HomeBlogsbillhare's blogThe Scratch Track - Is It For You?

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The problem is that this theory doesn't always work, at least for its desired intention (and can actually work against you in many ways!) On the other hand, it sometimes can work very well, but in my experience over thousands of projects I've found that only the most seasoned studio veterans can either (A) make a scratch track that is worthy of inspiring others, (B) be able to artistically multitask enough to let the scratch guide the emotion and feel while the cue provides the pitch and rhythm, and (C) 1,000 other little reasons I won't get into or else this article will never end!

In the professional world (both A Cappella and non), you sometimes hear of scratch tracks being used as the final lead vocal because the vocalist never regained the "magic" of that first performance - see my article about recording the House Jacks' song After You for an example of this.

In the amateur world, where people are far less experienced in studio performance, I don't find that the initial magic happens as easily, since the singers are not that used to wearing headphones, singing with an incomplete background, not aware of mic technique, usually a bit nervous, and so on and so forth. For a lead vocal, the amateur singer needs to have as many variables taken out of the equation as possible, given time to calm down and find their character, stop critiquing themselves, etc. To make a scratch track during this period is usually counterproductive, and to take the necessary time to get the vocalist comfortable just to make a scratch track is unnecessarily expensive.

This isn't to say it can't/shouldn't be done. Some amateur vocalists will have no problem with this, and it won't break the bank to take 5 or 10 minutes to try, and see how it works. Then you will have the choice to use it or not.

After recording groups in every possible way over the last 20 years, I have personally settled on more of a "micromanagement" technique, which involves recording background parts a few measures at a time. This way you can direct the singers in the same way a movie director would - in small increments giving motivation for each little nuance. "In this scene you are a guitar, and you rock a little harder over each of these 4 measures."
See my article called Cue Tracks And The People Who Love Them for more on working this way.

When dealing with such short sections, I find scratch vocals to be more of is distraction than a help, because we're usually dealing with a section that won't complete a full lyrical idea anyway.

There is no one "right" way, of course, and you need to see what works best for your group. Sometimes a combination of approaches is best - one way for the tenors, another for the altos, based on their personalities, how their parts work in a particular song, and yes... those 1,000 other things that I mentioned before!

Note that I've been talking about Lead Vocal scratch tracks exclusively up to this point. Some groups will just record the whole ensemble as a scratch track, and record alongside that. I highly recommend against this for many reasons, but that would be another article in itself!

It was interesting to see how passionate some people were about this in the discussion on the RARB Forum, and it might also be enlightening to read the original posts: http://forum.rarb.org:8080/forum/viewtopic.php?t=3554