Recording Vocals, March 1998

May 17, 2004 12:00 PM

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If you recall the classic popular vocal recordings that have endured over the decades, the primary element that has helped get the magic across was not a cleverly gated, million-dollar drum sound, but rather a vocal performance that communicated something essential and touched countless listeners. A top-notch vocal performance often contains qualities that transcend mere technique, and the best engineers and producers are those who are able to capture those sometimes fleeting moments when vocal genius is realized.

To talk about recording vocals, Mix enlisted four engineer/producers whose credits run the gamut from Gloria Estefan, Iggy Pop and the Rolling Stones to Metallica, Willie Nelson and John Michael Montgomery. We also invited a highly regarded vocal coach and producer to offer extra input.

While this applications piece addresses microphone, mic preamp and outboard gear technique, each of these contributors underscored the importance of providing the right emotional support to the singer or singers. After all, great mic technique can’t salvage a bad recording climate, while some of the most powerfully immediate vocal performances have been caught in the most primitive of recording situations, where everyone felt in sync with the truth of the moment.

ED CHERNEY
Ed Cherney is one of the recording world’s most highly regarded figures. Cherney’s engineering, mixing and/or producing credits include Jann Arden, Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, Little Feat, Iggy Pop and Ritchie Sambora, among many, many others.

To me, a vocal is the hardest thing to record. It’s harder than a hundred-piece orchestra or a three-piece rock ’n’ roll band. That’s probably because it is a very literal instrument. Typically, on a recording, a voice sounds like what a voice sounds like, unless you are filtering it or doing other things to it to make it fit into the music. It is also the most dynamic instrument there is. It goes from being really soft to being really loud, and you need a microphone that can deal with that.

After about a dozen records, the Audio-Technica 4050 is the first mic I put up for most singers. I used it on Jann Arden and Ritchie Sambora, as well as a lot of the Rolling Stones record I just did. The Audio-Technica is smooth, very clear and open-sounding, and it has a lot of headroom. It is also a very consistent-sounding mic.

That said, mic selection changes for every vocalist and situation, and sometimes I may get stuck with a microphone, not necessarily because of the way it sounds, but as a result of the way the music is tracked. I might have an artist who may like to be out in the room singing live vocals with the musicians playing for whatever spark of energy they can get out there and the groove. In that kind of situation, I have to consider the mic’s rear rejection capabilities and how tight the mic is when you put the singer into the room. I also may not be familiar with the singer’s voice, and I’ll put up a microphone and get a really great take where 75 percent of that vocal performance may be a keeper. I’ll then have to go back and match it up, punching in the lines that I need. As a result, I’m stuck using that microphone and that particular setup to get the vocal to match. Then later, in mixing, I’ll try to get it sounding the way it probably should.

I rarely use mic pre’s that are on the newer consoles. I have a rack of old Neve 1073s I carry around with me. I really love the way the old mic pre’s sound. They have plenty of headroom, and they are typically really rich and open at the same time.

To get singers to sing great is mostly psychological. A great performance will always transcend a less than great sound on a vocal. I think that everything that you do has to be designed around making the singer feel comfortable, and for me that means getting it quick. The first time that singer is sitting in front of a microphone, I hit “record” and get everything they do. Part of it, too, is letting them sing and staying off of the talkback. I let them sing the song five, six or seven times. That may entail building a slave reel, so you have plenty of tracks to comp and do your vocals.

It’s all about creating that environment, making sure that the temperature is nice in the studio. If the lights are right, the headphone balance is perfect and the singer feels that you’re working with them, then they sing better. I also always try to have the singer’s principal instrument in their hand when they are singing.

Also as a producer, you have to understand that it may not be a great day for the singer, and you go on to something else. Of course, you try to plan out the session, like you are going to have vocals recorded on this day, but “vocal” day is like putting all of your eggs in one basket. It is the added pressure of, “Well, I have to do it now. It’s now or never.” I never want to create that situation. You should have the option of singing a song anytime you want. If you feel it now, well the mic is open so go get it. I even do that when we’re mixing a song. If I feel there is maybe a phrase or a line or verse or something that can be phrased better and you are looking for that thing, I just want to be sure that everyone is free enough to go do it, when the moment happens. I want to make sure that I have tape on the machine, and I have the tools ready to go in and get it. I want to be there to document these great moments, because you never know when they are going to come.

RENE GRANT-WILLIAMS
Since the mid-’70s, Nashville-based vocal coach and producer Rene Grant-Williams has helped numerous singers develop artistically through her teaching methodology. Her clients over the years have included Huey Lewis, Bob Weir (of the Grateful Dead), Linda Ronstadt, Charlie Daniels, Tim McGraw, Lyle Lovett, Jill Sobule, Kim Wilson (of the Fabulous Thunderbirds), The Subdudes, Sonny Landreth and Doug Stone.

One of the things that is important to keep in mind is that the singer is a living organism, and the quality of the vocal will depend on how healthy and resilient and well-prepared that organism is. One of the things to take into consideration is scheduling. Sometimes the singer will wear out the voice singing rough vocals with the tracks two or three days in a row, and then the next day final vocals may be scheduled and there is nothing left. It’s important to remember that, while the voice is a very resilient thing, it can get too thin and lose its elasticity.

It is important to give the singer time to re-warm up and re-establish their technique and be aware that it’s like a runner running short sprints. It’s very important that the runner limbers up and not just run hard and then get cold and then run hard again. You always have to take waiting around time into consideration.

I very highly favor a microphone position that is fairly low. There is a tendency for some engineers to hang a microphone high, but if you have to stretch your head up or hold your chin up, it puts tremendous strain on the voice. The best position is right at lips level or slightly below, so you can kind of contract into your body support with your head tilted slightly forward. Think about the classic Elvis position—the way he cocked his head over the microphone that kind of looked up from underneath. That allowed all of that sound to resonate up in his head, instead of putting a strain on his neck and shoulders. Support, which is the way the body powers the sound, is very important.

Perfectly normal people, who wouldn’t be caught dead running around town with their hands behind their backs, will do that when there is a microphone in front of them. Suddenly, it’s like, “What am I going to be doing with these things at the end of my shoulders? Let’s stick them behind the back.” Well, that robs you of a lot of support.

The body language from people in the control room is very important. A lot of times, people don’t realize that while they are having a laugh about something totally innocuous in the control room, someone is singing out on the floor who can’t hear what is going on, can become sensitive and can misconstrue things. Many singers, on some level, imagine that it must be about them. It is important to create an atmosphere that is helpful to the singer.

People tend to creep up on the mic as time goes by. That’s why you need to put some kind of tape marker on the floor.

Give the singer a choice of headphones to listen through, so they can find what helps them the most. If the vocal is too high in a headphone mix, the vocal will tend to go flat. If the vocal is too low in the headphone mix, then the singer will often tend to push things and go sharp.

I have a problem when I hear people telling a singer to “relax.” It’s the one statement that I find makes a singer uptight. It can be terribly intimidating to hear—nobody wants to think that they are not relaxed. (There was a studio in Canada that had a sign that stated: “Try to relax or we will find someone who can”!)

Often, singers have trouble figuring out what they did well during a vocal performance while they are out on the floor singing with their headphones on. I think it’s important for a production team to be specific. I’ve been in sessions where the production team is making a singer do something over and over again and only offering statements like, “That’s not getting it. Let’s do it again.” If the singer doesn’t specifically know what aspect of the performance needs addressing, it can be very frustrating. Again, encouragement has more to do with getting a good performance than anything.

ERIC PAUL
Eric Paul has made a career out of recording country giants like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and many others, including numerous modern country radio artists. Though Paul loves working with great vintage gear, he is quick to point out gear that offers quality while being affordable for most studios.

We are taught to be purists in one sense when recording voices, but the right compression while recording is great. Compressors work better off of live signals than off of tape, because a reproduced signal is never as strong and pure, and it doesn’t have the same kind of transients as when it is coming off of a live microphone preamp. I’m very careful not to overcompress. I never use more than a couple of dB of compression when I’m recording a vocal.

If I’m in a studio where I don’t have access to a good LA-2A, my favorite low-end compressor is the Composer by Behringer. The mass public has access to those, and they are in a lot of demo studios across the country. The reason that I like it is that it’s transparent—it will hold back the vocals from getting out of control, but you can’t “hear” it. (While I prefer the LA-2As, it depends upon the tubes. My favorite tubes are the old GE tubes, if you can find them. You take any piece of tube gear—compressors, microphones—and you put a good old GE tube in there, and it will sound so much better than anything else. I’ve done many comparisons.)

I have a Sony C-37A that is the sweetest vocal microphone on a female voice that you have ever heard. Daniel Lanois used my C-37A on Emmylou Harris for the Wrecking Ball album. (Again, the trick to the whole deal is old GE tubes.) For male voices, I generally like the U47, but my favorite overall microphone for voices is the Shure SM-5D.

For mic pre’s, the API 312 is my favorite, bar none. Peavey makes a dual tube microphone preamp that sounds great. The Peavey tube preamp and the Behringer Composer make an affordable combination for most people that is great. If they can’t get a Shure SM-5, they can get Shure SM-7s, which are still available.

With analog tape, you have to be really careful not to hit the tape too hard with the vocal, because it can really do terrible things to it. In the same manner, it’s important not to get too low of a level. I usually like to have my vocal peaking out at zero on a VU meter. It depends on what tape you are using and how you have it set, but I am in this case referring to 499 set at +5 over 250; it’s what most everyone uses now on 499 and the new BASF 900, which I personally like better because it’s quieter and has more energy to it.

CSABA PETOCZ
Csaba Petocz is one of Nashville’s hottest producer/engineers; he produced John Michael Montgomery’s most recent, Platinum-selling project, which generated three Number One country hits. Petocz’s credits are also wide-ranging, including artists like Stevie Nicks, Metallica and Concrete Blonde.

I don’t think there is any such thing as the perfect vocal mic. It’s just different mics for different people. You should just understand what each different mic sounds like and how it changes the sound of the human voice, and then obviously select the mic that enhances the sound of the voice.

You should go out on the floor and hear the person sing, hear what it is that they do and what part of their voice is really special. Obviously, if the person is worth recording, there is a uniqueness there, and you should really try to highlight that aspect of the vocal. Over the years, I have gotten to where I can hear a singer and know within one or two mics which should work.

If you’ve tried out three very expensive tube mics and you aren’t happy with any of them, then the next step should immediately be something at the other end of the scale, like a [Shure] SM-7. I will almost always guarantee you that if the expensive mic doesn’t work, an SM-7 will. You have to screw with EQ a little bit, but for some reason some people sound better on them.

I think that 80 percent of getting a good vocal is in giving the singer a good headphone mix. If you can make a singer enjoy singing and really hear what is going on with the small nuances in the voice by giving them a great headphone mix, you can get the artist to do 90 percent of your work. This is especially true if you can get them to be attuned to what it is that you would really like to hear. Most singers get challenged by it. Artists really get into the fact that you care enough to make it that two percent better.

More than anything that you record, the human voice is the thing that reacts most to small changes. You can really make a vocal sound significantly better by changing variables minutely. Having been in country music for about five years, I’ve learned that you can take a lot of liberties, but taking liberties with the vocal isn’t one of them. Country is not the genre to do that in. It just doesn’t work. The most hi-fi aspect of country has to be the vocals.

I went through so many years of doing “alternative” rock records that it is kind of nice to record something really well. I know it may be un-hip to say that, but I get off on the purity of it. Also, without any disrespect to any of the other musical forms, I think country and R&B have some of the most accomplished singers, and it is a lot more fun recording with someone who is a great singer.

Most recordings get it 95 percent of the way there. The challenge is to get that last extra percentage, and that is what separates great vocal sounds from everyone else’s. It’s more than just putting up an $8,000 microphone into a $2,000 preamp. That 95 percent is just meat-and-potatoes good recording, but the last five percent is about how to relate to this human being who is incredibly vulnerable in front of you singing and who trusts you enough to go in there and work hard enough to get that last five percent of the vocal that makes them sound just that much different than every other artist that is out there.

ERIC SCHILLING
Miami-based engineer/producer Eric Schilling has worked with Platinum-selling recording artist Gloria Estefan throughout her long career. He has also recorded Jon Secada, Cachao and others.

When you work with someone who is singing, it tends to be a one-on-one process. The whole key to me is to keep a rhythm so the singer never loses the flow. If you are working and they say, “Let’s go back to the verse and do lines two and three,” you want to be fast enough so that it happens in a seamless way. The moment you start going, “Oh no, I’ve got to figure out where I am, and I’ve got to fix some EQs,” they start drifting. Recording voices is one of the most fun things for me to do, and I love it when that “flow” is going.

When you’re working with someone who has a really “pure” voice, it can be harder for them when it comes to the issue of pitch, because there are fewer harmonics in their voice. You easily hear it when things fall from pitch. Just to cite a crude example, Karen Carpenter had to be really in tune, because she had a very pure voice, but you take a Bob Dylan, who has a kind of gruff voice, and he can move the pitch around a whole lot, because his voice has a very wide spread of overtones. It’s funny how you can find an album of someone like Dylan, who has that kind of voice, and though you hear some pitch problems, you don’t really mind it. On the other hand, if the voice is really pure, it can be very grating if it isn’t really in tune.

Concerning pitch correction tools, I think they have a use, but it is my preference that it gets used as the last thing that you do, and not the first thing that you do. I still like to see a person who is going to come in and work on the voice and not sing it through twice and say, “Well, you can fix it.” I don’t believe in that. I’ll use it to fix some minor things on a vocal performance that may have a great overall vibe, where the singer feels that he or she can’t top that level of performance again. Utilizing pitch correction at that point is probably fine. It is funny, but sometimes when you pull it too far in tune, it doesn’t feel right and it takes away the character of the performance.

I don’t believe that music is meant to be a perfect thing. When you sing, you don’t always sing exactly on the beat, or exactly in pitch all the time, just like if you were playing a fretless bass or anything else where you have some room to move. You have to be careful when you tamper with the recorded performance.

Generally, I am a big fan of the John Hardy mic pre’s, which I think are real neutral-sounding. I also like the Millennia and API. My first choice of compressor is a good LA-2A, if I can get my hands on one. Another compressor I really like a lot, which you don’t find that much anymore, is a Compex. It is a British-made compressor that used to be called a Vocal Stressor. I always cut flat, mainly because if they are going to come back and change a part or we recorded a month earlier and they want to re-cut some lines, I find that it isn’t as hard to match the sound if I cut it flat.

With many older mics, you have to be very careful about the room you’re in, because if you’re in too small of a booth, you’ll actually start to hear the sound of that booth, especially in the lower frequencies. They essentially behave like omnis in the lower range. So if I have somebody who is working on a tube mic and they are in a small room, I’m going to have them about one hand width (or five inches) away from the mic. I generally use a pop screen instead of a windscreen to keep the spit off of the microphone, and it keeps people from getting too close. I can always tell when they can’t hear enough in the ’phones, because they start to push the pop screen in closer to the mic.

Concerning singing with large groups, I guess I came from the school of putting up one microphone. When I came down to Florida, my old boss was doing The Eagles records. He would put up an omni, and they would stand around it and work until they got the balance.

I am not a huge fan of flying vocals in and that kind of stuff, but some people I’ve worked with will say, “Great, I’ll sing it once and you can fly it all in.” Nevertheless, if I can get them to sing the whole song through, that is my preference. I like doing it this way because the emotion changes. I just think there is a kind of stride that you hit as a background singer that is also playing into the song from an emotional point of view. If you listen to a background track that is sung the whole way next to a sampled track with the vocals flown in, the sampled track will sound static. As a result, the music will tend to feel more static, too. I see why people fly vocals in, but there is an emotional side to this that they are missing.






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