Wednesday, December 17, 2008


The art of recording multiple tracks to create a musical recording.

When looking up the definition of multitracking, says multitracking means: “Having, using, or produced with multiple recording tracks”

I. Introduction
I play the horn because I love playing the horn. I have worked at it enough that I have been able to earn a living at it and have risen into a position as a principle horn player in a full-time orchestra (39 consecutive weeks).
Even after playing the horn for 34 years, I have found that I really like to be in top shape, which means I am diligent in my practicing; I feel there is always room for improvement and an incredible amount of music yet to explore. In my quest, I have taken on a number of really big projects, always with an exploration of what I have not done, such as a composer I have never recorded, valve horn at A=432, natural horn, really high stuff, and now I am actually working on with a series of “one take.” One takes is a recording where the piece is done as if it were a concert; the tape doesn’t stop. In a recording studio, one can do it over and over until a really fine performance is recorded.
Examples of my one takes can be heard at: &
My primary emphasis with this article is about “solo” multi-track recordings.
A “solo” multitrack recording, where the musician plays all the parts is about the best thing one can do to explore where they really are musically. You get to play all the parts, usually higher and lower than a horn normally goes, that is if it an arrangement like the ones I have done in my Bach Oratorio, Favorites and Beyond Favorites albums. I have found this process, to be an incredible learning experience, one that I highly recommend to any musician wanting to improve.

II. The basic equipment
I use a Mac computer a firewire interface, digital performer software, and almost always record each track in stereo. (the opus 132 & 139 project is recorded with 5 simultaneous mono tracks.) I have a couple of choices of speakers to listen, plus my headphones. If on a small budget, one can get by with a USB microphone, garage band software and headphones. I like a little reverb in my headphones when I am recording & my headphones are actually softer in my ears than without them, which helps protect my hearing.

III. The space.
You want a quiet room! Watch out for the birds outside and other noises you may take for granted. Noise in multitracks will build up on you. I personally don’t want more than one “person” breathing at any one time, nor do I want to hear breathing all the time. My studio walls are wood panel, so I have put stripes of carpet on the walls, so they alternate at about one foot wide wood then carpet. I am happy with this for now. Before I put the carpet stripes on the walls I found a middle-low range boom; wa-wa ugly noise if that range was boosted in the equalizer,. This I think is how I will keep checking a room. I would recommend long tones followed by silence for reverberations, for a constant few minutes, then turn on your equalizer plug in and check for what sounds good & bad. I am currently trying to boost low and high ranges, to balance the recording through a bigger acoustic range. Also, I am not using the EQ that is a line, but I am using the plug-in that is 31 sliders. I am finding much more precise control of the sound with the 31 sliders. Slide them all the way up and all the way down fast to get a sense of what range you are altering, listen for weird noises and what sounds best! Try other speakers, until you have created a generic EQ that sounds good in every possibility you can. If there are specific problems like my wa-wa boom noise, which is most likely a sound that bounces around the room off of several walls and builds up, then try changing the room. Try a curtain, a blanket or add a hard surface. I think wide stripes of alternately reflective and absorbent material is best, and watch out for sharp corners in the room.
Another problem that I have not resolved yet is I want a mirror that will “look” at my hand in the bell from the front. I am working on my one-take recording projects, which I hope to record and videotape. I hope to find a camera position that films me from the front, but shows my hand in the bell too; especially with natural horn, people will want to watch the bell hand . . . A mirror there, creates a very reflective surface, that will need to be balanced by something very absorbent.
A key point here is what sounds good. This is where your own artistry happens. If it sounds good and you cannot think of how it could be better, then you have found your highest ideal for now. With luck over time you will find that you have gotten better and the recordings you have done document your progress.

IV time with the horn
Besides time on the job, I have two aspects of my practice. One is in front of the TV doing routines, composing with the horn or things that I need to do over and over. The other is recording (that’s it!).
Once you have found something you want to work on, you set up the recording program with the tracks and setting. Let’s start with a four-voice choral. For a four-voice choral, I think we need 5 tracks. Ensemble balance requires a strong supportive low voice that doesn’t overpower the lead line. Also, if we are just recording horn, the range is smaller than an average recording. A rock recording actually has quite a bit of high sound in the drums that fills in the whole spectrum of sound that a horn ensemble recording doesn’t have. You can use a click track, but then it might starts to sound metronomic. I would recommend using a click track for a couple of years before doing without. The click can be turned off in tempo changes. I have found that seeing the rhythm in the recording program was a very enlightening experience, and now I hear lots of problems with other musicians who don’t play square rhythms.

V. Squareness
I believe classical music to be essentially square. Most of the rhythms are fours with divisions of fours. If one is to deviate form the square rhythm, it still must sound the way it is written. One of my teachers said as long as someone could hear it the way the composer wrote it, then it is okay.
Then the problems with squareness arrive from a simple acoustic principle that the low tones need to lead the rest of the ensemble. In an orchestra without a conductor, the bass play should be the leader. In multitracks recording, the solo line or melody needs to control the speed of the music and the rubati, but the base needs to support it by being just ahead. Therefore, I would record a “draft” of the solo line first, then work at recording the best bass part that I could. In my latest work, I am finding it to have very clear low simple tones.

VI. Simple low tones
If you can image a baroque walking base line, where one would play: du – du - du – du, or something, it needs to be, simple tone, like “du”, but to make a clean start of the tone, one may need to pronounce “tu” but then it may be easy to pronounce tu-u, then the tone becomes complex. There are times for everything, but you need to listen and decide. This process of recording should be one of constant questing of: “Can it be better?” Try to avoid the idea that “ I played what I wanted to play, and that is the way it should be.” Yes, this would record the way you think it should be, but in the process of that, you didn’t learn anything.
By golly, just today, I found that my stop mute needs a different recording set up than what I have, and I decided which of my mutes is best! I am having real doubts about the projection of stopped horn.

VII. Do it over and over
I have found that that art of multitrack recording can be cut and spliced to be really together and take after take can be done choosing just the right interpretation, tuning, rhythm balance, etc. There are times when a second version of a piece be done, even fifteen minutes of music with eight voices, like I did with BWV225. Take the time, do it over and over until you are really happy with it. But since I am a very honest person and am interested in self improvement, and moving up to a better job, I have found that “one takes” are a very important goal. It is how I practice for auditions as well.
I remember the fourth horn audition for Columbus Ohio audition in the mid 80’s where there were 96 specified individual excerpts on the list. This list took me a full two hours to play straight through, and I did it every day for months. That put me in the finals.
I might suggest a “bone yard track” it’s easier to lay down multiple tracks to capture your best performance, than it is to keep overlaying them. Sometimes a comparison is nice to have.

VIII. Tips on tuning
The biggest problems with a modern tuner come when we want it to sound really in tune. That’s a contradiction isn’t? NO, a modern tuner is equal tempered, when a nice third is not. The most important thing to know about tuning is that Major thirds need to be 14 cents small, minor thirds 14 cents big. Perfect fifths are only 2 cents out of equal. A 2-cent difference really cannot be detected, but it may be nice to know that a fifth can’t be small, and inversely a fourth can’t be big; that is to sound nice.

IX. Balance
I have talked about balance a little, but in a recording, you will have the option of panning stereo instrument placement. The biggest mistake I have made in this department is place a low voice off to the side. The melody must be prominent, but the bass line must support, but can’t over power. Placing the bass in the middle so that in is heard in both sides of the stereo is best. Then, I personally love a hard panned stereo, where voices exist only in one channel.

X. Learn and grow
Don’t forget that everybody is in a transformation process. Let’s hope that we are all learning and growing. A person, such as me writing this article, may have some tips on the subject from experience, but I, by no means fell accomplished as a recording engineer, I sure want to learn, grow and improve. Don’t take what I have written as gospel truth, but instead as a point of reference. I hope you are inspired to go out and start exploring your own musical talents via the recording process.

I would love comments, tips, suggestions, and links to sound files of people’s recordings. You may send e-mails to me @ rb(at)

Richard O. Burdick

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