Track Stacking: Fun with Guitar Orchestration

As a budding home recording enthusiast, you’ve got your work cut out for you. The basic mechanics of your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) must be learned. You begin by studying the techniques of recording – mono vs. stereo tracks, amps, mics/placement, emulations, plug-ins, etcetera – and you think that’s hard enough. But you soon realize recording your parts is just the beginning; mixing is an art unto itself! No wonder people get paid to do this stuff! But if you’re doing it at home by yourself, it’s all on you, and you of course want to do the best you can. You can drive yourself batty if you go overboard, or you can take a sparse approach. Soon enough you’re recording tracks at a level and tone you’re satisfied with, but then you have to consider placement of the tracks in the overall mix – not just volume so the instruments and parts you want to emphasize aren’t buried, or just meh – but where they are in the stereo field. How do you best get your idea across? Suddenly you’re faced with a large number of possibilities, not all of them beneficial to the overall sound. What do you do?

The cave command center. Someday they’ll make an FM antenna that doesn’t look like rabbit ears…

The first thing I would suggest is to immerse yourself in as many YouTube tutorials as you can bear to watch. Take advantage of the Internet age: There’s SO much information out there if you look. Check out Avid’s YouTube channelPro Tools Expert and Recording Revolution, or Groove3 just to name a few. Find interviews with producers you admire and dive as deep as you care to into their process.
For example, for my tunes I’m trying to shoot for, production and mix-wise a sort of modern take on Ted Templeman (early VH) meets Max Norman (Rhoads-era Ozzy, Loudness, Megadeth) production, and they’ re hanging with Bob Ezrin (The Wall). In George Martin’s (the Beatles) rec room, with Eddie Kramer (Hendrix) working the bar. Lofty (and not at all silly) goal, right? “Aim High” or whatever. Not that I would dare compare my music to any of the above. But I want the guitars to be in the forefront like that, and I want space and depth, and a plethora of interesting background sound effects and segues between songs. Like I said, I may or may not get there someday, but that’s what I want to hear. I’m lucky in that once in a while a professional producer friend of mine will listen to my SoundCloud tracks and shoot me an IM saying “Why the hell did you put _____ on the guitars on ____ ? Take that off!” if he thinks something sounds completely funky. For full disclosure though, I’m no expert. A few years in I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of it and a few people seem to be starting to like it. But hopefully any suggestions I make might plant a seed in another budding recording enthusiast not quite as intermediately far along’s mind. And if anything I share saves someone the trouble of learning things I had to the hard way, bonus.

“Wait, if there’s two of us, isn’t THAT stereo?”

When you first start out, you think “I’m gonna record all the guitar tracks in stereo and they’re gonna sound HUGE!” but you quickly learn that may not be the case. A ton of stereo tracks sounds like a huge wash, as it turns out. Things can get mushy-sounding quickly, too. In a LOT of cases I’m finding something else my friend told me to be true: a mono track artfully placed ever-so-slightly right or left in the mix has way more sonic impact compared to the crowded undefined sound of multiple stereo tracks. So consider that when tracking, particularly with distorted guitars: Is it supposed to be huge, fluffy and feel-good, or is it supposed to punch the listener in the face? And if you chose the latter, on the right or left-hand side or straight up the middle? To further the boxing analogy, do you wanna limit yourself to jabs up the center all night, or would you like to start throwing some hooks too? Or slaps, tickles…whatever you’re into, I’m not judging! Vary your attack, your dance steps, hat-tricks – whatever.
Personally, I’m shooting for something that’s slightly dense, but has articulation and layering. A few of the things I’m working on have multiple guitar parts I wouldn’t be able to pull off live without growing a couple of extra sets of arms, but it was the atmosphere I’m wanting for the recording at least. Due to my Rhoads influence I like to double and triple my rhythm tracks. Take for example what started out as a kind of a joke tune I’m working on that has taken on a life of its own, with at least two clean and two dirty guitar tracks playing off each other and intertwining with the (tripled) bass track. There’s a kind of staggering-down-the-stairs unison lick that leads back into the verses you’ll hear. Add a boozy-sounding slide guitar track over/underneath all that, and it became this …thing. I like where it’s going, anyway. This isn’t necessarily the order things were recorded in, but for demonstration purposes you’ll get the general idea of what I was shooting for. And hey maybe it’ll give you an idea for something you’d like to do, or even what NOT to do, when recording!

Don’t be that guy (pay someone else to be)!

First off, a disclaimer: I’ve yet to find a heavier drum beat in my EZdrummer library that fits, so in the meantime there’s this sort of Miles Davis-y shuffle on this track. But I envision something more between Bonahm on “When the Levee Breaks” and the Black Crowes “Someday Salvation.” However, since I’m a total noob at and therefore suck at drum programming, for now the shuffle will have to do (until I get stuck into this article on drum programming for guitarists). Each example will be the first 1:00 of the track with each successive layer added in.
First, I put down the dirty rhythm guitar track. I used a Strat, then doubled and then tripled it, playing the part slightly differently with my Koa WarmothExcalibur” Strat that’s outfitted with a Titanium FU-Tone Big-Block on the Floyd and a Seymour Duncan JB in the bridge. I initially used a PODfarm Plexi emulation through some Recabinet “Green 4x12s,” which I panned more to the left of the mix. The double was a stereo Soldano emulation through the same cab emulations panned not quite so hard left. The triple I placed lower, to the right.

Then of course, needed a bass track. I used my new Warmoth/KnE P/J beast outfitted with Quarter Pound P/J pickups and an STC-3P tone circuit. I kept it pretty tame until I 00:42, when I tried to give it some bounce and counter-melody. I placed the DI track low and up the center, but also did two “amp” tracks; one a PODfarm SVT emulation, another an Acme Bar Gig Head Case modded Plexi emulation that works surprisingly well for dirty bass tracks to add a subtle grind and articulation on single notes. Especially helpful and cool given the unison line it does with the guitar coming back into the main riff. Those two I panned left and right, respectively.

It’s got a kinda cool and snarly vibe now, but I wanted it more trippy, and atmospheric – not to lose the snarl, but to make it more of an undercurrent. So I added some clean Strat tracks: a stereo Bassman emulation with a splash of chorus and delay that ended up getting panned hard right, and two tracks, mono and stereo, using different versions of a Blackface mod going through a rotary drum and horn emulation panned left and right.

Trippy! But now it needs the boozy slide part. For this I used  Newcastles (kidding!), Excalibur, a Plexi+Tube Screamer+”Green 4×12″ emulation and a Dunlop 215 Glass Slide. I’ll probably add some echo to it later to give it a spacey vibe of its own, but I’m not quite done tracking the slide part I’ve decided. It needs more!

Ideally this will give anyone curious to try it an idea of how playing with mono and stereo tracks and their placement in the mix can make your tunes have some interesting sounding guitar tracks. What started as a goof turned into a kind of mini guitar orchestra tune, will layers and interplay between the tracks, that’s hopefully an enjoyable listen. Never mind replacing the drums, I haven’t even gotten to adding samples of bar sounds, clinking glasses, etc. Not to mention lead vocals. If you’d like to hear the current, silly-titled version, it can be found here.
One final and very important thing I’d like to stress here, and a strong, thematic suggestion you’ll find in the majority of the available tutorials – listen to your tracks/mixes on a variety of speakers. Your reference monitors, car speakers, Earbuds, whatever. I go from my M-Audio BX5a to my only-slightly-cheesy Logitech Z506 5.1 surround speakers all the way to the I’m certain circa-1990s computer speakers at the office. If it sounds passable if not decent on all of the above, hopefully I’m in the ballpark. It’s not really for me to say I’m getting “better” at it, but it certainly feels like it, and more importantly it’s increasingly more fun the deeper I get into it. Hopefully it will be for anyone that reads this and has gotten or gets there themselves. But even as we enjoy that, know there’s yet another beast we’ve yet to even consider tackling (or farming out) once done with getting the basics of recording and mixing down. Mastering. As they say “Cross that bridge when you get to it!”

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5 Comments

  1. Interesting. I once read Steve Lukather say about some of the Toto albums sounding a bit poor due to there being too much stereo. He said that “if everything is in stereo, then nothing is in stereo”. One thing I like doing in my mixes is to record a ‘cheese’ track; where I add a guitar track using a setting that sounds pretty crap on its own but fills in some of the frequencies that the decent sounding guitars are missing. I think I read that Scott Ian from Anthrax does that but my memory may be playing tricks.

  2. Hey ! With the sound examples you provide, all your written text loses credibility… How can we trust someone who can’t mix 3 guitars together ? And that drums, please… Are you serious ?

  3. The comments about the examples point to the first rule of mixing an awesome home track–Write a good piece of music first! You can have the best guitars with the best emulators, mics, etc., and mix it all to perfection. But if the song sucks, it won’t help.

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