Recording Vocals | Start With the Singer

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

FOUR TOP ENGINEERS ON RECORDING LEAD VOCALS

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According to Joel Hamilton, you can make a singer feel relaxed by exuding confidence in your ability to capture their performance.

According to Joel Hamilton, you can make a singer feel relaxed by exuding confidence in your ability to capture their performance.

TAMING THE INPUT
Because 24-bit recording doesn’t require as much level to sound good as 16-bit or especially tape, the biggest challenge is keeping the loud peaks in check to prevent distortion that could ruin a take, or part of one. With that in mind, Reitzas, Araica, Brainard and Hamilton all compress to varying degrees on input.

“I use compression when I’m recording,” says Reitzas, “but just subtle: 1 or 2 or 3 dB of compression on the big stuff.”

“When I record vocals,” Araica adds, “I like to really lightly just touch on it, just enough to have some control. You can’t take the life away from it in the beginning process.”

Brainard goes for just slightly more. “The compression I use is just a basic [Empirical Labs] Distressor, and I try to get 3 or 4 dB of reduction.” He tracks through an Endless Analog CLASP system, which means the signal goes through analog tape before hitting Pro Tools. “Now I’m doing all CLASP, and I can’t go back. It’s like night and day as far as what I can do sonically. It just shaves off all those harsh transients.”

Hamilton uses his input compressor, a Neve 33609, mainly for catching peaks. “I wind up with just a little bit, but it’s more like limiting,” he says. “Super-fast release time, super-fast attack time. In the heaviest of sessions, it’s probably pulling back 5 dB in the loudest bit.”

Another way to control vocal-session dynamics is to ride the levels from the control room during the take. “I’m not afraid to ride the level knob on my preamp as we’re recording,” Reitzas says. “Sometimes you get the advantage of knowing the song before it’s recorded, so you know what to expect. An artist will practice in the control room before, and you get an idea of what they’re going to sing. With Streisand, I’m constantly riding the preamp gain. With her, it’s usually quiet verses and big, dramatic choruses.”

Araica adjusts her Tube-Tech CL 1B compressor as needed during the song. “I just use the output,” she says, “or adjust the threshold not to hit as hard. That opens it up even more.”

Hamilton points out that like guitar amps, mic preamps often sound better when set above certain gain levels, and it’s important to set yours to deliver its best tone. “Think about when you’re playing through a Fender Twin,” he says. “Put it on 1 and it sounds like crap. Put it on 3 and it sounds amazing. There’s a point where amplifiers open up and start to show their colors. And that’s absolutely true of a Neve 1073 or a 1066, or a Manley, or whatever you’re using. There’s going to be a point in that amplifier’s gain range where it just starts to rock for vocals. And if you need to, throw something after it [before it hits the converters] to attenuate. I think people would be surprised because they end up with an API turned all the way down and the pad engaged, and somehow their 87 doesn’t have any ‘air.’”

As for EQ’ing on input, Araica prefers not doing so, if at all possible. “You might never see this artist again,” she says. “You’ve got to keep everything safe as possible. In my belief, if it goes in clean, you have nothing to worry about.”

Reitzas typically uses an NTI EQ3 or the new Maag EQ4 in his vocal chain. “The texture I get from those EQs is so important to the vocal sound that I want that quality to be recorded, especially for when I am only called in to record the vocal. This way, the sound is there no matter who takes over on the rest of a project.”

Brainard inserts an API 550B equalizer in his chain. “Usually, I’m just notching a little bit of low end out of the vocal,” Brainard says. “I don’t play with the high end going to tape.” (See sidebar “Chain Reaction.”)






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