Today I would like to talk about a very powerful studio tracking technique, that isn’t well known, but if properly executed, will make you sound as tight as if the band was playing together.
What I am referring to is a guide track. A guide track can be thought of as the template of the song. Usually it is performed by the rhythm guitar–sometimes the keyboards, and all subsequent tracks follow this musical tour guide. The vocals should be on the guide track as well.
The easiest way to begin a guide track is simply to play and sing along using a single microphone. If you only have a few tracks (4 to 8) always leave your guide track as your last track. There are a few things that should be noted about the guide track. First you should always start the guide track with a count. Even if a single instrument will begin the song in production. A count gives all musicians that are waiting for their point to begin the starting gun for the song.
The guide track can be quickly laid down. There is no need to reach for sonic perfection on this track since it will eventually be deleted. It’s more important that the track keep the rhythm, tempo, and dynamics of the song on task. If you drift tempo on the guide track, all subsequent tracks will follow suit.
The guide track gives you the unique ability to give direction to the players waiting down the line. For example if there is a pause, or a blank spot in the song, COUNT aloud until the music starts. All players in the queue will hit that re-start point with ease and precision. You can also give verbal directions such as “play more dynamically here”, “the song slows down here”, or “there is a key change coming up”. Also if the guide track is played and sung with feeling, the future players will respond to that as well.
Once the guide track is done, begin laying the foundations of the music–that is the rhythm, bass, and drums. All other instruments, vocals, and “sweetening” sits on top of this foundation. When the foundation is complete, begin your overdubs. This will be solos, musical hooks, and sounds that will give the song interest.
Record your vocals last. At this point, it is a matter of personal preference if you want to take down the guide track to record your vocals. Some singers do not want the distraction of the chatter that sometimes goes with a guide track. Other times the count will still be necessary because the vocals begin with or before the music.
A good guide track gives everyone who follows a well-lit pathway. It cues and gives direction, it establishes the tempo, and the attitude of the song. When you are riding atop a guide track, it is easy to hang onto the handles.