The tradecraft of recording vocals -- techniques and approaches for "the most important thing"...
February 07, 2014, by Barry Rudolph
With mic choice and signal chain dialed in, listen to your singer over the monitor speakers to determine the correct distance from the microphone.
You should have a fixed the initial distance back when you set the microphone height for the singer out in the studio. Some engineers will open a hand and use the distance from the end of the thumb to the end of the baby finger as the starting distance.
The volume or level of the human singing voice operates in ways very predictable. I’ve found (and then I’ve never recorded operatic singers) that generally pop singers are loudest at near the top of their full-voice range and lowest in volume at the bottom of their range.
Falsetto doesn’t count here, but singers with a falsetto louder than their full voice are in a blessed minority. In the studio this is a consideration since this vocal dynamic range must be handled so that both the quieter moments and big and loud moments are accurately recorded without noise or distortion. This is accomplished by either changes in the singer’s mic distance, a change in microphone pre-amp gain by the engineer, or the best solution, a combination of both.
If your vocalist sings loud all the time and all through the song, you’ll want to pick a fix distance from the mic for your singer to stand - maybe mark an “X” on the floor with tape.
Five Fingers Example
For loud singing, this distance balances the mic’s direct sound with the room’s ambient contribution. Experiment with this distance because the room will contribute a feeling of size to a loud vocal that is energizing it.
At all times I try to keep my singer aimed at the mic’s capsule. Singing only inches off beam will result in radical change in “mic presence” - the components of the sound that, to our sense of hearing, builds a solid mental image of the singer performing in front of you.
In addition, you’ll change the tonality (relationship of top, middle and bottom of the vocal sound) and decreased intelligibility—important for understanding the words of the lyrics and for the vocal to cut a dense track in the final mix.
If your singer is a live performer used to backing off the mic for loud moments and then “eating the mic” for the quieter bits, you can make use of this in the studio.
But in the more sensitive studio, only a few inches in distance makes a huge difference. Too far off-mic sounds distant and too close builds low frequencies due to proximity effect and changes the vocal sound radically.
I’ve always preferred using the proximity effect on vocals if it sounds good. Proximity on soft vocals produces that “pillow talk” or “whispering in your ear” kind of close intimacy. To reduce the low frequency build up from excessive proximity, you will have to roll out LF or use the mic’s roll-off filter or do both.
Proximity fattens thin-sounding voices nicely and I try to keep most singers on mic even when they hit the loudest, highest and full-voice moments where there can be a tendency for their sound to thin out.
For rangy melodies that require huge leaps of volume to hit high notes and big chesty gulps of air to power the low notes, I like to work with the singer—learn the ebb and flow of the vocal performance and invisibly “ride” changes in mic gain that will not affect mic presence noticeably.
I’m changing the gain staging slightly - 1 to 4 dB maximum. This is the audio level going into the compressor so that the amount of compression from the quietest to the loudest remains about the same—perhaps a little more squash on the loud notes if it sounds good and causes the vocal to ride well within the track.
During vocal overdubs the control room monitor mix should contain only track elements that will be in the final mixed version of the song. Apart from possible loud headphone spill (Of these tracks) on the lead vocal track, logically the singer should not have to sing around music parts that may not be used.
Depending on where the vocals are added, the monitor mix could be just a simple rhythm track to a fully sweetened production. Some artist perform better hearing everything around them and others not.
There are two considerations: a simple backing track gives more freedom to the singer for adlibs, improvisational vocal parts and customized “excursions” from the song’s written melody. Changes in the song’s arrangement and future production are often built stemming from these moments.
On the other hand, a properly pre-arranged, fully realized track production (brass, strings, solo section, backing vocals) affords the lead vocal to be produced and recorded emotionally and dynamically to “fit” the track perfectly.
As with all other critical overdubs, it’s important to hear both the track and vocal more or less in the context of a final mix. I do prefer the overdub vocal(s) to ride above the track while working on it so that I can clearly hear the actual beginnings and endings of sung notes. In a lot of cases this mix works well for the singer’s cue mix.
While the control room’s monitor mix might fly for the singer’s headphone mix as is, it is wise to be able to turn up the singer’s vocal track even more in the phones. Call the “more me” control; if I’m running the cue post fader from the monitor mixer, I just turn up the vocal track more.
I’m also careful about vocal effects like reverb and delays too. I prefer none but that’s not always the case with the artist—whatever minimal amount you can get away with, the better.
The concern is loss of a pitch reference when there is too much “me.” This is the first place to check if the singer starts to get pitchy.
Playing to many “pitch ambiguous” instruments and noises is also counter-productive. Sure the mix sounds cool with all that stuff flying around but for the business at hand; I think your singer will stay in tune better hearing only sonorous, in tune tracking instruments such as pianos and well-intonated guitars.
Tracks with wide chorus or flanger effects and loud atonal sound effects tend to disturb the ear’s pitch recognition abilities.
Happy Vocal Recording!
This is the third in a series of articles on recording vocals. View part 1 and part 2.
Barry Rudolph is a veteran L.A.-based recording engineer as well as a noted writer on recording topics.