Recording Vocals | Start With the Singer

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



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Reitzas, Brainard, Araica and Hamilton all stressed that the mics and components in their vocal chains depend on the singer and song. That said, they did offer up some of their typical vocal-chain components:

Brauner VM-1 or Audio-Technica 4060 with Telefunken tubes; mic pre: NTI PreQ3 or Maag PreQ4; EQ: NTI EQ3 or Maag EQ4; compressor: Tube-Tech CL 1B

Rode Tube Classic, Audio-Technica 4060 or Peluso 2247 LE; mic pre: API 512; EQ: API 550B; compressor: Empirical Labs Distressor; tape-based input hardware: CLASP system

Neumann Fet 47, U87, U47, GT md 1 or Blue Mouse; mic pre’s: Neve 33114 1084 or 31102; compressor: Neve 33609

Sony C800, Neumann U67 or U87, Telefunken 251, Shure SM7 or SM58; mic pre’s: Martech MSS-10, Neve 1073 and 1084, Avalon 737; compressor: Tube-Tech CL 1B

Joel Hamilton on Recording Background Vocals

I spoke in depth with Brooklyn-based producer/engineer Joel Hamilton on his techniques for recording background vocals.

Is your approach for backing vocals totally different to lead vocals in terms of setup?
If it's the same person, meaning like if it's the singer singing their own harmonies, yes. If it's a different person in the band, I might just throw them on the mic and have them stand a foot back. I'm big on the idea of perspective, in the sense that you could turn down a vocal all day long, but if you recorded both people an inch away from the microphone, they'd both sound really close to the listener. Conversely, you can turn up a vocal that was recorded 10 feet away from the microphone, and it's never going to sound as close as the quiet one up close on the microphone. So I do like to position people in space so that you get a consistent image when they're done.

If you had multiple background parts to record with one singer, would you move him or her around?
Yeah, but subtly. Like put their cheek to the mic but still only—and these are all rough distances—six inches to a foot away, but like singing toward me at the glass instead of straight into the mic, sideways. Or singing toward the back wall even sometimes, just for an ambient take.

What kind of angle?
Forty five degrees, so literally it's at their ear. Singing across the diaphragm and it's amazing how different those two will sound when you pan those two off to the sides. Let's say for like a thickening in the chorus, I usually do it in threes, if I do it at all. If we're doing doubles, like unison doubles, it'll be in threes. There's the main vocal, and one for the people on the left and one for the people on the right of the arena [laughs].

Do you do that with lead vocals?
Again sometimes. Those were the de facto standards in the '90s rock scenario. I'm not doing it if it's a girl and a piano. But, yeah, definitely in a big rock record where the dynamics are actually defined by width as opposed to in amplitude terms alone. So meaning when you want the chorus to widen out like crazy because it makes it feel bigger and it wraps around the listener, even though technically it's not moving the needles any more than in the verse, especially post mastering. So if you want things to widen out, I'd rather get three discrete performances from the singer than just use a stereo delay for the backing vocals.

So the singer would triple it?
Yeah. Sometimes I'll even use the outtakes. If they've sung it a trillion times I won't even bother having them do a specific one. I'll use the outtakes as the doubles in the chorus, let's say, and maybe even pitch-correct those a little again if it's appropriate. Sometimes I even use pitch correction to create a double, and even draw it in—actually draw in the double so that it feels like an exact rhythmic unisonbut with slightly different pitch. Not even because it was better or worse, just to move the pitch around a little bit.

If you have a group background vocal, would you typically use one mic in omni?
If they're singing at the same time, I'll probably do something like figure-8, separating two groups of three with low and high or something. I just did a record with a group called the Parkington Sisters. And we ended up with two figure-8s in a Blumlein configuration. And the way those vocals sum in the air is just something that you could never do with five faders. It's incredible. It gave me the chills every single time, the way those two capsules were being engaged. Some of them were single microphones, but never in omni. I rarely do that. I will put it in figure-8 and group people shoulder to shoulder, facing each other like three on three or two on three. That way, I can back up the melody side, and I can get my distances and put a piece of tape on the floor that's like for the two higher voices and then the three that are doing supporting.

However the harmony works, you can usually compartmentalize it into melody and support. And I'll do that because it's easier, even semantically in the headphones, to say, "bass side back up" and we'll get the balance that way.

In a more generic situation, where it's not sisters, would you still do the same thing with group vocals?
It depends how they sing together. If it's four dudes doing barroom vocals, yes, if there's really distinct intervals where we need to concentrate on each one to make sure that nobody's poisoning the well [laughs]. Because sometimes you get four people in there and you can't work on the middle interval ever again. If they're killing it on one mic, sure, but if they're not, then it's an individual divide-and-conquer situation.

Why not omni in a group vocal situation? It sounds good in theory.
That's because everyone has seen the drawing of a circle around the microphone, and you think of omni as being everywhere, but it sounds like crap. A trash can is a circle, too. You can't rely on the response sounding flattering for a vocal all the way around. I just think there's a lot of misconceptions about omni. If you put a 47 in omni and ask somebody to sing really close to the microphone, it sounds surprisingly cardioid, only worse. And with certain microphones, like my Soundelux U95, I can put that in omni and have somebody sing really close and it sounds gorgeous. But it's not just a guarantee that you’ll get what you had in cardioid mode, that you’ll get that somehow in a 360-degree [field], like a magic cardioid microphone that's aiming at 360 people's mouths in a circle. It just simply isn't true.

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