Five Good Reasons… To Limit Your Output

/February 4, 2016

No, this isn’t an article about making stuff louder with look-ahead limiters. This is a general warning shot across the bow of anyone who thinks there’s no downside to creating digital multitrack session files with 100, 150 or even 200 channels of audio.

The downsides are many and varied.

When it comes to album production there’s a certain truth to the old adage, ‘nothing beats a good limitation’.

But whether you agree with the cliché or not, there’s certainly a downside to the capacity of modern computer technology to facilitate 150+channel recordings. There are fantastic benefits too, but the pitfalls are often insidious and obscured by the technical advancements.

 

AUDIO INFLATION

Modern-day track counts have gone the way of house prices in the last two decades. So much so that when I recently transferred an old 24-track two-inch master tape into ProTools, I was genuinely shocked at how incomplete the file looked.

‘Where are all the overdubs?’ I thought to myself. One thing was certain… this mix was going to be a doddle!

 

THERE’S NO LIMIT!

When a recording format poses no real limitation to the number of overdubs an artist can dream up and capture, there’s a very real chance the tracking stage of a production will get out of control fast if there’s no-one there to manage it.

This aural inflation, while it can be fantastically powerful, can have a number of detrimental effects on musical outcomes, the worst of which – in no particular order – go something like this:

 

1: WHO’S KIDDING WHOM? THOSE OVERDUBS SUCK

Computer recordings can take the pressure off an artist’s ability to stand up and perform. When musicians are forced to say to themselves, ‘This is it… it’s time to produce the goods’ – that’s when they typically excel. Computers, if left to dominate this aspect of the process, are terrible at applying ‘red-light’ motivation.

When no pressure is applied, the sense of occasion is diminished. If an artist becomes convinced that their part can be compiled from 50 takes, or made up of layers of performances, they will tend to rely on these external techniques to achieve the outcome, rather than their own skills and abilities. This encourages lacklustre takes rather than magical one-offs.

The worst form of this occurs where half a dozen tracks, consisting primarily of mediocre performances, are recorded to take the place of one good one. More and more often this technique is use to conceal bad playing or an unrealised part. When this sort of layering infests a production the results are typically messy, indistinct and hard to mix. Unless it’s specifically designed to create a specific sound, indiscriminate layering usually leads you nowhere fast.

 

2: BUDGET CONSTRAINTS

Gratuitous overdubbing can also blow your budget faster than a stick of dynamite.

And let’s face it, there are very few single, EP or album productions around these days that have a limitless budget. Frankly, I’ve never come across one yet, unless perversely you want to include those with a budget of zero… there are lots of those.

Penniless productions aside, an artist’s imagination for overdubs will nearly always run deeper that their hip pocket. These days one of the last remaining constraints that stop too many overdubs from being recorded is money.

If your budget is tight, be careful how much stuff you add; the knock-on effects are significant.

Songs with too many overdubs take longer to record, longer to edit and longer to mix, and consequently cost more (if you’re not doing it yourself). They can cause confusion in the artist and producer about what’s beneficial to the song – which eats into the schedule. They can soak up hours, if not days, of a mix engineer’s time that could otherwise have been devoted to landing the project.

Housekeeping – time that’s devoted to organising files, applying fades, colour-coding ‘like instruments’ etc – can, in fact, end up dominating a process if there are too many overdubs scattered around a session file in no particular order. Indeed, when a song file gets big enough, this process becomes a whole step in itself, like recording or mixing.

 

3: FOUR JIGSAWS IN ONE BOX

When overdubbing goes unchecked, sometimes the recorded parts simply don’t fit together. Just because you have an idea for a part in a song, doesn’t necessarily mean it works in context with all the others, particularly if half the parts are muted while you’re performing it.

All too often, extra overdubs either clash with existing tracks or play a too-similar role to others already well established. When this happens, the clarity of the performance can start to blur like an out-of-focus lens. You don’t necessarily notice it at first – some never do – but the result are nearly always the same. Listeners disengage because there’s too much information competing for their attention.

In many circumstances, even mix engineers sometimes don’t have the luxury of time to investigate the nuances of the countless overdubs at their fingertips. Performance details are therefore quickly lost in this confusing hubbub, leaving the poor listener with exponentially less hope of ever discovering what may have been good about some aspects of the buried performances.

 

4: REPEAT PERFORMANCE

As mentioned above, unless they’re recorded for a specific reason some overdubs wind up undermining other performances and vice versa. The solution to this is in-progress mixing – a performance stocktake if you like.

In-progress mixes allow you to get a clearer idea of where a project is at, particularly if a song has already had several overdubbing sessions thrown at it. If there’s never been a stocktake mix made by the time you’ve accumulated 150+ channels of audio, chances are some of it will either clash with other parts, or be extraneous to the final mix.

The trick is to stay as lean as you can throughout the recording process, cutting out the dead wood regularly, even though you may still ultimately end up with a large track count. It’s not so much the sheer number of channels that matters as how well they all fit together.

 

5: TOO MANY MICS

But accumulating tracks isn’t just about the number of musical ideas being thrown into the mix. The other culprit is the recording process itself. Too many mic and line options can bloat multitrack sessions faster than pancakes for breakfast.

Here again, in-progress mixing can provide an engineer with enough insight into the final sonic landscape of the song that they can then, with some confidence, either delete or ‘hide and make inactive’ extra mic channels that seem unnecessary. The sooner you can decide that certain recorded tracks are extraneous to the cause, the better. These can be ditched from the working file. If, at some later date, they’re deemed vital again – which rarely happens – by all means reactivate them then.

 

GROW FRUIT, NOT WEEDS

Whether you’re working on one song or 100, the same basic rules apply. Cutting out the dead wood and identifying any overdubs that either didn’t work, or undermine other elements of the recording, are crucial to the final mix outcome sounding lively, well arranged and musically satisfying to a listening audience.

All too often we assume the processes we’ve developed, (or have had insidiously thrust upon us by the technology), only have their upsides. Hidden in many of our working methods are pitfalls disguised as technological advancements. It’s important for each one of us to identify these for ourselves, because one thing’s for sure, marketing managers and software developers never will.

Stay in control of your music as well as your approach. Don’t let the technology dominate proceedings too much or you may find yourself throwing money down the drain, with little to show for it. In most cases – though not always – quality trumps quantity… and it’s usually cheaper to produce.