What do disparate styles of music such as R&B, country, rap, rock and opera have in common? The money channel is always the vocal. To be a successful engineer, you've got to make the lead vocal sound great. Having mixed more than 1,000 shows for Blue Öyster Cult during the past 12 years, plus working with vocally oriented artists including Firehouse, The Lizards, Patty Smyth, Danny Rodriguez and ClosEnough, I've learned a few tricks for putting your money where your mouth is, even when there isn't enough money in the P.A. system! Let's examine techniques for ensuring that the vocal channel is, in fact, where the money is.
FLATTERY WILL GET YOU JUST ABOUT EVERYWHERE
An engineer's first task is to make the lead vocalist comfortable. You can give singers the latest, most expensive mic, but if they're not comfortable with it, then your efforts will be wasted. Rehearsals are the best time to try out a few variations to find what suits a particular singer, though not all vocalists are willing to experiment. Here, a mic's accuracy makes no difference; what counts is finding a mic that flatters the singer through the monitor and house systems.
Pay attention to the tightness of the pickup pattern and the singer's style. Different microphones may employ the same polar pattern (e.g., cardioid), but off-axis characteristics can vary greatly. If a singer maintains consistent distance from the mic, then you can use a mic with a tighter pattern without worrying about off-axis response. In this case, a tighter pattern can improve the vocal sound by decreasing the intrusion of ambient noise (such as the guitar player's raging Marshall). On the other hand, singers who move around a lot or have poor mic technique will benefit from a wider pattern to maintain a more consistent sound. In this case, the trade-off is an increase in the pickup of unwanted stage leakage.
Blue Öyster Cult bass player Rich Castellano recently mentioned he was hearing too much stage spill through his in-ear monitors. Switching his wide-pattern cardioid mic to a model with a tighter pattern solved the problem. Once you've decided on a mic that makes everyone happy (yikes!), then you can tackle other issues, most notably the mic preamp.
Some onboard mic preamps are okay for critical applications, but if you've got the budget and the rackspace, having a money channel is a beautiful thing. Two of my favorites are the ATI 8MX2 (which packs eight channels in a single space) and an Avalon VT737, both of which are capable of taking a Shure SM58 to a higher level. In most cases, the outboard preamp would reside at the front-of-house position and simply connect into the console's line-in or insert return. Placing the preamp at the stage allows the monitor mix to take advantage of the enhanced signal path, but takes gain control out of the hands of the FOH engineer.
NUTS ‘N’ BOLTS
It's amazing to see how many engineers set the highpass filter without listening to its effect while the band is playing. In the context of the mix, you can run the roll-off fairly high without making a voice sound thin. If you're dealing with a female voice, you can often set it as high as 250 Hz to reduce the low (and even low-mid) rumble from the stage.
Listen to the vocal sound while changing the polarity of the channel: You may be able to decrease low-mid interference that the mains sometimes kick back to the stage. And don't ignore the lowpass filter. A lot of cymbal leakage can be removed from a vocal mic (without making the vocal sound dull) by setting the lowpass filter at around 8 kHz. Any leakage you can eliminate will result in an increased signal-to-noise (voice-to-leakage) ratio.
THE FUN STUFF
With the right vocal mic, you shouldn't need a lot of equalization. With Blue Öyster Cult, I'm blessed with two great singers — Eric Bloom and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser — yet it's astonishing how differently I need to treat their voices. Bloom has a very dynamic voice that can be aggressive if you don't watch the high-mids. I often notch his channel down a dB or two at around 4 kHz, and sometimes add a dB or two around 250 Hz. Contrast that with Roeser, whose smoky voice can easily get lost in a thick mix. I often cut his channel 2 or 3 dB at around 400 Hz, sometimes adding a dB or two around 5 kHz to increase presence. If you need a lot of EQ on the vocal, then look elsewhere for the source of your problems. There may be an EQ or crossover issue in the system, or the room may simply be a hostile acoustic environment.
Using Bloom and Roeser again as examples, compression has to fit the voice. Bloom's voice requires compression that borders on limiting, especially because his voice gets stronger as the night progresses. If I can get one on the road (I don't have the luxury of carrying a rack), the Empirical Labs Distressor works great, typically with the fastest attack possible, medium release and a ratio of 4:1 or 6:1. I'll set the input level so that I'm getting 5 to 7 dB of reduction when Bloom lays into it.
Roeser's voice remains pretty consistent throughout the night, so I can use a much lower ratio, more like 2:1 or 3:1. I'll bring the threshold (say, on a dbx 160SL) down to around -7 dB so he's being gently compressed at all times. Attack time for Roeser's voice is critical; if it's too fast, then his voice sounds dull. I'll slow it down in the vicinity of 50 to 100 milliseconds. Someone like Mike DiMeo of The Lizards and Riot requires a different approach. DiMeo has an absolute powerhouse voice with pipes that can melt mortal P.A.s, so he gets more severe compression, often a dbx 160X/XT set to a 6:1 ratio, with OverEasy™ switched on and the threshold around -10 dB. When a singer has a particularly “hot” range, the BSS DPR-901(II) can be a great tool, varying the amount of EQ dynamically with up to four tunable bands.
A LITTLE DELAY GOES A LONG WAY
I usually don't add reverb to voice unless the room is very dry or it's an outdoor show, as large rooms typically have enough natural 'verb. If reverb is in order, I'll use the Concert Wave program from a Lexicon PCM 80, Rich Hall from a PCM 91 or the 480 program from a TC M5000, shortening the decay time down to 1.5 seconds and decreasing the LF multiplier. In the Concert Wave program, the room size parameter can be adjusted to accomplish the same effect. Don't be afraid to use the reverb's low- and highpass filters. Lowering the high cut to 5 kHz reduces spitty-ness, while raising the low-cut (to around 150 Hz) prevents low-end rumble in the reverb.
Delay can add dimension to a voice without reducing articulation, even in a reflective room. Vary the delay time from 165 ms with zero feedback, to 315 ms and 5-percent feedback. The TC Electronic D•Two is consistently showing up these days, so I'll start with the factory Tape Echo preset and build programs from there. Typically I set up four basic delays: 165 ms (zero feedback/zero repeats), 215 to 225 ms (3-percent feedback/zero repeats), 265 ms (3-percent feedback/one repeat) and 305 ms (5-percent feedback/two repeats). I pull up shorter delays for faster songs and longer delays for slower tempos. You can always use the tap-tempo feature to place a delay in tempo, but keep in mind that when a delay is in time with a song, it may be masked by drum hits. To make delay more distinct from the lead vocal, apply filters, either in the program or on the return channel. I'll chop the high end off at 4 or 5 kHz and roll the low end up to at least 100 Hz so the delay doesn't mask the vocal.
I use a Yamaha SPX990 for my BÖC “gags,” including long echos for songs such as “Cities on Flame” or “Godzilla.” For “Godzilla,” it's a stereo delay split 650/665 ms, 70-percent feedback, 100Hz highpass and a 6.3kHz lowpass. For the song “Black Blade,” I flange Bloom's vocal using the SPX990's Dual Flange algorithm. I set the delays at 1.2 and 3 ms, 65-percent feedback, highpass at 100 Hz, lowpass at around 5 kHz and crank the depth up for a very eerie lead vocal effect.
If there's a Lexicon PCM 70 available, try recalling the Double Slap program. Set one delay time at around 40 ms and a second near 60 ms. Pan the delays hard-left and -right, and turn the feedback down all the way; then feed the vocal into it from an aux send. This effect makes the vocal absolutely huge, but the beauty of it is that it doesn't sound processed or draw attention to itself. The idea works with any stereo delay, but the PCM 70 sounds especially nice.
One quick note about hygiene: You can reduce the spreading of germs by wiping the mic basket with a paper towel that has some Listerine on it, or spraying the mic with Biocide Virofree disinfectant.
In addition to being Mix's sound reinforcement editor, Steve La Cerra is the front-of-house engineer for Blue Öyster Cult.