Why 24 Tracks Is All You Need

| Mixing, Tips

One of the things that first drew me to digital recording was the ability to have “unlimited” tracks. Even an early version of Cakewalk software I once had came loaded with “only” 32 tracks. At the time that blew away my simple 8 track Korg hard disk machine. I finally felt free to make the music of my dreams.

But ironically the availbility of countless tracks in my DAW can lead to worse mixes and less creativity. How can this be? The truth is, sometimes too many tracks shows lack of vision and an inability to commit to a sound.

There’s A Problem

How many tracks do we really need? That’s debatable really. But according to legendary producer Daniel Lanois (U2) the magic number is 24:

If you can’t do it on 24 tracks, there’s a problem. – Daniel Lanois, Producer (U2, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel)


Now what does Lanois mean when he suggests you have a problem if you’re topping the “magic” 24 track mark? Is there something wrong with you if you have 25 tracks? 50? 100? It’s actually not uncommon these days for mixers to receive sessions of over 100 tracks waiting to be mixed down. But if have ever had the experience of mixing down a session with over 50 tracks you know how taxing it is.

Fewer Tracks, Fewer Competing Sounds

Here’s the truth. The biggest challenge in track heavy mixes is not just the time it takes to sift through them, but the over crowding of sonic space that occurs. When you have one guitar track, it can cut through a mix nicely. When you have 17 guitar tracks, you have a lot of similar material competing for the listener’s attention. The result? Muddy and undefined mixes.

The same is true with drums. Some of my best drum sounds were with only 3 or 4 mics. Sure you give up some control in the mix, but what you gain is clarity, simplicity, and again…fewer competing sounds. With fewer tracks to mix, EQ becomes a lot easier to apply. A few broad stroke cuts or boosts go a lot further than they do when 60 more tracks are clogging up your mix buss.

The 24 Track Mindset

I think what Lanois is getting at is this: if you need more than 24 tracks to communicate your musical vision, then you might need to go back to the drawing board and get more specific. What is really driving this song? What instruments are most important? What do you want to draw the listener’s attention to?

To have a 24 track mindset (in my mind) is to work under the invisible rule that your main mix should come from 24 tracks. Everything after that is icing on the cake. This “rule” acts more as a barometer than anything, making decide what the 24 most important tracks in your mix. Give them priority and let anything else you have simply support them.

Remember, there are no real rules in this craft. I’m merely giving you some helpful suggestions. I want you (and me) to think deeply about what we’re doing and bring some intentionality to the recording and mixing process. The 24 track mindset might be just what you need to make your next mix, your best.

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50 Responses to “Why 24 Tracks Is All You Need”

  1. Ben

    I think my “biggest” song ever was 17 tracks. That included 4 for Recorderman + snare/kick drums. And even that was unwieldy. For the music I like to make, I’d say 12-14 tracks is more than enough. 4 drums, maybe 2 acoustic, 2 electric, bass and piano, and I’m set. The rest for vox.

    Reply
  2. Daniel Booth

    Love reading your posts, even if they repeat certain concepts, they keep me focused on what’s important in audio engineering. Thank you, Graham, for keeping us on track & inspired.

    Sincerely,
    Daniel

    Reply
    • Daniel Booth

      BTW, I haven’t yet exceeded the maximum number of tracks in PT 8.0 LE because I refuse to have things like Backing Vocals X 16 parts on anything other than a stereo audio track which was mixed & internally bounced out. It’s just confusing and mentally taxing to see so many tracks which are just flavour enhancers at the end of the day. Save your brain power for what’s most important.

      Reply
  3. Shane

    Interesting comment in the new Sound City movie. Something along the lines of anything above what the console had for inputs was a way of adding to make a song better, instead of really making the foundation of the song work. I really enjoyed the movie and those insightful moments.

    Reply
    • Patrick

      I called to get tickets to the one showing of Sound City in Minneapolis and it was sold out. Rats! Pete Townshend used to have a blog post about trying to get a song in 8 tracks every so often, just to force yourself to think ahead.

      Reply
  4. Jordan

    Great post, over on Joe’s VIP forums, a few of us were talking about 8-12 being our comfortable limitation, but this is exactly in that same stride.

    Reply
  5. John Lardinois

    Sometimes I seriously wonder if I have a split personality and you are the other personality, but both personalities are twins separated at birth.

    You say exactly every single recording philosophy I preach to other engineers every day. Seriously pro stuff, my friend.

    I personally work with 12 tracks or less, always, and 12 tracks is really pushing it. At least that’s for rock. I’ve never really boiled down the science of the other genres I mix, but Jazz is typically 5 – 6 tracks.

    I have stereo Overheads, a Kick, Snare, Bass, two Guitars, a Lead, and Vocalist. that comes out to 9. If I really want, I can have stereo backup vocals and an “aux” track, short for auxilliary. I realize that term is somewhat claimed in certain DAWs as the “fx” track, but I came up with that term from my days as a percussionist. We had our main drum instruments, and our aux percussion. So the Aux track has tambourines, shakers, synths, etc. If I have a piano as well as guitars, then I might go over my 12 track limit, or possibly do the proper thing and trim some unneeded track-fat.

    Thanks for the great posts as always, Graham.

    Reply
  6. David

    I totally agree with this, the more tracks the bigger the mess. I mix and send all drums to a bus and go through my guitar tracks (often to many overdubs) and listen to see what I need and do not and use what I keep very cautiously. I listen a lot to what they do over at NGR recording –bands like Bush, Papa Roach etc and they really clean out the liter as I call it for a much punchier dynamic sound.

    Reply
  7. Larry Green

    Having too many tracks can show an unwillingness to commit. Unfortunately, today in professionally released tracks, layering of parts is the norm. It is not uncommon to have a three part vocal backing group use 12 tracks (4 for each part) or 6 guitar tracks to create the wall of sound effect. Lead vocal tracks can be comprised of many layers. Sure these get grouped, but it’s still a lot more tracks than in the past.

    Reply
  8. M~BLAK

    The majority of my songs that I record and produce for artist are usually around 22-28 tracks. In a lot of cases, less is more. I had the pleasure of mixing an artist session and when I opened it, there were 61 tracks! Needless to say, after consulting with the artist, we chopped that down to 32 tracks in which about 4 of those were dedicated to sound efx.

    Reply
  9. Robere Acare

    On my first album, most of the songs had 50 or more tracks. One song had even 65 tracks. Guess what! I didn’t win any Grammy. I learned since then the less the better. My average song today has about 15 tracks that’s about 75% reduction, and it now takes me just about a day or two to mix my song to my full satisfaction instead of 8 days. And my mixes sound much much better.
    Thanks again for your article.

    Reply
  10. Frank Adrian

    I agree. Twenty-four tracks is enough to give one a kick-ass song.

    For drums, the most I ever use are two overheads, two on the kick (in and out), two on the snare (top and bottom), three or four on toms, one on the hat, and either a stereo or mono room mike. This uses at most a dozen tracks, which I generally combine into a single stereo drum track, used for balance mixing (in reality, most of the sound comes from the overhead, kick, and snare mikes, with the other mikes used only for minor reinforcement).

    I use one track for bass (almost always DI’ed), two keyboard tracks, and two to four guitar tracks. That uses another eight or so.

    Finally, I usually have two tracks for lead vocals (for doubling) and two or three for background vocals.

    And I’m never reluctant to change the mike mix to simplify things. I’ve recorded drums with only four mikes (overhead, snare and kick); if there are no keyboards, I might slap another couple mikes on the guitars; if there are five parts in the background vocal, I may dump the snare bottom and inner kick mike and keep the lead vocal undoubled.

    Sources that have multiple mikes get combined down to individual tracks before balance mixing, so when I’m actively mixing, I’m probably not manipulating more than about six instrumental tracks (combined drums, bass, two guitars, two keys) and four vocal tracks.

    I’ve also never tried to make twenty-four a hard limit for recording or mixing. I’ve actually used up to a dozen tracks for backing vocals (if you want a really lush sound, record the individual backing vocal parts close, 2 ft. back from the mike and 4 ft. back from the mike – the tracks will have a different room/close mix and different levels of the proximity effect and you can pan each source track individually, making them sound like a massive chorus when combined), but, again, I usually combine these sorts of multiple sources into one or two stereo tracks before mixing. Similarly, a bunch of percussion tracks can be combined into a nice stereo image and mixed as a unit. And doubled vocals can be combined and mixed as a single source.

    In most cases I also have many intermediate tracks for things I’ve needed to mult and various amounts of processing detritus (e.g., vocal tuning, external effects processing, etc.), so I wouldn’t like to be limited to only twenty-four tracks, but, in general, Graham’s point still stands – less can be more, especially when you’re working with individual instrumental and vocal sources in a stereo image.

    Reply
  11. Randy

    Graham, Always a pleasure to receive your helpful tips and insights! As another post said “Thank you, Graham, for keeping us on track & inspired.” – well put!

    Reply
  12. Cy

    Great tip! I do not record, I compose electronica on the Reaper DAW.
    In the almost 3 years that I have been doing this, I have not needed to use more than 20 tracks (and some of them were busses).

    Reply
  13. Lo.mo

    If you’re talking excessive tracks as a failing of the arrangement (having too much going on at once), then I agree there is a problem; however, it’s not hard to blow through a dozen tracks layering instruments in order to get a particular fusion of sound. Look at what Mutt Lang does with his productions.

    It really just depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you can get it done with an 8 track; great! But, if you need a hundred tracks to get the sound you’re after; don’t let Daniel Lanois’ comment stop you.

    Reply
  14. Smurf

    Been a 16 Track person for years, and also a “set it & forget it” type. I mix as I record, and commit to the sounds as they are layed down.

    You want to really go back to a “porta studio” mind set & limitations? Download the Kristal Audio Engine & do a full song in that using only the native effects, then master in Wavosaur…..

    Reply
  15. joe sixpaks

    if you cant do it with 16 tracks
    you are just playing mind games with yourself
    and pretending to be a hotter shot than you really are

    12 should be more than enough for almost any situation

    Reply
    • Lo.mo

      Why 12? Why not just 4?

      The Beatles only had 4 and they had an orchestra on their songs. Oh wait, they also had an actual orchestra to record. If I want an orchestra on my tracks I need to sequence it all using samples and MIDI, and that ain’t hap’nin on just 4, or 12, or 24 tracks.

      Should I just add some more cowbell instead?

      Reply
  16. Stickman

    When I sit down to record a track I look at the screen as a painter would a white canvas. I want to paint a musical picture to the best of my ability to convey the musical image. Some times that requires 30 tracks sometimes a LOT more. Because of my vocal tone, layering vocals is a must & that’s where the track numbers climb for me. As always, YMMV.

    Reply
  17. Aaron

    I think this is a great limitation and I have been setting it for myself lately. Some of the comments reflect a “need” for lots of tracks for Midi and samples. You can still limit your tracks in those situations by commiting and bouncing things down to fewer tracks.

    Reply
  18. Alex

    You should count your all choruses and effects as a separate tracks so You can mix these separately later if you really are living in a pure 24-track tape recorder era and not with protools/cubase. 6 synths with effects plus dry signal and its already 18 channels, 6 channels for percussions and You still need some channels for effects.

    Reply
  19. kevin foushee

    i think the most tracks ive ever used was mabey 18 from a session that had 36. the reason i used only 18 and that was still to many was because the othere 18 was useless garbage that i didnt need. plus lets not forget that your name is on the songs you put out there and if the song is to busy then you will lose your listener realy quickly. so for the type of music i do less is more( soulful house). like i sceen a video on how a 50 cents track was mixed down. more then half the track that was in the song was useless. because you couldnt tell they were apart of the song or not it was just over kill. to me less is better.

    Reply
  20. philipadderley

    agree with you in principle about cluttering up the sound stage, however, it has to be said that > 24 gives you the flexibility say, to run a dozen different guitar overdubs maybe over the same stretch, maybe played slightly differently, or treated differently when recorded, knowing that there’s a 99% chance that most of them will be ditched in the final mix. this is especially true if the recording is tracked in one studio, overdubbed in another and mixed in yet another.

    i use the analogy of stills photography, even in the “analogue” days of celluloid, you’d shoot a dozen rolls, knowing that perhaps only half-a-dozen will make it through…

    Reply
  21. John Lardinois

    This discussion is becoming less of a debate and more of a heated argument.

    While both sides have valid points, the truth is, the most famous songs in the history of audio engineering have been recorded 8 tracks or less, due to the past limitations of 8-track MTR’s. The way to utilize this to a better mix is to commit your tracks and effects to busses, and bounce back and forth between decks.

    However, it is entirely silly and unwise to assume that with all the freedoms of current technology and today’s digital brilliance, that we should still be confined to the shortfalls of yesterday’s technology. So yes, you should use more than 8 tracks as needed for things like effects or complex MIDI compositions.

    Again, both sides are correct. However I think both sides are missing the point of the debate entirely – the real answer is that you’ll never, ever need 4 guitar parts, each double tracked, with 2 doubled acoustics, 16 background vocals, dueling basses, a wall of drum kits with top and bottom head mics each, a trio of 3 lead vocalist singing barbershop quartet style while 24 747-jet engines roar in harmony in the background over a choir of screeching bald eagles.

    The whole point to this article is to stress the point of limiting yourself in a productive way, which I dare say is the entire point of this blog. If you look at the bulk of Grahams audio engineering beliefs, it all boils down to productivity found in boundaries, but I think he describes it best in his free e-book, “The #1 Rule of Home Recording”.

    So check it out, as it will give you some insight into the mind of a good teacher and a damn fine engineer.

    Reply
    • Lo.Mo

      Going by Maslow, I’d agree; “747-jet engines roaring in harmony in the background” is pretty low in the hierarchy. That being said, all other needs being met, who is to say 747′s roaring in harmony isn’t exactly what someone needs. Is it a rational need? Probably not, but if art were rational, it would probably be science and humans wouldn’t need other humans for anything anymore, except sex and since computers would be making all the music, us geeky music types wouldn’t have any way of getting laid anymore. So, I say; we all definitely need roaring 747′s in our songs!

      :)

      Reply
    • philipadderley

      some of the most “famous” songs ever may well have been recorded on 8 or 4 track, but bear in mind, there were probably numerous “bounces” of say 4 into 1, COMMIT to tape (no fix in post) to achieve that… Pet Sounds was tracked and overdubbed on 8-track, but Brian Wilson was effectively working with probably 5x that number of sources/tracks pre-bounce…

      Reply
  22. John Lardinois

    Graham says,

    “too many tracks shows lack of vision and an inability to commit to a sound.”

    I think another great way of saying it is that is shows a lack of focus and direction. It’s like the song has ADHD and is branching in many different directions with no real idea of which is the -right- direction.

    Guitar players, how many unique ‘riffs’ do you put in a song? Certainly no more than 2 per form, right?

    Reply
  23. Brian K. Trotter

    Until this year, I didn’t have a setup that would allow me to practically exceed 8 audio tracks without serious timing issues. Now I’m in Sonar X1 Studio on a better computer, and theoretically have unlimited tracks. A few months back, I entered a Pensado mixing contest mixing For A Season’s “Get Up” (Great song). That monster had over 80 tracks…. Granted a lot of them were vocal backings and stuff like that. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and I’m not even slightly satisfied with my version.
    In my own music, I’ve never exceeded 16 tracks. The only time I even hit 16 is because the drummer who helped me with the project sent me 12 tracks of drum stems.
    I wouldn’t absolutely say “if you need more than 24 tracks, there’s a problem”, but I’d be personally surprised if I ever hit 24. It was hard enough taming 12 tracks of drums to fit the song and not overpower it.

    Reply
    • Dan Updegraff

      I worked on that same mix contest Brian. After adding submix busses, auxes, and multing tracks, I hit my DAW’s 128 track limit. Doh. My PC simply couldn’t handle it all so I had to bounce down major groups, which was a real pain when I had to unbounce and tweak something. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who thought it was nightmare.

      Reply
  24. Andrew

    This idea hearkens back to that of “imposed limitations” which can really help you move forward when stuck on a song.

    Reply
  25. Neemias

    I like having a lot of tracks because as a keyboardist I usually use one track for each sound. But yes, it’s always good to take care to not have a lot of tracks doing something at the same time on the arrangement. Great post.

    Reply
  26. philipadderley

    if you listen to the 48-track master of Toto IV or the 24-track of Joshua Tree, you’ll get the point of how many tracks didn’t even make it onto the final 2-track stereo master.

    the other point about not > 24 is that this is only valid really for straight artist band recording; if you’re involved in soundtracks including surround mixing, then with all the dialogue layers, orchestral layers, foley layers, effects layers, dubbing/re-recording layers, i’m often up at 90+ tracks no sweat…

    and this is coming from someone who used to work 16-track analogue, bouncing and looping stuff out to 50′ A77 loops going round the studio, just to make room for 2 more [essential] tracks!!!

    Reply
  27. philipadderley

    also, you forget how many tracks your sends and returns gobble up plus when Lanois recorded Joshua Tree it was 22 not 24 because in that day, track 24 was the SMPTE and track 23 was the guard so you’re down 2 tracks without a note being played!!!

    Reply
  28. Kevin

    I believe the less track count the better the mix less instruments to compete against each other. I learn on 24 track mixing console.

    Reply
  29. David

    Graham, could you provide a citation for the Lanois quote? When I google it, all links lead back here. It would be helpful to know when and why he said it and to whom (if, in fact, he did say it).

    Reply
    • philipadderley

      lol, i reckon if Lanois did say it, it should still be changed to the 22-track rule; kinda nice tribute to the inevitable multi-track with SMPTE on 24 and the guard on 23… ;-)

      Reply
      • Norman

        SMPTE was used for synchronisation with other machines/sequencers.
        So, the use of SMPTE together with a XX-track recorder won’t necessarily result in less than XX tracks/channels (XX minus 2), if you take into account those extra tracks that become available by using this feature .

        The two analogue tracks that would be lost to SMPTE would amply be compensated for by the addition of numerous drummachines, syths, sequencers, and even DAWs.

        Reply
  30. Greg Savage

    Graham,

    Great article! I also have this 24 track rule in fact I go for less whenever possible. I find myself stressed with anything over 16 to be honest. I mainly focus on instrumentals (no vocals).

    Vocal sessions can get a little crazy especially R&B, lots of overdubs/adlibs etc… Just a mess!

    Reply
  31. anthonypero

    I totally go over this number on a regular basis when tracking. But much of the work I get is because I’m a good string arranger. It’s not uncommon on a ballad for me to have 12 tracks of strings, 10 drums, two electric parts at different times in the song that are both duped, several layers of keyboards, lots of bgvs, etc. I bet if I paid attention though, I would rarely have more than 24 tracks on at the same time.

    Reply
  32. David

    24-tracks was generally enough – if you submixed things during tracking – back in the days when everyone was used to hearing a bunch of mono sounds panned hither and thither. Fact is, that doesn’t cut it anymore. We only ever did it because we had to, because 24 tracks was all we had and we knew it often wasn’t enough. So we compromised. Now we don’t have to. So why even bother counting? Just make music and if it sounds good, who the hell cares whether it’s 1 track or 500?

    Reply
    • Graham Cochrane

      No reason to falsely limit yourself just because that’s what we used to do when all we HAD was 24 tracks. It’s more of the concept that with too many tracks generally comes less focus and more mess. Fewer tracks can be a hack, a useful tool to force you to churn out a better mix. That’s all.

      Reply

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