The Case For Fewer Tracks

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In light of the approaching new year and all the ensuing goal setting, I want to make the case for a specific resolution, the case for recording and using fewer tracks in your sessions.

Fewer is relative to be sure as some people might only record 2 to 4 tracks for a minimal acoustic album. So what I’m referring to is your typical modern pop, rock, hip-hop, indie, country session featuring multi-track drums, multiple guitars and vocals, bass, keys, etc. Beyond the obvious benefit of needing fewer mics and preamps, let’s take a look at why I believe planning on using fewer tracks is a good move.

Fewer Mixing Decisions To Make

When mixing, many times I find myself not using a lot of what I recorded. For example, I might record the guitar player’s amp with a dynamic, a condenser, and also the DI signal for re-amping. That’s 3 tracks for one guitar part! In the end I typically find no use for all three and just go with the one that gives me the best sound. The mentality has always been for me, record it all and give yourself options. In reality this can be come a handicap.

If you are deciding to record fewer tracks on a project then it forces you to make a “mixing” decision in the recording phase. More blatantly put, it forces you to figure out what sounds best at the source and not lazily capture every possible sound only to figure the same thing out later in mixing.

What you could do is simply listen to that same guitar amp, make sure it sounds good by itself, find it’s sweet spot, pick the right mic for the job, track a little, listen back, and decide it it sounds right. If not, adjust one of the previous things: sound source, mic choice, and mic placement. Once you’ve found it, hit record and be done with it. One less thing to think about at mixing time and fewer tracks to have to mix.

Fewer Phase Issues

Phase cancellation is a negative potential side affect to using multiple microphones on one source (i.e. stereo acoustic guitar, or multi track drums). Simply put, if a sound source hits two or more microphones at slightly different times, part of your sound waves will cancel out with each other resulting in a hollow, thin, and unpleasant sound.

The simplest way to avoid phase issues building up in your recordings is to minimize the number of mics you use at a time. Some examples would be mono drum overhead tracking as opposed to stereo (you’d be surprised how well this can work), recording acoustic guitar with one mic and then doubling it as opposed to stereo miking, and even using only one mic on a guitar amp as opposed to one close and one a few feet away.

What I’m not saying is that you should never record things in stereo (I happen to love stereo drum overheads). Rather I’m suggesting you use fewer mics to capture your sounds (kind of old school really) and focus more on the right placement to get that larger than life sound.

Fewer Competing Sounds In The Mix

It is totally possible to have 32+ tracks in your session complete with stereo recordings and multi-track drums, as well as layers of guitars with different mic combinations, and still come away with a great mix. In fact it’s done everyday in studios around the world. But, and this it the big but, those complex sessions are being mixed by professionals! These guys know what they are doing and have all the time in the world to do it and do it well.

For people like you and me who have usually less time and fewer resources at our disposal, it’s best to keep things simple. Imagine that same session but with only say 16 tracks, no real phase issues to deal with, and fewer competing guitar tones. When it comes time to EQ, your mix you’re likely to find things go a log faster. Fewer competing frequencies to deal with as well as simply fewer actual “sounds” in your session allow your tracks to have their own “space” in the mix a lot quicker.

This really allows you to spend less of your time and energy on tracks that fight with each other, and instead pour your creative juices into building an exciting and musical mix. Wow, what a concept!

Remember The Beatles

Whether you like the Beatles’ music or not, you are influenced by them. Not only by their songwriting but by their innovation in the recording studio. These guys made some of the world’s most beloved recordings with only 4 tracks available to them. The limitations and simplicity of their setup actually helped remove distractions and “forced” them to spend time getting the right arrangement, tone, mic placement, and performance to create a timeless recording.

Think about the Beatles and 4 tracks the next time you struggle to make good music with 48+ tracks. Maybe less is more.

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9 Responses to “The Case For Fewer Tracks”

  1. Shane

    I wholeheartedly agree. At home I’m just using a 4 track. At the studio obviously I’m using a DAW. However after a long day of staring at a monitor, that last thing I want to do is just that (Unless its xbox :P). With less tracks and my little home setup I get down to actually making music.

    On an offhanded note, I was working with a guy that’s been writing songs with one of those old casio keyboards, they songs are very stripped down, and are all about the “song & lyrics” rather than being really flashy for the sake of being flashy. He’s been a pleasure to record. I’m pretty sure that all of his music and his recording techniques have come from limited options. It’s wonderfully refreshing. We have kept that mindset in the studio working in Pro Tools. Instead of looking for a great sound drum patch in a sampler, we have been using the casio, and then re-recording real drums after the fact. Whatever works.

    The mentality has always been for me, record it all and give yourself options. In reality this can be come a handicap. – Your very right about that. I’ve taken to using less microphones, less options. IF the artist asks for numerous mic’s fine, but when I get my way, it’s generally less.

    I strongly dislike getting session from people when I have to mix, and there’s 30 + tracks that are un distinguishable from each other.

    Reply
  2. Graham

    Very cool Shane. I agree on the mixes with a ton of tracks. Mostly because like you said, many times there are redundant tracks that don’t add anything to the mix.

    Reply
  3. Mary

    Interesting article guys. I’ve managed to keep my song tracks under 30. Usually 20 to 25. I’m still learning the mastering process. Sometimes I’ll have 4 tracks of drums, either because I need the volume to be lower or louder in some sections, or I may be using 2 different drums samples in the song with different volumes for each. The main thing that increases my track count is that I usually use a backing instrument for each leading section. That’s probably unnecessary too for some people. But those backing instruments have certainly added color to my songs.

    One smart move I magically made was to combine sounds that didn’t compete on the same frequency range. I wholeheartedly agree that there’s less of a fuss to work with when you use less tracks.

    Reply

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