Since I am at least partially in the throes of doing a new album these days, I have things such as “cutting rhythm tracks” on my mind! The process often differs for various people, and it is certainly one of the most important stages of making a recording. I usually like to “run down” the material in a fresh way with my rhythm section once we get going in the studio, and this “freshness” is usually something that can be a kind of blessing, especially when working within a band context, and if you have players you can really trust. But in the long run, it would always be better to have worked the material through somehow before the session…usually through rehearsals or playing live, which really helps to make critical musical decisions ahead of time. Even regardless of all this, you’ll probably find that once you are “under the microscope” in the studio, changes seem to occur that only somehow happen while there in the studio! Maybe it’s the new surroundings, the “microscope” factor, or simply the fact that you know you’re finally committing the music to “tape” that really makes you care that much more!
When I was doing my last “band”-oriented album, with Levon Helm in Woodstock, I decided that the situation called for a more total spontaneous experience, in which I also cut much of my lead work “live” as we ran down the rhythm tracks. This is rarely done, and I took the chance of their being “leakage”, where my lead guitar would be bleeding into the other tracks, such as Levon’s drums, the bass, etc., and that would make it more difficult to “fix” leads later on, which was something I actually did end up doing. The mistake made in this recording was that the engineer failed to let me know just how much of this leakage was going on during the sessions, which certainly would’ve helped me later on. Lucky for me, a lot of the leads I did play were kept, and did not necessitate replacing, but it would’ve been a bit better to have had some more flexibility in the long run.
I would say that if you are a lead player, it might be good to play some leads while you are taking some rhythm tracks, especially if you are feeling creative and spontaneous, because you never know when that “magic” take may occur….it is also a good idea, so similar to a singer, you can check if the track is comfortable for you to play to after all. In the long run, the main thing you are going for are great grooves, the correct “feel”, and good separation between all the instruments, should you want to fix a note here and there later on. If the bass and drums are right, that’s the main thing you are at first, looking for. And anyway, since the bass is almost always recorded “direct”, it’ll always be possible for he or she to fix some errant notes.
So, wish me luck on my sessions, and I certainly wish you the best on yours, whether current or future. Regardless, make the most of recording, because it’s an incredibly rewarding process in which you simply can’t help but learn and grow!