Recording Vocals | Start With the Singer

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



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Dave Reitzas says it’s more productive to focus on what a singer is doing well during a session rather than dwelling on what they’re doing wrong.

Dave Reitzas says it’s more productive to focus on what a singer is doing well during a session rather than dwelling on what they’re doing wrong.

Knowing which of your mics and pre’s are most flattering for which types of voices and musical styles will give you a big advantage when it comes to choosing the appropriate ones in advance. One thing you want to avoid is spending a lot of time testing out vocal mics and other vocal-chain components while the singer is there.

“My goal is to make the first mic choice the right mic choice,” says Reitzas. “So with my 26 years of experience, I have a sonic imprint in my brain of what hundreds of microphones sound like and which mic would be a good pairing with the singer, especially if it’s someone I’ve worked with before whose sound I’m familiar with. But I basically will pick the mic that I think will work best for the singer and the song, with the intention that the moment they open their mouth, that’s what we’re keeping. There’s so much spontaneity and magic in a first take that you have to have your s**t together to be able to use that.”

Hamilton says he typically has three mics set up before the session starts, but makes his choice quickly. “I don’t even bother with a whole take,” he says. “Usually when somebody steps in front of it and starts talking, it’s as if the glass comes down and you just hear them the way they were just talking to you in the room.”

To give the mics a fair comparison, he uses the same chain for all three mics. “I’ll switch the patch rather than have three mics through three different pre’s,” he says, not wanting to add more variables to the process. “I’d rather just hear the singer. He or she is the variable, and the performance is the variable, and I’m looking for constants at that point.”

He also concurs with Reitzas that it’s best not to spend much time experimenting with different mics at the risk of missing a good take. “You don’t try 50 different cameras right as the bus is about to jump the canyon,” he says. “You go with it, and you do what you can afterward in the editing to tell the story in an engaging way. In general, I would say that I’d go with an inferior microphone choice and a killing take because there are 9 million ways we can make it shine later.”

Araica also sets levels very quickly. “It happens sometimes that they’re in the middle of doing levels and they do that money take,” she says. “I always record. Even if the music stops and they’re in there talking or just messing around, because sometimes they might do something really cool, or their mind might take them somewhere to do a different creative idea, and they’ll realize that they went somewhere, and say, ‘Oh my God, that was so cool, did you record that?’ And I’m like, ‘Yup.’”

Another item to check off your list before the session starts is setting up a good cue mix. Obviously, you’ll likely have to tweak it later at the singer’s request, but at least get something in place that sounds good to you and confirm that everything is working.

“I’ll get a great music mix in the control room,” says Reitzas, “using the same headphones that the singer is going to use and the same headphone box, and I’ll put my music on one gr oup fader and then I’ll pull that fader down. Then I go out to the mic and I do a mic check. I’ll get the level on the mic to where I can give it a little bit of volume and make sure that the sonics sound like I expect them to sound. Based on my experience, I’ll set the headphone box to where I think it’s going to be a perfect vocal level for the singer, including reverb and delay levels. I’ll get the vocal to sound perfect without the vocalist being there. Then, while at the mic, I’ll have the assistant in the control room push up the music fader until I think the music is at the right level. So 99 times out of 100, we’re ready to go right from the first note.”

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