Many people record a band in this order:
1. Drums -> 2. Bass -> 3. Guitars -> 4. Everything else -> 5. Vocals
I used to do the exact same thing for years. Because it makes sense, right? First you record the groove, which is usually drums and bass, then the rhythm guitars on top of it, then other rhythm elements and then all the lead parts and vocals can play and sing to that rhythm.
While it’s a good idea to think of the arrangement like this, it’s NOT a good idea to do it strictly in this order every time you record. In fact, I would highly recommend to stop recording bass before rhythm guitar(s).
1. Don’t record bass before all the patterns, chord changes, riffs, etc. are set in stone (you might not know, yet)
Most of your songs and their individual parts were probably written on the guitar. Maybe a guitarist had a riff and you built upon that, maybe there was a cool lick, picking pattern or chord progression.
Whatever it was, you most likely added a bass line to it after the guitar idea. And if not, the guitar riff and pattern will probably still be more prominent and upfront in the final mix. It’s often the characteristic feature of a part or song that the listener will recognize instantly.
If you’ve done your pre-production right and listened carefully to how all the elements play together, you’ve probably come up with a bass line that not only sounds cool on it’s own and makes people move, but fits both the drum groove and the guitar pattern.
Chances are, though, that your bass player might have missed a small detail in the guitar riff. A chord change might be a 16th note earlier or later, the picking pattern might be slightly different in one spot, or she simply played something that goes super well with the drums but in the end it turns out that it distracts the listener from the main riff or lessens the impact of a certain part.
You might not have noticed those kind of things in the loud rehearsal room and, depending on how well you did your pre-production, you might not have noticed it in the demos. You’ve been thinking everybody is on the same page about how all the parts are supposed to be played, but in fact they’re not.
Now, if you’ve recorded bass before guitars, you’re screwed. Because now, as soon as you add the guitars, you suddenly notice the difference and you only have two options:
Either re-record the bass part, or change the guitar part. You probably want to avoid both of them.
If you start with rhythm guitars (or at least have a really solid guitar scratch track to play to), all the riffs, licks and chord progressions are set in stone, as soon as you start to record bass. Nobody will question it and it’s gonna be much easier and won’t hurt the song as much to simply adjust the bass line or groove a bit instead of changing the guitar part.
Now, I’m not saying the bass isn’t as important as the guitar (in fact, I’m a bassist myself), I’m just saying that the main function of the bass is to serve the song. It’s the connection between drums and guitars, it’s the low end of the guitar sound, it’s the foundation and it’s what makes you feel the song, not just hear it.
So that’s VERY important and most music doesn’t really work without it. The task is just a different one than that of the guitars. And to be able to perform that task well, it’s a good idea to let the drums and guitars lead and then support them in the best way possible.
Having at least a great scratch guitar track is also VERY helpful when you record drums, because the groove and drum pattern can then also be adjusted to the guitar parts, if needed.
All that being said, sometimes the groove of drums and bass can be the characteristic feature and in those cases, the guitar will have to adapt. But in all the different rock and heavy music genres that I’ve worked in over the years, I’ve found the guitar parts to be the most difficult elements to change and the most characteristic thing that people notice and remember first. At least 90% of the time. And that was enough for me to change the order to: (Guitar scratch track ->) Drums -> Rhythm Guitars -> Bass
2. Tuning issues are much harder to hear on bass
You might record the bass right after the drums and you might think it sounds just fine. You might be wrong, though.
The lower the notes, the harder it is to hear if something is slightly sharp or flat. Especially if you’re not listening to chords, but a sequence of individual notes and intervals.
And there will always be sharp or flat notes, even with a perfectly setup instrument. Slightly bending the string, or putting too much pressure on the string changes the pitch dramatically. Picking hard with your right hand (which you usually should do, by the way), causes the pitch to go up. You can accommodate for that by tuning a little lower, but then softer parts might be slightly flat. What I’m trying to say is: The pitch is gonna be inconsistent, no matter what you do, so you should constantly re-tune. That's part of recording bass. But you just might not hear that without context.
If a guitar is out of tune, you instantly notice it, because it’s much easier to hear tuning issues in that higher register and also, because you’re most likely listening to chords, not only single notes, when you’re listening to a guitar.
If you then play the bass to a perfectly in-tune guitar, it’s so much easier to spot flat or sharp bass notes. You’ll instantly hear it.
If you do it the other way around, you’re likely to get into trouble, because a bass part that you thought was ok, turns out to be out of tune, as soon as you add in the guitar.
And sometimes you can not instantly tell, if the guitar is the problem, or the bass. You then probably stop recording and re-tune the guitar, but it’s still gonna be off, so you start questioning your guitar setup and all kinds of other factors until you realize that you have to re-record the bass.
A scratch guitar track doesn’t always avoid this problem, because demos and scratch tracks are often done with instruments that haven’t been set up perfectly, or had old strings on them and the performances are also not perfect most of the time. So you can not really use that as a tuning reference.
There is a way around this, though: You can program the bass part before actually recording it and use that as a guide. It’s very easy and quick to do, it probably also helps the guitarists play better and you can even send the resulting bass MIDI, along with the real bass, to your mixing engineer so she can use that to add some extra sub or do other cool things with it in the mix.
3. Your vocalist needs to rest
“Wait, what? Why are we talking about vocals now, Benedikt?”, you might be asking. Here comes your answer:
It’s so damn hard to do all the vocals for a whole record within a couple of days for hours and hours everyday. The voice is going to suffer and the vibe probably won’t be ideal throughout all of the sessions. Especially when you’re running out of time, but need to get those vocals done.
Don’t do vocals last, but start as early in the process, as possible, so you can take breaks!
For most vocalists, that means they need at least a rhythm guitar tracked as early as possible, to have something that they can perform well to.
Most of them won’t need to have the whole finished arrangement done, before they can sing to it. In fact, sometimes this can be distracting and sometimes you can even build the rest of the arrangement around the vocals, to an extent, and adjust details, based on the vocal performance, which is often a great idea.
So, to come back to our main point here: If you start with rhythm guitar, instead of bass, you can start tracking some of the vocals earlier. And then, when your singer needs a break, you can track some bass in between vocal sessions.
You can basically add in bass at any point later in the process, but it’s unlikely that someone can sing well to a song that has only drums and bass in it.
So come up with a recording schedule that’s the least stressful for your vocalist (it will also be easier for everybody else, by the way) and your record will definitely benefit from that! Part of that is to not record bass before rhythm guitars.
I hope these three reasons are good and convincing enough for you to try and change the order of things, next time you record.
If it helps you get better results or if it just speeds up your workflow, makes your recording process easier, etc. please let me know by commenting below! I always love reading your feedback and hear about your progress.
If you’re about to start tracking guitars or bass, please check out this post about How To Record Kick-Ass DI Tracks, because DIs are so helpful on so many levels when it comes to making your record sound great. And if you’re not sure why you should record a DI track, at all, please watch this video where I answer the question “Amp or DI Track?”.
Thanks for reading and take care,
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