The Difference Between Playing Live and Layering in the Recording Studio
By T. Perry Bowers
When you’re creating a recording strategy for a recording session, one of the first things you consider is whether you’re going to play live as a band or layer your parts one by one.
When you record live your whole band plays at the same time. All of your instruments have microphones on them. All of you wear headphones. Hopefully, depending on the studio, you will be able to see each other and communicate easily as if you were in your rehearsal space.
When you layer your recording, the drummer usually goes first. Then, the other players track their parts to the drums. (Although I have seen people record their guitars first to a click track and then have the drummer lay down the drums over the top of the guitars). .
Let’s discuss both techniques.
What are the benefits of playing live in the studio?
Some artists would argue playing live is faster. If you’re a very tight band and well acclimated to playing with headphones, I would agree.
When you play live, you might get more of a “human” feel. All the instruments are playing together so they may create a groove that could be hard to capture layering one part at a time. It depends on the band. Most bands are better off layering, but some road bands who play live every night in clubs need to play live in the studio because that’s how they create their magic.
If your band is really tight and you don’t make mistakes, playing live really could save you a lot of time. Lay the tracks down all at once: Bam! You’re done and on to mixing.
I have rarely seen a band that lays down their final vocal tracks at the same time as the instrumentalists though. The lead vocal is almost always recorded during a separate session. If your lead vocalist can nail the vocal track when you’re playing live, well then your band is exceptional and I respect that.
What are the drawbacks of playing live in the studio?
Depending on how the studio is laid out, you can get bleed. Bleed is when the sound from one instrument bleeds into another instrument’s microphone. If you’re a tight band, and you have a great sense of dynamics within your band, it isn’t a big deal. But if you need to turn down a part in the mix and it bleeds into another part you want to leave turned up it can be annoying.
If you have isolation rooms and quality baffling between the instruments, it shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re trying to record live in one big room, you better be real tight and have great volume control, otherwise your mix could be very difficult.
Another drawback could be the studio’s microphone selection. If the studio has a never-ending supply of high quality microphones no problem. But all studios run out of microphones sooner or later. When you’re tracking live, you have to mic every instrument and cabinet your band plays. You might end up using the last microphone your engineer has. If that’s the case, you could be sacrificing tone for the feel of your live band.
You have to use a click track if you use the layering technique. Editing, punching in and syncing parts is almost impossible if you don’t use a click.
You can still use a click if you play live, and I would highly recommend it. Unless you’re a professional band who have been touring and playing together for years, with a drummer who has rock solid timing, you’re going to need a click.
What are the benefits of layering your parts in the studio?
When you use the layering technique, you usually start with the drums. The guitarist, bassist and most likely the singer will lay scratch tracks* while the drums are being recorded. The benefits are:
1. Everyone can focus on how the drums are turning out.
2. All the good mics can be used on the drum set.
3. Everyone can focus on and scrutinize the part that is being laid down.
4. You don’t have to keep re-playing parts that you nailed because the drummer didn’t nail his part (like you would if you were trying to play live).
I’m a big fan of recording this way and ninety percent of the recordings I do are done using the layering technique.
Almost all rock, pop and hip-hop records are recorded this way. I’ll say it again, unless you are a professional band that tours incessantly with a drummer who has impeccable timing, you shouldn’t be recording live.
Layering is more efficient. When everyone is focused on the one part that is being laid down, the recording process moves quickly.
Drawbacks of Layering
1. If you’re a monster live band, you might not be able to recreate the feel.
2. If you’re amazingly tight and your band doesn’t make mistakes, you might spend more time using the layering technique.
3. It might not be quite as fun. It might seem a little more like “work.” But I think recording your own band in the studio is possibly one of the funnest things you can ever do.
Only you know what kind of band you have. Only you can make the final call. I’ve done live recordings that have turned out incredible. I’ve done layering recordings that have sucked. It’s mostly about the energy you bring into the session. Personally, I’ve had more luck with the layering technique — for me it’s tried and true so I tend to stick with it.
*Scratch Tracks are tracks that will not be used in the final recording.