RECORDING VOCALS / a guide to help singers leave the studio with the sound you want

After yet another mix session that included me cursing out the recording engineer for leaving me with the job of taking a horrible recording and making it sound full and natural I started writing this.  This particular vocal was either dull or a shrill pierce with very little in between, and the volume averaged at -25 with peaks at a whopping -12 db.  Yay.

I decided to empower the singers themselves.  Some of this information is repeated from the previous unit, but targeted at the singer rather than the engineer.

Singers are so worried about their performance that they often ignore the sound the engineer is getting.  This is understandable, but dangerous if you are not working with an engineer who has rightfully earned your trust or a producer that knows how to get good sounds as well as good performances (there is a huge number of really good producers that are horrible engineers).  You can potentially end up with good notes but a crap sound.

As a recording engineer I consider capturing vocals a sacred art.  As a mixing engineer I prefer to be able to enhance emotions rather than surgically repair bad recordings…which I find frustrating because it keeps me from being able to do my real job of helping the song and performances reach their maximum potential expression.

I suggest that you TEST rather than automatically TRUST.

1. KNOW YOUR VOICE.  You need to know if your voice gets peaky at certain volumes or note ranges.  To do this, record yourself on anything (even a cell phone) at different ranges of volume, different ranges of notes, and even different syllables (“ooo” and “ah” will not produce the same frequency peak as “eeeee”). 

Peaks in frequency are not a bad thing, but something that needs to be strongly taken into consideration when choosing a mic.  There are certain bright mics that are wonderful for a hushed, soft vocal part but would sheer off your eyebrows when the singer opens up.  Knowing where and how your voice peaks will make it easier and faster for you to be able to choose a mic that captures the parts of your voice that you like while de-emphasizing the parts that you may not like as much.  Remember I am not saying to avoid peaks but rather be aware of how the sound of your voice changes between extremes.

2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT MIC.  Now that you know your voice, when you are testing out microphones in the studio you should demonstrate the extremes your voice goes through on EVERY DECENT MIC in the studio.  Never assume that the most expensive mic is the right one for your voice.   Unfortunately many small or home studios have that ONE “good” mic that is used for everything.

If you do not trust the Engineer or Producer, record a track with each mic you try.  This will take a little time, which is why it is better to work with people that can assess each mic when you are on it and suggest the right mic themselves. Of course sing the song you are about to perform, but be sure to also record a little bit where you push your voice to the extremes you understand are possible (even if those parts are not planned).  In other words, be aware that while the mic might be good for most of the song it may be really ugly for that loud spontaneous ad-lib. 

Listen back to each track, and judge for yourself.  Of course the sound can be changed while mixing, but there are certain things that are easier to change, depending on the technology used.  In my opinion when working in digital it is far easier to add upper midrange and top than to add meat and bottom so PLEASE err on the side of a warm vocal sound rather than a shrill one.

3. CHOOSE THE RIGHT MIC PRE.  The microphone pre-amp will color the sound of the mic.  Like with the mic choice, my preference is warmth when recording.  This is nothing new, even when working analog I always insisted on using an old warm Neve to record rather than an SSL. Once I captured that warmth on tape I was then able to then mix on the SSL and take advantage of the additional flexibility of the board.  With digital it is that much more important to record things with warmth.

4. CHOOSE THE RIGHT COMPRESSOR AND COMPRESSION AMOUNT.  A compressor will control volume so you do not overload (it will also change the sound itself by bringing forward certain parts of the sound).  Beware of over-compressing and test for it by singing really loud and percussive parts (you can avoid this if you are singing a song that will stay soft and NEVER open up like that, but if there is even a remote chance that the song will go in a stronger direction be ready for it).  Stick to minimal amounts of compression (ratios of around 3:1 to 5:1, with the compressor threshold set to ignore the really quiet parts, slightly compress the mid volume parts, and kick in strongly only for the really really loud stuff).

5. LEVEL.  Your volume will be dynamic and change from soft to loud, but your recording level should have a strong signal at the loudest parts.  In analog, really quiet recordings mean hiss, so a healthy level is important.  In digital, people think there is no reason to be aware of their levels as long as they are not overloaded, but being too quiet can result in other issues such as extra noise.

6. GETTING THE SOUND YOU WANT FROM DIFFERENT STUDIOS.  Once you have found a mic, mic pre, and compressor that you feel captures the important parts of your voice, you have the right to request that gear when recording.  Granted, you should still test out what the studios have and be open minded to what you hear, but if you KNOW you like the sound of a U47 going into a Neve 1073 and then into an LA-2A (for example) you should communicate that to the engineer or producer you are working with.  Feel free to bring an example of the sound you are going for, so that even if you cannot use the gear you prefer you can aim for a comparable sound using the equipment at your disposal.

7. RECORD A TAKE AND LISTEN BACK.  You have only one more step before you can really focus on your vocal performance and that is to record one take and listen back.   Make sure you are warmed up before doing so.  If you are happy with the sound, great!  If you feel that there is something you are suspicious of then you need to re-assess things.  If your engineer tells you the shrill peak is no problem, and that it will be fixed in the mix, then unless you really trust them you should be wary.  “Fix it in the mix” is only valid if the performance is perfect but there is some unforeseen sound issue.  Otherwise that term is often used when what is really meant is “that will have to do since we do not have the gear, time, or ability to make it better now”.

8. SING YOUR SONG WITH CONFIDENCE IN THE SOUND.  Ok, you are now free to ignore anything that has to do with sound and give all your attention to the vocal. You may want to take a short break to really transition from one role to another.

I am fully aware that all the things I requested can have an effect on the duration of your session, and the patience of all involved.  However in my mind it is well worth it if you can walk out of the studio confident in the sound as well as the performances.

** THE EXCEPTIONS TO ALL THESE THINGS ARE IF YOU ARE GOING FOR A SPECIFIC SOUND THAT YOU ARE SURE YOU WANT IN THE MIX.  Remember you can always add more compression later if you want a more pumping sound but you can never remove compression.