Today’s Tech Tip opens the door on one of the most challenging tasks a recording engineer, whether a seasoned pro or a project studio newbie, must handle: recording vocals. This function requires musical knowledge, technical expertise, possession of (or at least an awareness of) microphones, preamps and mixers, and a solid grounding in the psychology of performance. However, we’re going to leave most of the gear-related information for another time. This time out we’re discussing some equally important details.
Before you ever hang a microphone or move a fader, you must KNOW YOUR VOCALIST! You need to have a handle on his/her musical characteristics (pitch, range and timbre), technological skills (microphone technique, use of processing gear) and psychological needs (does he/she work well under pressure? Need special encouragement?). Even if you are recording your own band, take time to re-think the vocalists’ roles and requirements. This can save you hours of frustration and tons of hard feelings as your recording progresses!
There are a number of steps you can take to attain this knowledge. First, find any opportunity you can to listen to the performer in advance. It’s particularly helpful to hear them doing the songs you plan to record! If the performer has a previous CD or even a demo tape, borrow and copy it for study. Or go see the group perform live and TAKE NOTES. Even in an acoustically challenged club you can learn a great deal.
Focus on the lead vocalist: what’s his/her range (lowest practical pitch to highest)? Does he/she strain to reach the song’s high notes? If so you might suggest a key change before recording. Is he/she “eating” the mic – e.g., using the proximity effect to enhance bass response on low-to-midrange notes? This can be a difficult habit to change and may lead to some careful jockeying of the vocalist and the mic in the studio. How does the lead vocal “sit” in the mix? Is it out in front of the band (the case with much pop material) or does it blend more like another instrument in the overall sound (often an element of hard rock, metal or post-punk)? Is this intentional or just a reflection of poor live mixing?
Once you’ve made these assessments you can move on to background vocals. Ask similar questions but keep one extra thing in mind: often background vocal recordings sound better when sung by the lead singer, “accompanying” him/herself. Are the group’s background vocalists strong enough to stand up to repeated listening? If not, you may have to do some treacherous psychological maneuvering in the studio as you persuade members to reduce their roles in the recording for the sake of better sound.
You need a combination of musical and technological knowledge to continue your preparations. Make some preliminary notes to remember important points. For example, although no two people have exactly the same range, average sopranos rarely sing pitches below Middle C. Their harmonics are most prominent at frequency ranges in which many live vocal mics have a presence peak; you may have to use equalization to capture that timbre. Altos often exploit their low registers using the mic’s proximity effect to capture “breathiness.” Tenors sometimes have wide-open upper ranges that can easily cause clipping. Basses, while rare (Frank Zappa was a bass), call for a full-bodied low midrange response that is near many studio mics’ bass rolloff frequencies. You might do best by leaving your mic’s rolloff switch off and using mix equalization to tune in vocal and tune out noise.
If all this seems like a lot of work, it is! But you’ll soon find that careful preparation before the session can save time and reduce stress in the studio, allowing you to focus on more creative issues. And that can only help you get the best recording possible.