This post is going to focus on the major ways people tend to assemble their music when producing.
Everyone has different needs in music production, needs that result from budget, genre, artistic preferences, and time. It used to be that music was documented in a totally live arrangement before artists such as Les Paul starting overdubbing tracks (the process of layering tracks on tape after-the-fact of the original recording). Now, there are music releases in which nothing is recorded live, such as many hip hop or electronic releases. Understanding what kind of workflow works best for your situation and needs is a critical skill of a successful producer.
Recording live can mean a lot of things. Sometimes a producer will throw everyone in one room with careful baffling choices and record musicians all together. While this type of recording often has a lot of leakage between microphones, it also captures a particular kind of energy that is difficult to achieve with overdubbing: musicians vibing off of each other and the sound of their instruments affecting each other’s performances. You will probably end up with a very raw track with less flexibility for editing later. Make sure you get the sounds like like right away. Mic placement and selection is top priority. Achieving a good vocal sound can be a challenge. Sometimes it actually sounds better to use a dynamic mic for a more raw sound, like an SM58.
Live in Multiple Rooms
If you have the opportunity to record in a studio that has multiple rooms with clean lines-of-sight it will make a lot of sense to have folks in their own rooms to isolate their microphones a little more. If the musicians are comfortable with the idea, you can place them all in the main room but run the speaker cables to cabs in isolated booths. This will help achieve the live vibe and sound while keeping your options open for editing and polishing later. It can also work well to run guitars through amp simulators like a PODxt to achieve better isolation. A split signal to capture a real amp and the processor can be a good idea.
Semi-live means recording most of the core tracks live while doing some crucial overdubs later. Often I will record the group live in multiple rooms to get the core bass, drum, and, if I’m lucky, guitar tracks. If these tracks sound lively and together, it will be easier to add on overdubs later without it sounding too sterile. If the bass track or guitar track has a mistake, needs to be retracked, or needs to be doubled it’s not too difficult to keep the amps in the same setup for the overdubbing process. I often will record a scratch vocal take this way, for reference, and then overdub the real vocal line later.
Demo, then Semi-Live
Sometimes it’s more useful to record overdubs first to drum loops or click tracks and add live performances of drums and bass after the fact. While this can really save on expensive studio time, it can be difficult to achieve the energy or level of inspiration one can achieve when working with live takes. You’ll end up with live tracks played to overdubs, not overdubs played to live tracks. If the music is less organic or if the artist isn’t a ‘live instrumentalist’, this may work well (like if the most important part of the music is maintaining the feel of the artist, who is a vocalist, or guitarist, or bassist – it makes sense to have the performers play to them, not the other way around).
Whether it’s difficult to get all the performers together in one room at the same time or whether it’s simply not necessary, more and more music is being made by recording each instrument on its own and fitting it all together in editing. This approach allows maximum time to be taken to hone the performances and sound of the takes, which can produce some very satisfying results. It can take some significant skill to glue the tracks together in a way that remains musical. Sometimes it makes the music sound more a product of the computer than the musicians – and sometimes that’s exactly right.