Basic Tracks: Where the Magic Is Made

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Excerpted from The Music Producer’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski, published by Hal Leonard.

Basic tracks are the initial recordings of the rhythm section that are done prior to any overdubbing. Basics are the foundation for the music being recorded and for any other parts that come afterward. If there’s something faulty in the foundation, it will either be impossible or very costly in time and money to fix things later. That’s why it’s essential to make each basic track the best it can be.

Regardless of whether you spend a little or a lot of time in preproduction, recording basic tracks is where you either make the project or break it. Even if you had a great preproduction, you never really know how things will record or what unforeseen circumstances will pop up until you get there.

While the end product might be difficult to hear in your head with the stripped-down basic track (unless you’re recording the entire band at the same time), it’s still important to get a great vibe and feel for the song even if you can’t “hear through it.” I remember playing with a multitrack tape of Fleetwood Mac’s huge ’70s hit “Dreams” during a recording-console demo, soloing the exceptionally isolated hi-hat and thinking, “You can tell this song’s a hit just from the hi-hat!” The feel and vibe were so strong that it was undeniable just from that one instrument. That’s what you’re going for during basics.

Basic tracks can consist of any of the following instruments, depending on the song, artist, project, or genre of music:
– The drums by themselves
– Drums and bass
– Drums, bass, and guitar
– Drums, bass, and keyboard
– Drums, bass, guitar, and keyboard
– The entire band, regardless of how many instruments

Well-maintained equipment required
Having well-maintained gear is essential for making a record. Everything is expected to work perfectly, with no tuning problems, no extraneous noises, and no “intermittents” (when the audio cuts in and out or crackles). Not only does everyone’s gear have to work, but it also has to be in tip-top condition. The better everything works and sounds, the better the recording will sound. This is the least you should expect from each player.

The drummer should, at minimum, make sure that all the drums have new drumheads, the drums are in tune, and the pedals are oiled so they don’t squeak. Guitar and bass players need to make sure their instruments are properly intonated so that they play in tune anywhere on the neck, none of their cables are crackling, and their amps don’t buzz or hum. A keyboard player must know her way around each keyboard so well that she can easily get to any sound that’s requested, and, as with guitar and bass players, her gear and cables must work flawlessly. For a horn player, none of the valves or keys can stick, and no extraneous noises should come from the instrument. Like everyone else, string players should show up to a session with their best-sounding instruments for that particular application.

If there’s one instrument that producers and engineers alike seem to obsess over, it’s the drum kit. And well they should, since drums are the heartbeat of virtually all modern music. Wimpy-sounding drums can make for a wimpy recording regardless of how well everything else is recorded.

The problem is that, for any number of reasons, most drummers’ kits simply don’t record well. Whether it’s because of old beat-up heads (the worst offender), bad tuning, uneven bearing edges on the shells, or defective hardware, drums that might be adequate or even great sounding in a live situation don’t always make the cut when put under scrutiny in the recording studio.

The keys to a great-sounding drum kit
While the definition of the word “great” is different to different people on a general level, in the studio the word usually means that a kit is well tuned and free of buzzes and sympathetic vibrations. This means that when you hit the rack tom, the snare doesn’t buzz and the other toms don’t ring along, and when you hit the snare, the toms don’t ring along.

So how do you achieve this drum nirvana? It’s all in the tuning and the kit maintenance. Here are a few tuning tips to tame those puppies down, courtesy of the famous Drum Doctor:

If the snares buzz when the toms are hit,
– Check that the snares are straight.
– Check to see if the snares are flat and centered on the drum.
– Loosen the bottom head.
– Retune the offending toms.

If the kick drum isn’t punchy and lacks power in the context of the music,
– Try increasing and decreasing the amount of muffling in the drum, or try a different blanket or pillow.
– Change to a heavier, uncoated head like a clear Emperor or PowerStroke 3.
– Change to a thinner front head or one with a larger cut out.
– Have the edges of the drum recut to create more attack.

If one or more of the toms are difficult to tune or have an unwanted growl:
– Check the top heads for dents and replace as necessary.
– Make sure that the tension is even all around the top and bottom heads.
– Tighten the bottom head.
– Have the bearing edges of the drum checked and recut as required.

Comfort and sound
The key to recording great basic tracks is to ensure the focus of the participants and comfort of the players. Although the environmental comforts are helpful, a musician will play or sing her best when she hears herself well and in the correct proportion to the other players or singers. That’s why the headphone (or the “cue“) mix is so important.

Perhaps the greatest detriment to a session running smoothly is players being unable to hear themselves comfortably in the headphones. This is one of the reasons that veteran engineers spend so much time on and give so much attention to the cue mix and the phones themselves instead of letting the assistant do it. In fact, a sure sign of a studio neophyte is when someone treats the headphones and cue mix as an afterthought, instead of spending as much time as required to make them sound great. While it’s true that a veteran studio player can shrug off a bad or distorted phone mix and still deliver a fine performance, having good “cans” makes a session go faster and easier, and removes a variable that is quite possibly the biggest detriment to a session.

Click or no click?
Using a click track, or recording while listening to a metronome, has become a fact of life with most recording. Not only does playing at an even tempo sound better, but it makes cut-and-paste editing between performances in a DAW possible and easy. Having a track based on a click also makes delay and reverb timing easier during mixing.

Playing to a click can present a number of problems, however, such as leakage of the click into the mics, and exposing the fact that some people just can’t play on time to save their lives.

Many times just providing a metronome in the phones isn’t enough. What good is a click if you can’t hear it, or worse yet, groove to it? Here are some tricks to make the click listenable but able to cut through the densest mixes and sound like another instrument in the track, too.

– Pick the right sound. Listening to something that sounds more musical than an electronic click is better to groove to. Try a cowbell, a sidestick, or even a conga slap. Needless to say, when you pick a sound to replace the click, it should fit within the context of the song. Many drummers like two sounds for the click: something like a high go-go bell for the downbeat and a low go-go bell for the other beats, or vice versa.

– Pick the right number of clicks per bar. Some players like quarter notes, while others play along better with eighth notes. Whichever you’re using, it will work better if you put more emphasis on the downbeat (beat 1) than on the other beats.

– Make it groove. By adding a little timed delay to the click (quarter notes, eighth notes, or triplets) you can make it swing a bit and it won’t sound so stiff. This makes it easier for players that normally have trouble playing to a click. As a side benefit, this can help make any bleed that does occur less offensive, because it will sound more like a part of the song.

When a click won’t work
Let’s face it, not many people like to play to a click. It’s unnatural and doesn’t breathe the way real players do. But in this world of drum machines, sequencers, and DAWs, most musicians have grown used to playing with some kind of metronome.

However, there are those times when a click just won’t work for whatever reason. No problem. Don’t get obsessed with the click or the fact that the tempo fluctuates without it. Many great hits have been recorded without a click and with wavering tempos (“What a Fool Believes,” a Song of the Year Grammy winner for the Doobie Brothers, comes to mind). Remember, feel and vibe are what makes the track, not perfection.

Leakage and guide vocals
Acoustic spill (known as leakage) from one instrument into another’s mic is often thought of as undesirable, but it can and should be used to enhance the sound. Many production and recording novices are under the mistaken belief that during a tracking session with multiple instruments, every track recorded must contain only the instrument/ source that the mic was pointed at. Since that’s pretty hard to achieve, why not just use the leakage to embellish the tracks instead?

Instead of trying to eliminate leakage, great attention should be paid to the kind of leakage being recorded. Leakage can be used as a sort of glue between instruments in much the same way that instruments blend together in a live situation.

So when tracking with multiple instruments, try keeping the players and their gear as close to one another possible. That will not only help the players communicate, but the leakage will contain more direct sound than room reflections, which will sound better. This might cause the overdubs to clash with the basic tracks, so it’s best to have keeper tracks from all the instruments in order to get the desired effect.

While experienced studio players can cut a great track without a guide (scratch) vocal, almost every player would prefer to have one to play against. The guide vocal not only acts as a cue for certain sections of the song, but also adds to the groove and feel that helps a player perform at his or her best. One of the other advantages of using a scratch vocal is that the lead singer can give directions and reminders to the players as the song progresses.

Tuning notes and counting off
It’s always a good idea to include a ten-second tuning note before each song, especially if the band’s sound isn’t based around an instrument with a solid tuning that doesn’t move, like a Hammond organ. This way, if for some reason you happened to use a tuning that was a couple of cents flat, you have the tuning note as your reference. This seems like such a small thing, but you wouldn’t believe how much time it can save you down the road if a situation arises where you just can’t figure out why everything sounds out of tune.

A recorded count-off is important for those times when an overdubbed pickup part is required before the song starts. Even if you’re playing to a click that’s being generated by the DAW itself, recording the click at least four bars ahead of the downbeat is a foolproof way to make sure that any pickup or opening part is easily executed.

If a click isn’t being used, it’s even more important to record the count-off. Have the drummer click two bars before the count with his drumsticks, and then count, “1, [click], 2, [click], 1, 2, 3, [silent click].” Sometimes a count with the last two beats silent is used instead, like this: “1, [click], 2, [click], 1, 2, [silent click], [silent click].” This is plenty of count for the band to get the feel, and having the silent clicks on the end makes it easy to edit out later without having to worry about clipping the downbeat.

It’s a keeper
Knowing when you have the keeper tracks that you need to make a great record is one of the more difficult assessments for a producer to make during basic tracking. The ultimate is a flawless performance with a great groove and lots of feel, but achieving all three attributes is elusive. Know that given enough time and enough takes, getting the perfect take is within your grasp. It’s not uncommon to do dozens of takes until the perfect one occurs (Jimi Hendrix’s land- mark “All Along the Watchtower” was take 28).

But sometimes it’s best to determine that although the track is not perfect, you have enough to work with. Can you cut and paste several takes together to get what you need? Should you move on to another song and return to this song later for another try? If your job is to get however many songs finished within a certain period of time, then you might have to settle on some less-than-perfect performances to meet the deadline. If your job is to get the best possible product, then you might throw the time schedule and budget out the window.

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7 thoughts on “Basic Tracks: Where the Magic Is Made

  1. Thanks for the great article. I enjoyed it and came away with some very useful tips, especially in regards to click usage and also drum tuning. I’ve also found that using premade loops for simple, drum-less acoustic tracks can help players who don’t like the click. Then, once the song has come together, you can just drop out the premade loop to get just the simple sound in great time that you want. Just be careful with headphone bleed, because it will be really exposed on a track of this nature, especially at the beginning and ending of the track.

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  3. I’m in an interesting situation right now. I used stereo drum loops (entire kit in one stereo mix) and they actually seem to work fairly close to perfectly for the songs, as far as sounding like they make sense with the songs/fit musicially.
    What thoughts/suggestions does anyone have? Possible solutions-
    Mix as well as possible and keep the drums as-is without individual instrument control (in the kit). Or get loops that can be individually tweaked? Or, lastly, hire a good drummer to play snazzier takes based on current loops? The last option is decent, but are there caveats with adding a drummer last, even if he keeps close to the loops (at least bass and snare hits and other major accents)? It seems as though individual track control is ideal, right?

  4. This is a good article with sage advice. The only thing I can add is that bands and artists should record themselves at home as much as possible. When you have gone through the recording process for an album a few times you really will know how to get it done in the studio. You’ll have also worked out some potentially expensive problems for free at home instead of at $50 an hour at the studio (“Why are you playing a Dminor? It’s in Dmajor!). By recording a lot at home, you’ll be used to it, so when you’re in the studio, you’ll focus on cutting a good track instead of thinking about how nervous you are.

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