Vocal recording is often the final step in the music recording process. The engineer and the producer have to work as a team to get the desired vocal sound from the vocalist. It is very important that the communication between the two is established well before they bring the vocalist into the studio for a recording session. In fact, there are a lot of things that need to be established before bringing the vocalist into the studio to record. Here we will walk you through some techniques to consider during the vocal recording process.
Pre-production is the time you take to come up with a game plan before the actual recording session. When setting up your ProTools session for vocal tracking, it is very important that you tempo map, set location markers for song sections, route signals for time-based effects, and set up a reference track or demo. If you do not tempo map, you won’t be able to fly vocals. Tempo mapping allows us to edit the grid regardless of whether the song was tracked to a click or not. It also allows you to use a click track in your session. Without this prepared, you will seem slow. Once you get to know the artist you’ll be working with, you can set up their preferred headphone mix.
Understanding what type of vocalist you are working with is a crucial first step to figuring out which microphone and technique is going to work best for the session. Take the time to get to know your artist and their genre. If they are used to singing EDM with lots of reverb, you might want to throw some in their headphone mix to improve performance. If they are more of a classic Adele type singer, they might not want as much reverb, if any, in their headphone mix. Listen to the vocalist perform and take note of their voice characteristics. Listen for general volume level, how loud they can project, their dynamic range, frequency range, and if they have any problems with sibilance or popping. Do they tend to sing close to the microphone? If they do and are insistent on recording like that, then you will have limited options when choosing a microphone to record with. Beware that if your singer has too much dynamic range for the recording chain there will be distortion. In order to prevent this distortion and overloading of the signal chain, you will need to place a dynamic processor, such as a compressor or a limiter, on their vocals while tracking. However, be careful not to over-compress, because once you record with compression it’s permanent. A good starting point for your compressor is between 2:1 to 4:1 ratio, with a medium-medium fast attack around 3-5 ms, and a fast release at about 5-10 ms.
We like to use the Urei 1176LN compressor when recording vocals. If there is sibilance in their voice, try using a de-esser to lessen the ‘S’ sounds. Place a pop filter in front of the microphone to help to reduce plosive, popping sounds when the vocalist sings Ps and Bs. Another technique for reducing pops is by placing the microphone even with the vocalist’s eyes and pointing it down towards the lips. Changing the pick-up pattern to omnidirectional can help, as well, because it eliminates the proximity effect. The proximity effect is the increase of bass frequencies as a directional microphone comes closer to the sound source. Some artists like the increase of bass frequencies this can provide, but others could do without it. If you are working with an artist who doesn’t want the increase of bass frequencies, you can have them stand about 5-8 inches away from the microphone. Ask the vocalist if they can provide you with a recording for you to reference how they would like to sound. It’s usually not too hard to mimic a particular sound, as long as you and the artist are willing to take the time to experiment.
If you think about it, the human voice is the only instrument with a living conscious! Vocalists put themselves out there and are completely vulnerable in the moment of their performance. Vocal recording is unique for this reason, and because singing is one of the most ego-sensitive means of making music, it becomes much more of a mind game for the producer and the engineer. In order for the vocalist to give their best performance, you should strive to be as encouraging as possible. If they are feeling good, the performance will be good, but if they are feeling bad, then the performance will reflect and be bad. A good performance is worth much more than any microphone or microphone technique. Provide the vocalist with constructive reinforcement when necessary, but always ensure that you are wording it in a positive manner. Do your best to make them feel as comfortable as possible. Whether that means dimming the lights or putting up movable acoustic isolation panels, also known as gobos, for privacy. Every artist is unique and has their own way of going about things. Try and accommodate them as much as possible for the sake of the recording. Keep in mind that there is no one microphone/technique that you should use when recording vocals because there are many different types of vocalists! Placing a microphone in front of a vocalist and having them sing doesn’t guarantee that it will sound good. Every voice is unique and each vocalist performs differently or desires a different sound. Recording studios have their own unique sound, too, and how the voice interacts with the room will vary. These are just a few of the many factors you will need to take into consideration throughout the duration of the vocal recording process.
Now that you have a good understanding of the vocals you will be recording, and how you want them to sound, you can effectively choose a microphone. The best microphone won’t always get the best vocal sound so try and be open to experimenting with different microphones. It is important to note that the pre-amp used during the recording process can play a huge role in the characteristics of your vocal. There’s a lot of different pre-amps on the market, however, we found what works best for us here at NRG are the Neve 31102’s in Studio A and the Neve 1073’s in Studio B. We have yet to find something quite like these. Once you find a pre-amp that works for you, you should consider which of the three microphones you want to use to track vocals.
Dynamic microphones, like the legendary Shure SM58 and SM7, will provide you with a warm, rugged sound, which could also be categorized as present or dirty. The presence is felt due to the peak in upper-mid frequencies, which helps the sound cut through the mix. This mid-boost can be filled out with the help of a close proximity bass boost. Some vocalists are used to singing into these microphones, keeping their vocal output at a fairly low level and using the microphones unique sound and proximity effect to give them a characteristic sound. Dynamic microphones tend to be the most robust in sound and build and are a popular choice for male rock singers because of this. Artists including Paramore, Green Day, The Killers, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen are known to use dynamic microphones for their vocals.
Ribbon microphones are the classic, old school “crooner” and “announcer” microphones, dating back to the 1920’s. They provide a smooth and mellow sound due to their good transient response and proximity effect. They have been used by many great vocalists from the swing and early jazz and blues era by placing the ribbon microphone about 2 feet in front of the singer, just a little higher than stomach level, tilted up to point at the vocalist’s mouth. Benny Goodman and Elvis Presley are a good example of using ribbon microphone for their vocals. Be wary of the delicate ribbons in the microphone as they can be destroyed if presented with a strong burst of air. For this reason, ribbon microphones are often placed about 4-6 inches away from the face and slightly above, below, or on the side of the vocalist’s mouth. Ribbon microphones that are used at greater distances will produce their characteristically smooth sound without much bass boost. Note to also never run phantom power to your ribbon microphone as this will seriously damage your ribbon microphone.
Condenser microphones are the microphones that are most often used for recording studio vocals. Although vintage tube condenser
microphones are often very expensive, they are most sought out for the unique sound they provide to vocals. Here at NRG, we have a wide selection of vintage tube microphones including the Neumann U-67, AKG C-12 Telefunken U-47, and Telefunken 251. Condenser microphones are especially prone to popping from vocal air blasts and mostly need to be used with a windscreen or pop filter. Large-diaphragm condenser microphones are a less expensive option that produces very accurate and clear vocal sounds. Small-diaphragm condenser microphones also provide a clear, present sound and are often used when recording female vocalists.
How you choose to record your vocals is dependent on the desired sound and the type of music that’s being recorded. Once you figure out which microphone is a good fit for your vocalist, it’s time to see where in the room you should place the vocalist for optimum sound quality. All vocals and instruments sound best when given some space for their sound to develop. If you are recording a loud singer, and the ceilings in the room are low, it could be an issue as they could cause the room to ring at certain lower mid-range frequencies. If the room happens to have too much ambiance, and sound too big, then you can place some screens or gobos around the vocalist about 4-5 feet on each side. Decoupling the microphone from the floor can help get rid of many low frequency rumbles that occur. Generally, we like to set up the vocalist in the middle of the room, with a carpet down, and a few gobos surrounding with some blankets overtop. We tend to place our microphone slightly tilted upwards at the vocalists mouth. Again, all techniques are subjective to a particular sound and style, but this is always a good place to start.
In order to prevent leakage or bleeding, the vocalist needs at least 26dB isolation from all other instruments. If no baffling is being used to separate the two, it might be a good idea to keep the vocalist 8-16 ft away from the instruments. There is a technique you can use if the vocals are flat called the two-microphone soloist technique. To fill out a vocalist’s sound, place an accent microphone about 2-8 feet away in conjunction with the primary microphone. If the singer is well-trained and has a lot of projection, the close microphone can be used to capture overall quality and presence, while the accent microphone might add depth and a subtle pick-up. As always, be aware of the phasing that might occur when using multiple microphones.
The first phase of vocal editing is vocal comping. Vocal comping is a two-step process. First, you will audition your takes. Auditioning helps to determine what takes or part of takes you want to use in your final vocal. This quick assembly of the takes is usually called the “Rough Comp.” The second step of comping is smoothing out the rough comp. This includes adjusting the edit points so that they are glitch free and writing crossfades. Zero crossing edits are vital when trying to assemble a flawless vocal edit. Zoom in to ensure that you are using zero cross edit. You may have to slightly move the audio to accomplish this. The most important thing about comping is that you want to convey emotion. Try not to get wrapped up in the processing, because over tweaking can kill the feel of the singer. Stay tuned for the upcoming article on vocal tuning with Melodyne, next week.
When it comes to recording vocals, preparation is key on both the artist and the engineer’s parts. Once you know your artist and understand the vocal sound they are hoping to achieve, the fun can commence. Be open to experimenting with different microphones and microphone techniques. Take the time to do it right, or else you will have to take the time to do it over as once it’s recorded it can be hard to fix it in the mix.