Is Two-Track Recording The Best Method? Not Always But Sometimes

Image, Studer Tape Decks, by bORjAmATiC used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
Image, Studer Tape Decks, by bORjAmATiC used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

I’ve got myself embroiled in a discussion in the LinkedIn Music Producers group about whether Pro Tools (and digital multi­track recording in general) is a retro­grade step in terms of record production. The seed of the discussion is a quote from Joe Boyd in the September issue of Mix magazine,

You could say that 2-track recording is the purest form of record making. Four-track, 8-track, etcetera, through the present limitless expanse of possib­il­ities on Pro Tools have all been steps backward in terms of making recordings that will endure the test of time.

At first scan this is not something I agree with in the least, but Joe Boyd has made some extraordinary records with the likes of Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Kate and Anna McGarrigle and 10,000 Maniacs so the question deserves at least some consid­er­ation.

Two inter­esting streams of argument have developed in the group,

  1. Have the incredible capab­il­ities of digital recording and editing lead us to record in ways that compromise the ultimate quality of the recordings we produce
  2. Have we used these techniques to create (or facil­itate the creation of) a culture of poor and lazy musicianship

In the first case the crucial question is what is “better”. I think that the answer to this can only be seen in the light of what is to be recorded. There isn’t a single best recording method and in my opinion choosing the best method to capture a particular group of musicians is one of the key tasks for a producer. The same methods will not work for a string quartet as a trance band. “Better” at the very least must be defined by context.

The second case is very inter­esting and may be the essence of what Joe Boyd was getting at. Two-track recording doesn’t have to mean two micro­phones only but what it does mean in most contexts is no overdubs and no individual audio processing of individual performers. What this demands are performers who can perform a song in a coherent take and probably a single take at that.

One simple inter­pret­ation of the producer’s job is to capture the sound of the musicians performing and a good stereo recording setup can do that recording to two-track. It may even be the best way to do it partic­u­larly if you have great mics and a great sounding room to work in. This works best for music like classical, jazz and folk arguably music with a prepon­derance of acoustic instru­ment­ation and a culture of live perform­ances with a high degree of technical profi­ciency.

That leaves the rock/pop world as a separate case. I don’t mean to imply that these musicians are hacks but there is a different culture at play here. The major difference is in the volume of the sounds produced and the means of sound production. It tends to be loud and the instru­ments used are not intended to be heard without ampli­fic­ation.

To record this music using the same approach as an acoustic jazz ensemble would usually make no sense. The volume would swamp the room acoustic and it would be almost impossible to control phase relation­ships with sounds bouncing off walls so enthu­si­ast­ically. In the days of yore when rock and roll was recorded as acoustic music (Elvis’ Sun sessions for instance) things were quieter and the music was still almost acoustic.

Regarding overdubbing, everyone wants to provide the best recording they can. If the capab­ility to overdub and improve a recording exists then why not do so? This can be seen as providing slack musicians a crutch but it can also serve to encourage people to try more difficult parts and to stretch themselves further.

There is a culture within some genres of popular music to create recordings using the full capab­il­ities of the technology as ideal versions of songs and the aim then becomes getting as close as possible to the recorded sound in live performance.

One of my favourite albums is Slipknot’s Iowa. I’m not a huge fan of metal (and its confusing array of subgenres) in general, but the power of that album is extraordinary. Ross Robinson managed to create a powerful sound that is polished but preserves the chaos and energy of the performance. This is as much of a technical achievement as Gordon Parry’s 1969 recording of Mahler’s 9th for Decca Records, almost certainly recorded to two-track using a Decca tree mic array. Both recordings are great examples of engineers/producers choosing the right tool for the job.

The most important thing is that there are many ways to record any piece of music, choosing the best one is key. In the end all that matters is what is captured and preserved as a recording. The method used is, at best, an inter­esting anecdote for obsessive audio geeks like me.

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Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at rubken.net.