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audio How many tracks is enough?

Discussion in 'Fix This MIX!' started by DonnyThompson, Sep 13, 2014.

  1. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    This is just an observation on today's DAW production, particularly in regard to track counts and editing capability.

    I recall reading a post, about a year ago, where Kurt made a very timely observation; that one of the problems that occurs these days in regard to digital recording is in relation to the unlimited track counts available to the user.

    The more tracks we have at our disposal, the more we tend to use. To be honest, I'm just as guilty of this as anyone.

    Back in the days of tape machines and limited tracks - 2, 4, 16, 24, etc. - decisions had to be made regarding arrangement and instrumentation, because we only ever had so many tracks to work with. While a limitation, in some ways, I think that songs and recordings were better because of this limitation. We were forced to chop out the deadwood, trim the fat, and make decisions based on which parts/tracks were best.

    The result, I think, was a much improved product, all the way around - from fundamental tracks to solos and lead vocals... and, the songs were more listenable, because there wasn't 88 tracks of incidentals to listen through when listening to the song.

    Decisions had to be made; and because only the best performances and tracks were used, the final outcome was better.

    From a performance aspect, I think that there was more continuity and fluidity to the performances as well. With digital, where you have a lead vocal track that is made up of 20 cut-up sub tracks, and final takes are based on editing and combining all these parts, sometimes one line at a time, I think there is a risk in losing continuity.

    Those who are good at editing can make a seamless final take from 20 different tracks, but in the end, when we do that, and create the 'perfect take", are we also losing the human end of those performances? Those spontaneous nuances that can happen, those things that aren't "perfect" or "planned"... And when we edit these tracks, are we also editing out the human essence of the performance(s)?

    This capability has also allowed many "artists" who have very little talent, to enter into a craft that at one time, demanded a certain measure of talent. With current technology, and the ability to pitch correct, time correct, and phrase correct, there are people with zero talent who are made to sound as though they have it... because the engineer can create a take, can become Dr. Frankenstein, and put together a decent performance from people who, on their own and without this technology, couldn't play or sing their way out of a wet sack if their lives depended on it.

    With 999 tracks available to us, along with all the bells and whistles that allow us to create performances when there really isn't one to begin with.... is talent even part of the criteria anymore?

    What say you?
    dvdhawk likes this.
  2. Josh Conley

    Josh Conley Active Member

    less is more. if there are so many waveforms i cant see them all at once, there are too many.
  3. dvdhawk

    dvdhawk Well-Known Member

    Good topic Donny.

    I read an interview years ago with John Hiatt, who says 16 tracks is ideal for songwriters, because it forces you to focus on what's important to the song. I couldn't agree more and rarely go over 24 tracks with a full band. The DAW is a glorified tape-deck for me. Just because we can edit on a microscopic level with this amazing technology, doesn't mean we should. Don't get me wrong, I'm quite good at editing, but if an acoustic guitar track doesn't have a certain amount of string noise, it sounds artificial. If you never hear the vocalist take a breath, subconsciously I think some BS alarm goes off because it isn't believable anymore. I will try to coach someone through a take that minimized those noises, and maybe if we get a couple that are distracting, try to minimize them in editing. But once you get past a certain point, I think you do more harm the good by cleaning up every single extraneous noise. A good friend of mine is a graphic artist and master of nearly every art medium - his eye for doctored up pictures is incredible. Slight variations in shadow and light angle give it away and make it look phony. Even to my untrained eye I still get a sense there's something bogus (although I can't put my finger on it like he can). The same goes for music. If someone is trying to convey something meaningful in a song that has had every minute imperfection removed, it hits me with all the sincerity of a pre-recorded telemarketer robocall.

    Like they say, half the battle is knowing when you're done.

    (I really like working with live performance tracks, it weeds out the posers pretty quickly.)
  4. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    You got right to the crux of what I was saying, Hawk.

    When I think back to certain songs that I loved - and there are, of course, far too many to count - I often wonder if these songs, recorded and mixed using today's technology, would hold the same magic as the originals. I'm not including the differences between analog and digital in sound, per se', that's an entirely different subject that has been discussed to death... I'm talking about the human element, exactly what you mentioned:

    "If someone is trying to convey something meaningful in a song that has had every minute imperfection removed, it hits me with all the sincerity of a pre-recorded telemarketer robocall..."

    I'm thinking about a song like the Beatles I Feel Fine... that now-classic feedback intro - while intentionally recorded, the source of the idea was not - it was a mistake that turned into an intro that is now considered to be as instantly recognizeable as a song like "Layla".

    How would that song have sounded if all the imperfections were removed, had every last note been forensically edited to be made "perfect"? Would it still hold the same magic?
  5. paulears

    paulears Well-Known Member

    I'm happy when I can edit together umpteen attempts to play a piece of music that I ought to be able to play in one go! Blow the minute imperfections, hitting the right note at the right time is challenge enough some days!
    Josh Conley likes this.
  6. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    Every tracks takes time to mix and is a risk of making mistakes. Unless you have unlimited time to mix and check the result numerous times.
    Also, with multi mics setup, you also risk phase issues.

    After saying this, you clearly get that I prefer less tracks than more.

    I try to use comping method to minimum, usually only on vocals and when I punch in punch out an instrument, I do the cuts on the same tracks and place fade ins, fade outs right after we're done with a track. That way I don't forget to check a cut for noises or unnatural cut and I end up with less tracks.

    On a project, we may have a few cleaning/arrangement decisions with the musicien but it needs to be a minimum.
    Then on the mixing day, only sound quality is important !

    In the end if you have 128tracks for a trio, I guess you are an insecure fellow. (just saying);)
  7. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    I recall Big K saying he had a buddy that hit 1000 tracks in Post.
  8. JohnTodd

    JohnTodd Well-Known Member

  9. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    +1 on dvdhawk

    I don't judge any of us on the track count, if it sounds good, who cares, right. I do believe the mass has an editing obsession. This digital marvel has enabled overkill. We need self control. But this marvel also allows me to edit out the problems I hear too. I mean, to get it back to more real sounding if that's the object of course. Some put it in, I take it out. So, I like the ability to reduce what others obsess over.
    I do think one good track sounds better than a bunch only created to emulate size. I prefer a nice clean take with the odd highlight added over doubled/ quad. When we start adding layers for the sake of creating big, I think singles done well sound bigger because the imaging is better in tack. So, I think a lot of this unnecessary track count actually makes music sound smaller.

    A DAW is sampler. The more you fuss with a wave, the more it sounds unatural. "it" accumulates. What ever "it" is, you can be sure it has an effect which creates an artificial sound. The balance between real and virtual is weird because something just doesn't mix. Somewhere between too much effect or processing and real is what makes us pro I think.
    When I first started using samplers, more more more was on the platter. Later in my years, I've become better with less. Today, I just love the sound of mistakes done well. There is nothing more difficult than trying play a mistake or the unintentional done well so I embrace those. The new generation over edits everything. Us old schoolers, hear the difference. But, that doesn't mean a thing if "it" isn't fashionable either. The whole industry is weird, which makes it interesting.

    I hear a new trend coming that uses real instruments and less tracks. I think we are seeing the last of EM done crappy. Virtual however, is just beginning.

    In Samplitude for instant, I can avoid all those extra tracks and open plugins because I get it done on the object. So, there is less accumulative 'it" at the end. Object editing and summing to a mix down system enables me to avoid much of the accumulative smearing that comes along with the crammed sound of a 2-bus at the end.

    I tend to be more concerned about less open plugs, phasy duplicates and headphone bleeding on different takes than the leads you end up with.
    In the end, its what it sounds like so , not sure if 24 or 1000 tracks matters as long as it sounds good but I'm with the rest where I like it simple.

    I can't imagine needing more than 100 tracks but I have been there. Sometimes those are just one bar of something like a shot .
  10. paulears

    paulears Well-Known Member

    On a bass guitar forum I use, people keep posting the bass tracks from famous songs - of all genres, performed by the really big names - I have no idea where they get them from, but they're just the bass track in isolation. What always hits me is how dreadful the recordings sometimes are in terms of instrument quality - not the technical quality of the recording. All sorts of horrible buzzes and rattles from the strings and frets, and the occasional bum note - but the thing is the energy some have. I'd probably have spent pointless time trying to clean these up, and moaned about the dreadful guitar setup that made such a row, when history proves what it was was what it should have been. All my bass playing life, I've spent time getting action low, and stopping the rattles and clangs, and my favourite guitar was virtually silent, other than the notes I played - and I played pretty gently. Then I bought for a specific sound a Fender Jazz bass. Hated it because I couldn't get the action down to the level of my previous ones, without it sounding pretty horrible. Then I discovered Fender's recommended settings were much, much higher. I ended up with a horrible guitar to play, but I persevered and discovered I could really play loud, and hit the strings much harder, and the tone was so different than tickling it, which I was trying to do. Listening to my playing live afterwards reveals the noises that I'd probably have previously considered as a 'problem', to be fixed. This tone, in the mix is much more authentic, and has a kind of energy - and the clacks and bangs become part of the song.

    It's taken me 30 years to discover this. I've just picked a few songs on my machine at random, and although the newer ones do have more tracks, rarely do they even enter the twenties - comped vocals in a few songs might eat a few extras, but it's only in the songs with traditional instruments - the saxes, horns etc, that the track count goes up. The highest one I found had 31 tracks - but some tracks were really short stabs and effects. Now the machinery isn't a limit, maybe it's only the material that sets the count?
  11. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    Hey Paul ! Fret and body noises can even be enjoyable if you play them in time. Same way a signer breathes on tempo with the song.

    One of my customer has an old fender jazz bass as well. Everytime he came to the studio I had to work hard to minimise a pickup buzz.
    After a few time that I mention it to him he started to notice that when he practice and even when he played live. With a local store, I arrange that he gets the Noiseless pickups from fender made for the new version of his bass. Now each time we speak he's thanking me for it :) His sound is fuller and detailed with no more buzz.

    It's true that some playing noise can be disturbing for the listener. Specially on a soft ballad.
    But usually, the groove and energy is more important.

    I rather use 1 imperfect track of guitar that has mojo than 12 sterile ones.
  12. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    The thing about having a finite track count is that, as Hawk mentioned reading in the Hiatt interview (great songwriter, btw), it forces you to focus on the song instead of only on the process.

    I am just as guilty as anyone in having used over-inflated track counts from time to time, but in my own experience, the best work I've ever done as a songwriter, musician and engineer, is when I'm working with a song that has between 12 and 24 tracks.

    And while some may think from reading my OP, I'm not against technology, nor am I against editing. Technology has given us some incredible tools, and I find forensic editing useful... BUT... I think that when a song becomes nothing other than hundreds of edits, cuts, copies and pastes, that it's very easy to also edit out the human side of the music at the same time.

    Chris said: "Today, I just love the sound of mistakes done well. There is nothing more difficult than trying play a mistake or the unintentional done well."

    This is part of what I'm talking about. It's the human side. Those little mistakes or errors that turn out to be really cool. It may be unintentional feedback on a guitar solo that sounds awesome. It may be a voice that breaks at a certain note but that sounds wonderful, emotive, passionate.

    Example... take a listen to the Stone's Gimme Shelter. There's that section in the song where Mary Clayton ( man, what a voice) is laying it all out - "rape, murder, it's just a shot away" - and on the third line, her voice breaks on "murder".... and it's incredible. It's awesome. I've heard that song thousands of times and that break still gives me goosebumps.

    at 3:02:

    View: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJDnJ0vXUgw

    This is the human side I'm talking about. And while it may not directly have anything to do with track counts, indirectly it does, because with a limited count, you have to choose what works best for the song.
    Had the producer on that session had a hundred tracks at his disposal, he may have forced Clayton to do another take, and in doing so, we might have ended up hearing a watered-down homogenized "perfect" version of that now-classic but imperfect vocal line.


  13. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    Right on Donny

    If I had my way, I would play my guitar in every mix , start to finish. Not the be heard though, to be felt.
    And it is more often than not, the mistakes, string slides, little bends, buzzes and slightly off timings that push and pull that take a rather plain dynamic into really exciting.

    Not that I compare my sound to Santana , but I do have a similar ability to jam with the song the way he does.
    My role as a guitarist has always been to solo and chord tastefully through a song. Again, not to be heard throughout but to compliment or add energy to the spots and phases that are open holes and invitations.

    Later on in my performing years I started doing the same thing with my voice (kind of scatting too). I would sort of noodle along to the singing and use tone for effects to add body and punch for the lead. Between my voice and guitar, it's pretty cool. I'm a baritone, so this seems to really fit nicely with female and higher end singers.

    Now that I have all this knowledge and studio, I look forward to getting my chops back and doing an album where I can do this again.

    Basically what I'm saying, the new generation of pop music, would sound so much more lively if someone actually played an instrument start to finish and just left it in tack. There is way too much editing today and looping of the same poly rhythms. But at the same time, I love poly rhythms and a great beat so...

    Posted on my iphone
  14. Makzimia

    Makzimia Active Member

    I play all my own keys and guitar bits on songs. I don't have the mad skills of some people on here, but it's all me :). I think when I started using the Tascam 244 way back, I was doing OK, kept it simple, had no choice. I even was somewhat restrictive on myself as a PC became my DAW, then finally the Mac. My biggest song I ever recorded is 20 tracks I think from memory. Only reason it got that big, was sound effects and some fancy foot work with harmony bits. That's all on Hunted over on soundcloud, if anyone is curious :). Most of my songs, unless live drums go on, are 8-12 tracks.

    I can definitely see how more complex productions get bloated. At the end of the day, it's all about personal taste I guess. I certainly hear too much perfection as an issue too. Saddest thing is, everyone thinks that's normal now of course.
  15. Kurt Foster

    Kurt Foster Distinguished Member

    i think 16 would be just about right. i actually think four track is plenty but it's difficult to acomplish a stereo mix with four or even eight so 16 does it for me.
  16. JohnTodd

    JohnTodd Well-Known Member

    There is no answer to this question, except "what is good for the song".

    Of course, I'm speaking from the artist' perspective, rather than as an engineer.
    bigtree likes this.
  17. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    I guess less tracks is also good for the artist. I mean if you make a guitarist play the song twice and say, it's good thank you. He still have energy and confidence to record other songs the same day.

    If you go and ask for 12 overdubs, he'll just finish the song tired with his fingers hurting like hell and still wondering what he did wrong the 11 other takes.

    Of course some music styles call for huge guitar sounds, but i'd rather have 4 amps in a room with different mics on each cab and ask the guitar player to play once rather than having him redo the part 4 times and risk that he makes mistakes (or not the same mistakes).
    Those days I tend to record a track of the amp and one of the clean guitar to do reamping later on if it's needed.
  18. Josh Conley

    Josh Conley Active Member

    writing a song right now where i delayed some finger slides and used that as a rhythm part. its just noise but it sounds so cool.
  19. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    Yeah Josh, you can make a percussion out of anything ! :)
    It feels right to do something different and experiment.
  20. dvdhawk

    dvdhawk Well-Known Member

    Donny, when I hear the first 2 seconds of Gimme Shelter, I get goosebumps in anticipation of the goosebumps I'm going to get 3 minutes later when her voice cracks. That's an excellent example of something I'm afraid a modern-day computer wiz would have buffed out, just because he could.
    ClarkJaman likes this.

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