Recording

Recording Vocals, February 1997

THOUGHTS FROM BOTH SIDES OF THE MICROPHONE

Thoughts From Both Sides of the Microphone

Recording vocals is tricky business. In addition to having the
requisite recording chops, engineers must walk that fine line between
achieving their ideal sonic environment and providing a comfortable
atmosphere for the singer. In this personal situation, communication
must go both ways: Performers must be able to express concerns as well
as clearly define the sound they hope to achieve.

For both the engineer and the performer, these skills come with
experience, and with an understanding of goals the other person is
trying to achieve in the studio. To gain some insight into this
complicated issue, Mix talked to seasoned engineers and
vocalists, to find out the methods they have developed over time to get
that optimal vocal recording.

STEVE COUNTER
Like many engineers, Steve Counter started out as a musician. Eighteen
years ago, he began mixing in his hometown of Denver before migrating
to Phoenix—where he recorded everything from country music to
traditional Navajo music to polkas to heavy metal—and then
settling in the San Francisco Bay Area, where for the past 10 years
he’s mostly focused on R&B and hip hop. He recorded En
Vogue’s first two albums there; other credits include albums by
Digital Underground, Michael Cooper and the late Tupac Shakur.
Currently, he’s in the studio with En Vogue, working on their
third album.

“Over the years, I’ve found a lot of mics that I
prefer,” Counter says, “and if I’m not sure, I have a
lot of microphones available to me. I’ll just set them up side by
side, in a big ‘press conference’ array, and have the
singer sing into them for comparison. I don’t run this comparison
to tape. You’re usually dealing with a limited amount of time,
and one thing I learned many years ago is you really can’t wear
somebody out experimenting on them. They’re in there to sing and
get their job done, and the less you put in the way of that, the
better.”

Counter says that with the exception of rock ’n’ roll
cuts, he tends to prefer tube mics to solid-state models. “Right
now, I’m very fond of the AKG C-12VR re-issued C-12,” he
says. “I like the original C-12; it’s a very warm mic, nice
and bright, clear top end, and a little bit scooped in the middle.
I’m using a re-issued U67 tube mic a lot; it has a real warm,
full midrange. I like the Neumann U47; it has a little older sound,
it’s great for country western."

With Digital Underground, Counter used a Neumann M250 almost
exclusively. “It has a little bit of the same character as an M49
Neumann, but it’s a much brighter, edgier microphone,” he
says. “It worked well for the style that rap has: pretty
aggressive, not a particularly laid-back vocal style. And then of
course there’s always the old standby, the [AKG] 414. If I want
an edgier kind of vocal sound, it’s got nice air to it;
it’s a little too edgy compared to a tube mic for me, but
sometimes you want that; you need that bite. The other thing I’ll
do is, sometimes for rock ’n’ roll, I’ll use an SM57
or a 58 Shure dynamic microphone, set it up in the control room, turn
the monitors up and just go for the raw guts sound.

“When I was over at Fantasy Studios for the second En Vogue
record,” says Counter, “we used exclusively the Telefunken
251 vintage tube mic, and it was wonderful. Great, lovely top end, and
a lovely, warm middle; pretty much everything you want. Fantasy has an
old Neve mic/line mixer, and a pair of old Neve compressors. And that
basically was my signal path. I bypassed the console entirely. I might
use a little Pultec program EQ with a little 10 or 12k on top, a couple
dB, but that was about it. That was a great signal path.”

Counter mostly used a single mic to record En Vogue’s
background vocals, one or two singers at a time. “I set up a
booth out in the studio with a couple of gobos around the microphone,
sort of a half-shell around the back of the singers, with the
microphones in front, and the singers usually facing the control room.
I try to get at least ten or so feet away from the glass. I don’t
want to hear the glass, and I’ve even on occasion turned the
singers sideways because of having a real problem with reflections off
of the glass. If it’s a good-sounding room, I don’t mind a
little touch of ambience, a little after-ring. Particularly in
background vocals, it adds a little extra coloration if it’s a
good-sounding room. For lead vocals though, I don’t like much
ambience, because when you go to mix, you might be processing them in
such a way that ambience could cause problems.”

When dealing with pitch issues, Counter says getting the headphone
mix correct is a priority, “which might mean maybe not as much
reverb in the headsets, and certainly level is a factor,” he
says. “I have this problem surprisingly a lot with
singers—they’ll crank the headphones, particularly if
they’ve been on the road, and they’re used to hearing the
band behind them. Then they’ll start singing real sharp while
they’re trying to out-shout the headset. The opposite is also
true: If the headsets are way down, they start singing timidly to fit
into the mix in the headphones, and their pitch starts sliding all over
the place, ’cause they’re not really grabbing the notes and
pushing air. They’re just sort of holding way back, and you can
hear it. It’s very obvious.

“From a philosophical standpoint,” Counter says,
“whether it’s vocalists or musicians or any kind of
session, the big thing is not to get in the way of the music. You
don’t want to put people through a lot of technical stress in
what is basically an artistic event.”

CHRIS ISAAK

Since the 1990 breakthrough of “Wicked Game,” featured
in David Lynch’s hit film Wild at Heart, Chris Isaak has
been internationally successful as a singer-songwriter, often compared
vocally to the likes of Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley. In addition to
recording six hit albums, he’s landed roles in films such as
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Little Buddha. Isaak
doesn’t like to talk technical much; when asked what mics he
prefers, he replies, “You know, I find that I like to use a
ribbon microphone, and of course, I make my own ribbons at home. And I
use catgut.” His decade-long career has provided him the chance
to work with industry veterans, including producer/manager Erik
Jacobsen, and to learn the studio ropes.

Isaak says that in the studio, it’s important to provide
examples of the sounds he’s looking for. “When I make a
video or a film, and I want it to look a certain way, I’ll cut
pictures out of magazines,” says Isaak. “I’ll make a
tape of little pieces of film, and I’ll say, ‘See this
lighting? This is the lighting I want. See the shadows on this? I want
this.’ And bring that to the cinematographer. I do the same thing
in the studio. You come in, and you say, ‘I want you to listen to
this voice and the way that it’s treated; here’s what
I’m shooting for.’ Giving somebody an example of the sound.
To me, if I was an engineer, I’d slap you if you came in and
said, ‘I don’t know, more warm. More yellow, yeah, more
yellow.’ You hear artists say, ‘I want more echo.’ Is
it echo you want, or reverb? And is it a slap? What is it? The good
thing is, if you take time to actually stay in the studio with people,
you learn something.

“When I started off, I was in love with slap echo.” says
Isaak, “’cause if you never heard it on things, and
you’re a vocalist, you go, ‘Man, you could put a big slap
echo on everything!’ It’s like eating cereal: ‘How
much sugar do you want on there?’ ‘How much you got?’
And one day you write a song, and it’s not appropriate. You say,
‘Wow, this should be real dry’; all of a sudden I want it
to be, ‘Dig me, I’m Lou Reed.’ It changes as the
music changes.

“I remember coming into the studio, thinking, ‘I’m
nervous about this.’ So you wear dark glasses, you’re kind
of hiding your face, and you go out to sing, and you sing in the other
room, and say ‘Turn down the lights,’ you know? Or
sometimes you can just put a screen in front of yourself, so they
can’t look at you when you’re singing. But the reality of
it is, to me, I like to sing as close to them as I can be—if
they’re in the same room with me, that’s fine, and I want
the lights up bright, and I’m not worried about them seeing me
sing. Maybe if I have a tough time—so what? I think the reality
of it is, besides being comfortable, it helps everybody just to kind of
go, look, it’s a tough thing to sing, and everybody’s going
to have tough days.”

Isaak says he tries to approach a track as if it’s a one-take.
“If you can go back and fix something, great, but the reality of
it is, I try not to.” he says. “I kind of feel like
it’s nicer if you can sing the thing. The last album I did, I
know that probably it’s 99 percent one-take recordings. When
people know that the vocal is actually going to be the one, they play
and listen to it, they pay attention to it; and when they do that,
everything gels together nicely.”

TOBY WRIGHT
Toby Wright’s work over the past decade has helped define the
sound of some of rock’s cutting-edge bands. An independent
engineer and producer, he’s recorded Queensryche and Corrosion of
Conformity, and he worked on the last three Alice in Chains albums.
He’s even mixed a little bit of R&B. When Mix caught
up with Wright, he was in the studio recording and mixing
Queensryche’s latest project.

“The first thing I do is put up a variety of my favorite mics:
U47, M49, mostly all tube mics,” says Wright. “If the band
is looking for a harder edge, I’ll go with more contemporary
condenser microphones: 87s etc., depending on the song and the
vocalist. I have gone as far as hand-holding a 57, singing in the
control room. I’ll go through and have them sing into each of the
mics, and record them and play them back to see which ones sound best
on the vocals. Then we’ll start from there.

“When I talk to somebody without a microphone between
us,” he adds, “I listen to the vocal characteristic and try
to duplicate that coming through the speakers. So I choose whichever
microphone best captures the full range of their voice. Also, the
placement: I worked with Ann Wilson of Heart and I found that if I
miked her above her mouth, she sounded different, and if I miked her
below her mouth, around the neck and chest area, she would sound
totally different. Miking around the soundfield of the source,
sometimes there are different characteristics that are enjoyable in a
person’s voice; sometimes it doesn’t come directly out of
the mouth.”

Wright finds that a double-miking technique works well in certain
applications. “In a song that has varied intensity—such as,
it goes into a chorus, for instance, and you want a distorted feel;
then you’re coming back out into a verse, but you want that
clean—I put up two mics or more, depending on how many different
sections we require. I’ll put up two or three mics, and one might
be a very clean mic, with very little compression—say, an
M49—for the verses, and then for the chorus, there might be a 57
with massive compression and distortion. They’ll sing the verse
and move their head to the left or right, depending on what makes them
comfortable, and have the other microphones set up a different way, so
the voice sounds totally different.

“I own a bunch of outboard preamps, and I love them to
death,” says Wright. “Add a tube mic, a compressor, and
we’re off to the races. I typically will not EQ a vocal to tape,
because if I do, then I think that I have not chosen the right
microphone. Typically I’ll use an 1176, because they’re
fast, and they’re not real hard; they don’t sound like
they’re squashing. I love a lot of dynamics—if a singer is
overcompressed, it takes away from the dynamics. You build up an
intensity, and you don’t want a compressor holding you
back.”

DIANNE REEVES
Dianne Reeves has a diverse history. Since her discovery nearly 20
years ago at a high school jazz band competition, the vocalist has
ventured into R&B, jazz and world music, earning two Grammy
nominations along the way. In the early ’80s, she sang on Harry
Belafonte and Sergio Mendes tours; she’s also worked with the
Latin Ensemble and Caldera. Her ninth album, The Grand Encounter
(Blue Note), is a return to her jazz roots and features such legendary
performers as Toots Thielemans, Joe Williams and Germaine Bazzle.

“I usually work with Eric Zobler, and I really trust the vocal
sound that he gets,” says Reeves, of her longtime engineer.
“We’re always trying different mics in different places
because I record live, and I like to feel like when I’m in the
studio with the musicians, everything is as if I were onstage, only
I’m isolated, but I can see all of them. So he uses lots of
different mics, sometimes really old, warm mics, tube mics, but more
than anything, I just like a lot of presence in my voice. I want
everybody to hear everything, from high to low, to breath, so it sounds
like I’m right there with them.”

Reeves says that working with Zobler for so long has made sessions
more streamlined. “Basically we just find a nice range of
closeness to the mic, because if I sing something that’s really
soft and I really want to lean in, I use the mic a little bit, because
onstage I use the mic a lot,” she says. “And it’s
different things for different kinds of projects. If we’re doing
more of a pop-oriented project, then usually I have to stay at a
certain place because my voice is big. But if we’re doing a jazz
thing, I can lean up, and I can whisper, and I can do all kinds of
things, and he makes it so that it’ll come out right.”

Reeves prefers to record as many one-takes as possible. “We
try to do the song no more than three times, live with the musicians,
because then after that for me, it’s redundant and I try to do
what I did on some other take. And usually the first or second take is
it. It’s usually the one when you’re not thinking, you just
do it. And so [Eric is] always ready for that. The one thing I like
about working with Eric is, he knows me so well, that he just always
has the tape rolling. And I might be messing around and it might just
be totally right. As I remember one night, the lyrics of the song had
just been written, and I said, ‘Well, let me run through it and
see how this is going to work.’ And it was the take.”

Reeves usually works with longtime friend and producer George Duke.
“George and Eric are like a wonderful team,” she says.
“George is very well-rounded, a deep background in all kinds of
music. Usually he just wants you to be in there and to be totally
comfortable, and they both kind of supply that comfort. They
don’t tell me how to sing, they just make sure that they hear
what it is that I’m doing, and make sure that what I’m
doing gets across. And Eric does that with sound, and George does that
in terms of going through the lyrics to make sure that I said the word
the right way, or the pitch was on, or whatever.

“Also, Eric has some musical background, which makes a
difference,” Reeves says. “I know that he approaches his
instrument, the board, like it’s part of the music. And the thing
that I love about working with him is the fact that he knows the lyrics
of the songs. And that’s really important, so that he can enhance
what it is that I’m saying, how the music is, the colors.
Everything sparkles, and it’s just right.”

DAVID REITZAS
Last year, David Reitzas mixed Evita for Madonna, The
Preacher’s Wife
for Whitney Houston and Destiny for
Gloria Estefan. Engineering credits for ’96 also include the
likes of Michael Bolton, Barbra Streisand and Natalie Cole’s
follow-up to her multiple Grammy Award-winning Unforgettable.
Some of Reitzas’ previous recording highlights include a Grammy
for Best Engineered Album for Unforgettable and for
Houston’s The Bodyguard. Reitzas’ 10-year
relationship with producer David Foster has given him the experience of
recording some of the most influential vocalists around.

“There is absolutely nothing more important than being
prepared when it comes to recording vocals,” Reitzas says.
“Prior to working with a vocalist, I’ll always do research
on the artist. This could be anything from reviewing their previous
albums or maybe even placing a phone call to another engineer who has
recorded that artist. If I find myself on a session that is tracking
well before a vocal session takes place, this becomes my opportunity to
ask questions of an artist or look for hints about his or her likes or
dislikes about recording vocals.

“Before a session begins, I’ll conceptualize what
I’d like the results of the session to be, and usually I can
select two or three mics that I feel would be appropriate for the style
of music or vocalist,” he says. “At this point, I’ll
verify all of the microphone connections and start to listen to the
general sound characteristics of each mic. From this listening test
I’ll have a pretty good idea which microphone will most likely
sound the best. I’m a big believer in the magic of a first take
so I had better have my shit together before the vocalist even steps up
to the mic. I want that first vocal take to be a usable performance for
my comps.” Three other important aspects Reitzas stresses are
one, an inspiring, well-balanced headphone mix; two, track
management—“I’ll make myself aware of the existing
sounds that are recorded on each track of the multitrack, and then
I’ll rearrange tracks (only in the digital domain) or I’ll
create some type of clone or safety in order to free up as much
available track space as possible”; and three, the
vibe—“Candles, floor lamps and even incense can add to the
mood of a session like you wouldn’t believe.”

Reitzas’ favorite mics are tube models, and although
he’ll usually rent mics that have been successful for him in the
past, he’ll often experiment with the selection of mics a studio
has to offer. “I tend to listen for a microphone that exhibits
the characteristics of full body. I want a mic that has a lot of bottom
and fullness,” he explains. “Ninety percent of the time I
use a tube mic in combination with the Night Technologies Air Band
found on their EQ3 and PreQ3. Each recording session has its unique
highlights, and I try to remember the characteristics of all the mics
I’ve used and how they might play a part in any of my future
recordings.”

Reitzas describes his typical signal path: “Microphone, NTI
PreQ3, NTI EQ3, compressor, two 3-channel mults, tape inputs. Then the
tape outputs are fed in my vocal comp box, and its output feeds the
tape input of what I use as a comp rack. I’ll even monitor that
comp rack with a bit of the Spatializer to add more presence and pull
it out of the speakers slightly. Once I started using the NTI equipment
for recording, I began noticing much more positive feedback from the
artists about their vocal sound.” Once a vocal sound has been
determined by the selection of the microphone, preamp, EQ, compressor
etc., Reitzas says the remaining factor is “the ability to mold
several vocal performances into one while maintaining the integrity and
feel of spontaneity. For this, the Sony PCM 3348 has become my most
valuable tool.

“Recording vocals is not rocket science,” Reitzas
concludes. “With what I’ve expressed about preparation, it
should be fairly straight-ahead to record. Experience is my best
friend; When I remember what didn’t work the way I had planned
it, then I am able to avoid those problems in the future. I am
constantly aware of what is happening before I hit the Record button on
any machine, always knowing what I am erasing and what I am about to
record.”

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