Tips for Virtual Collabs – The Order of Recording

Paint It Black collage

Having collaborated in over 400 online recording projects, there are a few lessons that I’ve learned for achieving the best results. I thought I’d pass on some of these on an ad-hoc basis. In this post, I’m sharing a few simple thoughts about how to play “tightly” together when you and your collaborators are not in the same room (or even in the same hemisphere).

When we play live, we know that a rock-solid connection is needed between the drummer and the bass player in order to sound tight and set a strong foundation for the other musicians. Without that, the band will sound loose and sloppy. These guys must work to lock things together and set the groove for everyone else to play in. We need to work hard when recording virtually, to ensure that we achieve the same standards of musicianship and performance discipline.

The order in which the tracks are recorded is key to achieving this.

  1. Drums should always be recorded first. Assuming we’re recording a cover, the drummer plays along to either the original recording or to a metronome click track. The completed drum track is then shared with everyone in a shared drive.
  2. Bass should always record next, playing along closely with the drum track. If an original recording has been used as a backing track, this should be low in volume; just enough to hear the melody as a guide. Unless there are parts of the song with no drums, the click track (or backing track) can be discarded. Or, otherwise, it can be edited to only keep time during those periods of silence. It’s the bassist’s role to lock-in to the drum track to ensure a strong foundation. The bassist shares the completed track with everyone in a shared drive.
  3. The remaining rhythm section members (keys, guitars, percussion) all record next, in any order, playing tightly with both the drums and bass track. The click track (or backing track) is optional by this stage. If a backing track is still being used, it should be set low in the mix to only act as a musical roadmap. All tracks that have been recorded are shared so that successive musicians can play along with them, which they most certainly should do.
  4. Finally: vocals, horns, and strings, all of which tune by ear, can record now. They should play along to shared tracks only. By now, the original backing track should be a distant memory and no longer used for recording. Share all tracks as completed, so that subsequently recorded tracks may benefit from them.

Recording this way, from the ground up, we’re able to form and then build upon a strong, solid rhythmic and chordal foundation. And since backing tracks can often be tuned to something other than the A440 that our rhythm section will tune to, we avoid potential catastrophes by removing the backing track before vocals, horns, and strings can be deceived by it.

When I’m asked to collaborate on trumpet, I almost always wait until the rhythm section has completed its tracks before recording my own. This allows me to better play “in the pocket” rhythmically, while also avoiding the risk of accidentally tuning my ear and horn to a backing track that is not quite on A440.

Do you have any thoughts on this? Or better practices that you follow? If so, please share by adding a comment!

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