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In The Studio: Techniques To Get Great Sounding Vocals
Recording approaches for "the most important thing"
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PSW Top 20 presented by Renkus-Heinz

Someone once said: “A good music producer worries about the most important things” and a strong argument can be made that the most important things in pop music production are the vocals.

The singer is charged with artistically conveying the song’s lyric over a music track production that (hopefully) propels the song’s meaning and emotion across to the listener in an accessible and entertaining way.

Obviously the singer/artist/song are one of the main reasons engineers, producers, musicians and the studio personnel have jobs. They exist to facilitate the production of a song’s music and vocal performances. It is the focus of this article to deconstruct the process vocal recording in the studio. 

To better understand the process of recording vocals and for illustrative and tutorial purposes, I’ve divided it into activities in two spaces: what goes on in the studio area and what’s required in the control room.

In The Studio
Recording studios come in all shapes, sizes and décors. There are only a few basic requirements conducive to getting a good vocal performance.

It does not take a special or a big room to record vocals but the studio’s size, acoustic properties and construction are just as important as a recording space as they are for acoustically louder instruments like drum kits, brass or string sections.

Large Rooms
In the case of using a larger tracking room for overdubbing pop music vocals, engineers and producers prefer to “stop down” its size in order to record a dry vocal sound with little of the room’s ambient qualities included.

This, of course, allows them the freedom of adding whatever ambient effects they feel appropriate later in the final mix.

Gobos can help “stop down” the size of a studio. (click to enlarge)

Tall baffles or gobos are placed around the singer and mic to stop most of the room’s sound from being recorded along with the singer. If you are working in a large room with a pleasing decay time, there are plenty of reasons to record vocals sans any gobos.

The difference in ambience could work well to layer multiple tracks sung by the same person such as for double tracking or harmony stacking or for recording a singing group or choir.

You could capture a unique ambience possible only in that room instead of adding a simulation electronically from a commonly available digital reverb. I’m suggesting a high quality room like EMI’s Abbey Road Studio 2 — the Beatles’ playground!

Smaller Rooms
If you are working in a small room or vocal booth, then dry is what you’ll get but make sure the dryness is not more of a tonality — an actual comb filter EQ effect caused by close, highly-reflective parallel walls, floors and ceilings.

Again, the use of a few gobos with soft, non-reflective surfaces will help kill those reflections.

You might try a Se Electronics microphone Reflexion filter — it uses a small screen of highly absorbent materials to surrounds the mic itself and prevents sound reflections entering the back and sides of the mic.

Especially good for acoustically bad sounding spaces like bathrooms, closets and hallways, a microphone filter “separates” the mic’s pick-up of the singer completely from the coloration of the surrounding space.

If you’re working in an “all in one space” studio, the room sound issues expand. You’ll have to eliminate noises from you computer’s fan(s), poor acoustics at the mic’s position, and external noises from A/C equipment or the streets outside, etc. makes portable vocal booths — these look like old-time “phone booths” with a window and door and come in different sizes depending on how big the vocal singing party is going to be.

My own Tones 4 $ Studios is a single space setup used mostly for mixing, and for recording I use a product by RealTraps called a portable vocal booth.

A portable vocal booth. (click to enlarge)

It’s a pair of 2- X 2-foot absorbent panels that mount to a mic stand and forms a right-angle corner behind the mic and singer. This configuration does much more than a mic filter.

The portable vocal booth removes the influence of the sound of the adjacent walls, provides isolation from the rest of the room’s sounds — be it other musicians or the racket coming from my Pro Tools rig (computer, drives, power amp fans) as well as reduces external street noises.

Singers appreciate it for the sound and also because they can pin the lyric sheets to the panels directly in front of them.

Singer’s Station
The singer’s “station” consists of a boom mic stand to hang the mic over and above the music stand, microphone, pop filter (if required), music stand with light, headphones and control box, stool, small table to hold tea, coffee or water etc.

Or, in the case of a female demo singer I once recorded (whose name I can’t remember), a plate of strips of raw meat.

A metal music stand must be covered with soft cloth material to prevent sound reflection and checked to see if it vibrates sympathetically to the singer’s voice. Make sure it does not.

The entire station should be placed on a rug to mute any foot tapping and stop sound reflections coming from the floor. All mic, headphone and power supply cables should be dressed away so nobody trips and pulls over a multi-thousand vintage condenser mic over.

I try to locate the station under dimmable studio lighting for this reason and also for reading lyrics and for seeing the singer’s hand gestures and signals from in the control room — even if the studio is darkened.

The “look” of this setup—rug style, gobo colors etc. is up to the producer and artist’s tastes and preferences.

It should look warm and inviting to the artist and help set up the vibe of the session. I think this all helps in subtle ways—it is more special treatment for the artist and transforms the space.

However, for some artists and producers, none of this matters, especially if scheduling, cost, budget and availability impinges on the optimum choice for a studio. At those places, you may have to do all this “remodeling and redecorating” yourself.

Two looks at a singer’s station. (click to enlarge)

With respect to the visual sightline to the control room, most of the time eye contact is wanted — remember, the producer is acting as the listening audience and the artist will look for reassurance or emotional “feedback” from him/her, the engineer and anybody else in the session in the form of facial gesturing or even body language.

I’ve worked in studios that used closed-circuit TV to see the artist singing who could not see us back in the booth. I can’t prove any connection, but I bet the quality and emotion of the performance will be different—but depending on the singer, maybe better or maybe worst.

Microphone Choices
There are three microphones choices for vocal recording: condenser, dynamic and ribbon. The differences are vast and the right choice can make or break the vocal sound and performance.

Most of the time, a large diaphragm condenser mic is used for vocals for its ability to capture the loudest to the softest of sound and nuance.

The large diaphragm offers a big surface area to pickup low frequencies and most modern condensers have huge dynamic range specs meaning it will be difficult to distort them with close, loud singing.

While old vintage condensers sound wonderful, I find them (depending on their condition and upkeep) a little more finicky, temperamental and a little unreliable compared to some of the newer mics coming from Germany.

So in the world of condenser mics there are a lot of great choices. I like the whole line of Brauner mics, Neumann (both new and vintage models), an AKG C12, Sony’s out of print C-800G and vintage C-37, Manley Reference, David Bock, and Dave Pearlman mics, and John Peluso remakes of classic vintage mics such as his 2247 SE or P12 models.

Dynamics in the studio work great for loud and brute force singers. There is nothing like the urgency of the sound brought on by a good dynamic mic. Some singers must physically hold the mic to “produce” their vocal sound because they are used to working it during live shows.

I’ve tried to let them sing their vocal that way if there is no handling noise and minimal P-popping. I’ve sometimes given the singer a handheld dynamic mic while standing in front of stand-mounted condenser mic. I would record both mics to two tracks and later go between them in the mix.

The list of good dynamics is long and here are a few worth using for studio vocals. I like Shure SM7A or B, Electro-Voice RE20 or RE27N/D, and Heil Sound PR 40, PR 22, PR 20 or PR 20 UT.

Ribbon mics have always been favorite vocal mics, dating back to the 1930s. Today the modern versions are better than ever with wide-open sound, more gain and rugged ribbons less prone to damage from close vocals like the old classic models.

In general, ribbons are great for harsh or bright sounding voices that need some mellowing. I like the AEA R84, Shure KSM353, and the Coles 4038 with its “brontosaurus bottom end.”

Microphone Positioning
The mounting, positioning, distance from the singer, and even the angle of the mic all weigh heavily on the finished vocal sound.

I like to use a heavy floor stand and boom. I try to position the boom’s counter-weight opposite the singer — out of the way. The counter-weight should be padded in case someone does not sufficiently tighten the stand’s height and it slips and comes crashing down.

I learned a lesson years ago when, in a hurry, I (or the other assistant) didn’t fully tighten a mic boom overhead of session drummer Earl Palmer’s kit.

Halfway through the session it came down and the counterweight hit him in the head. The producer nearly called the session while ol’ Earl stopped bleeding. (Sorry again Earl!) I prefer to use a good shock mount microphone holder and hang it so the mic’s capsule end is about eye level and aimed at the singer’s mouth.

Check with your singer(s), who will have a definite preference as to the way they like to project sound towards a studio mic. It is better to angle the mic down rather than allow the singer to sing straight into the mic’s capsule.

Microphone angled down toward the singer (above), and directed straight at the singer. (click to enlarge)

Windscreens — Pop Filters
With the mic angled and above the source, you may not need to use a pop filter, but your singer must keep from pointing upwards at the mic; this will defeat the whole purpose.

So if the singer can sing straight ahead just below the bottom of the mic without tilting up, then no windscreen is needed.

If the singer cannot keep straight ahead or wants to sing directly into the mic, you’ll have to use a screen. There are several great models out there and for the perfect popping storm — singers with an extreme popping problem try Pete’s Place Blast Filter.

Middle Atlantic has a more conventional two-stage nylon mesh type.

The Stedman filter is also a good choice because, like the Blast Filter, it’s metal and washable.

Pop filters change the sound slightly. There is a greater or lesser loss of super high frequencies depending on the particular filter. But there is another method to reduce plosives — an ordinary #2 pencil.

Although not as effective for big pops, this trick will kill most small pops.

Simply strap the pencil vertically in line with the mic body’s length (assuming you are hanging the mic vertically) using rubber bands (don’t use tape) so that the pencil bisects the face of the capsule.

The pencil will disturb the puff of air from a P pop and divert the impact from the capsule.

The pencil-on-the-mic “trick”. (click to enlarge)

Headphones for you singer are very important. I have several different models I bring if the studio’s selection sucks.

All three of these models are closed-back, circumaural earphones that attenuate ambient noise and keep the cue mix from leaking out.

I like Shure SRH840 phones for their fat and loud sound. Ultrasone HFI-680 are bright phones your artist may prefer, and finally, AKG K271 phones or some variant offer the most unvarnished truth of the sound.

Try to get your singer to keep both ears covered with the phone cushions to prevent spill. The phones should fit well and make sure a powerful amp drives them.

Barry Rudolph is a veteran L.A.-based recording engineer as well as a noted writer on recording topics.

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