THE ART OF VOCAL PRODUCTION
Producer/Engineer maestro, Joe Chiccarelli, imparts some solid advice on achieving a great vocal recording.
At the risk of dating myself here, I grew up in the ‘70s, which was a decade steeped in the tradition of great performers like Elton John, James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and the like. With that in mind – as much as I unquestionably love the technology aspect of recording – what I ultimately live for is a great performance. In my line of work, the moments I live for are when I’ve got a group of brilliant musicians in a room tracking. But the point at which it all crystallises is the moment you capture a great vocal. You can spend hours and days cutting a basic track and think that you have the best track in the world but without the vocal that supports it, there’s no point – it’s just all garbage.
This article will (in two parts) cover the art of vocal recording from start to finish. We’ll take a look at the preparations, mic choices, outboard, vocals in the mix, the psychology of coaxing a great performance out of vocalist and everything in between. So without any further ado, let’s get to work.
PRE-PRODUCTION – KNOW YOUR SUBJECT
Getting a great vocal starts in pre-production. At the early stages when you’re thinking about your choice of sounds and instruments, it should all be based on how the singer’s vocal is going to sit in that particular song and that recording space. So, you must be constantly thinking about not crowding the vocal – give it space. You must arrive at choices that emotionally support and compliment that vocal. For example, if you put certain voices in amongst a bunch of high-fidelity sounds, the result may well sound incongruous – if you put Tom Waits in a glossy setting it would sound pretty silly.
By way of another example, I remember some years ago (when I first started engineering) working on a project with pop singer Rita Coolidge. Her voice is so deep and rich, care had to be taken to ensure the snare drum sound and its tuning didn’t have too much weight in the 200Hz area because this is where her voice would sit in the track. The choice of exact snare drum and its EQ was critical.
So I think you have to be super-sensitive to the singer and know what the song is all about. I start by asking myself questions like: ‘who is this artist?’, ‘what’s he/she all about?’, ‘what are his or her strengths?’, and ‘what do I get from their vocal that really gets me off?’. For example, is their special quality some kind of distressed thing or mournful thing, or is it simply a case of their voice being an amazing technical instrument? From there you choose the sound of the track and the sound of the vocal.
GUIDE VOCALS – MORE THAN A GUIDE
Many recording sessions start with the singer being passed the nearest mic and laying down a fairly uninspired guide vocal. I like to do more than that, and for good reason. Whether it’s a new artist or a very, very seasoned artist, those off-the-cuff performances tend to be the best – no one’s thinking about it and no one’s analysing it. I can’t begin to count the number of times a supposed ‘guide vocal’ ended up as the final vocal – I mean, countless times. I did a project years ago with a new artist (and I won’t mention the name) and when it came time to do the ‘real’ vocals he froze. He became very uptight as he realised he was under the microscope – after all, this was his big debut – and as a consequence around 60 percent of the album finished up with guide vocals. The album sold extremely well and everybody loved the vocal performances, including the artist.
So start to think about how you can get your vocalist really firing from that first performance. Personally, I love to get the artist in the live room singing with the band. Even if I have to go back and redo the guitars or redo the bass (or whatever it might be) I like to get everybody out there, including the singer, in the room playing at the same time with a good ‘visual’. By which I mean, the singer is facing the drummer, there’s great communication all round, everybody is hearing each other, and it feels like it’s a live performance. That might even mean putting the band’s PA gear in the room, and have everybody physically standing out there like it’s a show. Do whatever it takes, because the music that stands the test of time is the music that sounds passionate and is performed with conviction.
Once you have a great initial vocal performance it resonates all the way through the session and inspires great performances from the rest of the band. For example, the best drummers in the world will insist on a guide vocal, and a great guide vocal at that. I had the pleasure last year of working on Elton John’s Songs From the West Coast album and on top of that I got to work with [Elton’s drummer] Nigel Olsen. What I found amazing about Nigel, was he turned just about everything off in his headphone mix other than the vocal and the piano. So we began by recording Elton’s piano and vocal and then we overdubbed the band to Elton. For Nigel’s overdub he took out the click, turned all the other instruments down (including the bass), and played to Elton’s vocal. When you listen to the final release tracks you don’t think there’s a timing problem. I can guarantee you that we didn’t spend days ‘ProTooling’ stuff – in fact, there was next to no use of ProTools on the album – everything was geared to the vocal. Most of the studio drummers I work with in LA – like Denny Fongheiser, Joey Waronker, Victor Indrizzo, Curt Bisquera – insist on the vocal, and you listen to their headphone mix and the vocal is louder than the click – that’s what they live and die for.
MICROPHONES – LINE ‘EM UP
Your choice of microphone is crucial. Before I hit ‘record’ I might go through a dozen microphones on a singer, but I try to make the process easy by spending time in pre-production with the band and really listening. As you invest that time in listening and experimenting you will amass a database in your own mind about how microphones sound and which mic best matches the singer in question.
When it comes to mic selection, I always refer to Shelly Yakus – an engineer who was a mentor to me. He had what he called the ‘Complimentary Rule’ when it came to deciding on the best mic. The rule was simple enough: if you have a bright singer – some one with a bright voice – you put up a ‘thick’ microphone. Similarly, if you have someone with a muddy voice you put something that’s really clear in the midrange. It makes sense.
So that’s the platform upon which I make my initial decision on mic choice. But when I’m auditioning microphones I also approach things from two perspectives – that of the producer and that of the engineer. The producer in me is listening intently to the character of the mic. I think about which mic really gets to the soul of the singer; which mic makes me fall in love with the artist; which one makes them sound like a star – like the centrepiece of the record. Meanwhile, the engineer in me is listening for evenness in the top end, not too many wild peaks on the open vowels, no overload on the loud passages. I’m also watching the VU meter ballistics and wondering how the mic will take to some compression and EQ.
Elsewhere in this article I’ve listed a few of the artists I’ve worked with and the microphones we used. If you’re familiar with the sound of the artist and the microphone you’ll begin to see how my rationale is working. But to be more general, I will say, sometimes a weaker male voice tends to work better on a bold, big diaphragm condenser – obviously the Neumann U47 or U87 are the perfect examples – all those forward, midrange-heavy microphones work well with somebody who is not the strongest of singers. Female voices have a tendency to be more flattering on the open top-end microphones like the classic AKG C12, for example. Then when it comes to the more forward-projected, ‘screamer’ rock ‘n’ roll vocal tends to sound great on a Shure SM7 or an Electrovoice RE20 – those dynamic mics tend to be a little tighter, more damped sounding, and they also find a way of fitting in the track better. I’ve seen Bono deliver performances on a Shure Beta 58 dancing around the room – Mick Jagger does it as well. Remember, in a rock context you have to contend with a wall of guitars, and no matter how clever you think you are at crafting the track around the vocal, when you put 10 guitars in a rock track and try to get a singer to come through that, it ain’t easy. It takes tricks beyond the microphone (the compression, the delays and everything else that goes with it) to get it to pop through.
Speaking of ‘popping through’, don’t forget the pop filter. Personally, I like to achieve closer, more intimate vocals, and screens are almost essential to achieve this. I try to use the newer wire mesh types made by Royer and Stedman. I find the nylon and cloth ones can really kill a lot of top end. In fact, if the shield has two layers of fabric I always try to cut away one layer.
Then there’s cable choice. There’s a lot of controversy about cable – whether it’s just hokus pokus or not – but I’m a big believer in using the best cable. I’m a Monster Cable fan all the way. Also, the BLUE Kiwi cable delivers a noticeable difference in tone from your basic music store mic cable. Regardless of cable choice, at the very least keep the lengths as short as possible. If the mic has an outboard power supply try to position it close to the preamp and use a short XLR cable.
Check out www.artistpro.com for more from Joe Chiccarelli.
MATCHING MICS: ARTISTS’ FAVOURITE MICS
Elton John: Neumann U47 Tube
Carole King: Telefunken 251E
Allison Moyet: Neumann TLM170
Maria Mckee (Lone Justice): Neumann TLM170
Danny Elfman (Oingo Boingo): Neumann U47 FET
Etta James: Neumann M49
Mark Eitzel (American Music Club): Neumann M49
Tom Cochrane: Shure SM7
Taylor Hanson: Shure SM7
Mandy Moore: Audio Technica 4060
Dave Tromfio (The Pulsars): Audio Technica 4033
Craig Elkins (Huffamoose): Sony C37A
Tori Amos: Milab VIP50
Beck: Neumann U47 Tube
Frank Zappa: Neumann M49
Rufus Wainright: Telefunken 251E
Don Henley: Neumann U67
Lorrie Morgan: Telefunken ELAM 251E
Gladys Knight: Neumann M269
Annie Lennox: AKG C12
Johnny Mathis: Neumann U47 Tube
Joan Baez: AKG C24
Pat Benatar: Telefunken 251E
Steve Perry (Journey): Neumann U87
Ian Moore: Sony C500
Paul Cotton (Poco): EV RE20
Tim Easton: Microtech Gefell UM70
Anna Waronker (That Dog): Shure KSM44
Michelle Branch: Telefunken ELAM 251E
Melissa Ethridge: Telefunken ELAM 251E
Gyan Microtech: Gefell UM92
BUYING A MIC – TRY, TRY & TRY AGAIN
If you’re a vocalist wanting to lash out on a decent mic then let me offer a little advice.
First up, It’s not all down to price. If a cheaper dynamic works for you then don’t be embarrassed – if it works, it works. But critically, ‘try before you buy’, that’s the only way you’ll know for sure if a mic is for you. You need to feel comfortable with it… your mic has got to feel like it’s easy for you to sing on… its characteristics need to dovetail with your voice.
I’ve noticed that people new to the microphone game tend to make the mistake of buying a mic that’s too bright. They’re seduced by all the sparkly top end, then when they get home and try to build tracks around it they realise that they’ve got all this top-end energy and not much else.
It’s crucial that you spend some time with a mic before you buy it. Reading reviews is a good place to start, but no reviewer can tell you how the mic will sound on your voice. Any good audio dealer will let you try things: go to the dealer and say, ‘hey, I’m going to spend a couple of thousand dollars here, let me borrow this for the day’.
PERFORMANCE NOT EQUIPMENT
Remember, no one buys CDs for the sound of any one instrument (unless of course you’re doing a sound engineering course!). You buy it for the performance. With this in mind, be assured that there are plenty of ways of getting a great vocal sound out of not-so-great gear. It’s more about knowing what you want out of that vocal, what timbre and emotion you’re trying to capture. Capturing a great performance on a $300 mic will be far more effective than capturing a so-so performance with a $3,000 mic.