Why You Should Avoid Serial Overdubs in the Studio

[Before we get into the meat of this month’s article, I’d like to start responding to readers’ questions.  Please email me your questions or topics to be discussed.  Recording, editing, mixing, production, management and even music publishing are all fair game.  Fire away! Reach me at [email protected].]

One of the things that I learned, the hard way, early on in my career as a producer is that albums made by “serial overdub” do not often come out well.  Let me tell you about why you should avoid this.  First, the serial overdub record is a common approach among singer-songwriters who want a band sound, but don’t actually have a band.  If you’re in this situation, there are many solutions that do work well, but piecemeal not so much.

WHAT IS SERIAL OVERDUBBING?

Serial overdub, which is really my term, means recording each instrument one after the other.  Overdubbing, a practice invented by the late Les Paul, enables us to record an instrument or part after other parts have already been recorded.  This is a great help as it allows us to focus on getting a great performance for lead instruments like voice or guitar.  It also allows us to stack a million of you as your own backup singers.

Figure 1As with all technological advances, the new capabilities leave us with the question of just because we can do it, should we?  Just like we might think twice about that stack of a million of you as backing vox, recording each part separately is doable, but inadvisable.

Records need a fine balance between solid groove and performance, and creativity and human feel. This balance, of course, varies by genre (EDM need not apply) but since we’re talking about overdubbing, we’re focused on played instruments.  Serial overdubs may allow for doing it all yourself, or bringing in friends to play on your tracks, or even spreading cost of the project over time, but it usually ends up killing that essential human vibe.

WHY IT KILLS THE VIBE

A band, or even a “sounds like there’s a band, but I don’t really have one” is an organic beast.  The goal is never perfection in the recording, but rather capturing a living, breathing, emotionally moving experience.  You get that with people in a room playing together.  There’s a dynamic, a push-pull, between players who are listening to what each other are doing in real time. Assuming that everyone is playing well (insert rant about pre-production) this is where the magic happens.  It’s really hard to fake this when you are recording each person alone in the studio, one after another!

Figure 2

TIME IS MONEY & A BUZZKILL

Another issue with the serial overdub record is that it can take forever to complete.  I think the record that took the longest to record was over 18 months!  That wasn’t a “let’s work on this a bit, table it, come back to it” kind of thing; this was continual work.  Let me tell you this kills the buzz!  Over that period of time the artist has come to hate their music, has grown and moved on musically, and her fans have stopped wondering what happened to her and given up.

Furthermore, serial overdub projects cost more.  Studio time will increase to be sure, although arguably you could work in a smaller, less expensive studio (or at home).  Likely, however, since this is your baby you don’t want to skimp on the quality of the room or microphone locker, and smaller studios don’t have much to offer there. Overdubs also often require more extensive editing.  This, of course, gets us right back to the issue of the vibe of the finished record.

REAL WORLD EXAMPLES & BEST PRACTICES

An album that I love to hate (and hate to love) that is a perfect example is Eric Johnson’s Ah Via Musicom.  An early-’90s tour-de-force of DIY overdubbing, it took him two years to complete, is a textbook of technicality, and is nearly devoid of any gut-wrenching moments. I admire it, but am not moved by it.  (This brings up another rant about virtuosity without musicality.  Insert shredder of your choice as an example here).  As counterpoint, I will remind you that all Boston records (whether you like them or not, they inarguably engaged the fans of the time) were done by serial overdub, but Tom Scholz is just, well, Tom Scholz.

So what’s the better way?  Believe or not, it’s old school.  Get your band together with your producer and rehearse!  If you don’t have a band, your producer should hire one for you (that’s part of their job), then get together with them and rehearse!  When it’s all come together, then book the studio time at a place that can host a full band with adequate isolation for each instrument.  Ideally, that means all the people in one room together, but the amps in other rooms/booths. There are fewer of these rooms in existence today, but those that survive are great.  I’d be happy to help you connect with them.

After you’ve captured all the “basics,” which should include drums, bass, guitars, keyboards, and any other “rhythm” instruments, you’ll want to stop and edit together the ideal arrangement.  This is not the time for micro-editing, but rather a simple comp between takes to get the best performance in each section.  From there you may want to re-track an instrument, or add overdubs as we mentioned before, but the basic structure and vibe will have that balance between groove and humanness that grabs listeners by the ear!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Award winning mix engineer and producer Jordan Tishler runs Digital Bear Entertainment in Boston MA. A large Augsburger designed mix/overdub room with SSL console and racks upon racks of analogue outboard gear, tape machine, and gazillions of instruments, Tishler has credits including B Spears, JLo, Iggy A, MOTi, Justin Prime, SIA, and London Grammar. Contact me about producing your next record, or mixing the one you’re working on now!  For more, visit www.digitalbear.com.

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