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In The Studio: A Tale Of A Project-Saving Monitoring Technique

A "wrong" hookup turns out to be invaluable in helping to overcome a singer's difficulties.
Headphones And Monitors

As guitarist Jeff Baxter once said to me during the “heat” of a Rod Stewart recording session: “We can do anything—the impossible just takes a little longer.” Along with talented musicians like Jeff, engineers, producers, and live mixers often are called upon to solve problems that are at first glance, flat impossible.

To a technically challenged client, all the flashy and complicated gear, computers and the alacrity at which a pro uses them to produce nearly instant, seemingly magical results (I think) hypnotizes or lulls people into a state of “anything is possible” — even though what they want defies the basic laws of physics!

One such situation occurred to me a while back when I was in Sydney, Australia recording an album with an R&B band called The Rockmelons. (A rockmelon is Aussie for a cantaloupe if you were wondering.) Australia is a wonderful and mystical place especially out in the middle of the country — a U.S.-sized desert. So perhaps the laws of physics are suspended in parts of the “down under” but they were not for us at EMI 301 Studios in downtown Sydney.

The lead singer in the band, at that time, had the worst case of “red light” fever I’ve ever encountered — actually more like a severe headphone phobia. As soon as he heard the track and his voice in the cans, he acted intimidated and overwhelmed; he would stop, not sing at all, or sing terribly.

All of us were puzzled because at live gigs in front of an audience, he was wonderful — the main attraction. The most peculiar thing was that if we suddenly stopped the track’s playback, for a few measures he would sing the most spectacular soul riffs and melodies all a capella.

Robin Smith, the producer, was obviously extremely concerned because if this guy couldn’t sing, we would not have an album — they were not an instrumental group.

The first flash of “can do” brilliance came from Smith when he had the second engineer setup a two-track tape deck so that it recorded the same audio feed from my vocal recording chain at the session’s multi-track received. This machine was to be kept it in record, rolling at all times.

The second engineer and the producer also worked out a system of hand signal routines — a rating system where the assistant would jot down the two-track’s tape counter number and a 1 to 5 rating whenever the producer heard a piece of a vocal he liked. These chunks of vocals might be used in the final vocal compilation process.

So for the rest of the day, whenever I would stop playback, we captured all these cool riffs and lyrics on the two-track. Later, after the singer left, the producer and I would “fly” in all the good bits into the multi-track master vocal take. To say the least, this was not a satisfactory record production method that grew very old very fast.

So after a couple of days when the singer did not get any better, we decided to tackled the problem at the root cause: what was it about the phones that put this otherwise great singer off? We played with volume; mix, compressing the phone mix, reverb and other effects, different brands of headphones — everything we could think of.

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We determined that the singer was a sensitive fellow who just felt physically uncomfortable and a little paranoid wearing headphones — and it was the worst when music was coming out of them. So I remembered a trick I saw Crosby, Stills and Nash (CSN) use “back in the day” at a Hollywood studio called Sound Labs. I was working on another project in studio 1 and they were banging away in studio 2.

Of course everybody in those days would occasionally check out “who was in the other room” and what it sounded like. It was a great learning atmosphere with a very rich and free exchange of remarkable ideas from very talented people — artists, engineers and musicians who sometimes were not that technical but always open to any sonic experiment no matter how ludicrous-sounding.

I went in and saw they were using two Yamaha NS10ms or Auratone monitor speakers mounted on mic stands instead of headphones! I think it was Graham Nash who said they had always harmonized as a group around a single microphone listening to each other more than the track. I went into the studio during a playback to hear how low in volume the speakers were. They were very quiet.

But the big revelation to me was when I stood equal-distant between the two speakers and discovered they were flipped in polarity — out of phase from one another.

Apparently I (being a recording engineer trying to be vigilant for such serious problems) was much more sensitive to this than CSN. It was also true that none of them ever stood exactly equidistant between the speakers.

Further, this “wrong” hookup was anathema to everything I was ever taught or had experienced. But this was a situation where practicality outweighs technical correctness.

So I used that idea for my singer in Australia and it worked! The main point of this trick is to place the vocal mic exactly — dead on — in the null-point of the two speakers. I did this by playing the cue mix and listening to the mic channel in solo.

I put headphones to hear only the mic’s signal and would just move the mic around until I got minimum speaker spill or leakage.

Is the leakage a problem? No, not unless you want to do some wacky dance remix where the lead vocal is solo’d or you produce and record an entirely new track under the vocal.

The other ‘detail’ is to make sure you play only the most minimal track mix out on the speakers and try to keep it mostly monaural. You might have to play with panning positions etc. Play just enough elements of your track’s production for the singer to sing well.

I’d probably leave out most of the sweetening ideas, fancy percussion playing and vocal effects off. I’d also try to keep the bottom end not too big,  and the Yamahas will help in the regard.

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