Recording Vocals | Start With the Singer

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



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Dave Brainard’s secret for success with singers is to coax them into correcting themselves rather than having it come from him.

Dave Brainard’s secret for success with singers is to coax them into correcting themselves rather than having it come from him.

“To me the biggest thing in working with singers is more psychological, where you allow singers to self-correct,” says Brainard, “getting a singer to be creative and compelled, and inspired, and [feeling] like they own it, as opposed to reacting to what they think you think is good. That’s the worst place for a singer to be. For me that’s the key to everything.”

Reitzas takes a similar tack. “I stay positive and enthusiastic all the time,” he says. “I am focusing on what I hear that I love. I’m not spending my energy hearing what’s wrong. A lot of artists are very hard on themselves. They’ll do, say, a couple of lines in a verse, miss a few notes and then start bumming because they didn’t get it the way they had hoped for. But I’m listening for the two or three great moments that are definitely ‘keepers’ that sometimes get overlooked.”

When a singer is having problems, especially with pitch, adjusting the headphone mix can go a long way. “I will have the main keys or the piano [on a fader] close to me so that I can push that up in their phones on spots that will help them zero in on the pitch,” says Reitzas. “I am also ready to raise the hi-hat or a loop for help with rhythm. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to encourage and teach singers who don’t have good mic technique to use the mic to their advantage by getting in close on intimate phrases, and backing off slightly or turning their head slightly on the big dynamic phrases.”

You have to be careful pointing out pitch problems with some singers, who then might end up focusing on it so much that it messes up the rest of their performance. But unless you feel that the pitch issues can be dealt with using post-session tuning, ignoring it probably won’t help either. “It’s like watching somebody running into a wall,” says Hamilton. “I’m not going to tell them to ‘run faster into the brick wall and see if you make it through this time.’ It’s like you can steer them around that roadblock with either technology—changing the headphones, physically changing the environment—or having them come listen to how it’s reading and they usually internalize it right away.”

In the pop/R&B/hip-hop world that Araica works mostly in, it’s not uncommon for artists to monitor through pitch correction in their cans while they’re singing. Although it can introduce some latency into the cue mix, many singers still want it. “There are some artists where that’s the only way they can work,” Araica says.

Vocal tuning technology has made it less imperative for the vocalist to nail every note from a pitch standpoint, at least in some genres. “On modern music where tuning is part of the vibe, I’m totally cool with that,” says Reitzas of vocal tuning. “On true, honest, singer/songwriter music, I don’t like to hear any artifacts.”

Araica, Brainard, Hamilton and Reitzas all say that how you place the vocal mic in relation to the singer varies based on the circumstances of the session. When pressed for their “typical” setup, the four offered some slightly different techniques. “I have a pop stopper about an inch away from the mic,” says Brainard. “I have them sing about two inches away from that, unless there’s a lot of low end, in which case I’ll have them back off another two inches.”

Reitzas and Araica like to start with the mic angled down a little bit, with the singer about four to five inches from the mic. “I usually will put the mic at nose level and then aim it at the mouth,” says Reitzas, who also likes using a very small pop filter to avoid impeding his sightlines with the singer.

Hamilton says he typically prefers an even closer starting point, “so that the capsule is literally like a lollipop in front of the person’s mouth,” he says. “It depends on the shockmount, but as close as the singer can comfortably get, without knocking the thing into the shockmount 100 times with his or her nose—meaning the shockmount is almost touching the pop screen.”

Mike Levine is a New York–area recording musician and music journalist. He’s the former editor of Electronic Musician.

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