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.

  • Joe Boyd here with a footnote. A brief piece in Mix is not ideal for what is a complicated subject. I have certainly done plenty of overdubs in my time, but I have always tried to create the intensity of a 'live' atmosphere in the studio. Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and I personally find ProTools/Sequenced/Machine-Rhythm recordings hard to listen to more than once. I have a hunch that the crisis in the music business has many sources, but one is that the smooth, 'perfect' recordings often released these days are not as desirable as objects of ownership desire as were recordings from the past. Could it be that older records not only sounded 'deeper' and 'warmer' but also more like 'events' and 'moments', even they did involve overdubbing? Just a question. I love Pet Sounds & Sgt Pepper, but the technical limitations meant that even on those concoctions, there was more urgency and immediacy in performance, even if that performance was with cans on in a booth.

    From a sonic point of view, it is unarguable that multi-track recording followed by mix-downs gives a less immediate listening impact than 'straight-to-stereo' – hence the cult of Rudy Van Gelder's 1950s Blue Note recordings etc. (which are mostly 'straight-to-mono'!)

    To each his own – but I do enjoy provoking the discussions.

    Joe Boyd

  • Thank you for taking the time to respond. It is indeed a fascinating topic and as you say a brief piece in Mix certainly can't comprehensively cover a subject of such scope and a short essay on a blog can do little better (if at all).

    It is certainly true that recordings like those of Rudy Van Gelder and I would add Sam Phillips have a depth to them. I think that is due to the complexity of the events they capture, a group of musicians creating music together. In doing this they are, in my view, co-creating a kind of ephemeral sonic sculpture. To capture that complexity it makes sense to record single take to stereo (or mono).

    The modular approach to music that has gained momentum after the common availability of multi-track recording and became engrained after the use of sequencers seldom has the same power due to the temporal displacement in its creation. It perhaps has other gains, it is possible to create very complex but still cohesive music in this manner, but the magic of simultaneous co-creation is gone.

    Machine rhythm kills one of the most powerful aspects of music, the control of the flow of time. The shaping of a phrase is much harder within the constraining grid of a click but that is the price for synchronisation with sequenced parts and loops. It also can be a sop to lazy producers and engineers who know that comping takes in Pro Tools will be much easier for them. The curse of the grid.

    It is certainly true that the recording industry crisis has many sources and provides many indicators. One is that musicians get into the studio (of some kind) much earlier in their careers than even 20 years ago. It used to be something earned by gigging and in the process of earning access to a studio you became a more proficient player and a more proficient group.

    This is all exacerbated my the loudness wars of modern mastering and that certainly takes some weight of the recording process. A beautiful subtle recording full of nuance will loose much when flattened to a few dB of dynamic range.

    Thank you again for your comment Joe, you've certainly provoked much thought in me. Thank you also for so many recordings that give me so much pleasure.

    Ruben Kenig

  • TheodoreStreet

    I'm hooked on the technique of recording straight to stereo. I think the idea of recording tracks and then mixing these down to stereo takes away so much immediacy. I marvel at the recordings of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, made by Fantasy in the late fifties. There is amazing clarity — by adding more tracks and microphones you end up losing something. These days, it's easier to listen to dialog recorded with boom mics than it is most modern music recordings.