It's not always been that way -- and applying the same principles that classic recording engineers used, you can make great recordings with limited resources.
In this article, we'll take a look at one of the biggest hits in American music -- Stevie Wonder's "Superstition". This is a really high-quality song, produced beautifully -- and the entire mix only takes 16 tracks.
These multitracks have been around in the audio community for years, released into public domain for making remixes and teaching recording techniques.
Let's sit down with the original multitrack masters from this mix, and see how a hit song can be produced using only a few tracks. You might be surprised -- applying this thought process to your own recordings will help you work with limited resources, and keep your recordings sounding clean and un-cluttered.
On this mix, we have 16 channels to work with: 8 channels of Clavinet, 1 channel of bass, 3 channels of drums (kick, overheads left and right), 2 channels of vocals, 2 channels of horns.
While we're OK to share some behind-the-scenes clips from the sessions, Mr. Wonder's management wanted me to remind you that we're not allowed to let you download the full song, and rightfully so, since Mr. Wonder owns the rights to the song, and stealing music isn't cool. If you'd like to follow along, and don't own a copy of "Superstition", go to the iTunes Music Store and purchase "Superstition" for 99 cents, or pull out your CD (or vinyl) copy, and follow along.
First, we'll listen to some raw clips from the sessions, focusing on the first minute and a half of the song.
Drums in only three tracks"Superstition" has a really strong rhythm section; what's even more surprising, is that the drums are captured in only three tracks.
Listen along -- the first minute and a half of the song is what we'll be deconstructing.
The drums were recorded using only three channels: Kick, Overhead Left (including hi-hat), and Overhead Right (including ride cymbal). Here's the mp3 of the drums by themselves.
This is impressive in its simplicity -- listen to the large stereo image, and how intricate the overall sound is, despite the analog noise on the recording. There's very little processing, too -- and it's a testament to how good drums can sound with only three tracks!
Surprisingly, this song's bassline isn't a real bass guitar -- it's a synth bassline, part of the impressive synth work that went into this album.
Let's add in the synth bass. Here's what it sounds like now. You'll hear how the drum tracks sit very well with the bass, providing great low end to the song.
One interesting piece of trivia -- the kick drum pattern, one of the most recognizable features of this song, was actually played by Stevie Wonder himself.
In four tracks -- with little compression and no gating -- an entire rhythm section is born. Compare that to the 15-20 tracks we use today, and you'll see how impressive this is. The simplicity of the drum recording brings out the best in the player -- you don't have multiple retakes and patches to hide bad playing or poor technique.
It's all about the ClavinetThe Clavinet -- played by Stevie Wonder -- is the centerpiece of this song. Surprisingly, what sounds like a solid lone keyboard melody, is actually 8 tracks mixed together.
Part of the incredible texture of this song is the layering done to the Clavinet tracks.
Listen to this clip of the first two clavinet channels, hard-panned. Then let's add in the next two channels. Here's what it sounds like. It might sound a bit confusing at first -- but adding in the last three channels, the Clavinet tracks "glue" together -- you've got lead, rhythm, and "effects" -- providing a washier, reverb-like sound to the other elements. Panned creatively, these provide an incredible texture for the rest of the song to rest on. Here's what we have with all eight Clavinet channels together.
Now that we have our rhythm section and the Clavinet section, let's add them together. Sounds great so far!
Adding Stevie's vocalsStevie's vocals are in two parts -- both singing different melody and harmony parts. Let's listen to the main vocal first -- and what surprises me is the amount of bleed from the rest of the studio.
You can clearly hear the drums and Clavinet being played live in the background. Now, let's listen to the second vocal -- it's almost the same, with minor variations. These two tracks alone form the vocal sound for the song -- so let's add them in to everything else, and here's what we have. Keep in mind, this is minimally processed, too -- chances are, a leveling amplifier (precursor to the modern compressor) was used on the vocal tracks.
So far, we've got everything, minus the horn section. Here's how it sounds so far.
Adding in the horns...The last element of this great song is the fantastic horn section. Here's a clip of the horns by themselves. This is, again, recorded in only two tracks -- panned hard-right and hard-left. This is one of my favorite clips (it's a little longer than our other clips, because the horns don't come in until just after 45 seconds); not only can you hear the players warming up and discussing how to best position themselves in front of the microphones, you can also hear Stevie singing scratch vocals in the background.
Once the horns are mixed in, and brought up slowly behind everything else, you've got an incredibly thick, textured mix.
Listen to the end resultDid you get out your copy of "Superstition"? Listen to the first minute and a half of the song -- and you'll hear the full mix we've been working on.
Now that you've heard what you can do with only 16 tracks, apply this to your recording; remember, less is more, sometimes -- getting a simple, solid sound is much better than getting a large, sloppy sound.