How To Track Your Recordings

When you’re recording at home, a lot of times, space, microphone count, and preamp count is limited. Ironically enough, even in a big studio, there never seems to be enough of something. Consequently, when you actually go to track a project, there are a lot of things that you can do effectively move through all songs of the album and streamline the process.
Track Your Project in Instrument Groups

In my previous post, I talked about how to achieve isolation even when space was limited. Regardless of space restraints, we typically track projects by instrument group. Specifically, our first goal for tracking all songs of the album is to get drums and bass tracked. We will have guide tracks for the other main instruments like vocal and guitar so that the drummer and bassist can work through the songs, but when we start actually tracking the project, we’ll focus on getting drums and bass completed for all songs before we move on to other instruments.

This is a great approach to use because it cuts reconfiguration time entirely. Let’s say you have mic on the drums that you want to use on another instrument (or a preamp or an effects processor). By tracking the drums and bass first, you’re then free to use that mic on another instrument without having to, then, reconfigure the drum mics again, which always takes a bit of time.

It also allows players to get in the groove a bit easier. By tracking by instrument, you’re able to allow that player to focus on the job at hand without extended breaks where they could lose the feel or the groove.

Once drums are done, we’ll move on to guitars and then move on from there through vocals and background vocals.

Check Your Mics Between Songs

If you’re tracking in instrument groups like has been noted above, it’s always important to check the mics between songs. Sometimes a microphone can have a bad clip and move as time goes by. Other times, a drummer will accidentally hit a microphone or bump a stand. To assure consistency of sound, it’s always important to check the mics and mic positioning between songs. Most of the time, this won’t be an issue, but occasionally you will find something that moved and need to correct. A small movement of a close microphone on a guitar amplifier, for example, can cause it to go out of phase with another mic, so it’s always important.

Keep an Eye on Those Meters

While I discussed in the previous article how I set levels on the way into the computer, when tracking, I’m always keep a watchful eye on the meters to make sure that nothing changed drastically between takes. I rarely have things clip at 0dBFS because of how I set the levels, but it can happen occasionally if, for example, you have a very dynamic vocalist. If something appears to clip or seems off, it’s important to note it as soon as it happens and come up with a plan. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to ask the vocalist to just lean back slightly before they get to the loud note. Other times, it may be to just turn down the preamp, but if you’re doing that, you want to do that before you do a lot of takes so as not to cause problems with the comp.

It’s also worth noting that I also keep an eye on any inline outboard processing I may be running for the same reason. For example, if the vocal level starts hitting the compressor really hard, it could result in noticeable compression artifacts that could cause problems at the mix stage.

Keeping an eye on those meters will certainly help you identify the problem and fix it quickly.
Try Recording Without Outboard Effects

A lot of time, especially if you have the outboard processing available, it can be tempting to try to get mix level compression or EQ going on the way into the box. While I do use some minimal compression on certain elements on the way in, I use it very sparingly. This is primarily because I don’t want to limit my mix options later. For example, let’s say I crush the lead vocal so that it’s heavily compressed going into the machine and the song is a sensitive ballad. I’m not going to be able to uncompress that signal later; those artifacts are going to be on there for posterity.

Consequently, while tracking, I’ll normally use compression sparingly on two things: the bass guitar and the vocal. On the bass, I set it to where I’m only getting a few dB of gain reduction and I dial in the attack and release to make sure it’s not pumping or breathing too much; the goal is an even sound. On a vocal, I’ll set the compressor to have a very high threshold with a moderate attack and very fast release at a reasonable ratio (like 3:1 or 4:1). The key here is the threshold setting. I only set it to where it hits the loud parts, but only reduces the signal by a few dB quickly and then gets out of the way. This allows you to get a bit more level out of the signal and avoid clipping with a dynamic vocalist while not ruining the takes.

Don’t Fear Inline Guitar Effects

One caveat I’ll make to the note above is tracking of inline guitar effects. If you have a guitar player that uses a pedalboard to get his tones, don’t be afraid to print those as it will sound more natural coming through his amp and feel better to the player than to try to do it in post-production. Just make sure you spend A LOT of time with the player to dial in those tones before you print them as, like the note above, they can’t be undone.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of a Good DI

Don’t hate me for saying this, but I hardly ever record bass through an amp. I have a really good DI and really good tube preamp and outboard compressor that sound amazing on bass. Have I tracked bass through an amp before? Yes, it happens occasionally. However, most of the time, in post, I feel I have more control over the sound if I use the direct signal or blend in a little bit of the amp with the direct signal. A good DI will also allow you to control padding (if the pickups are active) and flip the ground if it’s noisy, so that’s also helpful.

Also, if you’re worried about the guitar tones you’re getting from an amp, run the guitar on a direct signal (post-pedalboard of course) through a DI in addition to the signal going to the amp. This allows you to use modeling software, if you so desire, after the fact if you’re not happy with the amp’s sound. Generally, I prefer to work on amps for a while to get the best sound I can or use multiple amps to achieve the sound the artist hears in their head, but it’s a safety net in case you’re still unhappy with the results at the end of the day.


John Shelton is a recording and mix engineer and founder of Edgewater Music Group and  John is a member of the Recording Academy and a voting member of the GRAMMY Awards.  As part of Edgewater Music Group, his engineering work is exclusively distributed via RED Nashville, a division of Sony Music Entertainment.  John has recorded and mixed a wide variety of music including rock, country, roots rock, and Americana genres.  John has worked with a number of artists including National Park Radio, Spacebear, Charlie & the Regrets, the Drugstore Gypsies, Grand Old Grizzly, Blu Swayze, Cody Joe Tillman, Kahe, Jarrod Morris, Electric Heights, and Lane Thomas.  John is also a talented session guitarist and has performed for numerous artists, record labels, and production companies around the world.