The Music Production Process
Step 5: Overdubbing
Overdubbing is the next stage of the music production process. A well though out approach is absolutely necessary when taking on this stage of the music production process. The importance of the demo looms large in this step. If you have already sorted out the majority of your ideas and the individual parts the overdubs will be primarily focussed on capturing the sounds and performances that fill out the production. Ignoring the demo stage in the music production process can easily turn your studio production into a high priced demo. A very common problem today...
What is Overdubbing?
Overdubbing, sometimes called "sweetening", is a process that allows performances to be recorded synchronously with pre recorded material. Imagine recording your band where each instrument has a dedicated track or series of tracks. If each performer is isolated acoustically from the others, they can be rerecorded at will without affecting the other musicians' performances.
The benefits of overdubbing are tremendous. It means that a single bad musician in a band will not ruin the whole recording, because their part can be replaced. In the days of mono and early stereo recording, everybody was in the same room and recorded together. The inability of the singer to perform well might mean that the band would have to play the song over and over again till the vocalist got their performance right.
In the professional recording world this was the music production process until the invention of Sel/Sync recording in the 60's. Sel/Sync stands for Selective Synchronization. A multitrack recorder with Sel/Sync capabilities would allow additional tracks to be recorded synchronously with the original performance on the same tape machine. Later, those performances would be mixed into mono or stereo for the commercial release.
The invention of isolation booths in recording studios soon followed, and allowed individual musicians to be recorded with a minimum of bleed into the mikes of the other instruments. If one person's performance was lacking, it could be easily be rerecorded without affecting the other musician's performances. It also allowed more flexibility with processing during the mixdown session.
Over the years, the number of tracks available to record on steadily increased allowing music productions to get larger and more sophisticated. Overdubbing became the norm for almost all music productions. Although some feel this has degraded the quality of music, very few artists record without overdubbing.
So What are the Benefits?
The benefit of overdubbing is that it allows the each individual part to be focussed on and perfected to the artist and producer's taste. This requires a lot of discipline and can sometimes lead to performances that are technically perfect, yet sterile and lifeless. It's not natural for musicians to perform individually. This is why a tracking session requires the whole band to perform together. The drummer needs something to respond to in order for his/her performance to sound "live" and not programmed.
Overdubbing is a very difficult thing to get right. Because of the lack of visual cues that would normally lead a performance from one section to the next in a song, the musician has to record their part blind against the prerecorded band. Subtle pushes and pulls in a performance that may be conducted by subtle visual cues of the other musicians now disappear. The overdubbing performer is then left to guess or adapt their performance to match what was captured in the tracking session.
This has naturally led most multitrack productions to the use of click tracks which even out the tempo of the tracking performance. With a click track, the overdubbing process is less of a guessing game and more of a known quantity. Because of the difficulties overdubbing presented in the recording studio, musicians who were good at it became hired guns to quicken the production process. Many musicians have made very successful careers only working on other artists recordings in the studio.
Getting Into the Process
Multitrack recording is far more sophisticated than it may appear on the surface. If a song is not thought out well enough in the demo stage, the music production can easily turn into a big mess of overdubs in an attempt to find a magical part. This is the mud against the wall approach. The engineer is then left to sort out all of this junk in an attempt to make it sound professional.
In a professional music production, the overdubbing process must be very directed. If it is, there will always be room for experimentation with the overdubs when called for. Many music productions come to life in the overdubbing stage where key hooks in the song can be created and developed. If the overdubs are created upon a foundation of quality work from the tracking session, then a song can really take shape quickly. If not, the overdub stage is relegated to a rescue mission in an attempt to save the song. Every part must be layered on with a measured goal or what you will be left with, at best, is a good sounding demo instead of a quality recording.
There are many stumbling blocks in the overdubbing process. Here is a list of the most common ones encountered:
- Easy to make everything too perfect. Performances can lack a vitality and freshness.
- Layering too many parts usually makes everything sound smaller, not bigger and creates a lot of extra work.
- You can wear out a performer by having them repeat their performances too often.
- Easy to lose perspective on the whole production. (forest through the trees syndrome)
- Quality of sounds can become more important that the performance.
- Easy to over complicate the process in an attempt to make a part sound unique.
- The production can easily take on a "paint by numbers" feel.
- Easy to accept average performances thinking they can be fixed with editing.
Where Has All The Time Gone
In a standard 10-15 song CD, overdubbing is the stage where the most time is spent in the music production process. In a typical production that lasts about 3 months, 7-10 days are for tracking, 10-14 days are for mixing, and everything in between is overdubbing. That's more than 2/3 of the production time! You can see why it is critical to be well prepared for this stage.
Today, many productions are taken on a song at a time. This is particularly true in modern Hip Hop and R&B music production where most of the work, other than the vocals, is programmed. The benefit of this style of production is that the resources available to you are virtually limitless. You are not necessarily subject to what the performer can give you in terms of acoustic sounds. In many ways, the one song at a time approach is much better. Each song can be addressed, focussed on and finished individually without distraction.
Unfortunately, this is a less efficient approach when recording bands because it may take you a whole day just to get the sounds right and ready to record. To go through this for each song is impractical and expensive. It makes more sense to record all of the basic tracks for each song at once, making adjustments to the sounds for each new song as required.
The issue at the overdubbing stage is that it is also more efficient to rerecord all the bass parts together, all the guitar parts together, all the keyboard parts together, etc… To keep 10-15 songs fresh in your head and really hone in on the message and feeling for each can be a difficult task for the producer. If you cannot change gears from one track to the next quickly, the process can easily turn into a factory mill production. The end result can be that each song does not stand out as unique against any of the others. We've all heard records where every song sounds the same, and the CD is just complete blur.
A Better Approach
What's best is not always what's practical. Most budgets today do not allow for a song by song production style. This is why the Demo stage is so important. If each song has a properly recorded demo it will be much easier to organize your recording time to get what is essential for each song. The demo serves as a reminder of the essence of each song and how it should be presented.
In the demo stage you are forced to focus your attention on one song at a time. The idea is that you are attempting to dig out the core essence of the song. The process forces you to find out what makes the song tick. The resultant parts may not have the sound quality of the professional recording session, but they carry something much more valuable. The feeling, the vibe, and the truth of what the song is about.
So What's the Upshot?
If the music production process is carefully thought out and worked through step by step, then the Overdub process is all about capturing the best performance. If the parts are already sorted out in the Demo stage, you will not be wasting time in the studio trying to create them. If worked out ahead of time, there will be more time left for experimentation if the inspiration arises.
One focus of the overdub stage is to create great sounds that makes each performance really come alive. It is much more difficult to create a unique sound for each instrument in a tracking session because amps and instruments are often forced into small booths, soundlocks and closets. Creating a big sound in a small space can be very challenging. Add on the fact that the engineer is trying to record several musicians, sort through headphone mixes, talkback mikes and get great drum sounds all at once. Not an easy feat, even for a seasoned professional.
The Overdubbing Process
Preparation is always key in any recording situation. This is easier to consider with large setups, but is equally important in the overdubbing stage. Preparation does not guarantee that everything will go perfectly as planned, but it does allow you to adapt more quickly to the unexpected events that do occur.
It's very easy to overestimate what you can accomplish on any given day of recording. No matter how well you plan the recording date, there are always things that are out of your control. If the vocalist comes into the studio with a cold that day, you might find yourself with a lot of spare time. If they are having problems hitting a certain note, you may walk away with vocals on one song instead of two.
Here are a few helpful hints to help make your overdubbing sessions go a bit more smoothly:
- Know exactly what you are working on that day
- Have all the resources you need available.
- Make sure all parts have been rehearsed and that all performance issues have been sorted out.
- The overdubbing musician should play their part at the tempo of the song when getting sounds.
- Set up a comfortable space for the musician to work in.
- Always have a plan B, incase everything you planned goes wrong.
- Never rush through performances in an attempt to complete your goal for the day.
- Never settle for average performances that will need to be fixed with editing.
- When you capture the essence of a part, record it everywhere it needs to be without delay.
- Take regular breaks, especially if there is frustration and confusion in the studio.
- Always communicate with the musician immediately after a take, even if it's to tell them you are not sure or need to listen to it again.
A Special Note on Vocals
Recording vocals is perhaps the trickiest of all the overdubbing processes you will undertake. Because the vocal is typically the primary focal point of a music production, there will often be added pressure on the quality of their performance. Depending on the personality type of the artist this can go easily or be a complete nightmare. Some artists will rise to the pressure, some will collapse under it. How you manage these situations can and will make or break the project.
There are two sides to the vocal recording process that will help yield the best results. There is the technical side and the emotional side. The technical side is easy for the most part, but it is easy to overlook some subtle details that may affect the quality of the performance. Here are a few technical setup tips:
- Create a comfortable recording area for the vocalist.
- Keep all cables and equipment neat and as out of the way as possible.
- Make sure the vocalist has all their needs readily available. Music stand, pencil, lamp, hot tea and lemon or honey, etc…
- Position the mic as unobtrusively as possible. Make sure it does not interfere with the lyric sheet.
- Mark a clear, comfortable distance from the mic for the performer. Using a pop screen is an easy way to accomplish this.
- Make a great headphone mix. They must feed off the energy of the music and must hear themselves clearly.
- Make sure they are comfortable, ask often if they need anything.
- Always communicate IMMEDIATELY after a take. NEVER leave the artist in the room wondering what is going on.
The Psychological Side
The most unpredictable aspect of recording vocals in the studio is what it will bring up emotionally for the artist in the recording studio. I have seen everything from downright panic, convulsions, vomiting and total self destruction to complete one take performances that blow you away. People will always show their true colors when under pressure. This is why, it is critically important to create a bond of trust when working with the artist through the production process.
If you want to produce music for a living, the best advise I could give you is to study human psychology. It's not your job, as a producer, to be the therapist. It's your job to channel their personalities and issues into quality performances. Sometimes that means being a hard ass, sometimes that means giving them a shoulder to ball their eyes out. The goal here is to get great performances. How you respond to these situations will do more to make or break a production than you could possibly imagine.
Here are a few tips to help set the stage for quality performances:
Here are a few tips to help set the stage for quality performances:
- Create a comfortable recording environment for the artist.
- Be sensitive to the artist's needs and look for any signs of discomfort. Address them immediately.
- Talk about the song before recording. Bring them into the feeling that inspired the song in the first place.
- Never overwork a vocalist. If they are not feeling it, move on to something else or take a break to refocus their energy.
- Allow the artist to express their frustrations between takes. These are usually blocks that inhibit better performances, acknowledge them, talk about it, and get them out of the way.
- Always respect the artist the same way you want to be respected.
- Don't overdwell on technical issues like pitch and timing. These problems are usually due to trying too hard or an inability to feel the music through the headphones.
- If all else fails, do something radically different. Have them perform with a handheld mic in front of speakers if necessary.
- The performance is always primary over the sound quality.
Sometimes, it's the unorthodox approach that works best in the studio. We all want to get the highest quality vocal sound in our performances. If that quality comes at the price of a compromised performance, then it is all for naught. NOBODY buys records because of the quality of the mic used in a recording. They buy a record because the performance on that recording speaks to them. It's an intangible quality that cannot be defined in terms of frequencies and dynamic range. You just know it when you hear it.
If there is one bit of advice I can give you that will help your overdubbing sessions yield the results you hope for is to let your gut be the guide. Your ability to judge how something feels will always get you closer to what you are looking for than looking for technical issues.
The whole idea of the preparation process prior to recording is to keep the technical issues outside of the studio. Once you are in the studio, your focus must be on the quality of the performance. The Demo stage allows you to work out the parts. The Rehearsals allow you to hone the performance issues of pitch and timing. Work out ahead of time with the engineer how to keep the recording setup as transparent as possible. The recording session must be all about capturing the magic. Nothing else…
Inevitably, all of your best efforts in the studio will still require some editing work. The process of editing performances, like the process of overdubbing, requires a lot of discipline. Just because you can, doesn't always mean you should. Click on the link below to move on to Step 6 of the Music Production Process, Editing Audio.
Step 1: Writing a Song
Step 2: Recording a Demo
Step 3: Rehearsals
Step 4: Basic Tracks
Step 5: Overdubbing
Step 6: Editing Music
Step 7: Music Mixing Part 1
Step 7: Music Mixing Part 2
Step 7: Music Mixing Part 3
Step 8: Mastering
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