Recording A Guide Track For Multitrack Overdubbing


guitar tracking

So, where do you start when it comes to making a multitrack recording? Well, it helps to have at least a vague plan of how to organize the recording session first, and unless you are recording entirely live, this usually starts with some kind of guide track. The guide is to help the musicians get a feel for the song, and to know where it’s going when it comes to overdubbing their parts.

The recording of a guide track allows the band to finalise in their minds exactly how they work together in the song, and what they need to do individually. It also means that you only have to have enough microphones and interface inputs to cover one instrument at a time. It gives you the opportunity to capture some of the feel of a live performance and still keep that all important separation between instruments, which is so valuable when it comes to mixing.

So, what makes a useful guide track, and how do you go about recording it?

Things to consider:

  • The guide does not have to sound beautiful, just functional: a useful guide track is simple and clear
  • What do you want to get out of it? Enough to start overdubbing from? A couple of instruments finished? The performance?
  • How many channels can you record at once?
  • How much of the band is it useful to have on the guide track?

Functional, not beautiful

Don’t rig condenser mics on anything except drum overheads, they will pick up too much of everything else. Stick to dynamic mics like sm58’s and DI everything you can, your job is to isolate the instruments and minimise spill.

If you just want something functional for the musicians to play from, then it’s perfectly reasonable to set  up a click track and record a quick take or two of the lead vocals and the predominant instrument. You can then get stuck straight into overdubbing instruments in order.

What do you want out of it?

If you want to capture a little bit of the live feel from a performance, then you will probably need to have the whole band in the studio at once. Don’t feel that you have to record everything though, lead guitars and keyboards can easily be missed out from a guide track to spare a couple of channels. You want to concentrate on getting a nice clean and clear sound for the guide track, and DI boxes can do a lot of the work for you because they give you perfect isolation of basses, guitars and keys from everything else.

For drums, the priorities are kick drum, snare drum and hi-hat/ride, which you can easily get that with three mics; one kick, one snare and one overhead on the hi-hat side. The should be enough toms and cymbals on the overhead for a guide, so don’t feel you have to mic them up. Backing vocals are almost always unnecessary here, because they are not substantial in the mix and will contribute more spill. Cutting down on channels like this should allow you to have one mic on everything important, even with an eight-channel interface.

What is it useful to spend time on now?

It’s not a regular occurrence, but some musicians give a completely different performance playing with the band live, compared to individual overdubbing. In this case it can be worth getting a ‘live’ take from them, because you will get more of a performance, and you can always patch any big mistakes later with a quick overdub session. When you come to do your guide track, have the whole band play together and concentrate on getting a really nice sound from the musician(s) in question.

If it’s a lead guitar, then isolate their amp as much as possible with screens etc. to avoid drum spill on the guitar mics. One difficulty here will be that you want a live performance and also to be certain sure that you get something useful as a guide track to overdub the rest of the band from, so to make things a little simpler give the drummer a click track to help everyone keep to the right tempo.

What instruments do you want on the guide track?

In short, as little as possible. The basic drum sound, lead instrument, lead vocals and bass are usually plenty for musicians to play from. Some people prefer to include a click track to help keep time, but others find it easier to just follow the musicians. I usually have one available, just in case it’s useful for overdubbing.

How do you go about starting a multitrack session? Do you get straight down to overdubbing, or hold out for one killer live take?

[image via Erica Cassella]

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