In What Order Should I Record My Tracks?

Whether you’re a world-renowned mixing engineer or “the guy in the band with the most plugins,” I’m almost positive you’ve found yourself sitting in front of a computer screen recently enough with your head in your hands thinking, “What the hell happened here? Where’d my song go?”

I say this with such confidence because I’ve been there myself. We all have. It goes down like this a lot, particularly when you’re acting as your own producer/engineer. You have this really great backbone of a song, and you start obsessive-compulsively laying down part after brilliant part in your home studio, sure that you're creating a masterpiece.

In the end, your session ends up totally disorganized, degrading you to a teary-eyed mess. You're certain that the song’s soul is buried in there under a flurry of overdubs. You convince yourself that the critical piece that would have tied the whole arrangement together must still be missing.

Sometimes this is just the way it goes. Inspiration is volatile and does not flow or sustain in linear ways. But that’s not to say you can’t stack the deck in your favor before you embark on a home recording by employing a few strategies. Today, let’s take a quick look at one of the simplest and most useful of those strategies: taking care to record things in the right order.

You may be wondering, “C’mon, is there really a such thing as ‘the right recording order?’”

Okay, you got me. There isn’t. Take all of these tips for what they really are: suggestions. That leads us perfectly to the first rule of thumb.

When in doubt, follow your intuition.

A sonic masterpiece can be built in the studio any number of ways. The absolute worst thing you can do is start messing with the magic flow by thinking that you can’t track the acoustic guitar until the drums are finalized, or vice versa.

If you’ve got a killer part in mind, and you feel like there’s enough of a song-skeleton already in place for you to flesh it out to your satisfaction, just roll tape and go for it. Creative inspiration trumps all other rules in the studio.

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Let rhythm take the lead.

Now that the first rule has been clearly established, there are a few more general rules of thumb that might help you keep your sonic sculpture from getting too unwieldy. One pretty failsafe strategy is to start with the rhythmic end of the spectrum and gradually progress to the melodic.

By and large, following this approach means that you’d track all the groove-based elements first – live and programmed drums, auxiliary percussion, bass tracks, etc. Aside from a solid rhythmic foundation on which to build everything else, laying this stuff down first also gives the song a structural roadmap that cuts down on confusion. This is especially helpful when adding other parts that might not play throughout the entire song.

Once your backbone’s in place, you can then progress to those sort of “halfway” instruments that are polyphonic and chordal but still fairly rhythmic in nature. These are your strummed acoustics, your rhythm guitars, your blocky, comping-style piano parts, your synth pads, and so on.

After that, when the song is grooving and fairly fleshed out chord-wise, you tackle the most melodic elements – any vocals, leads, solos, and other little flourishes that are meant to be really intricate and/or featured.

Lastly, you can see what kind of room you have left for “ear candy” elements like effects, strategic doubles, Brian Wilson bike horns, whatever.

Track it how you wrote it.

As solid and dependable as it is, there will probably be times when the “start with the drums” strategy doesn’t make sense. Particularly if you’re a solo artist, you may have written the song on your acoustic, sitting at a piano, or a capella in the shower. You know you’ll want some other instruments on your song, but you don’t know what vibe they should have yet.

In these situations, the best way to record is by tracking the instrument(s) you wrote the song on first. Cut your guitar and vocal, then listen back and evaluate: “I’m hearing the drums and bass coming in here,” “I want it to turn into an electric song here,” and so on.

If you want to help make these hypothetical future overdubs a little easier to manage, consider tracking your guitar and vocal to a click track. If you build your song this way, you can even leave the door open to ripping out that original guitar and vocal if the song’s mood changes drastically as its arrangement develops. It’s a great way to start exploring your song’s potential without either boxing yourself in too tightly or abandoning your original inspiration altogether.

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Less is more than you think.

This last strategy is sort of supplemental but has helped me put out a number of song arrangement traffic jams over the years, so it’s worth mentioning. Basically, it’s never a bad idea to leave way more space around the “definitive” parts of your song’s arrangement than you think.

For example, if you “know” there’s supposed to be a keyboard lead carrying the melody in each pre-verse, resist that urge to record three highly melodic lead guitar parts in the same space just because you can. Or, if you do record those melodic lead parts, only pick one of them to do the job, and kill the keys lead.

As a corollary to that same idea, resist the urge to record every little idea that comes into your head before you at least track and loosely mix those main elements.

For instance, I have developed the habit of always recording my vocal tracks as early on in the “melodic instrument overdubbing” phase as possible. I’ve learned that if I don’t, I’ll compulsively add a bunch of extra lead and melodic parts to my song, which become awfully distracting once the vocal finally takes its alleged place of prominence.

Further, I know that I’ll also resist removing them because they all sound so cool! But when I stick to the basic elements and only add additional overdubs in those places where I feel like things aren’t hitting like they should, I tend to make much more sane tracking decisions.

For this, future-mixing-engineer-me is always thankful. And, almost always, so is my humble song’s intelligent audience.

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