There are certainties in life: everyone is mortal and the vocalist will ask for reverb in the headphones.
Unfortunately, only one of these has a solution.
Vocalists, more then anyone need to have a good headphone mix. Mind you, everyone benefits from a great mix. But, nobody is more exposed than a vocalist for the sheer reason that the voice is a direct expression of emotion.
Headphone mixes are amongst the most neglected parts of a session. Far too many engineers have never been on the other side of the glass. And even if they have, it’s easy to lose perspective over time.
It’s good to square away some time to create your own headphone mix. Lay down some vocals on a dummy track. Go through the process. See what it feels like and what you need to make it better. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a great singer. It just matters that you feel what it’s like and become more sensitive to the situation.
Setting a vocalist up with no verb can make them relive that lifelong nightmare of standing at the front of the classroom with no clothes on. Nobody wants to be that exposed. Well, most of us anyway.
If you want to get the most out of a vocalist, it’s a good idea to create a safe place in the cans.
Here’s what I do: I have a reverb and compressor ready to go just for the monitor mix. It doesn’t matter if it’s the verb or compressor you will use on mix down. It just matters that it makes the singer sound good to themselves.
If you don’t have this ready to go as soon as they put on their cans on, you’re going to have an uphill battle of insecurity to overcome.
Into The Great Wide Open
Here are a few steps I take before sending in the vocalist:
1) Set up the mic
2) Check signal chain
3) Get a pre-mix balance of the instruments in the phones. Yes, they’re going to adjust, but first impressions are often the most important
4) Have routing set up for headphone mix effects
I Found A Reason…
... a reason why I use a compressor: It makes the subtleties of the performance come out. They will be able to hear all the minute articulation and expressions. Pitch will get better and they will be able to hear themselves clearer.
They may want a fair amount of reverb and it’s fine. Reverb creates space and this space to a vocalist is like a warm blanket in the winter. Be ok with it. If it turns out to be too much and they’re pitch is wavering then you can knock it down a bit. Don’t be the reverb police.
Delay is another good plug-in to have on the bus ready to go. Sometimes a slapback can inspire. Or even a long delay.