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Audio Toyes #5 - Recording Vocals

Brian Toye
January 18, 2011

Continued from #3 -

For Vocals:

Itís now time to replace the scratch vocal tracks. Itís important for the vocalist to be comfortable when recording. A balanced headphone mix is key. If a singer hears his/her voice too loud in their headphones they will naturally sing softer. This may not capture the feel you are going for. Also, when you sing softer you usually fall slightly flatter in pitch. If a singerís voice is too low in their headphones they will overcompensate by singing much louder. This will result in an unpleasant forced/strained vocal sound. Yes you guessed it, when you sing louder, the pitch tends to creep up making the whole vocal take sharp. Thus we want a perfectly balanced headphone mix for the singer. The only way to get this is to PUT THE HEADPHONES ON YOURSELF AND IMITATE THAT SINGER IN THE MICROPHONE. If you just ask the singer, they will say "I canít hear myself enough". Then you turn them up a few dB or slap on a temporary compressor. They then say "wow, ok thatís good!Ē YOU (the engineer) have no idea what the headphone mix is like at this point. So listen to it yourself in the headphones.

The next step is to create an environment (both physical and mental) in which the singer is not thinking about that microphone in front of their face, or the levels on the pro tools interfaces...but thinking about the song, feeling the song as a whole being. The artist must be ready to give a magical performance from deep within, holding back nothing. Any single thought of gear, levels, whoís in the room, did my ex gf call my cell... is enough to ruin a take and kill the vibe. Pure focus, the artist must be in and remain in ďthe zoneĒ . It is my job as an engineer and producer to capture a great performance and it is your job as the artist to give that great performance.

Pro Tools has a great feature called "Loop Record". I use this ALL THE TIME when recording vocals. Unless the singer is a purist and wishes to sing the song from front to back in one take. In "Loop record" mode I can select a part of the song, say the first chorus, and loop that again and again in the singerís headphones. Each time we loop we are recording a new performance by the singer. After I feel we have nailed enough takes I will compile one master vocal chorus using parts of the separate takes. Taking the best of the best from these performances and gluing them together creating a "comp track".

For the home recording artists out there, my vocal chain consists of a Neumann TLM 102 Large diaphragm condenser Microphone - SSL VHD mic pre - RME UFX Interface - Pro Tools 9. I use Light compression going in, just to catch the peaks, -4db reduction at most. If its a female I will sometimes roll off 110hz.

For vocal harmonies I like to perform 2 harmony parts per track (2 singers on same track/same microphone). I force the singers to stand 2-3 feet from the microphone. You can accomplish this by placing your pop filter as far from the mic as possible and keeping them another foot or so from the pop filter (maybe use 2 pop filters covering more space for the two singers). I like to use my ribbon mic that has a figure eight pickup pattern so the singers can face each other while singing backups into the same microphone. Experiment a few times with the two singers to get a good mic distance. This allows the singers to practice their harmonies and warm up a little bit as well. I will most likely double these harmonies on a second track (another performance not a copy and paste job). I will pan these harmonies out L and R when it comes time to mix (which is coming up fast!).

At this point I have heard the song enough times to make a grown man cry. I stay sane by imagining different production ideas/orchestrations through each pass. If the song calls for it I will sequence strings/ cello or perhaps some additional orchestral percussion. If time permits and we have access to players we will get in a real cello and violin to play over the virtual strings giving it just enough natural warmth. If the song does not call for it we're moving along to the mix down.

Next week, The Mix.

- Brian Toye -