Audio engineering and production is an art and one of the most technically demanding areas of the art is vocal recording. Vocal performance recording - on a general level - is taught in recording and engineering programs of most colleges and universities, around New York and California. I learned some useful information from the Institute of Audio Research, however what I am about to share with you came from painstaking hours in the school of hard- knocks.
The human voice is naturally forward and present to our hearing system. And the equal loudness contours show us that we hear the human voice three to four times louder than the greater part of the human hearing spectrum.
This is important because in a musical production, the human voice not only tells the story of the song, by communicating the emotions and sentiment through language and other expressions, but it naturally wants to be heard above all else because of its frequency range. To get the best sounding vocal recording, a producer or engineer must start with the vocal performance.
We all have recorded our voices at one point or another, but getting a professional sounding vocal performance “on tape” is a different task. I’ve set aside part of the article for a very informal, fun and candid interview with my wife Michelle, a singer/songwriter that I’ve had the privilege to work with for several years. This will offer some insight into the vocalist’s point of view from the other side of the glass. Then we’re going to discuss in detail, how to get a high quality and professional vocal recording.
Getting Your Sounds
As we move closer to actually recording our vocalist we’ll need to find the kind of sounds we want to enhance their recorded performance. This is often a decision made by the producer. There is an artistic value on selecting microphones, microphone pre-amplifiers and any other outboard gear like limiter/compressors and equalizers. The artistic value of these decisions is high because choosing these tools will shape the recorded vocal and influence the overall record to some degree, though none more than the actual performance.
Choosing the right tools for the job comes with experience. Ultimately, what sounds good is a matter of taste, seasoned producers and engineers pride themselves on having a taster’s choice. Many times I’ve been asked, ‘what is the best microphone for vocals?’ But this isn’t a fair question, because the best microphone is the microphone that sounds best for the application. It really doesn’t matter if it is the most expensive or least expensive. If it sounds good, it is good and the same goes for outboard gear as well as microphones.
A monitor mix or headphone mix will greatly affect a vocal performance. These monitor mixes are sometimes overlooked for more gaudy and expensive gear oriented fixes, but it actually plays a huge factor in a recording. The headphone mix can alter the timing and pitch of the performer as well as enhance the overall vibe and draw out more emotion.
I’ll tend to use a mono cue mix, with three musical elements – after the Rule of Three – and a little compression to give it a small, but audible bump. Cueing the mix in mono keeps the monitor simple for the vocalist to follow. The compression brings the attitude out of the mix and becomes a musically suggestive element that the vocalist responds to.
Technically headphone mixes are burdensome for those using only digital interfaces as their front end tools. These digital interfaces are often limited to latency issues during a recording session, so you will need to find a reasonable solution to any possible latency problems that may occur during your vocal and instrument recordings.
Getting the Mood Right
In addition to a comfortable monitoring solution, there are other ways you as the producer/engineer will need to make your vocalist comfortable. Here we have a 16 minute interview with vocalist Michelle, where we discuss what conditions make a vocalist most comfortable in the recording studio. You will need to find out what those conditions are for each vocalist in order to bring out their best performance.
In the interview with Michelle we learn that as a vocalist, she feels most comfortable singing alone; she also likes to feel support from a few close family members and friends. As a result I often give dim lighting and a two-seat couch about 3 or 4 meters behind her where her sister or someone close may sit comfortably for added support.
You may need to have a light and friendly conversation with everyone asking them to keep the coaching and instructional dialogue primarily between you and the vocalist. But in Michelle B’s case a little instructional boost from her sister, another singer/songwriter is often helpful.
Professional vocalists are accustomed to singing in front of people. However, no artist likes to feel like they are in a fishbowl awaiting critique. So try to keep the environment as free and natural as possible, yet still providing constructive and positive feedback for the recording session.
Microphone Selection and Placement
There is no one microphone that is perfect for every application. After getting the mood right you’ll have to make some key decisions that will affect your real recording. You’ll need to listen to your vocalist rehearse, get an idea of his or her voice and find the kind of microphone that will work best for the singer and the song.
You’ll want to try a number of microphones and usually a variety of microphone pre- amplifiers as well. Before testing these combinations you’ll want to gauge what kind of sound you are looking for. I usually ask myself the following questions when selecting a microphone for a vocal:
- Do I want the vocal recorded warm, transparent or open?
- Do I want the vocalist’s attitude intimate, remote or edgy?
- Which qualities of the singer’s voice do I want to express?
- Which qualities of the singer’s voice do I want to suppress?
- What is the singer’s dynamic range? Do they have good mic technique?
- Do they avoid excess movement? Can they control plosives?
I like to consider these things when selecting a microphone, microphone preamp and when making decisions on placement. For example, if I want an intimate sound I might select a cardioid, LDC tube condenser, pop filter and use the proximity-effect where the vocalist is only 3 – 5 centimeters from the capsule on-axis. Conversely, a more distant or remote sound would work best with a figure-eight pattern, ribbon microphone at 3 – 5 meters from the ribbon on-axis.
For me as a producer, I like large diaphragm tube condensers with cardioid polar patterns used often but are not exclusive to vocal recordings. I may use a dynamic mic; a ribbon mic or an SDC, FET condenser with an omni polar pattern. It all depends on the sound I’m looking. There are times where a little experimentation leads to a very happy accident and who knows maybe your decision will be the next addition to the league of taster’s choice microphones for vocal recordings.
Vocal Performance Coaching
Getting the best performance from a vocalist is not an isolated effort by the vocalist. It is more closely related to a team effort. Have you ever watched golf? OK, maybe golf is not the most exciting sport on American television but looking closely at a golf tournament you will notice that there is something similar to our experience recording a vocalist in the studio.
In golf you have a game of precision, just as a vocalist in their performance. Also, in golf you have a single player running their course, using different types of clubs to hit ball accurately into the holes with as few strokes as possible. Whereas our vocalist uses various vocal stylings to accurately project a story in song with believable emotion with as few takes as possible. And like the caddy, the producer often acts as a coach, partner and second pair of eyes for the golfer. But in our case, it is an extra pair of ears.
Communicating lofty intangible ideas to a vocalist is probably the hardest part of vocal performance coaching. It requires a producer/engineer to leave behind the technical jargon and gear oriented approach to music for a moment. You’ll need to be able to communicate these intangibles in way that the vocalist can understand and translate into the recording.
Conrad Askland a musician and well- travelled music producer suggests, if you are producing a legitimate vocal track for a “singer singer”, ‘It is important to know how hard you can work them and what their limits are.’ Vocalist and musicians often understand things visually and will be able to make better results if they can visualize the end goal.
For example, if your vocalist’s voice sounds thin you may want to suggest that they get a fuller sound by opening up their chest and allowing their voice to come from deep within. Similarly, to support your vocalist if they are having trouble projecting, you can urge them to sing through the wall as though it could be heard on the other side. If the emotion is not coming through, help the vocalist to connect to the lyrics. If the song is about death or loss of some sort ask them if they have ever lost anyone? And if so to think about that person while singing and imagine the song is about them.
These simple steps will make the vocalist feel supported and help to keep the environment positive as the two of you move closer toward your goal, the recorded vocal performance.
A vocal comp is when you take the best parts from all of your vocal takes, edit them and join them to make a single recorded vocal performance. You can start by getting a lyric sheet and marking off where the vocal lines are sectioned into regions (borrowing Pro Tools editing terminology). Then give a letter to each take, for instance if there’s a total of 7 takes, label them A – G*. This is easy to do in Pro Tools using the Playlist feature.
I will have the vocalist go with me and we will select the best regions for the entire composite vocal together. I believe this is a practice that not only helps to build a vocalist’s trust and confidence in a producer but also helps the producer to understand how a vocalist hears herself and what she ultimately wants to convey in her performance. This is very helpful information for future projects. If everyone is happy after editing the vocal comp you’ll want to bounce the track to make a master vocal track.
*Note: The labeling system works better with complete takes. So try to make complete takes as much as possible.
In conclusion, we see that recording a professional vocal performance is not effortless fun. In fact, it is a lot of work from beginning to end. I believe that lists are very helpful tools for study as long as you don’t allow them to rule your life so the following list is just a summary of what we’ve discussed in this article for your reference:
- Think about the song and get your sounds together in your mind.
- Setup a headphone mix for your vocalist using only three musical elements.
- Set the mood and make your vocalist comfortable. Make the environment supportive for a great performance.
- Make your microphone selection and placement decisions count. Listen first to three combinations and then go from there.
- Be nice and communicate the needs of the song to the vocalist so that she can visualize it.
- Involve your vocalist in the editing process and work together to choose the best parts.
We have covered a lot of ground here which requires a lot of effort to muddle through. However, I’m confident that the suggestions in this article will get you well on your way to a great sounding vocal recording which in the end will be more fun and better sounding too.
Topping, Ewin. sae0035.jpg. 2007
Successful Techniques For Recording Vocals. Electronic Musician. 2005
Askland, Conrad. “Tips on Producing Vocals”. 2008
Hakim Callier (@HakimCallier) is a music producer based in New York. He works as a mixer and audio engineer and has mixed or remixed music from Kristin Hersh, Jeff Caylor and Robot Pop Garage. He is also a veteran songwriter and producer of urban alternative music. His songs have been published as TV and New Media content. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.