“Finding the right mic is like finding the right lover,” says New York-based producer/engineer/studio owner Steve Rosenthal. “Because if you find the match for your voice, and people sit in the control room and then at home and feel what you're trying to say as a singer and feel the presence of your voice in a very clear way, it's a very special thing. It's not easy to find that mic that translates your personality for you. Some singers are into the search; for some, it doesn't really matter. But I think it really does make a difference and, of course, for engineers and producers, it really does matter.”
Of course, there's more to vocal recording than just microphones — there's the whole vocal chain to consider, the “vibe” in the room and that disappearing art known as vocal technique, but it all starts with a voice and a mic choice.
Every couple of years, we like to check in with a few engineers and producers to see what sort of equipment and techniques they're favoring. This year, Mike Mangini gives us the rundown on recording soulstress Joss Stone, John Porter talks about working with Los Lonely Boys and Steve Rosenthal describes capturing the rich American roots — style harmonies of Ollabelle. Veteran engineer Al Schmitt shares his time-tested techniques and Tom Lord-Alge gives us the mixer's perspective. Some common themes? A simple approach, classic mics and outboard gear, and recording right into Pro Tools.
Capturing Joss Stone's “Soul”
Many were startled last year by British singer Joss Stone's powerhouse debut album, The Soul Sessions. Could that incredible voice really belong to a 15-year-old? What a lot of people might not know about the album is that “there was no editing whatsoever,” says the album's co-producer, Mike Mangini, who, with engineer Steve Greenwell, tracked the dates at Hit Factory/Criteria in Miami using veteran players from that city's famous TK Records scene.
“Soul Sessions was truly a live record. The band played live and we didn't manipulate it at all. And all of Joss' vocals were live takes. She just went and sang it a few times, a take was picked and that was it.” Although the album was recorded to Pro Tools, the workstation was used solely as a recorder. “I'd never made a record like that in my entire career,” Mangini says with a chuckle.
Evidently, the strategy worked: Soul Sessions has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide and there's great anticipation for her second album — also produced by Mangini with S-Curve Records head Steve Greenberg and Betty Wright, and engineered by Greenwell — due in September and called Mind Body and Soul. That album, Mangini says, “is more in line technically with the way records are made today,” meaning that there are overdubs and editing, though no pitch correction. The new album was tracked at Hit Factory/Criteria, Right Track and Chung King (both in New York City), with vocals and overdubs added at Mangini's Manhattan studio, which is equipped with an old Neve console.
From the outset, Mangini says he could tell Stone was special and was pleasantly surprised at how easy she was to record — not usually the case with young singers. “She had made a few writing demos with a number of people, so putting on a set of headphones and singing to a track was something she was already pretty comfortable with,” he says. “But she had never sung in front of real people playing. So we went down to Miami and here are these 50-year-old guys, for the most part, set up in the room ready to jam and start to build a sound, and she's supposed to stand up there and sing in front of these guys. I think that was a tough transition for her: to actually sing with a band. But she has amazing pitch. Now she's like an old pro!” [Laughs]
When it came to choosing a mic for Stone, “We tried a few different ones, but Steve Greenwell and I settled on the Sony C-800. We tried [AKG] C 12s and a couple of Neumann mics, but they kind of had a sound to them — they changed how she sounded — so we went with the C-800, which seemed totally transparent. So that was the mic we used primarily on both records, and then we'd also go through an Avalon 737 [preamp].”
Mangini says that sometimes with thin-sounding younger singers, he chooses a mic such as a [Neumann] 67 or 87, or C 12 to add warmth, but that was not the case with Stone. “With Joss, though, her voice is so dark, so warm to begin with, my concern is more it being clear. So a lot depends on what the singer's bringing to the table,” he says. With a singer as potent as Stone, Mangini adds, “Nine times out of 10, her vocals are dead-dry and way up front in the mix. There might be a double of a vocal on a chorus, but there's never one of the lead vocal. We rarely use reverb; once in a while, some delay. It's compressed and slightly EQ'd — we're fairly aggressive with the LA-2As — and we have the vocal sitting right up front.”
Los Microfones de Los Lonely Boys
With an awe-inspiring resume that includes The Smiths' early albums, Bryan Ferry, B.B. King, Ozzy Osbourne, Ryan Adams and so many others, John Porter could well rest on his laurels, but instead he plugs on, still doing vital work. The L.A.-based Englishman's latest hit is Los Lonely Boys' self-titled album, which has produced the inescapable video hit, “Heaven.”
Porter is an old hand at recording vocals and for this project, which was cut at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in Texas (where the Boys hail from), he kept his recording approach simple. “I have some [Shure] SM7s, which I think are really great and they've saved me in all kinds of situations and with all kinds of instruments. They're really suited to being in a room with a lot going on. And they sound great. So that was my mic of choice for the tracking dates. There was also an old tube [Neumann] 47 that was a favorite of Willie's that I used a little. I had some baffles out in the room with them for some isolation, but they were right out there in the middle of it.” Porter says his vocal chain comprised “the SM7 into a Neve 1073 and an LA-2A or an 1176. I use very simple compression; I don't use too much — I'll go 3 dB at 3:1 or 4:1. And we used Pro Tools|HD.
“After I've done the tracking,” Porter continues, “if I'm going to be doing overdubs, then I'll do a mic shootout: put up everything we think might work: If there's a Soundelux Elux 251, I'll try that, a tube 47, C 12, or if there's anything that anyone particularly likes, I'll try that. I might have certain mics I'll use for certain purposes. If there's a singer that's a little honky [not referring to any racial stereotype!] or has too much of a certain frequency, an Electro-Voice RE-20 might work. Sometimes, too, if the singer wants to sing in the control room with the monitors blasting, I'm not averse to using a 58. But I'll always put the SM7 up. I'll put it up against the more expensive mics and it's quite often the mic of choice.
“Recently, I produced Missy Higgins for Warner Bros. (with engineer Rik Pekkonen) and we put up the usual bunch of mics, and the studio had a couple of modded 87s that were tube 87s and those beat the 251 the 47 the 67 and the C12 for that particular project. I'll always use whatever sounds best on a particular voice and the choice may change for different songs.”
Porter says he did some comping on Los Lonely Boys: “I would do three or four passes at the vocals and then I'd do a comp and then if there was any line to be replaced, we'd do that. But they're good performers and they sing in tune.
“Vocalists, particularly, quite often have a way of working and it's the producer's job to adapt to that to a certain degree,” he continues. “Singing is a very personal thing and you want the artist to be comfortable with it. If they want to fill the control room with sand and build a duck pond under the console to get what they want, that's fine with me as long as it's in the budget!”
As for other vocal recording tips, “When I'm recording now, I don't use EQ. I used to,” says Porter. “That said, sometimes when I'm mixing, I might really use a lot of EQ to get the vocal to fit in the track right, especially with R&B vocals where there's a lot of attack. But I would hate to [use it whilst tracking] because when you do, there's nowhere left to go. The other thing I'd say is, left to my own devices, I rarely use pop shields either because with the tools that are available now, you can deal with those kinds of problems with Pro Tools and I think people sing better into a microphone without the distraction of the pop shield.
“But there are no rules,” Porter concludes. “A good performance transcends everything.”
The Roots Sound of Ollabelle
Occasionally, quality does prevail. Case in point: Ollabelle. Five years ago, the chances of an album of (mostly) traditional gospel songs performed by a group of white singer/musicians based in New York probably would not have found much of an audience, much less a label to release it. But ever since the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, there is a new, mostly urban, audience hungering for the emotional resonance of American roots music. And though Ollabelle isn't going to make anyone forget the Swan Silvertones or the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, they might actually lead people to those groups from yesteryear, plus they pack a wallop of their own. They're clearly the real deal.
That's what producer/engineer Steve Rosenthal felt, too, when he first saw the group at a New York club called 9C a while back. He should know: Among the many old records Rosenthal has spearheaded for restoration in the past several years are more than 100 recorded or collected by the great musicologist Alan Lomax, who traveled the world — and all over America — capturing indigenous music in the pre-television age. Rosenthal was so “blown away” (as he put it) by Ollaballe that he offered to bring the group into the recording studio he owns — the beloved New York City vintage gear paradise called the Magic Shop — and make an album on-spec.
“I wanted to make a live record with them,” he says. “It's more like a document of people who can actually play and sing than a studio-produced record where you dump it into Pro Tools and put everything to the grid and auto-tune everything. Everything was recorded live in the studio, including the vocals.
“I set the room up in an interesting way,” Rosenthal continues. “I built these little rooms or booths for [singers] Amy [Helm] and Fiona [McBain] and had them facing Glenn [Pascha] directly; at that point, those were the three main singers in the band. I encouraged them to bring things and hang them in their booths — rugs, paintings, plants — to make them more comfortable. Being in the studio for singers can be very intimidating, especially in a situation where I'm looking for them to be inspired and sing and get a live performance. It's important for them to be relaxed.
“I was also careful to set them up in a way where they could all see each other, but where I still got enough isolation that if I had to punch something in, I could. But I was really encouraging them to get the performances while the tracks were being laid down.”
Is that the influence of Lomax? “No question about it,” Rosenthal says. “The quality of the recordings he made using just a pair of RCA mics, a passive mixer and the mic pre's from his Ampex 2-track are amazing. For him, the magic was mic placement. When you hear Fred McDowell recorded on his porch at his house in Mississippi, you get the presence of the artist and the feeling of the place. But Lomax was really one of a kind.”
Not surprisingly, Rosenthal likes vintage mics and outboard gear; still, the low-budget project was tracked to Pro Tools. “For Fiona and Amy, I used two U67s and for Glenn I used a 47 and an old RCA ribbon mic — that was a suggestion from the engineer I worked with on the basic tracks, Juan Garcia. Of course, with three or four Neumann mics live in a room, you can get a lot of leakage, but we had the booths and a little leakage can often work to your advantage.”
Rosenthal used the 1079 preamps from his 56-input 80 Series Neve console as part of the vocal chain “and the two ladies were also in LA-2As and Glenn was in the Distressor, which is a really fun box. I don't put a lot of boxes on my records. I have two EMT stereo plates here and that's basically it: room ambience and a little plate on the vocals. But I'm very much into having it sound very present.”
Al Schmitt: A Few Tips From the Pro's Pro
Al Schmitt has a career spanning more than four decades and hundreds of albums with everyone from Jefferson Airplane to Ray Charles to Diana Krall. The multi-Grammy winner is also one of the true good guys of our business — a generous soul always willing to offer his wisdom to others if asked. He's worked with a few decent singers through the years: Sinatra, Jarreau, Dolly, Carly, Celine — the list goes on forever.
While Schmitt certainly has favorite mics, he is also always open to change. “For instance,” he says, “I'm still using the great 67 that we use on Diana [Krall] all the time, but even with her, on a couple of songs on the new album [The Girl in the Other Room], she wanted a harder sound and she's playing really heavy on the piano, so we wound up trying an SM7.” [On Krall's award-winning live One Night in Paris album, Schmitt used a Neumann 150 on her vocal.]
“Obviously, it depends on the voice what mic you use,” Schmitt continues. “I can hear a voice and know what I want to do. Like with Al Jarreau, I hear his voice and I know I want to get a mic that's crisp and will pick up all the little nuances of his phrasing and also little things he does with his mouth. So the last time I worked with him [Accentuate the Positive, released this year], I wound up using a new Brauner tube microphone and it was just great. It held up and captured everything really well. Jarreau's dynamic range is really good: He'll go from almost a whisper to being really loud and I hate to use a lot of limiting, so I do a lot of hand limiting. You know what the song is and where he's going to get really loud, so I'll pull the fader back a little bit.
“On [jazz singer] Jane Monheit's new album [Taking a Chance on Love], I used a Didrik tube microphone, which is built by hand by this guy in Sweden [Didrik De Geer] and there are only 24 of them in the world. Wow! It's unbelievable! It's also like $15,000,” he adds with a laugh. “[Producer] Peter Asher turned me onto it. We used it on Jane Monheit and it was perfect. She really belts it out, but she could not hurt this microphone. I'm sure I'll be using one again sometime — it's definitely special.”
Speaking more generally about recording vocals, Schmitt says, “When I can possibly do it, I put the mic in omni, unless it's someone standing out in the middle of a brass section or something — which I did with Sinatra — or like Diana, who plays and sings, and then I'll open up the mic all the way around. With her, it's in the cardioid position.
“I've been using three different preamps, depending on the mics and depending on the vocalist. One is an old Neve 1073, which is always pretty dependable. Then John Oram made a preamp for me that is just killer — actually, it's a preamp and optical compressor and equalizer all in one, and it's fantastic. And then I've also been using the Martech [MSS-10], which is an old standby. From there, I'll usually go into a Summit compressor; at the most, I'll pull on it a dB or two. I use it more for the sound. I also got a 3-band Tube-Tech that I've been using a lot.
“There was a thing years ago called microphone technique,” Schmitt says wistfully. “Rosemary Clooney and Sinatra and these people had it and that's now a lost art. It was learning how to come in on the lower notes and lean back on the higher ones and move their head a little so the air wasn't hitting right into the mic in certain places. With someone like Rosemary Clooney, I would set the fader and I would never have to touch it again — she would be perfect all the time. In those days, too, the singers always came in really prepared. A lot of singers today don't; in some cases, they don't even know the song, which makes it tough. But, generally, I've been very fortunate to work with so many great singers.”
Tom Lord-Alge: A Mixer's Perspective
Here's a plea to tracking engineers from one of the top mixers in the business: “Record a vocal with as little amount of stuff on it that you can bear to,” says Tom Lord-Alge, whose credits include a ridiculous number of successful albums during the past 20-plus years, by “everyone from Manson to Hanson,” he jokes, and includes the likes of Billy Joel, Blink-182, Pink, Goo Goo Dolls, Hole and Avril Lavigne. “If you feel you need the vocal to be really compressed, try doing it on the monitoring side, because now with Pro Tools, it's so easy to just throw a plug-in compressor and a little EQ on the monitor side and that will still allow you to go in and change it in the future. There are engineers who over-compress or they take out all the breath; there are all sorts of bad things engineers do that cut down my options when I'm mixing. I always feel like I'd rather get a plain Jane recording, which is basically flat, rather than someone's idea of what the finished mix should sound like, because sometimes it gets to a place where it's unrecoverable. Having said that, I used to be the guy who recorded with all that stuff on it,” he adds with a laugh. “Just put up a mic and a good mic pre, maybe just a touch of compression on the way in.” And leave the rest to you? “Exactly!
“The other thing I'd comment is lay the f*** off the Auto-Tune. Holy shit! Have 'em sing it again! A lot of cats get lazy and put the Auto-Tune in and print it that way. If you're going to use it — if you can't have the singer sing it again and then manipulate it via other performances — just go through and fix the words [with Auto-Tune or some other pitch corrector] rather than running the whole pass through Auto-Tune. Automate it so it shuts off and on. I can't stand it when it's on the whole track.”
The past several years, many pop and hip hop records have become laboratories for interesting vocal mixing techniques, with doubled and tripled lead vocals, stacks upon stacks of harmony parts fighting for space in arrangements and effects ranging from extreme electronic alterations to subtle ghosting becoming commonplace. Certainly the ubiquity of Pro Tools and other workstations has accelerated this trend, but Lord-Alge notes that, “Us mixers have been doing all these things for years. It's just become a lot easier now with Pro Tools because it just becomes cut-and-paste. One of my favorite things to do is maybe a quarter-note repeat or a whole note ghost and then maybe the next time it happens, maybe it will be a triplet so it mixes up the rhythm a little bit. Another one of my favorite things to do is one of those repeat-type things, where I'll sample the lead vocal, move it to the spot I want it and maybe either cut a word out or stretch a word to make it so it's slightly different. And Pro Tools makes all of that very, very easy.”
Stacking vocals has never been easier, says Lord-Alge. “With the endless amount of voices and DSP power you can stick in your computer, there's no such thing as a comp-down anymore — although I still find myself going down to stereo these days. If I get sessions that are say, 20 or 30 vocals — let's say 10 or 15 channels make up a chorus stack — I'll get a blend of it and then bounce it down to two stereo tracks and then, if during the mix I feel I need to adjust the blend, I'll re-open the originals, make adjustments and print it in again. I've just always felt more comfortable running the minimum DSP that I can.
“I use Pro Tools as a tape machine on steroids,” he continues. “I still come out discretely into an SSL console and still use the console and my array of outboard gear to flavor it. Like with filtered vocals, which I've certainly used on Avril's records and some others, I've never found anything that sounds better than using the highpass and lowpass filters on the SSL and then carving in the frequency you want to stick out using the SSL compressor. What I do find very handy with Pro Tools is the fact that I can do what I call rough-in EQs: If I hear something and think, ‘That definitely needs some top end,’ boom, put a plug-in in, add a bit of top end and then I'll finish it off on the console.”
• Sarah Jones provides insights from both sides of the vocal mic. Click
here to read the feature.
• Read vocal recording tips from Tony Visconti, Scott Spock, Michael
Tudor and James Porte here.
• Ed Cherney, Rene Grant-Williams, Csaba Petocz and Eric Paul share their
• Top Engineers Discuss Producing Vocal Tracks With DAWs. Click