Should You Record Instruments Separately?

So you have multiple parts of a song to record. Should each instrument get it’s own dedicated performance or should you record multiple parts in one take? There are situations when either technique can be used. Let’s look at those situations so you can decide the best direction to take with your recording.

Should You Record Instruments Separately or All At Once?

The best recording practice will vary based on three main factors: how many people are you recording, how many microphones do you have, and how ambient or “live” of a tone do you want?

But, in general, you should probably record each instrument separately because it allows for easier editing during the mixing and mastering stages of production. Furthermore, individual takes of each instrument and/or vocal will be cheaper—as it will require less personnel and less microphones to get the job done.

However, there are still a few situations where recording multiple instrument and/or vocal parts at once is actually preferable and has unique advantages. Let’s break down the benefits of both techniques.

Benefits of Recording Instruments Separately

The benefits of getting individual takes include:

  1. Easier to Mix and Master
  2. No Noise Bleed
  3. Easier Re-Dubs
  4. Less Personnel
  5. Less Equipment
  6. Tonal Control

1. Easier to Mix and Master

The production process will go smoother if you (or your sound engineer) have individual tracks to work with. When you record multiple instruments and/or vocals at the same time, even if you use different microphones for each instrument, you will end up with noise bleed.

2. No Noise Bleed

Noise bleed (or spill) is when a little bit of the other instrument sounds leak into the microphone. For example, you’re singing into one microphone but the sound of the acoustic guitarist a few feet away is still coming through into your vocal mic. Even that little bit of background noise can interfere with mixing…especially if you need to apply auto-tune to the main vocal but your pitch-shifting software is picking up the guitar tones that bled into your vocal mic.

3. Easier To Do Re-Dubs

If a full band is being recorded at once, then it only takes one of those players screwing up their part to ruin the whole take. That can be incredibly frustrating for everyone involved and create more tension in the room…which will lead to poorer performances (psychological tension can create muscle tension in your hands or throat, drop your confidence level, or interfere with your concentration). The same is true if you’re recording your guitar playing and singing at the same time. By recording each part on it’s own, you can easily re-dub bad takes without needing to trash the other instrument parts along with it.

4. Less People Needed

If you’re only recording one part at a time, you only need one performer in the room. If you’re a solo artist and you can perform all the parts yourself, then there’s no need to hire additional musicians to record with you. Thus, money can be saved.

5. Less Equipment Needed

Furthermore, recording a lot of instruments at once requires more microphones, mic stands, cables, a bigger room, and an audio interface with enough inputs to handle all those mics. More equipment requires more money; but individual takes only need one microphone setup.

6. Greater Control over Tones

Recording one instrument or voice at a time allows you to focus your attention on that one part’s tone to a greater degree. If a full band is playing at once, it’s harder to pick out nuances from each instrument that could use some tweaking. Even when you’re recording your own voice and guitar at once, the act of you doing two things at the same time can lead to your attention being subconsciously diverted from one over the other. That could cause you to overlook a tonal issue with your guitar if you’ve been focusing on the lyric delivery, and vice versa.

Benefits of Recording Instruments At the Same Time

Despite all these valid points, there are times when a multi-part performance can be helpful.

1. More Realistic Room Tone

When you have multiple instruments in a room playing together at the same time, it can actually impact the ambient tone of the room itself. This is a very common point for orchestra players: a dozen violinists playing in unison will move more air through the room than a single violinist on his/her own. Likewise, multiple warm bodies and lots of equipment all crammed into one room will dampen more of those room reflections. Lastly, this technique will sound slightly more “realistic” to listeners, as if there were in the room with the performers during a live show. That’s because you are recording a “live” performance and the acoustic properties of each instrument/player are co-mingling.

2. Quicker Recording Process

Recording everything at once will go quicker (assuming nobody messes up their parts too much). Let’s say you just wrote a song idea and found some chords to pair with your melody or lyrics. It’s a whole lot easier and faster to record the vocals and guitar in one take and move on, than to sit down and prep a “proper” studio take. Sometimes, you just need a quick and dirty (i.e. demo-quality) recording so you don’t forget an idea.

3. More Natural Performances

Recording all the parts at once will also impact the performance of your players. People behave slightly different when they are around others—down at a subconscious level of which they aren’t even aware. This, in turn, can lead to a more “natural” performances because each player can react in real time to the energy of their bandmates.

When Should I Use Each Technique?

Clearly, both recording methods have their merits and drawbacks. The song, recording space, and situation at hand will influence which approach will work best for you. Here are some rules-of-thumb on when to use each technique.

Record Each Instrument/Vocal Separately If:

  • Your studio space and equipment cache is limited
  • You prefer to record all the instruments yourself rather than hire session musicians
  • You need a greater degree of control over the mix (i.e. you aren’t the best singer and you need plenty of leeway with vocal editing. Don’t be ashamed, I know how you feel: I’m honestly a mediocre singer at best.)
  • You tend to “noodle about” or experiment with instrument parts (I often like to lay down the basic chords, beat, and vocals first. Then I test out different guitar riffs or solos last, before doing the final mix).
  • You get nervous performing in front of others

Record Instruments and Vocals Together If:

  • You’re trying to capture an actual live performance and you don’t have the option for individual takes
  • You want a “live show” sound to the studio track
  • You need to crank out a quick demo of a musical or lyrical idea
  • The band you’re recording with has a sociable group energy and you want to tap into that psychological atmosphere
  • You’ve got a large body of players (a choir, string quartet, etc) and it’s either unfeasible to record each person or you want that realistic room ambiance of all those people huddled together

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