Lesson 3

Lesson aims

  • Understand the importance of capturing musical ideas in demo form
  • Analyse instrumental layers in multitrack recordings
  • Acquire familiarity with multitrack recording, headphone monitoring and microphone technique
  • Consider the value of recording layers as part of the arrangement and songwriting process
  • Be able to combine, balance and bounce multiple recorded parts onto a single track

Concepts of multitrack recording

In this lesson, we will play and analyse examples of famous four-track recordings: songs that were recorded in demo or releasable form that only used four-track analogue tape or cassette recorders. These recordings have a characteristic sound because of the technologies and media used, but – importantly – they are also the result of unique workflows enforced by the technological limitations of the era. The studio personnel involved had to find innovative solutions in order to facilitate the musicians’ creative vision. In some of these songs, more than four instruments or parts can be heard, because a number of tracks recorded (for example, three vocal parts) had been ‘summed’ or bounced down to one tape track, making the other three available again for further layering or recording.

Let’s analyse the sound of some famous four-track recordings next:

  • Bouncing down (summing) three recorded parts onto one track enables capturing and layering more than four sources using a four-track recorder

Exploring Songzap’s Tracking page

By this point in the course, you’ll already have used features of the Tracking page when recording basic ideas and capturing your practice over grooves. In this part of the lesson, it’s time to dig deeper into tracking (recording) considerations and introduce the concepts of:

  • proper headphone monitoring
  • microphone technique
  • and track layering
  • (as well as bouncing down and importing tracks)

Let’s explore Songzap’s Tracking page features in more detail following the steps below:

  • Where’s the record button?
  • Tap and hold to turn it into a ‘monitor’ button
  • Note the volume fader for each track (which corresponds to the Mixer’s tracks and faders)
  • Why use headphones?
  • Where’s the microphone?

  • How close should you be?
  • Where to point the mic?
  • How close / how far?
  • What’s the best angle on an instrument? (check out the Piano Blog series for a deep dive on upright piano recording)

The value of layering and recording practice

In this section, we probably arrive at one of the most crucial aspects of song production craft: writing and shaping songs by layering performances. In the two previous lessons, you had the opportunity to experience acoustic events recorded by mobile technologies and to witness the value of capturing inspiration and musical ideas at the time of their inception. You were also presented with the notion that the practice of recording performances enables reflection, improved timing, groove interaction, and even the consideration and creation of song-section dynamics. Here, we’ll question why was it that when recording over a two-section beat variation, different performances were produced as a result? What happened to initial musical ideas when they were practiced and recorded over and over again? Did they evolve? What changes were infused onto parts after listening back and reflecting upon recorded performances?

Playing back some of the examples you recorded in Lesson 2 will be a great way to kickstart the experiment. It will also be valuable to ask yourself how you’d collaborate going forward and what would you contribute to a recorded idea brought forward by a friend. Does it inspire you? Would you like to add an instrumental part or a vocal harmony or another layer? If you could envision one of your recorded ideas as a complete piece played by a band on stage, what instruments would it feature, and where would the band members be positioned? Here are some topics and further questions to guide your thinking:

  • Composing/writing by recording experimentation
  • Why double a part?
  • Why record a vocal harmony
  • Think about and develop recorded performances in relation to each other and previous layers

  • Think about and develop recorded performances in relation to an imagined space (visualise a stage, for example)

Following from the beat construction experiment in Lesson 2, you can take this further by actualising some of the ideas discussed in the section above. Start by using one of the previous pieces you made, or start from scratch. Consider the instruments and performers available in your surroundings, or follow up on the collaborative ideas you embarked on. Consider the parts, variations and how they could be layered. Practice instrumental and/or vocal grouping over the beat. Then consider the reasons behind the practice of overdubbing… Why do we sometimes record as an ensemble and at other times individually, or part-by-part? This is an opportunity to highlight the pros and cons of each approach, the multitrack control individual overdubbing enables, the lack of ‘bleed’ from other instruments, why we should use headphones, and the challenges of recording a part whilst imagining what a complimentary part or additional layer would be doing.

Conversely, you might want to record a group of vocalists all together, and experiment with the best place to position the phone’s microphone. This also presents an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of setting up a convenient headphone balance using the volume faders in the Tracking page, making sure that the performer/s recording can hear themselves, as well as any previously recorded or programmed drum tracks, clearly and sufficiently (but not overwhelmingly). A balanced headphone mix can help the performance both from a technical and creative perspective, ensuring, for example, good timing as well as the ability to hear one’s performance within the ‘space’ and context of the overall ‘ensemble’ construct. Feel free to switch to the Mixer page to note the correspondence between its faders and those of the Tracking page, or as a way to add reverb and pan instruments for an even more ‘immersive’ headphone mix (note: Songzap’s Mixer functionality will be covered in full detail in a future lesson). Below is a suggested list of steps for the proposed activity covering these topics:

  • As we did in Lesson 2, design a new beat/groove: move the control dots on the Groove Designer interface; select a kit from the pop-up menu; choose the preferred drum sounds (hi-hat, ride or tom); edit and personalise by tapping on the Notation screen
  • Do this for a single segment, then copy and variate the groove for an alternative/B-section
  • Based on the available instrumentalists, write/practice an acoustic guitar or piano part for each of the two segments

  • Analyse the riff/idea and consider whether it should be recorded as is, practiced, or broken down into two parts (e.g. piano left/bass and right hand)
  • Think about how the riff/part should variate for the second segment (busier, introduce chord change, etc.)?
  • Or visualise what a complimentary second guitar part could be (a double, as in the demonstrated records for the left and right sides, or a higher/lower/different layer played with different voicings / chord inversions)

  • Record the first part on Track 1
  • Play back and monitor the first recorded performance
  • Practice and monitor the new performance
  • Create a comfortable headphone balance
  • Record the new performance (on Track 2)
  • Reflect on the two playing back together (and balance using Tracking page’s volume faders)
  • Switch briefly into Mixer page to pan tracks left and right if appropriate

  • Consider a vocal/lead part for the two sections
  • Record it on Track 3
  • Follow the steps from recording Tracks 1 and 2 to prepare for a vocal layer (double, harmony, other kind of layer – e.g. rap adds)
  • Did you run out of tracks?
  • Bounce to Track 4

  • Record more vocal layers, hand percussion, etc.
  • You can also import a backing track into Songzap to record and layer over (particularly useful for top-liners and MCs)