Everyone wants their voice to be heard, and when it comes to recording music, it's all about nailing the vocal track. Arguably the most complex instrument that appears in front of a microphone, the human voice offers infinitely more attack and decay variations than a piano, and is as sensitive to heat and cold as a horn. It can also be an insanely tough source to troubleshoot when something sounds wrong.
Engineers, producers and artists never stop honing their techniques to make the almighty voice sound amazing. In this latest report on the state of the art for recording vocals, we go straight to the source, getting tips from top pros on getting that great vocal track. We'll move through the signal chain from mic selection to mastering, zooming in on techniques for rock, hip hop, reggaeton and choirs along the way.
STEP UP (TO) THE MIC
At Studio G (www.studiogbrooklyn.com) in Brooklyn, N.Y., engineer/producer Joel Hamilton is quickly rising to the top tier of in-demand recordists. With credits including Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and Frank Black, as well as indie acts by the dozen, Hamilton is known for his strong work ethic and laser-accurate ears, as well as one of the most exotic microphone collections in the area.
When it comes to mic selection, Hamilton has plenty of choices, and he needs them, because to his ears, there's no instrument as singularly unique as each human voice. “It's the thing in the studio that's most like a fingerprint,” he says. “You can tell someone you're going to record a Telecaster through a Fender Twin, and everyone would get an idea of what that would sound like, as opposed to me saying, ‘You should hear Chris Johnson sing!’”
Once the singer is in the studio and it's time to choose a mic, Hamilton develops a strong empathy with the circuitry he's selecting. “You have to have a way to think like the microphones think,” he explains. “The more you do that, you get an idea that a Soundelux U195 will hear the voice one way, the Shure SM57 will hear it another way and the Neumann U47 another way. You have to think in 3-D, not just in the tonal range characteristics of the human voice.
[The voice] is the thing in the studio that’s most like a
photo: Trisha O'Hara
“Sometimes when you're auditioning mics, you'll hear two that sound like a microphone and then the third just sounds like the singer. It's like the glass came down and somehow all the variables of the mic match up with all the variables in the human voice and you have a fit, unless it's a specific color you're going for.”
When pressed, Hamilton will admit to having his favorite mics, including the Neumann U47 (“obvious”), Soundelux U195 (“forward without being bright”), RFT 7151 (“sounds like whoever's standing in front of it”), Placid Audio Copperphone (“when we're trying to impart something on the signal”) and a vintage Tannoy ribbon mic (“for that Bing Crosby, superdark, woo-your-girlfriend sound”). Meanwhile, his top microphone preamps include a Manley tube reference mic pre (“only 100 were made, super up-front”), Sage Electronics SE-Pre 1 (“tons of headroom”) and the Neve 1073 (“of course”).
But as mindful as Hamilton is of his mics and preamps during a shootout, he's even more mindful of the singer. “The audition process impacts the performer, definitely,” he says. “I have to make it feel fun. The pace of the pursuit is as important as the pursuit itself because you're dealing with meat in there. The guitar string will keep wiggling happily after four hours, but you can't get people to give their all for that long.
“To seem like you're indecisive would be horrible. You know you're overanalyzing when you can feel the stares from the bass player and the drummer on your neck! But I can't stress enough the level of engagement you get from taking two seconds to pick the right mic. Do it quick, don't waffle and let your gut be the guide.”
After all that, discovering the perfect microphone for the session is a magic moment waiting to happen. “It gives you the chills,” says Hamilton. “The rendezvous is the word, as the tonal quality, emotion and sentiment expressed in the words all seem to come together in the moment and you feel like that story is just for you.”
GREAT TONE FOR REGGAETON AND HIP HOP
As a genre where it seems as if rules are made to be broken, producing reggaeton can be disorienting for the uninitiated. One engineer who doesn't have to worry about being uncomfortable recording this addictive blend of Latin rhythms, reggae, dancehall and hip hop is Jose “Hyde” Cotto. His work with reggaeton chart-busters such as Daddy Yankee and Tempo, as well as multiple hip hop credits, has made Hyde one of the busiest engineers in Miami, New York City and his home commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
The vocal is the essence of an artist.
—Jose “Hyde” Cotto
“There's a different approach to everything,” Hyde notes. “For hip hop tracks, I usually record one or two main vocals and just a pair of highlights. Just make it simple, but really strong — ‘with body,’ as we say in Spanish.
“With reggaeton, it's completely different. The things we do mixing reggaeton, if you do it in other genres, people will think you don't know shit! Sometimes we have to make it sound bad to make it sound good. The vocals have to sound really wide, so I'll do a bunch of tracks. ‘Usually, we do a minimum of four doubles of the main [vocal] line with harmonies to make it catchy. Then you have to coach the artist, because a lot of the artists are really talented but they don't know how to organize their talents. They want to put 40 ideas in one song, and you have to make sure they pick the best ideas.”
Hyde stresses that intense scrutiny of every moment of the vocal track is essential to produce hits on the scale achieved by Daddy Yankee, whose monster hit "Gasolina" helped the 2004 Barrio Fino become the first reggaeton album to debut at Number One on the Billboard chart. “The important thing is to make sure that every syllable is understandable and that it has power,” he says. “People don't always pay attention to that detail that can make a vocal track better. On at least one album, we spent a minimum of 14 hours on each vocal track, going through every syllable to ensure that it was sweet to the ear.”
To achieve that, Hyde will scrutinize every word to bring each one in line with the proper level, using audio sweetening techniques in programs such as Synchro Arts' VocALign. “Sometimes VocALign works, sometimes it doesn't,” says Hyde. “When it makes vocals too tight, instead of aligning all the tracks equally, I'll align them in pairs so that the doubles are a little different. But if you VocALign everything for just one guy, it will sound too tight, like compressing it too much. In reggaeton, I'll pan them hard left and hard right so they sound the same, but wide.”
When it's time to work on EQ and compression, Hyde can narrow in on a slightly more standardized process. “When I go in and EQ, I like the vocals sounding strong; I don't like them sounding thin,” he relates. “It depends on the guy, but they usually miss in the low end, between 100 and 400 Hz. If it needs a little bit of high end, I'll use the Waves Q10 or R-Eq [Renaissance Equalizer] to raise them up a little bit in 4k.
“I'm really simple with compression. I do it, but just a tiny bit — maybe compress down 2 or 3 dBs, really subtle, just to make it a little bit more tight. Using less compression makes your mix sound bigger, more natural. If you compress too much, it doesn't have the same air that it will if you compress just a little.”
Automated EQ is the Number One best discovery
For Hyde, however, it all circles back to having an artist and production team committed to laying down the very best vocal possible, right from the start. “The vocal is the essence of an artist,” Hyde says. “If Daddy Yankee wasn't such a hard worker with his vocals, he wouldn't be where he is now. You have to have a good song, of course, but the performance has got to be on point. If the vocals are not organized, performed, mixed and edited well, that can be the difference between a hit and a mega-hit.”
VOCALS IN THE MIX
Dave Fortman is the producer, mixer and engineer of choice for adventurous acts such as Mudvayne, Atompship and Superjoint Ritual, as well as the producer of Evanescence's 2003 hit album, Fallen, and the band's upcoming fall release, both featuring the unmistakable vocals of singer Amy Lee. Although Fortman claims at first not to be “that technical of a guy,” he soon drills down into the details of mixing Platinum rock vocals.
“I'll first go to one or two compressors,” says Fortman. “One of my all-time favorites is the Blue Stripe UREI 1176, the earliest models [that] used to have a blue stripe across the VU meter. Those sound a lot different: They're really sticky, aggressive and good. You can peg them and they just sound amazing. On a female voice like Amy's, I went to using the Empirical Labs Distressor for adding a little more warmth. I would set it on 4:1, which is the Neve emulation and adds a slight sizzle on top, along with the attack running about 7 o'clock and the release running about 4.
“One of the things I was messing up early on with compression was the attack time. I didn't realize that slower attacks were being used on vocals, and recognizing that, along with slowing the release a little, really helped a ton to give it some punch and make it really sticky. On the 1176 release, for example, running the attack at 10 o'clock and the release at 3 has been working great. Really crushing a vocal with too fast of an attack starts to cause all kinds of pumping and sibilance problems, but if you get [the] attack and release right, you'll hear words with sharp beginnings like ‘cause’ sound like it's punching.”
After applying any necessary filters, Fortman loves to apply his “air trick” whenever he can. “If, on the SSL, you put the top band not on bell but on shelf, stick it up to 8 kHz and crank it, it makes the most amazing air combination ever on voice or acoustic guitar,” he reveals. “The top-end shelving there is a real beautiful sound that the SSL will give you. If it's a piercing voice that I don't like at 8 kHz, I'll move it to 10 or 10.5. I always do something to give it some top, some air to make it come out in the mix. If it's too airy, I'll try to go down and get out a lower presence on a voice at 5 kHz or as low as 2 kHz.”
The fun of effects is next, which sees Fortman often eschewing reverb altogether (“I'm not a 'verb kind of guy”) and applying different delays throughout the song rather than sticking with just one style throughout. Momentary use of effects is also a favored technique. “A lot of times, in pre-choruses I'll take a mono delay in Pro Tools, automate the bus and send one word into it. That one word might be going through the desk, through a flanger, and it separates some moments to where someone has an important delivery before the chorus, and it's like, ‘Oh, something's going on,’ and then bang — it hits you.”
Detailed vocal rides come next during mixing, after which Fortman concludes his insights with an impassioned parting shot. “Automated EQ is the Number One best discovery for me,” he imparts. “Amy Lee has an amazing voice where it will be high and badass, then low and deep, as well. I could have her back off on the mic, but it's just as easy for me to deal with in Pro Tools to make the loud parts have a different sound than the soft parts. Automated EQ and compression is an amazing thing to have at your fingertips.”
PREACHING GREAT AUDIO TO THE CHOIR
For Nashville-based Lynn Fuston (www.3daudioinc.com), whose credits include such notable artists as Amy Grant, DC Talk and Kathy Troccoli, recording vocals one at a time may be enjoyable, but recording hundreds at once is an incomparable rush. “When you're with a choir that's 300 voices strong and they sing as one person with every consonant and vowel lined up, it's overwhelming, almost beyond belief,” he says. “Then again, you can have something that's all over the place, like a gospel or Pentecostal choir. It's directed bedlam, and capturing that emotion and spirit that comes off the stage is incredible.”
The veteran engineer points to a recent recording he did in Ohio for the project Feel the Joy as a good illustration of live gospel recording techniques. Fuston used one or two mics per part for the 50-piece S.A.T. (soprano/alto/tenor) group for a total of six mics, using Neumann KM 84s on the men and Audio-Technica 4050s on the women, recording through a Millennia Media HV-3 preamp into an iZ Technology RADAR 24 hard disk recorder. While the signal path to recording may have been relatively straightforward, the monitoring setup for the choir's backing track most decidedly was not.
Stay out of the way and let [a choir] communicate.
“When you're recording a choir live, the foldback is always an issue,” says Fuston. “If you attempt to use speakers and get them loud enough so the choir can really get into it, you'll always end up with as much monitor bleed as you have choir in your mics. You can try and give everybody headphones, but with 70 singers, 70 sets of headphones are difficult to organize. For this situation, each of the singers brought a small FM Walkman. We brought an FM transmitter and generated a foldback by broadcasting the track to them. They all wore earbuds, so all 70 people could hear the track in their own monitors with no bleed.” And no messy cleanup!
Deeply experienced in working with choirs, Fuston knows that the pitch of choirs can often sag as much as a quarter of a step during recordings. “If the volume isn't loud enough coming back, they'll proceed to pitch lower,” he explains. “It's a well-known phenomenon: If you put headphones on your head, you'll get a pitch center. Then when you lay them in your lap, you'll notice the pitch goes down drastically. What I've been known to do is pitch the track going to the choir in an Eventide Harmonizer, adjusting the pitch up in varying degrees so their singing is coming back in tune with the track. Don't tell the choir you're doing it, though! What they don't know won't hurt them, and don't take that step until you hear them. Frequently, that's what is needed live with a large group of non-studio singers. With studio singers, you just say, ‘Hey, you're a little south of the pitch,’ and they'll take care of it.”
When selecting a facility for a studio recording, Fuston urges the engineer/producer not to underestimate the necessary amount of space. “I've cut choirs in rooms as large as Ocean Way Nashville, which is in a gothic revival church,” he remarks. “A medium-sized room is better for control, and if you can get the mics far enough away from the choir, you can get the sense of space needed for a classical recording. But be sure it's a room where the walls aren't so close that you end up having trouble with reflections, and acoustic compression can also happen. If you have too large a group in too small a space, they can sing so loud that the sound compresses itself, they overload the room, it gets loud and just caps. It's the weirdest effect you've ever heard.”
The ultimate goal for an engineer recording a choir should be his or her own transparency in the process. “It's staying out of the way and trying to let them communicate,” Fuston says. “You're making sure that when they are at their biggest, loudest and fullest that it's just overpowering, and when they're singing softly you still don't lose that presence.”
MASTER OF VOCALS IS PULLING THE STRINGS
Emily Lazar of The Lodge in New York City (www.thelodge.com) has had albums from Morrissey, Depeche Mode, BT, Garbage and David Bowie, among many others, pass through her mastering suite. As the final stop in the processing chain, Lazar emphasizes that mastering is a crucial stage for the vocals.
“I believe that mastering can really do quite a lot to enhance the vocal portion of a mix,” she says. “Of course, the client must keep in mind that manipulating the frequencies that directly affect the vocal will also affect any other instrument in that frequency range.
Mastering can really do a lot to enhance the vocal portion of the mix.
photo: FRED MARCUS
“For example, a difficult problem to fix would be that of isolating a sharply sibilant vocal while enhancing the snap of a snare drum. This could be construed as an unreasonable expectation, but where there is a will, there is a way. Some mastering engineers may choose to de-ess an entire stereo mix in an effort to de-ess a vocal. Although it might produce a more palatable vocal, this technique can instantly destroy the snap and sizzle of the drum kit, as well as the track's ability to breathe as a whole. It may take hours longer, but I prefer to do two passes on the material: one mastered with a de-esser in line and another pass without the de-esser. Then I edit back in only the de-essed sections that are most necessary to preserve the rest of the track.
“To handle a muddy or buried vocal, I have found that the best tools for digging out a vocal are subtractive EQ and multiband compressors. They give you the most control when you are trying to tighten something. When things start sounding muddy in the low mids, it is all about creating space. Once you have some space [in which] to work, then go to your additive EQ.”
According to Lazar, mastering engineers are more than happy to help take the guesswork out of what kind of 2-track (or surround) mix artists or producers should deliver. “Do multiple versions of your mix!” exclaims Lazar. “Giving the mastering engineer more options to work with can ease your session tremendously. For example, a common client complaint is, ‘I love where the main mix's vocal track is for the verses, but in the chorus, it is too quiet.’ If you have a vocal-up version of your mix, the mastering engineer can master both mixes and edit them together in the appropriate places without making any changes to his or her EQ or compressor settings.
“Start a relationship with a mastering engineer that you trust. Many of my clients send me their roughs, as well as their final mixes while they are working, just to ensure that they are achieving their goal. Running your mix past a mastering engineer's ears before the scheduled session gives you an opportunity to get a fresh perspective and — if necessary — go back and fix some things.”
From mic selection through to the final master, capturing and reproducing vocals may be the most complex of any exercise in recording. But with obsessive attention to detail, sharp organization and an innovative spirit, your next vocal track could very well be your best yet.
David Weiss is Mix's New York editor.
Get more information from in-demand engineers and producers on getting a great vocal take.
"Speech and Song," November 2005
"Recording Vocals," September 2004
"The Engineer and the Vocalist," August 2003
"Recording Vocals From A to D," February 2003
"Recording Vocals," November 2002
"The Human Element," September 2001
"Vocal Recording: In Their Own Words," April 1999