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Producer Fran Ashcroft: How many tracks are enough?

One of the most enduring myths in recording has been the endless quest for more and more tracks, which grew exponentially from the real need to overdub in the 60's. Prior to 4 track, overdubs were made by compiling sounds from one machine to another - with a generation loss of sonics every time...

One of the most enduring myths in recording has been the endless quest for more and more tracks, which grew exponentially from the real need to overdub in the 60's. Prior to 4 track, overdubs were made by compiling sounds from one machine to another - with a generation loss of sonics every time. Added to the noise floor issues inherent in analog, and no noise reduction methods available, options were very limited, even with 4 track, especially after the release Sgt. Pepper, when the recording itself became the art form, rather than the live performance.

The introduction of 8-track allowed flexibility for alternate vocals takes, solos, etc that hadn't been possible before, and in turn 16/24 track opened the door for using a separate track for every instrument, and in more recent times, every component of the instrument with multiple microphones, and every effect on each component on every track. In stereo.

Now, we have a limitless number of tracks - and it really is essential to give serious thought as to how many are practical. It is senseless to record 40 tracks of vocals and comp them into a 'performance'. There's no question that a single track with a real, emotive vocal will always be more effective. Apply that thinking to all aspects of a recording, and the amount of tracks anyone could ever need shrinks dramatically. As a bonus, fewer tracks make for more manageable, dynamic mixes, and recordings with a more realistic feel and emotiveness.

When I set up Happybeat Studio, I'll admit taking this philosophy to the extreme. I'd never worked on 4 track in its heyday, and many of the records I admired most were done on that format. It is a challenging one, which requires a lot of forethought, and very effective arrangements to work well. After recording for 20 years, I finally felt up to the task, and got myself a 4 track Minidisc. Out of all the digital media of the time, it was most akin to analog in its operation - pretty much press record and go necessary, as I have little patience with scrolling through menus or working with a mouse instead of faders.

The Minidisc allowed me to submix and overdub quite like the old days - and therefore focus on the most important tasks of visualizing the finished record with all its constituent parts before starting out. When you're printing reverbs, EQs, pans and balances to a submix bounce, you have to allow room to position everything that will be added later to the final mix picture. You can't postpone decisions until mixing, or recall and fix anything, so it does require using your ears to the max. Naturally, 4 track is not suitable for everything or everyone, and I use Pro Tools, Cubase, etc like everyone else. But I always approach it in the same economical way with enough pre-production, to distill all those endless options into a workable platform, and preserve a natural, musical quality to the results.

Contact Fran Ashcroft for recording, mixing, mentoring for aspiring recordists, and A&R input on new projects.

Email: happybeatstudios@yahoo.co.uk

Website: www.happybeat.net

By Fran Ashcroft Wednesday May 12, 2010