How 8 Tracks Can Shape a Song

By Connor McCoy, Spire Contributor | February 27, 2019 

8track featured image

In modern music, artists can layer track upon track to create musical masterpieces in all genres, with chart-topping hits having upwards of 100 tracks layered, making for huge and complex soundscapes. This is a far cry from the four channels (eight in stereo) musicians used to work in.

Artists like The Beatles, Michael Jackson, The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who were working with four and eight tracks, yet their music still stands the test of time. Why? Because they combined song elements with purpose and clarity. Their successful records have a leading idea centered and supported by its surrounding elements, not overwhelmed by them.

Here we’ll explain why all you need is eight tracks (or fewer) to make an amazing song—and how you can decide which elements to focus on and highlight throughout your creative process.

Drum element: it’s all in the rhythm

Any recording engineer or producer can tell you, the first thing to be laid down in the studio are the drums. Phrasing the drums, building them and keeping the groove fresh and interesting, is imperative, and this holds true across a wide array of genres. You’ll find as you listen to some great records that drums don’t necessarily need to be complicated, just like recording them should be uncomplicated.

When thinking about adding a percussive element, ask yourself if it lends itself to the groove or detracts from it. A good drum beat or groove (whether slow or fast) has a spacious pocket for other instruments to fit into, and if there’s a sound you really enjoy (like a tambourine on 2 & 4, a ride cymbal, or, yes, a cowbell), consider holding off until the song calls for it. Paul Simon is a master of simplicity, just listen to "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover."

Regardless of your genre, it’s easy to see how quickly the drums can fill the mix. If your song has any sort of percussive element to it, be sure that each element is adding to the groove and not making it needlessly complex. It’s a popular tendency to want to keep adding elements to the rhythm until there’s no longer any space left for anyone else!

For this eight track project, depending on the genre or feel of the groove, you might need multiple tracks to feature drums. For bands and artists with a live drum kit or percussive element, you’ll probably need to have a kick, snare, hi-hat, and an overhead stereo channel. That’s already five tracks total! Maybe you’re making hip hop music using an 808 drum machine, and all you need are three tracks (kick, snare, and hi-hat) to get the beat going. 

Michael Jackson - "Rock With You"

Vampire Weekend - Oxford Comma"

Queens of the Stone Age - "No One Knows"

Ariana Grande - "Into You" 

And quite possibly the most popular drum track of all time:

"We Will Rock You" - Queen

8track drum set

The bass: the beginnings of harmony

A good bass acts as the connecting element between the drums and any other instruments or vocals; it’s the heart and soul of the performance. It’s a sizeable tool that should only be used when you want to give body to your song.

When considering whether to include bass in a section of a song, tread carefully. Bass can be, as the name suggests, heavy, and is one of the main tools any producer has when they want to make an impact or a statement. Layering in a bassline is especially popular. This is why bass is so often brought in during more climactic parts of songs, like choruses, bridges, or intros/outros.

The bass element doesn’t necessarily need to be a bass guitar (although it often is!). A piano, guitar, cello, vocal, or virtually any analog or digital synthesizer can also create solid or groovy bass elements.  Once we have our harmonic context from the bassline that a listener can follow, the song skeleton is formed and the rest can happen even more naturally, especially if you mix it right.

8track moody guitar

Harmony and striking the chord

Whether it’s played on piano, guitar, organ, synth, or a string section, there’s something magical about what chords can bring to a song. It brings final harmonic context into the picture and helps support the lyrics and vocal melody.

With so many options at the fingertips, it’s easy to get carried away—it was and still is one of my worst habits—adding too many different melodic elements! I can’t emphasize the importance of focusing on only one or two different elements, especially if you’re planning on adding vocals. Piano and guitar lines, crazy synthesizer sounds, atmospheric pads: all of these have the potential to detract away from the vocals.

Just as the drums are the foundation for the rhythm and groove of the song, a chordal or harmonic instrument, like acoustic guitar, provides a home for the body of the song. Ideally, you want the vocals to resonate and connect directly with whatever instrument is supporting it.

After adding the lead vocals (and maybe a vocal harmony), you might have seven or eight tracks filled! It’s up to you to gauge whether or not you have room to add another element or wild card to make your record stand out even more.

8track keys

Effects and reverb

After everything has found its place within the stereo field of your mix, you have the option to create and add even more depth and color by adding various modifying effects to your record. The idea here remains the same—by selecting effects that add to the existing perspective of the record, you focus and center the idea rather than divide it.

Reverb can be an excellent tool to transport aspects of the record to different spaces or help glue the whole mix together, but more than two or three different dimensions can drastically muddy a record and makes it easy for the listener to lose sight of where the sound is originating from.

Listen for yourself—after adding an effect, can you still identify each sound? Effects are used to amplify the power and impact of a record, and if that modulating, rotor cabinet you placed on the rhythm guitar attracts too much attention away from the main vocal or melody, you start to tear the teamwork of each element apart.

8track compressors

Conclusion

There’s a lot to say about the importance of simplicity when creating a song. 

Regardless of how many tracks your DAW can handle, focusing on eight elements can be beneficial when writing or producing a song. Instead of adding new directions, you can successfully layer more tracks to support these ideas and give them more shape and definition. This is why popular pop/rock records that do have more than 100 tracks don’t feel too overwhelming.

There’s a lot to learn from previously recorded music. Although the music of today has expanded beyond tape players and vinyl records, the pioneers of the art of producing and songwriting can teach the music makers of this generation a lot about what goes into making a record that stands the test of time.

Learn more how you can record, edit, and layer up to eight tracks with Spire.

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