Getting the first track down

November 1, 2010 1:39 PM

Recording by myself... I want a drum track to play along to but creating an entire drum track from scratch is hard. How do you do it?

I want to record a cover of a song entirely by myself. I figure the guitar/synth/etc parts will be pretty easy once I have a drum track to play along to, but getting an entire track of 4 minutes down with nothing to play along to but a metronome is pretty hard.

I've also tried putting down multiple instruments in 10 second steps, but that's not much fun and it's too easy to lose track of what volume/effect settings I had when I have to switch contexts all the time. So...can you help me slay this particular kobold?
posted by Post-it Goat (11 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

I'd start with a scratch track of whichever instrument you are most comfortable with, then do the drum track in relation to that. Once the drums are good you can ditch the scratch track and do a final take, and add other tracks as needed. When you're recording by yourself there's always going to be one track that's just you and the metronome, but it doesn't have to stay in the final mix.
posted by InfidelZombie at 2:06 PM on November 1, 2010

I've learned from experience not to try to construct an entire rhythm track before recording anything else. What I tend to do now is to loop a basic kick and maybe a hi-hat (or metronome) on a sequencer and then record it onto my DAW. Then work the track up from there. Get the vocal down as early as you can - even just a guide vocal - because that (and not the percussion) will be the focal point of the track. If it's not a vocal track there will be something else that is the focal point. Once the things starts to come together (maybe you have some guitars and bass on it by then, together with the guide vocal and kick) start experimenting with the rest of the drum kit. Play it live if you can and record in stereo - that way you have half a chance of it sounding real and not machine-made/sequenced. You might at this point consider wiping the sequenced kick etc and playing that live too. The basic challenge with recording on your own by overdubbing is to fool the audience that there's more than one person involved. Not easy to do. But the less automation used via computers or sequencers the better chance you have in my view - unless you want to produce mechanical dance stuff I guess......

Hope that's of some use.
posted by MajorDundee at 3:35 PM on November 1, 2010

TWF, I'm actually using a hardware DAW (korg d1200) so it's a little trickier to do a lot of copy/pasting, but the advice still applies in terms of what I need to get down to be able to get started. Thanks for the help guys, it definitely gives me more strategies to try. It's cool to hear what other people are doing.
posted by Post-it Goat at 3:37 PM on November 1, 2010

My process is a bit convoluted but it works.

I generally start with a basic 2-bar drum beat, kick and snare, maybe hihat on the 8s, maybe a crash on the first beat. I loop this in Logic.

Then I lay down a scratch guitar track or a scratch piano track, whichever I wrote the song on. Often I'll put a scratch vocal down at the same time as this.

Then a scratch bass track.

Then I start layering in other instruments. At this stage *everything* is still scratch.

Then I try to do a rough mix of the whole thing. I ditch parts that aren't working, fuck around with the structure, play with harmonies, lyrics, work out an intro and and an ending.

As part of this I work up a full drum track.

So by now I have a full mix of everything that's going into the final song, usually about four to eight tracks of guitar, one bass, two lead vocals, four to eight backing vocals, drums, percussion, and sometimes strings.

Then, horror of horrors, I delete all the scratch audio (or just mute it) and start tracking the final audio.

This sounds long winded but it actually saves me time because I only have to take real care in tracking the final stuff, which is always far less than what I put down in the scratch version, and I often find that what I'm playing changes once I'm hearing it in context.

Sometimes a scratch audio track makes it through to the final mix but it's rare. Most often it will be a solo that I've gotten used to and don't feel confident about replicating.

Midi tracks get refined but often I'll play them again anyway just for the hell of it.

The advantage of this is that when you come to do the final tracking, you are always playing with a fully worked out arrangement, including a finished rhythm track. My final tracking takes a couple of hours max because I know *exactly* what I'm gonna be playing and singing.
posted by unSane at 6:20 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, yeah, and the reason I do it this way is that from long experience I know that I simply cannot get the song to where I want it to be in one pass. I can get it about 90% there, but I always want to edit the arrangement or change some little bit someplace. Doing everything scratch means I can do it fast an not worry if I clip something or fluff something. There is nothing more frustrating than sweating over tracking a difficult part, only to find you have to redo it because you changed the arrangement. I know it should be as simple as dropping it in, but it never works like that for me.
posted by unSane at 6:44 PM on November 1, 2010

PS if you want to do it the fast way without my convoluted approach, start with a click or a basic beat, then lay down a scratch guitar/vocal track, then a bass track, THEN do the rhythm track (you absolutely need the bass track to get the kick drum right), then start tracking for real.
posted by unSane at 7:25 PM on November 1, 2010

great, thank you for all the details unsane. I'm excited to try again tonight and see if I can come up with a process that works. one of these days I'll have something to actually post on mefi music.
posted by Post-it Goat at 10:11 AM on November 2, 2010

post it anyway man - we don't bite.
posted by MajorDundee at 12:07 PM on November 2, 2010

Well...gotta get more than 20 seconds recorded first. :)
posted by Post-it Goat at 1:22 PM on November 2, 2010

Most of the time my approach is pretty much what InfidelZombie said up top: I lay down a metronome track, record a scratch track against that (either vox and guitar or a piano track, whichever is going to be more useful for me when I'm drumming, often with me shouting out changes ahead of time too if the arrangement isn't already totally totally drilled into my head), record drums against those, and then rip out the scratch track whenever I'm moving on to replacing it with the real instrumentation and vocals.
posted by cortex at 12:26 PM on November 3, 2010

last night was pretty successful. I ditched the idea of recording the whole drum track and just did a few bars, then copy/pasted them for a few minutes. after that I "sang" the vocals and some of the guitar parts to get an idea of where everything was supposed to go. then I was able to pretty quickly put in some actual rough instruments and didn't have much trouble figuring out when to stop and start. I figure I'll redo just about everything I did but since the rough guides are there it should be no problem. so, that was about 100 times smarter than what I was trying before. the key for me was copy/pasting the drums and putting down a vocal track, which hadn't occurred to me because I can't sing at all, but it really helped. so thanks again!
posted by Post-it Goat at 1:17 PM on November 3, 2010

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