Capturing Passion, Pursuing PerfectionRecording Celine Dion’s Vocals
With sales of more than 200 million albums worldwide, Celine Dion is already the most popular female singer of all time, and at just 44, she should have many more years of hits ahead of her. The French-Canadian chanteuse is still probably best known for “My Heart Will Go On,” the Grammy- and Oscar-winning smash from the top-grossing film in history, Titanic. But she had already notched a number of big hits in both English and French by the time that came out in 1997, and in the years since she’s made one best-seller after another, collaborated with many other top artists in genres ranging from opera to pop to hip-hop, and firmly established herself as arguably the most successful singer in the world. Her shows routinely sell out in the U.S., South America, Europe, Asia and Australia, and her current residency at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas (her second such multi-year stint there) remains one of the hottest tickets in town.
Now, five years after her last albums were released, Dion has two new ones to drop on her adoring public. Just out for her millions of French-speaking fans is Sans Attendre (“without waiting”), a 16-song set produced by Jacques Veneruso, David Gategno, Scott Price, Bertrand Lamblot and Stanislas; executive produced by Valerie Michelin. It contains duets with legendary French singer Johnny Hallyday, Jean-Pierre Ferland and a “virtual” duet with the late Henri Salvador. The first single, “Parler à mon père,” is a hit in several countries. In February comes her latest English-language album, Water and a Flame, which features productions by Babyface, Eg White, longtime collaborator Humberto Gatica, Fraser T. Smith, Eman, Denis Savage (Dion’s tour manager and FOH engineer) and Tricky Stewart; executive produced by John Doelp. That album will combine songs that appear in her Las Vegas show with a number of new tunes.
Because of Dion’s extremely busy schedule, recording for the two discs was spread out over about a year, with the producers working up tracks in their respective studios followed by a number of multi-day vocal sessions with Dion at three different facilities: Studio at the Palms in Las Vegas (Studio X, the Neve VSP72 tracking room), Studio Piccolo in Montreal (Studio A has an SSL Duality) and Echo Beach Studios in Jupiter, Florida (just a few minutes from Dion’s house), equipped with a Euphonix System 5 off of Studio A.
For the past several years, Dion’s vocal engineer and producer liaison has been Francois Lalonde, a native of Montreal who started his career as a live engineer while still in his teens, and gravitated to studio work in his early 20s. “Humberto [Gatica] was in Montreal doing A New Day Has Come with Celine,” Lalonde says, “and at that point [late 2001] you needed someone to run Pro Tools and to take care of other studio stuff, and they chose me. I also helped Humberto record the vocals. Afterwards, when the mixing came along, it was being done at Westlake [in L.A.] and I actually wasn’t supposed to go, but when we finished doing the vocals, Humberto called me and said, ‘You should come down and keep on doing what you’re doing.’ So that’s what I did, and I’ve been with them ever since. Humberto’s one of the best; I was very fortunate to learn my trade from him.”
Lalonde certainly gets around, shuttling between L.A., Las Vegas (where he does monitors for Dion’s show), Montreal and also touring with Dion. And though the singer keeps him busy, he also has a thriving career as an independent engineer and has worked with such popular artists as Garou, British singer Seal and Michael Bublé.
Dion is a hard-working perfectionist when it comes to laying down her vocals, but she is also extremely accommodating in working with myriad producers on her album projects. “Her thing is the voice,” Lalonde says. “Of course the track is important and it will give the song a lot of its flavor, but we’re always focused on the voice. That’s where I come in. No matter what producer is there, I’m working as a liaison with them. They’re choosing the performance, but we’re working on how she’s going to deliver it. We always give the full option of many colors, and 80 percent of the time they’ll do the comp, but my focus with Celine is to make sure she’s hearing everything okay. She has a vision when she comes into the studio, and I’m going to give her pretty much the end result—with the delay, with the reverb, compression, not necessarily to tape, but to her monitor so she can deliver it the way she wants to.”
What Lalonde describes as his “go-to” vocal recording chain to Pro Tools—used on about 80 percent of Water and a Flame and the entirety of Sans Attendre—is: a Telefunken (USA) 251E modified by Tony Merrill of Stephen Paul Audio, “totally customized for Celine—they changed the capsule and worked on the electronics”; a Boulder Jensen Twin Servo mic pre; GML 8200 EQ; Neve 33609 stereo compressor; and Weiss ADC2 analog-to-digital converter, which “sounds amazing, has a great clock and also has an input and output volume control for the gain staging, which is great for Celine, because there are some songs she records top to bottom and she is so dynamic—where she goes from a whisper to belting out a chorus.”
While they settled on a go-to chain, different combinations were tried out on the front end. “With the Eg White songs—‘Water and the Flame’ and ‘Didn’t Know Love’—he phoned me and said, ‘I’ve got this [Neumann] M49 and I’ve got a [Telefunken] V76 [preamp]. Do you have any objection with trying them?’” Lalonde recalls. “And I said, ‘No, that’s what we want to do—try different things.’ So he showed up with these, and we got voltage converters for the mic and preamp, and it turned out to be a really good solution for those songs because the M49 is a little less bright and more precise in the midrange [than a Telefunken 251] and it’s got a really great vintage feel to it. We ended up buying an M49 and a V76.
“Gain structure is always a big part of the battle,” he continues. “Celine is so dynamic that you need to be on top of every piece of gear in the chain to make sure that nothing is overloading when she is singing a loud note. There are so many places where it can overload—the mic pre, after the EQ, after the compression, on the insert, or after the EQ to the cue system. Even the headphones can clip. That is why I like the [Sony] 7520 [headphones], which can handle more power. It is really vital that I know where my gain structure is at all levels of the process, before and after every piece of gear.”
With tracks coming in from different locations, Lalonde asked the producers to come with stems—drums, bass, electric guitars, acoustic guitars, piano. “I’ll typically have between eight and 12 stereo stems,” he explains. “I will always plug in an EQ on the stems and notch out 2.5 kHz wide, -3 to 6 dB, to make a hole in the frequencies for the vocal. I will also bus the stems from the board to two other faders on the board and use an SSL bus compressor to control the dynamics.
“The big challenge with Celine is with the monitoring,” he continues. “When I’m recording her vocal, I’d say 50 to 60 percent of the time is taken on her monitoring system. She’s going to change her performance based on how she hears herself or how she hears the track, so that’s why it’s important to have the stems. Even though in the finished mix, the drums may be loud and the keyboard may be loud, in her headphones we’ll remix it so they’re a little less loud, but maybe the guitars are more predominant and that will give her the drive she needs to get to the particular emotion she wants to give. It’s different with every song.”
For Dion’s headphone mix, Lalonde routes the signal through a GML 8200 EQ, a Bryston 4B amplifier, a U.S. Audio Whirlwind SAT-1 passive headphone amp, and out to either Sony 7506 or the new Sony 7520 headphones, both of which he lauds for their clarity, power-handling capacity and ability to reduce distracting head resonance.
“She wants to hear the reverb and compression and all that in her headphones,” Lalonde offers, “so part of the chain, too, is on the console and we’ll use a Lang PEQ2 EQ and another GML 8200 on the inserts, in case we need to EQ things just for the headphones. I have a 4-channel custom Sifam VU meter which I daisy-chain—one after the mic preamp, one after the inserted EQs and two to monitor the headphone mix after the GML EQ before the Bryston 4B. I monitor the complete mic chain with the high-quality LED VU on the Weiss ADC2 and the Pro Tools input.”
Lalonde says that Dion tends to work a little faster when she’s singing in French, sometimes completing vocals for three songs in a day, whereas in English it’s usually one or two. “Part of it is the comfort zone—French is still a bit more natural for her, so she’ll typically do top to bottom, three, four or five times and then that’s it—we’ll comp it from there. Whereas with an English track, it needs to be on the pop charts so it’s usually produced a little differently and it needs to be even more polished. She’ll usually do between 10 and 12 tracks and sometimes we’ll end up breaking it up more, where we’ll just do verses and then do choruses.” The English record was mixed by Humberto Gatica, Serban Ghenea, Mick Guzauski and Manny Marroquin.
Whatever the differences and similarities, the formula seems to be working both technically and artistically. Her popularity in both languages has only grown over time. And much as Lalonde loves to talk tech and experiment with gear (something Dion fully supports), he is very clear about this: “Seventy-five percent of the Celine chain is Celine; my job is getting out of the way and capturing it as well as I can.”