Limit your takes and make better recordings

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A digital recording environment can make you lazy. Set boundaries – like a limited number of takes – focus your creativity, and make better recordings in the studio.

make better recordings

I have a rule that I live and die by in the studio. It helps me get more done, be more creative, have more fun, and make better recordings all at the same time. Are you ready for it?

Limit your options like your life depended on it!

Sound backwards? It is a bit. But it’s remarkably effective. Let me explain.

When it comes to recording in your home studio, there are seemingly limitless options of how to go about laying your tracks down. Whether it’s different recording techniques or mic placement options, you have a lot to sift through.

The art of recording is just that, an art. It isn’t just science, so there aren’t just one or two ways to get a great sound. In fact, you ought to spend a lot of time getting unique and great sounds.

So how does this rule of limiting your options work in this part of the process? It all starts with this revolution of recording we are living through: the hard drive era. We no longer have limitations of how much tape we have to record to. In fact, with the price of storage so low these days you could almost say we have unlimited space available to us. And you know what that leads to… unlimited takes!

Resist the urge

The moment I was first introduced to computer-based recording, I saw the potential for recording millions of takes. At first it made sense to me to just record as much as you can and then pick the best takes later. But over the years I have come to realize how much of a hindrance this philosophy was, rather than a help.

I believe that having unlimited takes and hard drive space has made us lazy. We’ve lost that sense of urgency to try to perform our best in the studio and capture a great recording in a few takes. That was part of the magic of recording; it was a challenge to get that once-in-a-lifetime performance!

More importantly, having that feeling of pressure to produce (even slight pressure) created a sense of focus in the studio. Having limits and parameters tends to focus us. It makes us better and it helps you make better recordings! And that is how you should approach your home recording. Limit yourself.

Set boundaries

You need to set up some pretend boundaries, some self-imposed limits to your recording process. One simple limit to set up is the number of takes you will record on any given part. For example, when recording lead vocals, give your singer a few warm up tries through the song but ultimately only record three takes. This should be plenty of material to comp together later if need be.

With drummers I tend to capture only two takes through a song once they are good and ready. That gives me a couple of options of fills if I need them, but not so many takes that it lengthens my editing process by a few hours that I don’t have.

The idea here is that you want your focus and creativity to be placed on the sounds going into your system, not how many versions you can get. You’re only creating more work for yourself later if you do this, plus you are reducing that sense of urgency I mentioned a moment ago, which will probably dilute your creative potency rather than spark it.

Get back to the basics

When it comes to recording, we all need to go back to the basics. Dozens of takes is not how you get a good recording.

Take a good musician, have him play a good song, on a good instrument, into a good microphone, with good mic placement, into a good audio interface and you’ll get a good recording. It’s that simple.

Use your ears, be creative, and have fun. But don’t trap yourself with the future burden of having to sift through too many takes. Be confident enough to get a good recording and move on.

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Graham Cochrane's recording studio tips
Graham Cochrane is a Tampa, FL-based freelance mixing engineer and founder of one the web’s most loved audio recording and mixing blogs, The Recording Revolution, with over 200,000 readers each month. Follow him on Twitter @recordingrev. Get your free copy of Graham’s guide, The #1 Rule of Home Recording.

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20 thoughts on “Limit your takes and make better recordings

  1. I decided to take your advice regarding doing only three takes per song and it works! I could not be happier with my new found discipline. Imagine what it was like in the old days where only the best recording in a “one take” world where everything in the studio was essentially live and if you did not come prepared the very strong possibility existed that you would not work in this town again.

  2. I agree with the 3 takes idea, and have followed it for years. The only catch being that I won’t keep any takes unless I think they are good, and mistake free, and the performer, if it’s not me, also agrees that it’s a good take and mistake free. So after we get that first solid take, then we move on to get a couple more, and to try and do better than the first.
    The only think I disagree with, is saying let the artist do some warmups, because, as many engineers have documented through history, sometimes those warmups end up being the keeper tracks on an album. So the philosophy is “record everything”. That doesn’t mean you keep everything you recorded, it just means you don’t want to miss something really good just because it was a “warm up”. I usually tell an artist who is not used to recording that we are going to do some practice tracks, just to loosen them up, but then I secretly record those tracks without them knowing. Sometimes new artists get really nervous when they know the tape is running.

  3. My band uses an Alesis HD24 to record with, so we have the built-in limitation of only 24 tracks available. Coming from a tape-based multitrack recording background, this was perfect for me. I didn’t want to go the whole computer recording route. Yes, the HD24 has a hard drive inside, but it’s vastly different than using a computer equipped with software such as Pro-Tools. You don’t have the virtually unlimited tracks to work with. You HAVE to economize parts. In the past we always built up the rhythm tracks concentrating on drums first with scratch bass, guitar and vox. But for the past two albums, our bass player has wanted to try to get his final bass part at the same time as the drums. It seems to work very well. We occassionally have to punch in a place or two. I don’t think we’ve had to recut an entire bass part yet. I still wait until a later date to cut the final guitar parts (for a variety of reasons), and of course final vocals come way later, as well as all other layered parts. When I do guitar solos, there’s only one solo track. If I make a mistake or play something I’m not happy with, I either re-record the entire part or punch it at the moments I’m not satisfied with. I can only think of on instance where I recorded two parts with the intent of deciding later…and it was a keyboard solo and a guitar solo. The original concept was that I’d probably alternate back and forth between the two, or start out with one and finish with the other…but in the end, I would up panning them toward opposite sides and left both entire parts in…and it created a nice combination that I hadn’t expected. I’ve also done two lead vocal parts on a couple of songs, with the intention of later erasing the one that I wouldn’t use…but in those cases, I wound up blending both together for a natural doubling effect. I’m a big proponent for not having too many options at mixdown. There’s enough options already. Levels…panning…effects. I never have, and don’t plan to ever get in a practice of comping parts together. Oh, and we don’t use click tracks or Auto-Tune either.

  4. The same thing applies to sound. Get a sound you like and commit to it. Everybody is so gun-shy these days. Guitar players ask if they should use a particular pedal or effect on the recording, or would I prefer to add it later… I tell them we hired them for their playing AND their sound. I want to hear what the player will do. I already know what I would do… Good players will take direction if you need to give it.

    I find that this approach relaxes the players and lets them be themselves. Better results all around.

  5. Steely Dan made some of the best recordings ever, and they ran their songs dozens if not hundreds of times in the studio, so what works for one may not work for all. Some of us enjoy the process as much as the result.

  6. Graham is right on the money and that’s what it is all about when you are in a pricey recording studio. After spending about 500 hours studio time I learned alot of what Graham was talking about. We learned to practice, practice, practice before entering the studio. Make sure that your first 2 or 3 takes gets it done. Most studio engineers are pros at dragging their feet and wasting time. Studio engineers are also famous for holding you hostage after you are well committed to the completion of your project. Everything is rosy on your first few songs, then things change once you get deep into the project!

  7. Makes lots of sense. I find overall with all the technology and information available it is easy to be drawn into the “paralysis of analysis” mode. Lots of things have relevance, some more than others. There is too much stuff that has at least a little relevance. I have to do my best to try to recognize those and eliminate them in favor of stuff that has more relevance. I constantly remind myself, “activity does not necessarily mean productivity.”
    1.) “Execution” is the key.
    2.) “Focus” is the key to execution.
    3.) “Ability to say ‘no’ ” is the key to focus. Say “no” to the things that matter too little, things that distract me, things unrelated or insufficiently related to my goal.
    4.) I always ask myself, “how is this going to get me to my goal.”

    Good input from everygody above.

  8. Tape wouldn’t necessarily restrict the number of takes, just how many you can keep. And that concept is smart. Even if you plan on “comping” a take from a few takes, you don’t want to start a mix session by choosing from 20 vocal takes — it’s too mind-numbing. So toss takes that are just average before the clutter weighs you down. And there does come a point when it’s best to hang it up for the day and return to that performance later.

    1. That’s the idea that I was going to bring up. I think the article has the right idea but the wrong wording. You don’t want to make arbitrary rules such as a three take limit, but you SHOULD lose the fear of keeping everything “just in case”.

      It’s all about pre production and training your ears to hear when things are clicking. It might happen on the first take (and usually does) but it could be the tenth take.
      Know how you want to approach your song before you even turn on the lights. Then set up and play. If you don’t hear what you want, toss it and try again. When you are editing, don’t keep things that aren’t “keepers”. Even if you make a huge mistake and lose something that you thought was “magic”, build your confidence to the point where you can say to yourself, “I did it once, I can do it again” because you probably can. You might have to come back to it at a different time if the vibe has passed.

      It also helps if you have another set of ears you trust. Some of the best takes I’ve had were garbage to my ears at first, but an experienced set of objective ears loved it, and they were right.

  9. I have found that if I practice at home till the song is second nature, I can usually get it in the studio in one or two takes.

  10. I have found that if I practice at home till the song is second bature, I can usually get it in the studio in one or two takes.

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