Recording Vocals | Start With the Singer

Aug 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Mike Levine



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From the breathy smoothness of Diana Krall to the growl of Tom Waits to the screams of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, no two singing voices are quite alike. For producers and engineers, the challenge is to find the most flattering way to capture a particular singer’s sound. But successful vocal recording requires more than engineering skill; you also need psychological chops. Coaxing the best performance from a singer is often a lot trickier than selecting the right vocal chain.

There are plenty of different approaches when it comes to recording vocals. While there are areas of general agreement—make the singer comfortable, provide a good cue mix and use a quality vocal chain—when you drill down, you find that producer/engineers all have their own individual techniques, or at least variations of standard ones that they use to capture the best vocal possible.

There’s a lot more you can do before a vocal session than simply setting up a mic and making sure you can hear the cue mix and mic output in the artist’s cans. Whenever possible, learn as much as you can about the singer and the music so you can make the best choices in terms of vocal chain, vibe and psychological approach.

“Preparation to me means I actually visualize myself in the session from the moment I walk in the door until the end of the day,” says engineer Dave Reitzas (Barbra Streisand, Seal, Guns ‘N Roses, Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli, to name just a few). “I do a mental walkthrough, a training for my mind for what to expect.

“I walk through problems that could arise, like maybe the headphones aren’t right. So I want to make sure that I have another pair of headphones, ready to fix that problem. I want to have option microphones available, I want to have option preamps, option everything—plan B, maybe plan C for anything that could arise. I’ll do a little Internet research and see if there are any kinds of quirks or references or stories, or maybe the artist works with an engineer that I know, and I might give a phone call, and say, ‘Anything I should know about this artist?’ So it’s basically just a little homework to give me an edge in making the session flow seamlessly.”

Foreknowledge of the artist can help you choose the appropriate mic, or at least help winnow the mic choice in advance. “I’ll kind of narrow it down, just by knowing what they sound like based on pre-production or a previous record that I’ve heard,” says New York City–based engineer Joel Hamilton (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Pretty Lights, Sparklehorse and more), “or if it’s just the scratch vocal that I’ve heard during basic tracking.”

“More than likely I’ll already have the music if I’m recording the vocal,” points out Miami-based Marcella Araica (Missy Elliot, Joe Jonas, Nelly Furtado, Usher and many others). “I like to get a sense for the feel and tone and what the range is, and that really determines what type of mic I use and what preamp.”

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