Which came first: the Rock-a-doodle or the egg? When it comes to recording a song, one of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make is what to record first: the instruments or the vocals. Both approaches have pros and cons, and which one you choose will depend on a variety of factors, such as:
- your personal preferences,
- the style of music you’re working on, and
- the resources available to you.
In this article, I’ll compare both approaches and give you some tips on deciding what to record first for your next project.
- Which Goes First: Instruments or Vocals?
- Instruments First
- Drawbacks to Instruments First
- Vocals First
- Drawbacks to Vocals First
- So, What Should You Do?
- Other Articles to Consider
Which Goes First: Instruments or Vocals?
So should you record the vocals or the instruments first? This is highly dependent on the mood and style of the track at hand, but I usually recommend that you lay down the most basic instrument parts first.
Get your harmony and rhythm recorded so everything else can flow with them. That means you should record your chords and your drum pattern first.
Song Style Will Influence Your Choice
From there, it depends on the intensity of the song as to whether you A) flesh out the instrumental parts, or B) go right into the vocal takes.
- If the song is meant to sound intimate, soft, tender and naked, or calm and simple; you can probably proceed to the vocals.
- if the song is meant to be big, full, anthemic, hyper, energetic, or brass; then you’ll want to fill in more of those big parts first (that way you’re vocals are well-informed as to the sonic quality and energy of the mix overall)
Let’s briefly discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.
There are a few benefits of starting with instruments. They are:
- A solid foundation (that prevents you from tedious edits later)
- Establishes the mood of the track (which could shift when adding in other chords or riffs)
- Greater focus on the performance (if you sing and play an instrument at the same time)
A Solid Foundation
An advantage of recording instruments first is that you build a strong foundation for your song. By laying down the instrumental track, you get the arrangement set in stone, so to speak. There’s no second guessing on what sections to insert where. I’ve tried recording vocals on the fly before all my instrumental parts were added…only to realize later that I needed to add in another bar after this verse, or that—actually—there should be a bridge here before I go into the last chorus. If you do that, then you’re need to start splitting vocal takes, rearranging parts…it becomes a mess.
It’s a lot easier to finish a track if you don’t have to start restructuring the entire thing after half the work is already done. For this reason, I almost always plan out the sections first, lay down all the instrumental parts, and then—when everything else is composed—I finally lay down the vocals.
Establish the Mood
Another advantage is that the mood may change based on the riff or chords you choose. It has happened to me several times that I laid down vocals over a basic drum beat and some chords, then later started noodling on my guitar and found a really nice arpeggio to play in the background. But the arpeggio or riff I added introduced a whole new mood to the track, taking it in a different direction emotionally. This can be a good thing…unless that new mood clashes with your vocal take’s tone or the lyrics. If you already have all your riffs recorded, you know exactly what mood your song is going to express and you’ll know how to deliver vocals to match.
Focus on the Instrumental Performance
If you try recording the guitar and vocals at the same time, your mind may get overly focused on the words you’re spitting out. You may not pay attention to the guitar you’re playing, and there really is something to be said for attending to your guitar tone. Or, really, any instrument you play (I’m just using guitar as an example here).
Even if you record your instruments separately (which I prefer to do), it can still cause a bit of distraction by laying down the vocals first. If you’re recording a guitar part onto a track that already has vocals blasting in your ears front and center, you may be less attentive to the tone on your guitar part that’s being laid down quietly in the corner of the mix. There could be a better performance for that guitar part hiding inside your fingers, but the mix during recording is too loud to let it shine through.
Drawbacks to Instruments First
However, there are also some potential drawbacks to recording instruments first.
To start with, it can be difficult to get a good balance between the vocals and the instruments. Without the vocals there to anchor your track, your instrumental may get to bulky—that is, you may fill up too much sonic space with those 3 guitars, piano, bass, drums, and a synth string section. If you record the vocals after the instruments, you may find that they get drowned out—the arrangement doesn’t leave enough space for the vocals to shine, or even breathe. The more instruments you add to the mix, the more sounds will be competing for the same frequency space.
Lack of Energy
Another potential issue with recording instruments first is that it can be hard to capture the energy and emotion of the vocals. Without the music behind them, vocals can sound flat and uninspired. This can be especially true if you are a very dynamic or expressive vocalist, as the music can often play a big role in shaping their performance.
So that leads us to the reasons you may want to record vocals before building the full backing track:
- It lets the vocal line shine
- The voice may sit better in the mix from the start
Let the Vocals Shine
You may have a great melody line already in your head (or written out) for the song, and you don’t want a lot of competing riffs or counterpoints clogging up the mix. In this situation, it may be advantageous to just put down the most bare bones backing track possible and let the vocals be the center of attention and focus in the mix. Maybe you have a very powerful voice, or you add a lot of ornamentation to your melodies like Ariana Grande or Mariah Carey. If you have a big mess of competing instrument parts already recorded, it could dampen the energy of your vocal melody.
Mixing the Vocals Right the First Time
It may also be easier to get a good balance between the vocals and the instruments. By starting with the vocals, you can ensure that they are prominently featured in the mix, and then add the instruments around them. You can check which frequencies your vocals are living in (taking up the most energy), and work around those ranges. There’s no need to fill up the 800 Hz range of your track if your vocals already have the greatest presence there. If you want any extra instrumentation at that point, it’s easier to squeeze it in around that vocal. After all, the vocal is supposed to be the main show of the song, right?
Drawbacks to Vocals First
But then again, putting down vocals without structuring the song first can lead to frustration. You don’t want to throw verses and choruses onto a track haphazard only to later need hours of editing to get everything re-positioned for the final mix. I mean, unless you enjoy cutting and dragging, splicing and screwing takes around (some producers really enjoy that, so it’s really up to your preference).
You should always structure the sections of your song first and get them set in stone before recording anything. It will save you a headache later. Write the sections out on a piece of paper if you need to, then go into your DAW and add markers where each section should go.
We also come back to the issue of vocal expression that I mentioned a bit earlier. If the backing track is bare bones, the singer (you, or whoever you have singing) will give a difference performance than if the instrumental was full and fleshed out. We’re talking subconscious-level differences here. Think about how you would sing the national anthem if you were competing against an orchestra in the background? Now how would you sing it when the only other instrument playing in the room was a soft classical guitar? Very different expressions could be had.
So, What Should You Do?
Let the style and tone of the song dictate what gets recorded first. If you’re going for a big and aggressive sound, you may want to add those big aggressive instrument into the mix first so the vocals can ride to the same vibe. If you want the focus on the lyrics and their vocal delivery, maybe get those vocals recorded first, capture all the dynamics you can from your voice, and then work the ornamental instrumentation in around it (extra guitar parts, piano fills, bass, etc).
Other Articles to Consider
Thanks for reading! If you found this helpful, here are some more articles to consider: