The Pros & Cons of Working With Live Instruments In The Studio

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When you’re working on a project, there are certain corners you can cut that make little to no difference to your final sound. Similarly, there are shortcuts that some engineers and producers take that can absolutely derail a song. Do you know where to draw the line between convenience and worthwhile effort?

I’m not going to sit here and say that all instruments need to be live-tracked in a massive studio each and every session. That’s unrealistic. Your resources and budget are going to have more control over that than anything else.

But I will say there are certain elements of a great, live recording that will benefit you from the start of your tracking sessions on through mixing and mastering. I want to focus on what those benefits are, and share some advice on pitfalls you can avoid.

With that, let’s take a look at some of the best parts of recording live instruments…

Acoustics

Acoustic properties come from all different directions when you’re recording live instruments. The instrument itself is going to have a lot of it’s own natural sound (yes, even for electric instruments played live). This is why a Strat sounds so incredibly different from a Les Paul and so on. Truly acoustic instruments like acoustic guitars, resonators, mandolins & more all sound drastically different depending on the tone woods, weight & size of the instrument.

Secondarily, the room itself is going to add to the acoustic complexities of a live performance. Natural reverb can add size and presence to a live performance in a way that’s drastically different than it does in the box. By recording the space as part of the instrument, you’re capturing all of the nuances of the sound bouncing off the floor, ceiling & walls, truly putting your live instrument in the space.

Finally, you need to consider the complexity that recording multiple musicians at the same time adds to your session. By having multiple performances happening together, you get the benefit of a real-time “locked-in” group, but sonically, you’ve got a lot of bleed happening, and a lot of separation you’ll need to create. Ultimate, recording a band in a room together can be great for the vibe of a song, but you really need to know what you’re doing and create isolation where you can if you want it done right.

Taking The Hybrid Approach

The most common uses for live instruments today come in more of a hybrid format. Rather than record everyone at once, live instruments are tracked independently for some additional control. Guitars, basses & other electric instruments can be live-tracked with an amp, but a great, clean DI signal is also often recorded for flexibility in the box later on. If something about the amp’s tone wasn’t right during tracking, the engineer can re-amp later or use a virtual guitar rig to rebuild the sound they’re after.

In a hybrid approach, live drums are a luxury that can be great if they can be recorded live, but sampled drums are common for lower-budget projects that might not have access to the microphones or studio space they’d like to have. It’s important to remember that many drum samples were recorded with the best gear in the best rooms, so using them as a shortcut can really save a producer time and money while working with an artist.

If you do choose to go the sampled drum route, keep in mind that the humanization of your drums is going to be the key to keeping them realistic. Nobody hits at maximum velocity every time, so make sure your computer drummer isn’t either.

For those that choose to go live with their drums, the same acoustic rules apply. A great live-tracked drum set will be uniquely original to your recording, but you’ll still need to maintain separation & dynamic control over each piece of the kit.

Programmed Sounds

Programming instruments has been common in the studio for quite some time now, but there are still certain things that just don’t have the same nuances (at least not ones that you can achieve easily). Software has come a long way to add realism to virtual instruments based on live counterparts, especially with instruments like horns and orchestral sounds.

If you’ve ever tried programming a rock song completely with virtual instruments though, I’m sure you’ve experienced the robotic, cold results that often come with the lack of live instrumentation.

Rather than try to replace live instruments with virtual ones, many major artists are finding success with a supplemental approach. Mixers like Billy Decker have found chart-topping success with a few loops or virtual instrument melodies acting as a base that they can build their live-tracked instrumentation around. By the time he gets to the mix, his acoustic instruments can sit right along side the programmed elements seamlessly.

How Do Your Live Instruments Find Their Place In The Mix?

If you’re serious about capturing high quality live performances and want to make sure you’re accomplishing your goal, look no further. JST VIP members get access to mix crits where pros like Billy and myself review your song and provide honest feedback about the quality of the mix and where we think you could still improve.

Start your membership today.

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