Capturing a great vocal take involves many technical factors, but it all starts with giving the singer the freedom to perform at his or her best.
Great vocal production is the magic ingredient on hits in all genres. But nailing that killer lead vocal track is often easier said then done. In this article, well explore some tried and true recording techniques and then check in with a few top flight engineer/producers on how they go about chasing that perfect take.
Let’s face it, vocalists are a fickle—and emotional—bunch. Since their voices will usually be the loudest and most scrutinized aspect of any mix, the pressure is often squarely on their shoulders to deliver the goods when that light goes red. On some sessions they may be feeling it; on some they may not. It’s not as simple as putting that mic up and expecting them to get the part done in an hour. But with a few wellthoughtout preparations and the proper recording environment, you can turn the odds of capturing a great part in your favor.
Before the Session
While preparation is key to any type of recording, it may be even more essential when tracking vocals. A conversation with the singer a few days before the session can help you set up the room so they feel comfortable, creative, and inspired. Details matter: Do they like the lights up high or dimmed? Air conditioning off or on? Do they want a music stand or not? Are they okay having the mic on a stand or do they want a handheld like they use onstage? How about headphones? Open ear or closed? Do they like loud mixes? How about a little reverb? These small but significant items can be discussed ahead of time and create a smoother session once things start to roll.
Vocalists need to warm up before singing, but some feel a little self conscious about doing their exercises in public. Ask if they need a little privacy before they’re ready to go.
To many engineers, giving a vocalist a good headphone mix is more important than almost any other aspect of the session—including the choice of microphone. A singer’s ability hear themselves clearly is paramount for proper intonation. Make sure to check your lines ahead of time so that if they walk in and want to roll immediately, you’re up and running. I can’t tell you how many sessions have come to a halt because of faulty cables and/or headphone mini jacks not working. Check them, and then recheck them.
If the singer likes like a loud mix, make sure you have enough gain on your headphone amp to deliver it without distortion. If you have something like a Digidesign 003 or Mbox, which may not have enough gain at the headphone output, pick up an inexpensive headphone preamp that can get the job done. Note that different models of headphones require may different gain levels to get “loud.” Again, test this out on your own time.
The next step is to set up the monitor mix. On some systems, you are stuck feeding the vocalist a basic stereo mix and hoping for the best. However, if you have an audio interface with multiple outputs, the latest versions of many DAWs allow independent control room and studio cue mixes, with the latter going just to the vocalist. That will allow you to add or subtract any tracks the vocalist may wish to hear. You can also add reverb to the vocalist’s mix (should they desire it) without washing out the sound in the control room. If you can’t have two mixes, remember that when tracking, it’s all about what they want, not what you want.
Once you’ve got the vocalist in the room and the mic is set up and ready, ask them to give you a warm up pass while you get levels. If you’ve prepared by checking the mic and getting a baseline level before the vocalist arrives, you should be able to track the warmup with proper levels and go for a keeper right out of the gate. Don’t even tell the singer you’re recording, as there will be no pressure.
Many such “first passes” become final takes, since it’s often a relaxed performance, unhindered by over-thinking. On a recent session, I did just that: When the singer asked me if we were ready to go, I said, “We’re done!” She did the whole pass and it was a keeper. Of course, she wanted to do a few more takes (singers!), but we ended up using 95% of the first one. All because I was ready before she got to the session.
Another thing I’ve found to work incredibly well with singers is to have them sing in the control room right next to you. If the acoustics are good enough, it adds an amazingly intimate vibe to a vocal performance, and allows you to watch their eyes and see what they are feeling. It also makes them feel less enclosed, versus standing in a vocal booth behind a big thick piece of glass. You can also see up close how they work the mic, and instead of using compression, actually ride the gain of the preamp along with them.
A small but important detail is to make sure to have lyric sheets prepared for each vocal session. It’s an invaluable guide for punching in. Nobody wants to stand around while you fumble to find the in point, especially when creativity is flowing. You can use colored markers to underline passages that should be done over as you go along. It also helps to write the location (in bars and beats or in time code) for each verse, chorus, bridge, etc. to make it easier to locate punch points as the session moves along.
Finally, remember that singing can be physically taxing. Keep an assortment of teas and honey on hand. Many singers will bring their own, but it never hurts to be prepared. Make room temperature water available, as well. It helps keep the throat moist and soothed. (That icy bottle of Poland Spring in the fridge is not ideal for singers.)
While some people feel that you can only capture a great lead vocal with an expensive large-diaphragm condenser, the truth is much less cut-and-dried. In fact, the topic of which mic and which preamp to use is almost too subjective to cover in an article such as this, and even if you have a personal preference, be aware that no one combination will work for all vocalists. U2’s Bono will sometimes use a $100 SM58 dynamic handheld in the control room; Phil Collins can sound great with a Beyer M88 ribbon mic. Others will need the classic large diaphragm condensers like the Neumann U87 and U67 or Sony C800G.
EXPERIENCED SINGERS MAY ALREADY KNOW WHAT MIC MAKES THEM SOUND THEIR BEST, SO MAKE SURE YOU ASK IN YOUR PRE-SESSION PREP AND YOU CAN HAVE ONE READY.
While some of these mics can be very expensive to buy outright, you could rent one for a session and factor that into your fee. Experienced singers may already know which mic makes them sound their best, so make sure you ask in your pre-session prep and have one ready. (Even if you don’t agree, if they’re comfortable with the mic, they’ll sing better—so try to make it work!).
As for preamps: While some engineers like the soft spongy sound of a tube unit, many solid state models can deliver sharper transients, which can help vocals punch through a mix. The only way to know what’s right for each session is to test out a few combinations. Just be sure to do this on your own time. Once the singer is ready to perform, you must be ready to record.
Paul Antonell, an award-winning engineer/producer and owner of Clubhouse Studios in Rhinebeck, New York, explains that the first thing he does is listen closely to the tonal quality of the voice. “Once I hear the singer, I can determine whether we should use a bright or a dark mic. I also prefer mics that are quiet, since not all of them are.”
Before the singer arrives, Antonell prepares and checks the headphones mix, but also uses a Langevin /Manley headphone mixer that allows the singer to tweak the balance to his or her liking. “I will typically place the vocal, guitar, bass, keyboards, drums and even a little reverb each on their own fader, so the singer can actually dial in their own mix,” he says. “Making sure they have a great overall cue mix is critical.” Antonell also uses a pop filter. “The main reason I do, in addition to protecting from the ’plosives, is to keep moisture off the diaphragm of the microphones.” He says. “Over the years, that really helps preserve the original character of your mics.
Engineer/mixer/producer Gary Tole (Bon Jovi, David Bowie, Elton John, Whitney Houston), however, feels that pop filters can get in the way. “I will try not to use one if I can get away with it,” he says. “There are other tricks that sound better than a pop filter—like taping a pencil across the capsule to alleviate the pops. If all else fails I will use one of the new popper stoppers that go in front of the microphone. I never use the pop filters that go over the microphone unless absolutely necessary.” Yet while sound is important, engineers must avoid distracting the singer by making too many adjustments once he or she is ready to go. “The most important aspect to me is the performance—bar none,” Tole says. “You can have all the technical aspects right but if the performance isn’t emotive and inspirational, the song will always fall flat—no pun intended.
“This biggest tip I can give is, spend some time getting your singer to be comfortable— no matter what it takes. Because as soon as they are comfortable it will make your job a lot easier. That doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with different mics and preamps; but let your singer be aware of what you are doing and try not to burn him or her out.” Ultimately, your technical skills as an engineer will be most effective if you keep the session as relaxed and spontaneous as possible. “Record everything!” Tole says. “You never know what might happen on the first run through, whether your levels are right or not. You can fix that 90% of the time, but you can’t ‘fix’ an amazing performance.”