each of the other instruments
- Followed by vocals
- Finally any overdubs should be recorded. then replacements can be done from there.
This is so that when it comes time for the performance to be edited in Pro Tools (or some other DAW) it becomes easy to to punch replacements for drums, single bass notes, single guitar notes, et al.
I don’t agree with this thought process or method. Here is why. I believe the best performances ever recorded have been done mostly if not completely…. L I V E.
I’m not saying don’t use a click track. I am saying don’t get locked into using a click track with hard quantization to make up for a band’s inaccuracies in performance. Do your work in pre-production to make things as tight as you can. Yet allow the performance to breath. This isn’t about making a precise recording to make the engineers job easy. It’s about capturing the performance of a song.
Lets do a bit of history here. When recording first started on wax, wire, tin and other early media the recording were made under rather crude circumstances. Usually the recording device was set up where the performance was to be made and then the recording device would do it’s thing while the instrumentalist(s) and vocalist(s) performed. There were no click tracks back then and no one played to a metronome (at least not one you could hear).
The introduction of click tracks occurred with with the motion picture Fantasia (earliest historical account) in 1940. Yet the recording industry didn’t really get into regularly using click tracks until the 1980’s as digital (MIDI) sequencers started gaining usage in recording studios.
Now I am going to point to some great recordings that still stand up on their own which by the way didn’t use click tracks.
- Frampton Comes Alive – Most of Peter Frampton’s earlier studio work didn’t get noticed as much as this singular recording. It is his best work up till that point and arguably the apex of his career. Guess what? It was recorded live. Yeah that was live performance and it was tight. And it still stands on it’s own without a click track.
- Van Halen I & II – recorded in a semi live situation by Ted Templeman. I’ve heard this story a number of times in interviews with Ted. He set the band up in the live room and recorded them live. Then came back and overdubbed the vocals and guitar solos. Imagine that. Live and without a click track. Now tell me those two albums don’t stand on their own.
- Tour de Force Live – Al DiMeola – Again another live performance. Need I say more?
What I am getting at here is that while a click track serves a purpose in keeping the timing of a song the inaccuracies, leading, and other anomalies found in a live performance are lost. And that is what makes music breath. If music can’t breath it looses feeling. After a piece of music looses feeling, well what’s the point of recording it anyways, then?
Now don’t get me wrong. A click track that is compensated for time signature changes and tempo changes is good. It should however be a guide. Not a wrought iron fence upon which you hang your music. And hard quantization is more for the benefit of the engineer in making his life easier to clean things up prior to mixing.
It also helps him in setting drum hit replacements, single note replacements and trying to seamlessly fuse parts together. But that defeats the purpose of recording a song performance in the first place. Doesn’t it? It kills the feeling.
There are plenty of tools out there to allow for drum hit replacements or augmentation like Steven Slate Drums Trigger EX and Platinum. There are time slice and stretching tools like those contained in Logic Pro X or Reason 8. Or even Celemony Melodyne that takes time stretching, timing and pitch adjustment to a level unmatched by anything else.
If you’re working with an established band the biggest issue is making sure that sufficient pre-production is done before spending money on expensive studio time. What does that mean? It means that the band must have the song written and appropriately arranged prior to coming into the studio. That you know before you record what the arrangement is and that it has been well practiced by the band. I’m not going to go into too much detail with arrangement. Go take some courses in music arrangement for pop and modern styles to know what I mean by that. Berklee (Berklee College of Music) has some great courses on arrangement.
Next, make sure that the vocalist has done a lot of practice with the song to impart feeling and accuracy in pitch. All that without over doing it and killing the song. The important part is getting the pitch dead on.
If the pre-production has been done correctly, you and the band will be rewarded with a great song that will only get better in post-production (mix-down and mastering). You will have very little to fix (there is no such thing as fix it in the mix) and the band will have a good tune that breaths and is alive rather than pegged to a time line that is robotic and static.