The more recording I do, the more clearly I understand that tracking is the second most important part of the production process but unfortunately in today’s digital workflows it seems that often the most important parts of the production receive the least attention.
I’m determined to make it through this post without using the phrase “fix it in the mix” - Damn! I said it already, but computers running ridiculously powerful plug-ins mean we can postpone nearly every decision, but when recording audio with microphones it is still the case that rubbish in still equals rubbish out.
I said that I thought tracking was the second most important part of the production process. The most important has to be pre-production, bringing an unfinished product to the studio is a recipe for disaster but even if the song is written and the band well rehearsed, a beautifully recorded, indifferent performance is always going to limit results.
I’m not going to talk psychology or environment or any of the myriad of other things which can affect a session, this being a Pro Tools blog, I’m going to make five general points about tracking and then suggest five useful features available in Pro Tools which can keep tracking, particularly drop-ins, quick and easy and also make sure that the technology doesn’t get in the way of capturing the best possible performance.
Five Things To Keep In Mind When Tracking A Live Band
- If a band are used to playing together, track them together. Don’t make them use a click track if they aren’t used to it. You are recording them, they aren't being recorded by you. It's a big difference.
- Don’t let avoiding spill become more important than making people feel comfortable with the recording process.
- If your available space isn’t suitable, use a mobile rig. You’ll never get the “Levee Breaks” drum sound recording in a typical living room.
- Always take a clean DI of guitars and basses, if they are using pedals try taking a DI before and after the pedal board as well as any mics on amps. If you can record with amps then that is always better, if for no other reason than keeping guitarists happy but as long as the amps aren’t bleeding all over everything then a clean DI is a good safety net.
- Spend as long on headphones and monitor mixes as you do on setting up mics. I used to get my students to start with the headphones as I’ve seen too many people spend 95% of the available time prevaricating over mic choices and placement and then do the foldback in a hurry at the last minute.
Five Useful Pro Tools Features For Drop-ins And Overdubs
- Know Your Pre Roll Commands - If you’re anything like me you find yourself leaving Pre Roll on when playing back and off when dropping in. Commit Command+K (Control+K in Windows) to memory to quickly toggle Pre Roll. Even when working to a click I set Pre Roll visually to find the most appropriate pickup point. Option/Alt+Click in the clip to set the Pre Roll (or Post Roll) position.
- Audition Mode - Very often I want to play the Pre Roll to the singer (it’s usually the singer) so they know exactly where they are dropping in. There are dedicated buttons for this on a D Control but this is easily done by pressing Command+Option+Left Arrow (Control+Alt+Left Arrow on Windows).
- New Playlist Shortcut, Rating Takes - Playlists are incredibly useful but it’s important to keep track of your various takes. I know I’ve just gone with the last one before thinking that if you stopped there it’s probably because you were happy with that take. A couple of useful shortcuts can help speed things up and keep things organised.
- New Playlist - Control+\ (Start+\ on Windows), no explanation needed here. One of the most useful shortcuts in Pro Tools.
- Rating Takes - If you display ratings on Clips (Menu - View-Clip-Rating) you can rate clips from 1-5. To do this on the fly during playback, select the clip and press 1-5 on the number pad while holding down the “Powerclaw” - Command+Option+Control (Control+Alt+Start on Windows)
- Punch vs Selection - Most people know that if you make an edit selection then Pro Tools will record only for the duration of that selection. To make a selection with your ears rather than your eyes, use the down and up arrows during playback. Down is the selection in point and up is the selection out. However, if you want to be a bit more old school why not try punching in using Quickpunch? Right click on the record button to access it. Play back with your track record-armed and drop in and out of record using Num 3 or F12.
- Dropping Markers On The Fly - Something which really slows tracking sessions down is listening back to takes. While this is, of course, necessary, time can be saved by marking areas for closer examination later during the initial record pass. Use Enter on the numeric keyboard to drop markers on the fly. Although Pro Tools can auto name these I suggest manually naming at the time with useful reminders such as “bass fluff” “kick late” or “pitch?” so you know what you are listening for. Of course, these will always be dropped late so remember to listen from a few seconds before the marker! If you are working on a MacBook Pro you can temporarily turn your Return key into an Enter key by holding Fn.
Of course, there is more to successful tracking than just speed, but keeping the energy up during tracking always helps avoid boredom and lack of focus from the performers. What features do you find speed things up?