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Tracking: Obscuring Copy And Paste Redundancies

October 1, 2009

Gotta love digital audio. Man, you can do almost anything in this crackerjack medium of sonic manipulation. But you can also get lazy, or let a lessthan- stellar band or artist off the hook. If they can only manage to play something once, you can copy and paste that singular moment of artistic expression anywhere you need it. If you’ve constructed a colossal chorus with “Bohemian Rhapsody”-inspired vocal layers, you probably took the best bits of each singer’s performance, created one humungous vocal chorale, and then pasted that opus into every appearance of the chorus. Genius.

But what you may have lost in your copy-and-paste obsessed tinkering is the old-school vibe of parts building to a climax with more and more intensity, or choruses sounding a bit different each time you hear them. In essence, you may have lost the story-building journey of a song, in deference to ensuring repeatable— albeit potentially tedious—perfection.

Now, I have no illusions that many listeners these days are likely dead to the admittedly minute and mysterious nature of evolving musical parts. On the other hand, people did thrill to, say, old Beatles, KC and the Sunshine Band, B.B. King, and Led Zeppelin tracks, so maybe the old schoolers had something wonderful going back then. The decision is yours, of course, but if you want to maintain your cut-and-paste methodology and diminish any subliminal triggering of “Hey, haven’t I heard this part before?” from listeners, here are a few ideas.

Don’t Create All Clones As Equals

This may be obvious, but I’ve witnessed too many engineers copy entire layers exactly as rendered from section to section. Hmmm. It’s so easy to split up different elements and EQ them differently, or change the level and/or parameters of effects, or adjust compression levels, or even move the audio bits slightly off the timing grid.

For vocals, I like to treat each layer as totally different—using dedicated processing for each part that is utilized only for that particular part. It’s a way of “pretending” several singers came to the party, or that the same singer was recorded on different days after eating different meals. Of course, these are subtle adjustments— you can’t, for example, have several delay times and feedback levels bouncing around unless you want your vocal layer to sound like the slot hall at some Las Vegas casino—but even minute adjustments can tweak a listener’s ear into hearing something different, even if they can’t identify those differences.

Don’t Repeat Repeat

Even if you construct a layer with diverse processing, you can blow it by pasting that layer into every chorus or verse section. Diversity is the key. Consider leaving some elements out of the mix. For example, the first chorus you hear might have four stereo parts. Then, add a couple more for the second chorus, and then thicken up the final chorus to produce a thrilling crescendo. You can also mess with panning. Perhaps the verse guitars are hard left and right on the first verse, but then shift to 11 o’clock and 2 o’ clock for the next verse if you wish to promote a chunkier and more “claustrophobic” vibe on that section. If you use your lyrics as a guideline for cinematic production touches, the sky is the limit.

Dump It

Here’s a crazy idea: Why have all sections sound the same anyway? Maybe the verses don’t need the same guitars each time, and one verse would sound hipper with the guitars muted. Check it out. Maybe there’s one too many chorus lines to a song, or perhaps that double chorus is a bit much. Just because you have the power to clone perfect sections throughout your song doesn’t mean that you have to be a slave to repetition.

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