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Overdubbing (the process of making an overdub, or overdubs) is a technique used in audio recording, whereby a performer listens to an existing recorded performance, and plays a new performance along with it, which is also recorded. The intention is that the final mix will contain a combination of these overdubs.
Tracking (or "laying the basic tracks") of the rhythm section (usually including drums) to a song, then following with overdubs (solo instruments, such as keyboards or guitar, then finally vocals), has been the standard technique for recording popular music since the early 1960s. Today, overdubbing can be accomplished even on basic recording equipment, or a typical PC equipped with a sound card, using software such as ProTools or Audacity.
Perhaps the earliest commercial issue of recordings with overdubs was by RCA Victor in the late 1920s, not long after the introduction of electric microphones into the recording studio. Recordings by the late Enrico Caruso still sold well, so RCA took some of his early records made with only piano accompaniment, added a studio orchestra, and reissued the recordings.
Sidney Bechet made a pair of famous overdubbed sides in 1941, "The Sheik of Araby" and "Blues of Bechet". Multi-instrumentalist Bechet recorded on six different instruments; each version had to be recorded onto a new master disc along with the preceding performance, with consequent loss of audio quality. The novelty was issued as "Sidney Bechet's One Man Band". The American Federation of Musicians protested the recording, putting an end to experiments with commercial overdubbing in the United States for years.
The invention of magnetic tape opened up new possibilities for overdubbing, particularly with the development of multitrack recording with sel-sync. The first commercially released overdubbed recording made by painstakingly recording voice on top of voice with acetate discs was recorded by Patti Page who did it first with her recording of "Confess" for Mercury Records. With the popularity of this recording Page recorded a quartet of her voices with the song "With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming" and was listed as vocals by: Patti Page, Patti Page, Patti Page and Patti Page.
Les Paul was an early innovator of overdubbing, and began to experiment with it around 1930.:213 He originally created multi-track recordings by using a modified disk lathe to record several generations of sound on a single disk, before later using tape technology, having been given one of the first Ampex 300 series tape recorders as a gift from Bing Crosby. His number 1950 hit, How High The Moon, performed with his then-wife Mary Ford, featured a then-significant amount of overdubbing, along with other studio techniques such as delay, phasing and varispeed.:xxii-xxiii
The Buddy Holly track "Words of Love" featured Holly overdubbing his own guitar and voice, inspired, as seen in the Buddy Holly Story, by Les Paul.
Peter Ustinov performed multiple voices on "Mock Mozart", in a recording produced by George Martin. Abbey Road Studios had no multitrack recorders at the time, so a pair of mono machines was used. Martin used the same process later for a Peter Sellers comedy record, this time using stereo machines and panning.
Overdubs can be made for a variety of reasons. One of the most obvious is for convenience; for example, if a bass guitarist is temporarily unavailable, the recording can be made and the bass track added later. Similarly, if only one or two guitarists are available, but a song calls for multiple guitar parts, a guitarist can play both lead and rhythm guitar. Overdubbing is also used to solidify a weak singer; doubletracking allows a singer with poor intonation to sound more in tune. (The opposite of this is often used with sampled instruments; detuning the sample slightly can make the sound more lifelike.)
Overdubbing has sometimes been viewed negatively, when it is seen as being used to artificially enhance the musical skills of an artist or group, such as with studio-recorded inserts to live recordings, or backing tracks created by session musicians instead of the credited performers. The early records of The Monkees were made by groups of studio musicians pre-recording songs (often in a different studio, and some before the band was even formed), which were later overdubbed with the Monkees' vocals. While the songs became hits, this practice drew criticism, and Michael Nesmith in particular disliked having to "duplicate someone else's records" for their television show. In working with producer Butch Vig Kurt Cobain originally refused to double-track his vocals and guitars but Vig reportedly got him to comply by saying "John Lennon double-tracked".
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