Laying Down the Bed Tracks

What are bed tracks? Bed tracks come in several forms. At their simplest, they can consist of the soloist (instrumental or vocal) with an accompanying instrument (guitar, piano, organ, etc.) laying down the rhythm and the melody of the song together to capture the groove and essence of the song. The accompanying rhythm can be anything from a single instrument to a full orchestra but for our purposes here we’ll use a typical ‘combo’ format as in bass, drum kit and piano or guitar as the rhythm section plus a melody instrument or voice. The goal we’re shooting for is a solid bass and drum kit rhythm section on which the entire arrangement and melody can be placed. For most sessions a ‘ghost’ track of the soloist is recorded that will be replaced as an overdub when the remaining accompanying instruments have been recorded thereby giving the soloist an inspiring rhythm bed to re-record the melody over. Still, it is wise to record the ghost track to the highest level possible on the off chance that the ghost track winds up being the best take.

On a recording we produced several years ago we had a difficult female voice to record. While recording what we thought were the final takes, we tried every mic / preamp / compressor combo we could lay our hands on and finally found the right combination; a Neuman U67, Neve 1272 preamp and a Manley variable mu compressor. The results were excellent but when I went to mix the recording the original ghost take of the vocal which had been done on an inferior mic, pre, comp combo blew away the ‘magic’ mic, pre, comp combo, not because of the sonic quality but because of the quality of the performance. In spite of the technical sonic misdemeanors in the recording of the ghost track, it was the most powerful and musical performance so it was the one that wound up on the CD. Always choose the most musical take over the most technically perfect. Art is not perfect.

Tracking the beds

As a producer part of my job is to create a sonic soundscape prior to the recording. Will the drums be open sounding with lots of room reflections and a dense, flat yet full sounding kit and a kick drum that sounds like a heart beat or do we need a tight, aggressive, non reflective kit sound with a kick drum that sounds like a cannon, or a combination of the two? It depends on the genre, the song, the drummer, the kit and the arrangement. For example, a jazz combo does not want or need a kit sound like John Bonham’s and of course a hard rock trio’s drummer wouldn’t want or need a jazz kit sound.

In our facility we have different types of mic’s, preamps and compressors to fulfill different needs. For example, the 1272 Neve preamp was designed to record from a close signal source where a Jensen 990 is a more open sounding preamp for distance miking. Sometimes one type of compressor will work better on one sound source than another. If you are not familiar with these characteristics in your own studio, experiment before your session begins or in the case of using an unfamiliar studio make sure the engineers and tech people have these options worked out.

Because we have the luxury of having our own studio, we have the soloist and the accompanying musicians come in for a half day for one last check on the preproduction details such as the stability of the arrangements and just to make sure that we are all on the same page. While I’m scrutinizing the arrangements, the engineer and assistants will set up mic’s, pres and comps on each of the instruments to be recorded and record test samples on which to base our final decisions.

If the engineer and producer are alert, most, if not all, of the edit points are marked during the tracking process. Some recordists mark and list the edits then go back to the tracks afterwards and run a separate edit session. I find this method to be confusing and a bit of a time waster in that we then have to re-familiarize ourselves with the tracks, re-visit the edits and re-compare the takes. If several days/weeks/months/years have passed since the tracking session, the time it takes to refresh and reacquaint ourselves with the tracks is a daunting exercise and an enormous waste of the artist’s production budget. Budgets are always finite therefore it is more efficient and allows for a better result to catch the edits while tracking and do the edits, cross fades and ‘comps’ (combining different takes) etc. while tracking with the result being a labeled and finished track ready to mix. It only takes a few minutes to do the repairs while the track is fresh to our ears. Furthermore, if it’s still a ‘train wreck’ even after the edits, we can simply re-track or punch in the instrument on the spot, again, leaving us with a finished ready to mix track. If the finished beds with the ghost solo track don’t sound like a record, you blew it whether it is due to technical errors or bad preproduction.

To illustrate an ill conceived bed tracking session I can relate that some years back I had a rock trio in the studio. Before they arrived here I sent them a list of preproduction details they had to address ranging from tweaking their instruments to solidifying their arrangements as a guitar, bass, drum kit rhythm section. I emphasized the importance of sparse and concise arrangements even though they were a trio and already sparse instrumentally. They swaggered up to the mic’s and pounded out their first song. I called them into the control room and hit playback. Ouch! Nothing lined up … awash with cymbals … bass never connects with the kick drum … squeaking, rattling drum hardware … bass and guitar out of tune … no arrangement … too loud off the floor … tiny, puny sounds … Ow. It hurt.

It took months to put their instruments and sounds together in a usable manner and years for them to understand and apply the preproduction details I had sent them. The lesson I learned from this session was that preproduction cannot be done from a distance. It must be done face to face with the artist(s). Nonetheless, they turned into a wonderful, powerful, rock mining outfit of which I’m proud to have been a part. Now they can knock off a set of bed tracks in a day.

Excellent Preproduction = Excellent Bed Tracks = Excellent CD.

In the words of a producer friend of mine, “You can’t polish a turd.” I suppose you could try but all you’ll get are sticky fingers and a smudged lump of poo.

So until next time, let’s slap on our best ears and above all, have fun.



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