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Sunday, 26 April, 2009 11:04 AM

Producers on Live vs. Layered Tracking (CMA)

Photo by Drew Maynard / CMA

Bassist Steve Francis and drummer Steve Holland track live at OMNIsound Studios.

 

By Randy Rudder
© 2009 CMA Close Up News Service

When multi-tracking became popular in the 1960s, it made a strong and immediate impression on recording pop music. There were many reasons why this practice of recording tracks individually caught on, not the least of them the belief that controlling the music at a more detailed level would yield a more polished product.

It made its impact in Nashville too, though the city's tradition of assembling studio musicians to record together made for a more complex and contradictory embrace. To adapt to changing times while also staying in touch with what a great live rhythm section had to offer, producers of Music City developed an instinct for when each approach was more appropriate and when it made sense to put them - sometimes carefully - together.

"I've done it both ways," said Mark Wright, President, Universal Records South and producer of albums by Clint Black, Brooks & Dunn, Montgomery Gentry, Joe Nichols, Gretchen Wilson, Lee Ann Womack, Trisha Yearwood and many other artists. "Every project and every artist is different. It just depends on what I'm working on. If I'm working on something more pop-oriented, we'll cut a basic track and then layer the rest, whereas if I'm doing something that is more traditional Country or has a soul groove to it, I like to cut the whole band at once. I used to cut Gary Allan all at once, but now we'll schedule days where we're going to be doing all fiddle tunes. And then other days, when we're really rockin', we'll just cut two electrics and drums and maybe an organ and then overdub whatever else is needed later."

According to Wright, layering can take some of the headache out of scheduling sessions, especially with players who are in such demand that they may even record their parts in other locations and send them in as audio files. Still, he admitted, this method can make it hard to replicate the "spontaneous combustion" that might take place when bands play live.

"Sometimes these guys will hear something in the [head] phones that another player is playing, and that will inspire them to play an answer to it that you wouldn't get if they weren't in the room at the same time," Wright said. "And you can hear the difference. You can hear a record that has a combustion element and a record that has a layering element. Some artists need to have that band feel, and to me, it's hard to get that live band feel from layering. In a live session, guys are looking at each other and trying to impress each other. They're grinning across the room when someone plays a killer lick. You can get a perfect record from layering, but perfect is not always better, if you know what I mean."

Norro Wilson does and he agrees. An accomplished songwriter, with "A Very Special Love Song," "The Grand Tour" and "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" among his catalog of hits, he has also left his mark as a producer over decades of work with John Anderson, Kenny Chesney, Sara Evans, Janie Fricke, George Jones, Reba McEntire, Buck Owens, Charley Pride and Tammy Wynette, among many others.

"Popular music evolved from people sitting around on front porches or wherever and playing together," he stated. "They played off one another. And then records started being made, and they sat around in the studio and they played together. That natural camaraderie creates a special feeling that you can only hear in records like that.

"I was fortunate to work with Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, who were great musicians as well as A&R men," Wilson continued. "Back then, everybody was sitting around in the studio and laughing and talking and playing off one another. If you will really listen closely to those songs and find out how they were recorded, you can feel and hear the emotion there."

Like all producers, Wilson has seen his share of sessions that involve overdubs. "We've always layered some. The basic tracks were always six or seven people in there: a bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar. In my earlier days, I used 'tic-tac' to supplement the big bass," he said, referring to the practice of doubling a bass line by overdubbing a muted second bass or baritone guitar.

"When we couldn't mix the bass as well as we can now, tic-tac was a little thinner sound and added a little high end to the bass quality. After that, we might want to double the fiddle or the guitar or whatever. When we went through that phase, I used to say, sometimes we would double the piano stool."

Still, though Wilson admitted that the appeal of a fundamentally layered approach to tracking remains elusive to him, he also maintained that it obviously has made an enduring impression.

"I'm not about to say that because some younger producer has pieced something together that they can't be successful. Some are very successful. I know of no one who is more intricate than Mutt Lange," he observed, chuckling. "We both produced albums for Shania [Twain]. He'll tinker with every little thing until it's perfect. His mind is locked into exactly what he wants. He'll layer and layer and layer, and it'll take him forever to cut a project. And I don't understand that. Of course, I never had the experiences to understand that - but, hey, if it sells 10 million records, who am I to criticize that? Isn't selling records what we're all after?"

Six Steps Toward Successful Tracking

Production is a complex art, but keeping several simple preparatory steps in mind can help make the difference between getting merely good and consistently great results. Every producer has their checklist, and Norro Wilson and Mark Wright are no exceptions to this rule.

Wright: "I like to start sessions with a song that has a really strong demo, with the arrangement already in place. If you don't have to worry about the arrangement when you start to track, and you know what instruments you'll be starting with, then you can concentrate more on things like audio and getting the headphone mixes right."

Wilson: "If you decide to cut live tracks, keep it fresh. I never understood a song taking 15 or 20 takes in a live session either. If a player plays a song too many times, he starts to hate it - and that comes across on the tape."

Wright: "When you are overdubbing parts, you've got to 'lay for it.' For example, on [Lee Ann Womack's] 'I Hope You Dance' I knew that I would be bringing Michael Omartian in to play accordion on the second verse, and I didn't want to have the guitars and keyboards playing the same full chords, so we changed the guitar part to an arpeggio thing. That left enough room for Michael to play his part without rubbing against anything."

Wilson: "You've got to help the artist find great material. When you do that, you've got half the battle won before you even get to the studio. If it's a good enough song, the dang thing will cut itself."

Wright: "I'm really big on sightlines. If I have to, I'll go into the studio with a music stand, to where I can see all the musicians, and conduct the music as we track, so if we're doing anything with a ritard, everyone can watch me and we can do it together."

Wilson: "The most important thing for a producer to remember is that it really comes down to helping the singer or the band make a great record. It's not about us and our egos. It's about making great music."

AmericaJR.com is Detroit's exclusive media outlet for this syndicated weekly column!

 

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