Sunday, 26 April, 2009 11:04 AM
Producers on Live vs. Layered
by Drew Maynard / CMA
Steve Francis and drummer Steve Holland track live at OMNIsound
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
"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
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.
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
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.
"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."
"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."
"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."
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."
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."
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