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Bruce Swedien On Vocal Recording Microphone Techniques

Excerpted from Make Mine Music, a fantastic book by a true recording legend.

To me, the first, the most interesting, the most capable musical instrument of all is the human voice. It has the ability to communicate a wide variety and range of emotion. Delicate timbral shading is easily accomplished by a well-trained vocalist, as well as an amazingly wide dynamic range.

The range of instantly recognizable vocal personality is astonishing. In other words, two voices can have the same range classification, so by category we could say that they are the same instrument, but the different vocal personality of the two individuals is fantastically clear and apparent.

Let’s talk a bit about the basic theory of voice production.

The human voice can be regarded as a musical tone-generating system consisting of an oscillator and a tube resonator. In short, it is called the vocal tract. The sound that radiates from the vocalist’s vocal tract contains the individual physical peculiarities that help the vocal system shape a sound with a unique sonic character.

Looking at the vocal tract just a bit more medically, we can say that the voice organ is an instrument consisting of a power supply (the lungs), an oscillator (the vocal folds), and a resonator (the larynx, pharynx, and mouth). Singers adjust the resonator in special ways to produce music.

Even if two singers of the same voice classification sing the same vowel on the same pitch, we hear a distinct timbre difference, which enables us to discern that this is singer X and that is singer Y. This incredible range of sonics has made the voice a very fascinating subject for the music-recording person. It follows, then, that microphone choice and recording technique for a vocalist are among the most important jobs we will encounter in the studio.

My father was a choir director in our church, and my mother was a fine vocal soloist, so I guess it’s only natural that recording the human voice has been of special interest to me since the beginning of my recording career. My mother sang with, and was a featured soloist, with the Minneapolis Symphony’s Women’s Chorus. So, as a kid I went to chorus rehearsals with her, and in addition heard many Sunday afternoon concerts with that world-class musical organization.

My early years in the business were spent in my home town of Minneapolis, listening to and recording many of the fine church and college choirs of that area. Hearing those excellent vocalists sing in good acoustical surroundings gave my ear a benchmark that has been impossible for me to ignore. This valuable experience has stuck with me and has been a big help throughout my career.

Let’s talk for a minute about the technical aspects of the human voice.

While the human voice is quite limited in frequency range, its sibilant sounds (the high, hissing sound present in “S,” “T,” and “F” – mainly the “S” sound) extend well into the high-frequency spectrum. The subtle yet extreme shading of dynamics (range of soft volume to high volume level) and great variation in timbre (i.e., a scratchy, harsh voice versus a soft, delicate voice) is equal to, or exceeds, any other musical sound source.

When recording a solo or lead vocal, it is also very important to consider the type of music to be performed. Generally speaking, jazz may be treated in a similar way to classical music. I almost never use an extreme close-mike solo vocal technique in either jazz or classical. A classical solo vocal always demands an even more conservative approach than a jazz vocal. The type of music to be recorded frequently dictates whether the lead vocal must be recorded at the same time as the orchestra. When all the musicians and singers are recorded at the same time, this is usually referred to as a “straight-ahead” session.

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On a straight-ahead session, the lead singer is most often placed in a vocal booth, a smallish, satellite studio that affords good isolation of sound but allows the singer or singers to see the musicians and hear them through headphones or a small speaker.

Alternatively, you can record the lead vocalist while he or she is in the studio with the musicians. To accomplish this, use a group of “gobos,” or isolation flats, to screen off some of the orchestral sound from the vocal mike. This type of recording requires a musical arranger who is very aware of the problems particular to this style of recording. Most often in pop music, the rhythm tracks are recorded first, then the vocals, and then the rest of the orchestra. This technique allows the engineer a great opportunity to experiment with different sounds.

As far as mike technique goes, the pop music field is wide open to our imagination.

This is one thing that has always made it very exciting for an me as an engineer. I have always enjoyed combining mike and recording techniques to come up with a “hybrid” sound.

Of all the types of music that I have recorded, I love popular music the most for one simple reason: In recording and creating sound images in pop music, I am limited only by my imagination and the equipment at hand.

There are few boundaries or restrictions. It is incredibly exciting to create sound-fields that could not possibly occur in nature, and yet I can put a little taste of reality there, to give the ear a focal, or grounding, point to relate to.

Recording Vocals

Recording vocals for any type of music requires a good deal of thought and preparation. Whether it’s a solo voice, a choir of eighty voices, or a back-up chorus of five singers, there are many things to consider.

First off, the type of music to be recorded is most important. Pop, jazz, rhythm and blues, country, and classical all require a different approach. The biggest single difference in studio mike technique for vocal recording comes from recording of vocal sound sources in classical music, contrasted with pop vocal sound sources. The first and most important consideration is that I would never mike the vocalist in a classical recording as closely as I would a vocalist in a pop music recording.

Second, the vocal effect is important to consider. In other words, in a group vocal, is a choral effect with a massive sound desired, or should it be a smaller, warm, intimate vocal group sound? Occasionally, a mixture of the two can be musically very pleasing.

Good choral recorded sound is best achieved by using as few microphones as possible, with the singers placed well back from the microphones. This technique places most of the sound mixing responsibility on the room acoustics and the vocalists. Obviously, this approach requires an excellent studio or a room with extremely good acoustics.

This technique coupled with really good singers and a fine room yields a result that is not merely satisfying, but a thrilling musical experience. Close-miked vocal group sound requires several mikes and places most of the sound-mixing responsibilities on the engineer. It also removes a great deal of acoustical support from the sound.

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When using this technique, it’s probably best to divide the miking first by voice quality, and next by harmony parts in the vocal arrangement. As a rule of thumb, you can figure four or five singers require two mikes and ten singers, five mikes. The singers work from 6 inches or less to 2 inches or more from the mikes.

With excellent singers, the result is very pleasing. When doubling, or stacking, vocal parts, I like to do a stack, or “layer,” with the singers moved back from the mikes far enough to add some early reflections to the sound. In choosing a microphone and recording technique for a solo or lead vocal in a pop or rock recording, the most important thing to consider is the artist’s vocal timbre.

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