It’s common to record a song one part at a time, and layer all the parts together to form the complete song. The dilemma is... which part do you record first? Well the answer is drums should always be first. But what’s the drummer going to play along to?
There’s several ways of doing this depending on your gear, time frame, the song itself and the feel you want to achieve.
The first step is to create a ghost track, or a scratch track. This does not need to be a good quality recording, but it needs to be a good performance without any mistakes on the song outline or tempo, and it needs to capture the essence of the song. This will serve as a guide track that the song gets built off of.
To record the ghost track, there’s 2 options to achieve a steady tempo.
1- live recording- any recording of the full band playing the song live (without any tempo mistakes)
Or the second option is
2- click track
1- live recording. Remember, this doesn’t need to be a high quality recording, it just needs to serve as a foundation to set the tempo. It can be a cell phone video of a live performance, or a live performance in the studio with just one or 2 microphones to capture the song. Whatever... it only needs to sound good enough for the drummer, or whichever part gets recorded first, to play along to it in their headphone mix. A live recording ghost track will preferably be the entire band playing, but at minimum needs to have ever member of the rhythm section, so drums, bass, lead vocals, guitar, and keys. Auxiliary parts, like background vocals, or lead guitar fills aren’t needed, because they don’t contribute to the overall rhythm.
If you omit one of these main parts from the ghost track, there could be some tempo fluctuations that sound fine without that part, but all of a sudden sound forced and unnatural when that part is put in.
Once the ghost track is done, you will use it as the headphone mix for the first part that gets recorded.
As a rule, the song should be recorded in order of of which instruments drive the rhythm the most. This will be the drums if they are in the song, and next is bass. If there are no drums or bass in the song... then which part drives the rhythm that the other parts follow? Which part, if it fluctuates, will force all the other parts to fluctuate with it? If there’s no drums or bass... then it might be the guitar, or the piano. There’s always a dominant part that leads the rhythm that the other instruments follow. Record that part first.
For this example, let’s use a typical rock band configuration of drums, bass, guitars and vocals.
1- record a ghost track
2- record drums to the ghost track
3- record the bass guitar to the drum track, with the ghost track also playing faintly.
4- record guitars to the drums and bass, with the ghost track playing faintly.
5- remove the ghost track from the monitor mix, and record the rest of the parts as you build the song with layers.
2- click track
If you can’t get a recording of the whole band playing live, or if the lead rhythm player is unable to follow a live ghost track perfectly, then it’s a good idea to use a click track.
With a click track, you don’t need the whole band in order to create a ghost track. You just need something for the first recorded part to know where they are in the song, preferably in the right key. This could be the main melody being played on piano, or even just being hummed. It could be the rhythm guitar, or piano. If the first recorded part knows the song really well, and can keep track in their head where they are in the song, a ghost track isn’t even needed.
When recording using the click track technique, you don’t actually have to use a click track. You can use drum loops, a shaker, a hi hat, a kick drum, or a combination. Often people have a hard time following a click track perfectly, so if you give them a drum beat it makes it easier for them to be on the beat more accurately.
Let’s use our rock band as an example again
1- establish the tempo of the song, and create a click track.
2- Record the guitar part to the click track. This will serve as the ghost, and will be replaced.
3- record the drums to the click and ghost tracks
4- record bass to the click, drums and ghost.
5- record guitars
6- record all other parts by adding the layers.