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Overdubbing

Updated: May 26, 2018

Overdubbing is the next stage of the music production process. A well though out approach is absolutely necessary when taking on this stage of the music production process. The importance of the demo looms large in this step. If you have already sorted out the majority of your ideas and the individual parts the overdubs will be primarily focussed on capturing the sounds and performances that fill out the production. Ignoring the demo stage in the music production process can easily turn your studio production into a high priced demo. A very common problem today...

What is Overdubbing?

Overdubbing, sometimes called "sweetening", is a process that allows performances to be recorded synchronously with pre recorded material. Imagine recording your band where each instrument has a dedicated track or series of tracks. If each performer is isolated acoustically from the others, they can be rerecorded at will without affecting the other musicians' performances.

The benefits of overdubbing are tremendous. It means that a single bad musician in a band will not ruin the whole recording, because their part can be replaced. In the days of mono and early stereo recording, everybody was in the same room and recorded together. The inability of the singer to perform well might mean that the band would have to play the song over and over again till the vocalist got their performance right.

In the professional recording world this was the music production process until the invention of Sel/Sync recording in the 60's. Sel/Sync stands for Selective Synchronization. A multitrack recorder with Sel/Sync capabilities would allow additional tracks to be recorded synchronously with the original performance on the same tape machine. Later, those performances would be mixed into mono or stereo for the commercial release.

The invention of isolation booths in recording studios soon followed, and allowed individual musicians to be recorded with a minimum of bleed into the mikes of the other instruments. If one person's performance was lacking, it could be easily be rerecorded without affecting the other musician's performances. It also allowed more flexibility with processing during the mixdown session.

Over the years, the number of tracks available to record on steadily increased allowing music productions to get larger and more sophisticated. Overdubbing became the norm for almost all music productions. Although some feel this has degraded the quality of music, very few artists record without overdubbing.

So What are the Benefits?

The benefit of overdubbing is that it allows the each individual part to be focussed on and perfected to the artist and producer's taste. This requires a lot of discipline and can sometimes lead to performances that are technically perfect, yet sterile and lifeless. It's not natural for musicians to perform individually. This is why a tracking session requires the whole band to perform together. The drummer needs something to respond to in order for his/her performance to sound "live" and not programmed.

Overdubbing is a very difficult thing to get right. Because of the lack of visual cues that would normally lead a performance from one section to the next in a song, the musician has to record their part blind against the prerecorded band. Subtle pushes and pulls in a performance that may be conducted by subtle visual cues of the other musicians now disappear. The overdubbing performer is then left to guess or adapt their performance to match what was captured in the tracking session.

This has naturally led most multitrack productions to the use of click tracks which even out the tempo of the tracking performance. With a click track, the overdubbing process is less of a guessing game and more of a known quantity. Because of the difficulties overdubbing presented in the recording studio, musicians who were good at it became hired guns to quicken the production process. Many musicians have made very successful careers only working on other artists recordings in the studio.

Getting Into the Process

Multitrack recording is far more sophisticated than it may appear on the surface. If a song is not thought out well enough in the demo stage, the music production can easily turn into a big mess of overdubs in an attempt to find a magical part. This is the mud against the wall approach. The engineer is then left to sort out all of this junk in an attempt to make it sound professional.

In a professional music production, the overdubbing process must be very directed. If it is, there will always be room for experimentation with the overdubs when called for. Many music productions come to life in the overdubbing stage where key hooks in the song can be created and developed. If the overdubs are created upon a foundation of quality work from the tracking session, then a song can really take shape quickly. If not, the overdub stage is relegated to a rescue mission in an attempt to save the song. Every part must be layered on with a measured goal or what you will be left with, at best, is a good sounding demo instead of a quality recording.

There are many stumbling blocks in the overdubbing process. Here is a list of the most common ones encountered:

  1. Easy to make everything too perfect. Performances can lack a vitality and freshness.

  2. Layering too many parts usually makes everything sound smaller, not bigger and creates a lot of extra work.

  3. You can wear out a performer by having them repeat their performances too often.

  4. Easy to lose perspective on the whole production. (forest through the trees syndrome)

  5. Quality of sounds can become more important that the performance.

  6. Easy to over complicate the process in an attempt to make a part sound unique.

  7. The production can easily take on a "paint by numbers" feel.

  8. Easy to accept average performances thinking they can be fixed with editing.

Written By: Music Production Guide

For more information contact RaMed Studios Tel: (646) 818-5731

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