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May 04, 2007


Hugh Barker

It's an interesting one. I've known at least two rock bands who've also had issues about overdubs. One band, who were a great live band, used to infuriate their producers by refusing to put anything on the record that they couldn't recreate live. But the result was that the records sounded weak, as a lot of the art of recording rock music is in the overdubs.

With respect to jazz, I can't help feeling that there is a confusion between improvisation and 'single-take' improvisation. I used to record with a trumpet player who would play something different every time you pointed a mike at him. The best thing was to do it over and over till you got a really nice take. Sometimes the final recording would be one take, sometimes it would be cobbled together from a few attempts. But even though it took many overdubs to get the final result, the result was no less improvised, as each time he was improvising.

I can understand that a jazz band is often reacting to each other as they go along, and this creates some of the most interesting improvisations, but to make a great record, I can't see any harm in going back and improving on the first take (or on the best take). But I'm not a jazz purist though...


I'm curious to know the lineage of the electric guitar. I had thought that it started in western swing, which doesn't get put in the jazz bins at record stores (though maybe it should).

Yuval Taylor

I view overdubbing as very different from choosing from multiple takes, because it eliminates the interaction with other musicians. And as Miles Davis attempted to prove with Kind of Blue (and Neil Young with Tonight's the Night, and Bob Dylan with any number of recordings), the more takes you record, the further away you get from the kind of spontaneity that can lend real magic to a record.

Yuval Taylor

As for the electric guitar, the first recordings featuring the instrument were some sides by jazz guitarist George Barnes and Eddie Durham's recordings with the Kansas City Five (featuring Lester Young), all in 1938. The first famous electric guitarist was Charlie Christian, who died in 1942. This preceded the use of electric guitar in western swing outfits.


The western swingers were amplifying their guitars by the early-mid-'30s.


But these were lap steel guitars, a somewhat different instrument.

Hugh Barker

Re overdubbing vs choosing from different takes. I'd agree there's a difference, but you can also choose from different takes of an overdub. So choosing from different takes of the whole band is "OK", but choosing from different takes of one particular instrument is "bad"?

I see the argument but it makes my head hurt. I'm just used to a recording process where the only aim is to get a good final result, no matter what the means. A lot of rock recordings these days overdub everything - you might play the basic instruments together to try and get a good feel, but as often as not you'll only keep the drums and go back to replace everything else later in any case.

It is usually true even then that the more takes (of backing tracks or overdubs) you need for a result the worse it sounds. Though there's a contrary thing here, which is that often you can only record a song quickly and well if you have played it repetitively over a period of time in rehearsal and ideally live. There's exceptions to that of course, but I think that's often one of the things that allows you to be loose and 'spontaneous' in the studio.

(Actually 'Tonight's The Night' mostly sounds under-rehearsed and badly worked out to me, rather than spontaneous, but I won't go on about it...)

yuval taylor

In rock recording, the aim certainly is to get the best final result. But in jazz, it's to capture an ephemeral interaction between a group of players. That interaction gives the live jazz recording a spark of something that no overdubbed performance can capture. In a sense, the nine overdubbed MP3 files I posted function as great pop tunes more than as great jazz tunes. I guess I should post a great non-overdubbed jazz tune for comparison's sake? I mean, besides the Brad Mehldau number, which doesn't highlight improvisatory interaction. Or listen to a track from the Wayne Shorter Quartet's last album, Beyond the Sound Barrier, on Napster to get my drift.


There's a lot of interesting work to be done in figuring out how that "spark of something that no overdubbed performance can capture" actually works.

Some of it has to do with looseness of texture or ensemble, which makes for a more complex listening experience.

But I would guess that there's a sharpness of attack and accenting that occurs when several people are improvising together that may not happen in an overdubbed environment. What people call "energy" or vibe really does affect how musicians play their instruments, in subtle ways that are rarely described but that people hear concretely.

Thanks for stimulating me to think about it. As did your book. So -- thanks.

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