Over Dubbing: Less is More, but start with More

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Remember the rule:  we don’t write these because we’re good.  We’re learning and hope to share our lessons, most of which are derived from small and large failures.  Today, we take on over-dubbing and we’ll change things up a bit…

Typically, we start with exploring the ‘best of topic X’ in popular song. The problem with over-dubbing is you don’t often know what all the choices made  by artists on what to include and what not.  Although we strongly recommend the ‘classic album’ series (now on DVD) or the Song Book series on Sky Arts 1.    instead, we’ll just jump right into the our top 5 over-dubbing problems and then our top 5 lessons.  But first let’s define what we’re talking about from our typical ‘layman’ perspective.

Part One:  Over-dubbing:  A Layman’s Perspective:   As someone untrained, uneducated in all things music, Jimmy has made a virtue out of this by championing the ‘layman’s perspective’ and his ignorance.   So here’s what I understand about over-dubbing.  Well, first you must dub.  Now, you’d assume that ‘dubbing’ was recordin and ‘over dubbing’ was adding additional tracks. But nope. Not that easy.  Dubbing is actually about transferring  recorded music from one medium to another.  So ignore the whole ‘dubbing’ angle.  Over-dubbing is just adding tracks over initial performance.   It often also distinguishes the basic recording, which is what the core musicians could do live and the overdubs which the core musicians or invittees do after.   But, that’s actually also a bit rubbish because very few basic recordings are done live anymore, because you want each track to be amble to be played with separately.   For our purposes, though, we think about it as ‘the core song’ done by the core band live and all the rest.  So this covers all the rest, including added instruments, dual track on vocals, vocal harmonies and of course slide whistles.

Part Two:  Over-dubbing, The problems:  The problem with over-dubbing is really simple:  a) tape is cheap so you can do it endlessly, and b) everyone’s lazy so the ‘spill sucks/click rocks’ matra because critical.  Spill alone  will eventually drive you to your knees in fits of rage (assuming you could every actually get upset at something call ‘spill’ which seems so cute and gentle.    How are these problems?

  1. Tape is Cheap:  The tape is cheap phenomenom simple refers to the fact that in today’s studios there no cost to adding track after track after track.  You can do it endlessly and there’s no real incremental cost to the recording (but massive hidden costs in mixing)).  This leads to the following:
    1. The problem of unlimited crap performances:  Because it is ‘tape is cheap’ you end up with musicians doing multiple guitar solo’s, all thrown into multiple playlists (hidden tracks within tracks) and then they turn to the sound engineer and say ‘There’s a great solo in there, just find it.’  This myth that good editing can overcome the lack of focus on an intiial good performance kills groups and studios.  Nope, you actually have to do a good performance and think it through and not wait for the mix to safe you.
    2. The problem of ‘And’:  Because tape is cheap everyone has another idea they want to add.  So, a wonderful little acoustic number is supplemented by ‘over-dubs’ of trumpets, surdo’s, marching feet, etc.. and pretty soon you’ve got complete non-sense.  And, because all that effort was put in, the producers starting thinking – we’ll I’ll cut out 90% of this rubbish but keep a bit to keep the musicians happy. But that 10% probably kills the song anyway.  Few songs require a 1000 tracks, but you get in a habit of thinking all could benefit from another track.
    3. You forget about rehearsal time and think the song is more finished than it is….   In other blogs we talked about this, but to emphasize. The biggest problem with today’s studios is folks rush right into recording because you can.  No one rehearses. you don’t get the bass-drum groove, you don’t work hard enough on transitions and stuff just cements from the demo stage.  Sometimes that is great because the core song idea was brilliant and thought through.  But generally, it’s a lousy way to work.  Over-dubbing fixes things too fast because you start adding paint, paintings, furniture to a house that wasn’t properly constructured.  it feels too hard and expensive to rubbish it all.   Over-dubs give a mythical finish to a rubbish product.
  2. Spill Sucks/Clicks Rock:     We’ll be making ‘T-Shirt’s with that phrase and selling them on our site (no!), but it is true. The second big problems of over-dubs is we’re all lazy bastards and we don’t do a good enough job isolating each of the over-dubs, using click tracks, etc.. and then are stuck with lots of back end problems.  And then you have very little flexibility later.
    1. Spill:   Yep, you get lazy with over-dubs and you record a pretty little harmony vocal. lots of spill, but who cares because it sounds fine in the mix. Then you decide to use that little harmony at the beginning of the song and guess what – stuck with spill and you can’t use it.  Lazy!
    2. Click:  You want to be all groove and loose, but actually you just do a rubbish take that’s over time throughout.  You later do overdubs, 20 of which are very cool leading to the best strings session in the history of man kind. Then the drummer realises he was rubbish and wants to re-do his trake.  All timing goes out the door and now either your sound engineer will spend the next 81 hours in Pro-Tools hell or you’ve lost the string session.
    3. Tuning:    Over-dub hell can be defined as trying to tune a cello to an out of tune guitar and base that have already laid down the core track.  We’ve had wax thrown.  WAX THROWN PEOPLE!  I’ll say no more. 

Part Three- Over-dubbing, Some Lessons Learned:  As a group of lazy bastards that thrive on ‘cheap tape’ we’re the very last folks to advise on this. But as a virtual fountain of youth for endless lessons from failure, we also feel uniquely able to spew.   Thus:

  1. Get the Basic Tracks Right:  Don’t over-dub over a bad core song.   Put time and space between the core tracks and the over-dubs.  Over-dubbing is like a rapid cement hardener, and once applied to a song, you’re less likely to revisit core structure, etc…  And the basics include ‘in tune’ instruments, click tracks, good isolated performances of drums/bass/core guitars, and a great core vocal.
  2. Use Over-dubs, however, to get down the core vocal:  we work a lot with new musicians, new to studio and often a bit nervous (there’s plastic sheeting on the floor for obvious reasons).  We’ve found one great use of over-dubs. We have them sing their part and then sing to themselves, and then to themselves, gradually eliminating earlier tracks for later.  By the 20th ‘rehearsal’ they are often very warmed up and confident and the resulting vocal is a good one.
  3. Treat over-dubs like the core song – rehearse and go for a quality performance:  you can’t make crap smell good through editing.   Your musicians need time and space to rehearse an over-dub, and put down a good performance.  Take your time and don’t try to save through editing.
  4. Fight Spill:  Trust us from the school of ‘hard knocks, knifes in the back, throat slitting’ (yes, a very tough school) that you have to avoid spill on every track, because you don’t know how you might use it.
  5. Start with More:  Tape is cheap and the band should experiment.   Lots of over-dubs can be great on a good core performance and there are lots of little tools Pro Tools has to mute, delete, hide over-dubs at a later point.   So go for it, when the time is right. 
  6. But ultimately, less is more:    But at end of day, the most powerful weapon you have in the mixing room is the mute button.  You’ve got to eliminate, eliminate, eliminate and strip back performances to their essence.   You can’t add 50 over-dubs and then be proud when you’ve eliminated 90% of them, if the remaining over-dubs ruin the song.  And it is okay to use three notes of a 900 note cello solo, or three beats of a surdo drum despite startig with 1,761.  Mute Like a Mugga Fudda. 

That’s it. Andy will go into more detail on the actual recording and mixing of instruments… And since this was so short, here’s something to entertain you, Barry Schwartz on why less is more, speaking at TED:


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