What is a Scratch Track?

What is a Scratch Track? What is a Scratch Track?

Creating scratch tracks is one of the most valuable processes for improving arrangements and final mixes.  

The idea is that by laying down a few tracks that you don't intend to include in the final mix, you can get a better idea of your arrangement and flesh out more complex ideas before you dive in and begin the recording process. This is especially true if you record a lot of live instrumentation.

In this guide, I’m going to teach you all you need to know about effectively utilizing scratch tracks during your recording sessions.

What Are Scratch Tracks?

Scratch tracks are preliminary recording versions of instruments that can later be overdubbed. 

The main reason producers and engineers will use scratch tracks is they set the tempo and structure of the song, making the recording process for other elements much smoother and more precise. 

For example, a vocal line from the lead singer may signal a call and response guitar part, so having a scratch vocal while recording the guitarist can assist them playing more to the final song. 

Now, while scratch tracks aren’t intended for the final mix, as you'll likely want to re-record the instrument for a more polished sound and performance, there are many instances where scratch tracks are so exceptional that they end up becoming a permanent part of the song.

Why Should I Use a Scratch Track?

No matter what kind of song you're recording or producing, having a scratch track can be incredibly beneficial. Here are some of the few reasons why.

Establish Rhythm and Tempo

For starters, one of the primary objectives of a scratch track is to lock in a song’s rhythm and tempo. In doing so, you can make sure that it remains consistent throughout its entirety.

You’ll also get a feel for whether or not the song is too fast or too slow, and you can quickly make changes without affecting the final recording.

Arrange Your Song

One of the other significant advantages of having a scratch track is that it delineates the various sections of your song. You’ll know exactly how you want to arrange things before you spend time setting up and recording the final performances. 

If the drummer were to miss an opportunity for a fill into the final chorus, for example, it could substantially compromise the take. Each player would then play off of that mistake, and the entire song would be off.

It’s so much more efficient to know exactly what you’ll be playing before you get in the studio, so there’s no questions about it.

Matching Energy

One valuable aspect of preparing scratch tracks ahead of time is that many people don’t often think about the fact that it aids other band members or instrumentalists in capturing the same energy and emotion of the song.

If you’ve ever seen a live band, you know that each player draws inspiration from the others, which creates a livelier experience. The same thing can happen for a bassist that’s recording to a track with a set of cans on.

While this definitely pertains more to live bands and musicians, the same thing could be said for electronic music. Laying down a scratch drum loop using trap drums versus lo-fi acoustic samples could drastically change the way a singer emotes over the track.


For those who don’t know, the process of comping is selecting the best audio segments from multiple takes and merging them into a single, more masterful performance. The word “comping” comes from "composite.”

I worked a recording session once where neither I nor the band realized the low E string on the bass wasn’t intonated properly. After the band left and a few of us sat down to mix it, we realized something sounded off. Unfortunately, it was too late to get the bassist back in, though thankfully, we had laid down a scratch track to send to the band a few days prior. 

Because of that, we were able to comp in the notes with a little bit of additional processing to create a pro-sounding bass track without having to return to the studio for another session. It was an absolute lifeline and I couldn’t be any more thankful that we recorded scratch tracks ahead of time.

Less Pressure

Most musicians (including myself) are far more at ease when recording scratch tracks, as our brains think of them as nothing but temporary. As such, you’re not worried about whether the performance you’re giving is going to be good enough for the “final take.”

Weirdly enough, this can subconsciously lead to better performances. 

If you’re capturing your scratch track with quality equipment, there’s no reason you can’t use it on the final mix of the song if it’s the best one. You’d be surprised how often this happens.

Saves Time and Money

If you’re planning on recording at a studio that isn’t your own, you’re most likely paying studio time.

Why waste precious time and money at the studio recording takes that you likely won’t use in your final mix when you can record them at home? Of course, this sort of renders my last point moot, but it’s a worthy consideration if you’re on a tight budget.

How to Lay Down a Scratch Track

When it comes to figuring out which order you should record your scratch tracks in, there aren’t any golden rules. It really depends on the song or the band. 

However, for the most part, I often gravitate towards what I think of as a logical recording sequence, which includes the steps below.

Use a Click

The first thing I recommend doing is getting your tempo down. 

Even if you play in a band and the drummer thinks playing to a click is super “uncool” because it “doesn’t have that natural feel, man,” most of the time, maintaining a steady tempo throughout a track makes it easy for everyone (the editor, the mixing engineer, the instrumentalists, and the listeners, who typically don't want to hear weird tempo fluctuations.

Of course, there are jazz trios, jam bands, or string quartets that might say otherwise, but for the most part, having a click track running can help you lock things in better and decide right off the bat what kind of tempo energy you’re looking for in your song.

Jam with the Band

Just because you’re using a click doesn't mean you can’t get loose with the band while recording scratch tracks.

Some bands like to get set up in the studio with multiple mics, DIs, and headphone sets. The engineer will throw on a click and the band will play through the entire song together.

This step can be instrumental for a number of reasons, but most importantly, it helps establish a structure for the entire band. It can help drummers figure out what kind of energy to play with on certain sections or keyboardists figure out when to hang back on the chords or add embellishments.

Get a Foundational Groove

I would say more often than not, I’ll prioritize scratch tracks for drums and bass first, whether live drums and bass guitar or programmed drums and a MIDI bass VST. The idea here is to get a solid groove for the rest of the track to build upon. 

Not only can it give you a more precise arrangement, but it also gives other lead and supporting instrumentalists/vocalists energy to play off of. 

If you’re working with a band that has a great rhythm section, you might consider recording a few scratch tracks with your bassist and drummer. The first few passes can be warm-ups and the next few can be authentic takes that could end up as the definitive ones.

When I’m working with a live band, I always try to make the drummer's track as close to perfection as possible. 

Sure, you could go in and spend time editing and comping after the fact, but that can take quite a bit of time. Depending on a drummer’s skill level, it’s much easier to spend time getting a flawless take on a scratch track than spend time down the line compiling from multiple attempts. 

Plus, when drums are spot-on, everyone else has a solid performance to work with.

Arrange Leads and Supporting Elements

Once you have a decent rhythmic foundation down, you can begin recording preliminary takes of supporting instruments and leads, such as guitar, vocals, keyboards, synths, etc. Again, the order in which you do this will depend on your song and the role that each element is playing. 

If you’re working with a band, I often find it helpful (not to mention more efficient) to record all the other bandmates simultaneously. 

If you can’t do that, however, you might consider starting with other rhythmic instruments, such as keyboard and guitar, then recording leads, and finally capping it off with the vocals.

The rationale behind this approach is to start with less important instruments and gradually work your way towards the more "essential" ones.

Comp It

At this point in the scratch tracks process, you should have a pretty decent set of takes from every band member or for every element. You can then compile these takes into a single, more exceptional track, or identify any areas that still require improvement.

For example, if you didn’t get the right notes from the guitarist in a certain section, you can simply punch them in for the 4-8 bards of that section and integrate the newly recorded audio into the master scratch track.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, scratch tracks can provide plenty of value during the creative process. From addressing issues before recording to saving time, money, and frustration from having to think about arrangement and structure when in the studio, having a basic scratch track can make your life a whole lot easier.

In the end, you’ll likely end up with a better finished product as a result.

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