The Recording Process, Part 2: Tracking
As the US is celebrating Thanksgiving this week, I wanted to send you a special wish for a Happy Thanksgiving. On my part, I'm deeply thankful to all of you for supporting this project.
In this update, I'd like to share with you a few key aspects about the second (and most obvious) stage of our work on the album: recording the instruments and voices, also known as Tracking. The more care that is taken during the Tracking Stage, the smoother the road ahead will be. There are several steps in our approach to tracking, which I'll outline below. If you're a music-maker, I hope this is useful for you, and if not, I hope you find it educational!
Step 1 - Click or No Click?
When Kelly and I have chosen what songs to work on, the first major question we ask is whether or not to use a 'Click Track' - a steady metronome which all the musicians will play along to. A Click Track gives everyone a central reference point for timing and is very useful in the long run (as you'll see later in the 'Editing' stage). However, some songs call for more breathing space to ebb and flow naturally, and are better off without a click. It depends on what the song needs.
Step 2 - The Guide Track (AKA The Scratch Track)
If a Click Track is used, we spend some time experimenting with the click at different speeds until we find just the right tempo for the song. Then we move onto an important step called the 'Guide Track' (also known as the 'Scratch Track', since it will be thrown away later). For the Guide Track, I record a rough take of the song (just voice and guitar), playing along to the click. The Guide Track will act as a 'map' of the song, so that all the musicians can play along to it, listening to the steady beat of the Click.
If there's no Click Track, we can dive straight into the real recording, without any Guide Track. This brings up a second major question: should we record the song 'live' (simultaneous recording of instruments) or not live (separate recording of instruments)? Recording 'live' has the benefit of capturing a certain type of energy (and may be necessary if the song has lots of ebb & flow), while recording separately can lead to a better sound quality and refinement for each instrument & voice. Again, it depends on what works best for the song. Some songs are recorded using a mixture of these techniques - for example, on one of the new songs, we recorded piano and voice live, then added strings and trumpets separately later on.
Step 3 - Tracking The Instruments & Vocals
When the songs have been rehearsed, the Click Track set, and the Guide Track created, it's time to bring the musicians to the studio and start recording the actual sounds that will be on the album. I'm very fortunate to be working with a group of truly outstanding musicians on this album (who I'll introduce to you a bit later...)
We usually begin with the rhythm section, starting with drums and bass. Then we add guitars, pianos, keyboards, and any other instruments like strings and horns, layering the sounds into Pro-Tools one after the other. Tracking each instrument requires working carefully to bring out the best in each musician. Sometimes it takes time to capture just the right take, and sometimes it happens as if by magic - there's a mystery in tracking! You never really know when or how the right take is going to be captured. The spirit in which tracking is approached is just as important as the technical aspects.
When the instruments have been tracked, the original Guide Track is thrown away and it's time to record the real vocals. I like to track vocals last, after all the other instruments have been tracked, so that I have more to respond to emotionally while singing. Part of Kelly's role as a producer is to coach me through the vocal tracking, in order to draw out the best possible expression of every word and phrase. Each song may require several hours of singing, listening back, then singing again, then listening back again. Since we're recording sacred writings, we often discuss the words in between vocal takes to really let the meaning soak in and be expressed in the recording.
Below is a short clip from some of our recent tracking sessions at It's Not Rocket Science Studios in the UK. I hope you enjoy it.
As always, my deepest thanks to all of you - and if you are celebrating the holidays this week, Happy Thanksgiving!