A basic way to record a band

If you are entering into the world of recording your own band you might want to know how to record a band in a way that easily gets high-quality recording quickly

There are two ways you can do this. Either “live on the floor” or “overdubs”. You can also overdub over a live on the floor recording. I’ll explain

Live on the floor
This recording style captures everything at once. Everyone in the band or other musical group records their parts at the same time. You can place guitar and bass amps and even people in other rooms though a true live on the floor recording means everything in the same room, too. This is an older style recording but one example is Nirvana’s Nevermind. Anything Frank Sinatra recorded was live on the floor

Overdubbing
In this method instruments, or groups of intstruments (or even parts of instruments) are recorded asynchronously (or at different times). Often a band will get ‘basics’ and make a recording of the drums and bass first and then the other instruments listen to the recording while they play and that recording is layered until all of the instruments have recorded.

It is also possible to start with a ‘scratch’ track meaning that the track is intended to be removed later. Perhaps the singer and the guitar player each play along to a metronome to start and then the drummer and bassist play along to the guitar player and singer’s scratch tracks. Then the guitar player records their final version to the singer’s scratch track and the guitar/bass final tracks. Then finally the singer records the final vocals.

Which is easier and which sounds better?

One might think the live on the floor method is easiest because it takes less time but there are so many variables that for an inexperienced engineer without session players it will be very hard to create the modern, more-perfect sound. So it depends on who you are recording and what the style is. If you are recording jazz then live on the floor is usually essential. However, for most bands overdubbing will be easier because everything doesn’t have to be exactly perfect within one 4-minute moment of perfection.

One can do endless takes of live on the floor recordings and not get that keeper take with each instrument having satisfying audio quality. However overdubbing eventually adds up because one can keep replacing elements until they are happy with everything.

Another benefit to overdubbing with limited resources is the amount of inputs needed is fewer. If you are recording live on the floor you need a quality input for every piece of the band. If you overdub you only need the amount of the instrument with the most inputs which is usually drums and you can get a great sounding recording with 4 inputs on drums

An overdubbing workflow

The first step is to figure out what will guide the song. Is it the singer with a guitar? Perhaps it is the whole band because everyone has queues. Perhaps you are limited by your inputs and that’s part of the decision. One time I recorded a band where the drummer played everything in a void with no reference for an entire album. He had everything in his head. Note you should be able to play the whole song through without seeing anyone (while still being able to hear them) so if anyone can’t do that it is best to get their takes at this stage while they can see each other. This is called ‘basics’ by many.

Commonly at pro studios and setups the whole band will record together while aiming at getting the drums and bass just right. This means the best mics, preamps, etc are all used on the drums and maybe bass first. The guitars might plug in directly, the singer will use a stage mic like a SM58 and be in the control room or booth, and a rough cut with the whole song will be made.

If desired you’ll want to splice or ‘comp’ each keeper performance before you move on to the next instrument if you’re recording to a click or otherwise have a comp flow worked out. Make sure you have a sound you like for the instrument once you do this or you will waste a lot of time! You can always go back but best to avoid it if it isn’t necessary (like a drummer wanting to overdub once everything is over to raise the energy level)

Once you’ve replaced all of your scratch tracks with originals you will probably be happier with the result than if you got everyone into the garage one evening to play through each song but you never know … experimentation is always key and always keep an open mind. There is no right way to record anything.