Layering guitar tracks is one of the oldest tricks in the book in rock genres. Ever since we had multitrack recording capabilities, guitarists have been playing their parts multiple times and keeping those multiple takes in their sessions. In some instances, engineers will take the layers to the extreme – tracking the same part 4x over (also known as quad-tracking), but the standard for most engineers is still to double track.
But with anything that’s become standard practice, it’s always good to take a step back and ask why. Why do rhythm guitars get double tracked in the first place?
The simple answer is that it sounds better – but why? What is it about double-tracked rhythm guitar parts that feels and sounds so natural and relatable to listeners?
The biggest driver of double-tracked guitars came with the introduction of stereo audio. As stereo playback was widely adopted as the standard for listening to music, fans wanted to hear music that could take full advantage of the stereo field. And while early records tried to replicate the feel of a live show by panning guitarists to the left or the right, the absolute wall of sound that came with wide-panned, dual rhythm guitars took off.
Guitars weren’t the only instrument testing the waters around this time either. Even today, you’ll hear how vocal production uses similar tricks, particularly in pop music, to get the vocals sounding full, wide, and upfront.
As is common in the music industry – the tricks that worked to make a successful record stuck around. By the 80s, nearly every rhythm guitar part you heard was doubled regardless of genre because it added size and scale to songs. Bigger, wider mixes are today’s gold standard and in rock, metal, and similar genres – a great guitar mix is the perfect place to start.
Home Studio Adoption
Another major reason for the prevalence of double-tracking is the low barrier to entry. Recording the same part twice and panning it left and right isn’t rocket science; it’s one of the easiest things to do in the studio. There’s no uber expensive equipment and no incremental cost associated with double tracking as a DIY artist. At worst, you’re eating up one more voice in your DAW – a limitation that’s quickly disappearing in many DAWs which now support as many tracks as your CPU can handle.
Double tracking levels the playing field in a sense for home enthusiasts and professional engineers. Yes – there’s some technical work involved in editing the double-tracked guitars. Yes – the mixing is still going to make or break the results. But as far as accessibility goes, any guitarist with a computer and interface can deliver a double-tracked performance with as much ease as a professional studio. That’s an extremely powerful shift and has completely changed the way music gets made today.
While locking in on the timing of the performance is paramount for any double-tracked guitar, the best benefit of recording two takes of the same thing comes from the variances between them.
Disregarding the timing of the performance for a moment – consider this: nearly every aspect of your 2nd take is going to be close but not perfect. The velocity at which your pick hits the string, the sustain of the note, the breakup of the amp… They’ll all sound extremely similar if you’ve got a tight performance, but they’re not going to be spot on.
This is the magic that makes the whole double-tracking exercise work: tonal variances.
By having slight inconsistencies, you create saturation and minor phasing that (ideally) makes the two tracks sound fuller and heavier when they’re played back together. If they were panned to the same spot, they’d almost be distracting. But panned hard left and right? Your ears will never tell the difference.
Engineers and guitarists alike should use these variances to their advantage and push them even further where they’re comfortable. Tweaking the settings of an amp or a pedal in your chain can make a huge tonal difference. Even just switching from a bridge pickup to a neck pickup.
The goal is to walk the line between identical performance and sounding too robotic. There’s a reason duplicate tracks don’t work as well – they’re missing the tonal variances. They work in a pinch if you can change up their signal chain, but there’s nothing like the real thing.
Tone Matching 101
Guitarists who are planning on doing session work from the comfort of their own home studio need to be prepared to wear multiple hats. On any given day, you can expect to fill the role of musician, engineer, producer, and mixer. Sound like a lot? It is.
Let me ask you this: if someone came to you today asking you to listen to a song and recreate the sound from it, could you do it right there on the spot?
If the answer was no or you had to think about it, you might be missing out on work to someone who can.
Tone matching is just one of the concepts discussed in Toneforge Bootcamp, where we look at great guitar tone subjectively as musicians, engineers, and producers. Check out the course page here and see what else you might be missing…