RECORDING VOCALS PART 3
In part 1 of Recording Vocals, the importance of finding the best recording space for your vocals set the foundation for a great vocal sound. Treating the recording space, to limit the effect of early reflections was also discussed to help focus the sound of the voice.
Part 2 shifted gears to selecting the best microphone for your vocal recording. The addition of pop filters, mic placement ,and mic settings help us to deal with the most common issues that arise when recording vocals.
Now that the acoustic space and all of the setup is in order, let's start by taking a look at what happens of the other side of the glass. If you are recording in the same space as the performer, all of these same basic principles will apply so they are still worth taking a close look at.
Although the headphones are technically on the performers side of the recording, their control is almost always the dominion of the engineer. Here are some tips that will help to make your headphone mixes best for recording vocals.
The best place to start is by using the best quality headphones you can find. You want to avoid "open back" headphones because they are vented and the sound will bleed into the mic. Make sure you have a good cleanly amplified signal with no distortion.
When preparing a mix for the artist, try to make the mix as dynamic and alive sounding as possible. The mix should be exciting so that the artist can feed off the energy of the song the same way they would in a live performance. Be very attentive to how the artist feels about the mix. Make sure they are able to hear themselves clearly and cleanly.
I generally try to avoid using reverbs when recording vocals because it makes it harder to hear pitch accurately. If the headphone mix does not feel right to the artist without reverb, then add in just as much as is needed to add the presence they need to perform well. Try to avoid long washy reverbs if possible.
If the artist is having problems with pitch using headphones, have them take one headphone off so they can tune acoustically. This is a very common solution to solve pitch problems when using headphones. Create a mono mix and cut signal to the unused headphone so that it doesn't bleed into the mic.
Controlling Dynamics Acoustically
There are many different thoughts about how to best control dynamics of a vocalist in the recording room. It is typical that the artist will sing louder in different sections of the song if the melody takes them to the power range of their voice. Most vocalists will pull away from the microphone when these parts arise. While this is very dramatic looking in concert it is not always great for recording vocals.
Generally, I would rather have them at an even distance from the mic throughout the performance if possible. If the artist will give me a better performance because they don't have to think about staying in one position, I will deal with the sound later. Always take a quality performance over a quality sound if there's no way to get both.
A well trained vocalist with good technique will not necessarily sing louder when going to the power range of their voice. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule and you will have to deal with these issues as part of the recording process.
Never force an artist to think about technique when recording vocals. It is always better to work out the technical issues of a performance in a rehearsal session so that the focus is entirely on expression and feeling in the recording session.
Selecting the best quality mic preamp is the next stage of the vocal chain. A good mic preamp will have loads of headroom and will not distort if the vocalist belts away. Compare as many mic preamps as you have available to find the one that best suits the vocalist.
Always leave yourself a good bit of headroom, especially with very dynamic performers. You can always make up again at a later stage in the recording chain, but you will not be able to get rid of the distortion.
If the gain is too high for your mic pre, you may need to use a pad. Most mic preamps have a pad, but make sure you compare the quality to the one on the microphone to see which sounds best. If necessary, you can ride the mic preamp gain during the performance to help even out the gain.
Make every attempt to eliminate distortion at every phase of the recording chain. Be careful to monitor the gain as the voice starts to open up. Usually, a vocalist will not sing with full power until they are warmed up and singing the song full force. Be prepared...
Compression and EQ
If all of the previous details have been considered and brought into focus, what happens with the EQ and Compression should be a breeze. There are many thoughts regarding what the processing order should be after the mic preamp. Here is my general view:
EQ Before Compression
Subtractive EQ is best before compression, additive EQ is typically best after the compression. The reason for this is simple, subtractive EQ is meant to eliminate noise that you don't want. If you don't get rid of this noise before compressing then the compressor will make the noise louder and it will be harder to remove later.
The most typical form of subtractive EQ is a high pass or low cut filter. The purpose of this filter is to roll off low frequency rumble or noise that is below the frequency range of the voice. Many vocal mics have this filter built into a switch. It is also common to find a filter stage built into the mic pre.
Make sure that when the filter is engaged, it does not roll off frequencies from the low end of the voice. You may need to check the specifications of the owners manual to verify the frequencies if it is not labeled on the mic or preamp.
EQ After Compression
EQ after compression is typically additive. If you have followed all of the techniques in the prior 2 articles leading up to this point, you should need very little if any EQ. If the recording setup is too limited to accommodate all of the techniques outlined in the previous articles, then some EQ may be necessary to make up for what is missing. More on this later in Recording Vocals part 4.
Generally, most engineers agree that compression, when recording vocals, should be as transparent as possible. You don't really want hear the compression you just want to control the dynamic of the vocal. There are many ways to approach doing this, let's take a look at a few.
One Compressor Approach
One very simple approach to getting transparent compression and tighten up the dynamic of a performance is to set the ratio to a very low setting 1.5:1 or lower. Set the set the attack and release times to a medium setting and then set the threshold until you get a consistent 2-3 dB of gain reduction.
The idea of this approach is to have the compressor consistently working. Most compression is perceived when overused or when it kicks in intermittently. This is especially true when the compression kicks in aggressively for high peek signals.
Adjust the attack and release time until it feels musical. The attack and release times will typically mirror the tempo. Faster attack and release times for a faster tempo, slower attack and release times for a slower tempo. This very general guideline and must ultimately be based on the approach of the performance.
The Compressor Limiter Approach
It is a very common approach to use a limiter and compressor or two compressors in series to control the dynamics when recording vocals. The basic approach is very simple.
Set the limiter, or first compressor, with a high threshold so that it only captures peak signals. This will help to control the amount of gain going into the compressor so that it does not have to respond to the high peaks. If using a compressor, you will want to use faster attack and release times with a high ratio to emulate the action of a limiter.
If you set the limiter stage up correctly, it should control the peak signals and allow you to set the compressor to yield consistent gain reduction. This will allow the compressor to better focus the performance.
Controlling the dynamics of a vocal performance is an important step in getting a consistent quality signal heading into the audio interface for conversion to digital. If the recording levels are all over the place, you will end up with inconsistencies in the sound quality.
In the end this will also create a load of extra work for you and make it more difficult to judge the quality of the performances. Think of compression as a way to create consistency and focus in the vocal performance. Carefully monitor it throughout the recording session to keep it working consistently.
In the part 4 of recording vocals I will address the issues associated with using EQ in the recording chain. This step is the polish for all the techniques you have used leading up to this point. Please click on the link below to learn more about how EQ is best applied when recording vocals.
Vocal Recording Part 1
Vocal Recording Part 2
Vocal Recording Part 3
Vocal Recording Part 4
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