One of the easiest ways to screw up a recording is to go down a production path that is incorrect for the band or the song. There are many times when producers or engineers get set in their ways and say "well this is how I make records and they've sounded good in the past" or "well this is how I record a piano," or "well this is the guitar I use for parts like this," and it's a terrible place in which to be stuck. You have guys that say "let's lay down the drums, then the bass, then the guitars to get the best sound possible from each one," which may be great in theory, but may sound utterly terrible - because after all, it's about how everything works together.
What I want to talk about today is the philosophy of the recording order and how it affects everything you do when making a record.
In the old days, let's say the big gap between Sinatra and Shoals, most hit records were cut completely live. They picked the best musicians for the job, they got into the studio and just played their hearts out. That's what they did. They didn't worry about the order because that's just what you did. Sometime in around this era with the Beatles, everything changed. Suddenly records were being made in pieces. Drums were cut, then bass was cut, then guitars, et cetera, and much of that has carried over to today's music world. We have infinite tracks, infinite "tape" so to speak, and no take can be wasted. We can pick together random pieces of random takes to make the "perfect recording."
There's a lot of validity to this method, but it may not be the correct method for the given project or song.
Every piece that's laid down on a record has a feel, a sound, and a purpose. If you cut the drums first, you need to be sure that they are exactly as you want them. The timing, the feel, the groove. You also need to make sure that what the drummer is playing to is more than just a "scratch track." A scratch track has a connotation of being a completely throw-away track. But the drummer is supposed to base his emotion and feel off of a throw-away track? That's ridiculous. Imagine asking a drummer to play a gig with a single guitar and a crappy one-shot vocalist. He'd probably say no, but yet, you'd let him do that on a record? Something that's supposed to be timeless? My best advice is to go one of two roads -
2) Record an entire demo for the song and replace things one by one. If you demo out the song in its entirety, the drummer has a lot to go on. The feel of everything as a whole. Good drummers play on feel a lot, they adjust their playing based on the emotion of the song, and it's hard to do that when all you have is some acoustic guitar DI to play with.
So let's say you've got the drums now. What next? Some would naturally say "go to the bass," but what if the bass player really plays off the guitarist or the pianist? How does he think? How does he hear his place in the music? Good musicians really listen to everything. Should you record the bass and guitar together? Should you record the guitar first, then the bass? What about keys? What about percussion? What element of the song really gets them? Just ask - when playing this song, who do you really listen to? They may say "I pretty much focus on the drums," in which case, recording bass second would be a grand choice. They may say "I pretty much focus on the lead singer" - then maybe you should cut vocals, or at least a really emotional scratch vocal. Something that is solid with the hot-off-the-grill drums.
Do the drums need to be edited before anything else is recorded? If it needs editing, then it should be done before anything else is done. This way, the band doesn't have to have the click in their ears the rest of the session, or at least, they don't need it as loud. If the drums are solid and on time, everyone can focus on the drums. That is, after all, musical. The metronome is a reference, it's not music. If the drums are not edited before everyone else plays, but they are intended to be edited later, you'll have a big problem. Here's why. Everyone has their own groove, and everyone hears the song differently. The bassist will naturally follow the drummer, but what if the drummer was off the click? What if the bassist is trying to play to the click and the drummer at the same time - you'll get an inconsistency in the feel. The guitarist and keyboardist seem to naturally be better at playing to a click - but they too will have an inconsistency in feel. If they play to the click, they're not playing with the drummer. They're not even playing to music. They're trying to focus on too many things at once. Imagine asking a drummer to play 6/8 in one hand while playing 5/4 in the other and playing 4/4 on his feet. No way! It won't make any sense to the brain, and won't sound good. Obviously we're talking about much smaller rhythmic differences here, but the point stands: the feel is everything. The only way this doesn't matter is if every band member can play sensationally well to the click, and they are all in agreement that the click is king. This will work, however, the record may sound sterile and lifeless, overdone, overproduced, if you catch my drift.
Anyway, moving on. Then you have the concept of headphone mixes and foldback mixes - it goes back to the same question of "what do you need?" for each musician. Let's say you're cutting keyboards. Who do they listen to? Who do they feed off of while playing? Everyone needs a different mix. Usually bassists need more drums than anything, and drummers need mostly click, vocals, and main instrument. Guitarists and keyboard players generally like to have a good mix of everything, but since guitars and keyboards are both midrange heavy instruments, they generally like to have a lot of themselves and less of each other, i.e., guitarists will have a lot of guitar and some keyboards, keyboardists will have a lot of keys and some guitar, but other than those two elements, their mixes are usually identical. Vocalists like to sing to finished mixes. They do! They like the mix to have as much energy as possible to help them perform the best. It's 50% psychological, 40% straight up talent, and 10% in-the-moment magic.
Recording things individually can be great - it can yield amazing results with tons of control, but it requires a lot of thought and patience to get right, and many bands can't handle the kind of consistency it requires.
Then you have the second method of recording - the classic, but now ranked second method, and that is recording live. If you record live, the band has to be solid. I don't mean just good, I mean great. You also need a lot of channels and a lot of physical space for the band to be comfortable with all the mics around them. A good record is all about the song and the performance. It's not about mics or preamps or compressors, it's about what those things are capturing. Always, forever and ever, in any genre, amen. Let's think about how many problems this can solve:
1. Everyone can hear everything, all at once.
2. Everyone gets a custom tailored mix, however they want it.
3. The engineer can fine tune things together, rather than individually, which always sounds better.
4. The original feel is preserved.
5. The recording process takes less time.
6. The band almost always has more fun.
1. Less separation between instruments (sometimes NOT a con)
2. Less control over individual elements.
3. Less attention given to each element.
Clearly the pros outweigh the cons. The only things you need to cut a good live recording: a great song, a great band, a great room, and enough channels to capture it all.
If recording live, you can try to isolate things as much as possible, but you need to ask yourself "why." If the guitar amp is causing the snare to rattle like crazy, you may want to isolate it. Only isolate things that are causing issues. If your room is too small to accommodate all of the players playing live, just do what you can.
Recording live doesn't work for every band, every genre, etc. It may work for one song on a record but not work for another. It may work for one band's album but doesn't work on their next album. It's all about the feel and vibe of the record, the sound they want, the feel they are seeking.
You as the producer need to recognize how they are listening. How they hear it as they are recording. How they perceive what's going on in the studio. If you can find out what road you want to take, and know with confidence that it is the right road, you'll be on the path to a great record. It will make all the difference in the world.