In Their Own Words
In the whole realm of recording, there’s no place where art andtechnology are more hopelessly intertwined than in tracking vocals. Askvocal-recording engineers about their craft and you’ll hear words like”feel” and “vibe” as often as “tube condenser” and “compression.”
We talked with three top vocal-recording engineers about theintricacies and challenges of recording vocals. With more than 40 yearsof combined experience in the recording trenches, David Reitzas, ChrisVogel and Joe Chiccarelli have worked with some of the biggest names inpop, rock and alternative music. Now, they share their wisdom withyou.
THE PRIME DIRECTIVE
Chiccarelli: I think the most important thing is trying tofigure out what you want from the vocal. What are you trying to conveywith the song? It’s a matter of understanding the song, and trying tocraft a sound that works right for the particular lyric or emotion orwhatever.
In the end, nobody really cares what the vocal sound is like-it’sthe vibe, the emotion that people buy records for. If you have a roughvocal from a tracking date that maybe isn’t the sound you want, or hassome pops or distortion, who cares? If it has the vibe, that’s it.Performance is everything.
Vogel: With single vocals, the biggest challenge is justgetting the performance on tape. It sounds simple, but the vocal is themost important element of the track.
Reitzas: In music with a lead vocalist, the vocal has to betaken the most seriously. That’s where my attention goes to for allphases of making a record. If you’re doing an overdub, you’ve got tosee how it’s going to work with the vocal. If you’re doing a mix,you’ve got to make sure everything works in around the vocal.
Recording a vocal is not complicated. It’s much more difficult toget a great drum sound than it is to get a great vocal sound. Butmaking a great vocal recording requires more than just getting a greatsound. I have no objection to doing whatever it takes to get aperformance that makes the blood boil.
MAKING ARTISTS COMFORTABLE
Vogel: If you can’t capture the performance and keep the artistshappy, then you’re missing the whole point. You just have to make surethat they’re comfortable. That’s 90 percent of the job.
I’m not a purist in the electronic sense, but I am a purist in thatI go back beyond the microphone to the performance itself. I’ll usewhatever I can to make the artist comfortable. Without exception, Ialways ask, “Are you comfortable with the mic here?” If not, I put itwhere they’re comfortable. Sometimes it sounds like it’s in a closet,sometimes it sounds like it’s off-axis, but I’d rather deal with thesound and have a good performance.
If a vocalist isn’t happy with a mic hanging on a boom in front ofthem, then take it away. I’m not so into having the ultimate $8,000 micif it’s not going to make the singer comfortable. It can be anintimidating thing to have a big studio mic hanging in front of yourface while you’re trying to be intimate with a vocal. Steven Tyler justdid not like having big mics hanging in front of him-he freaked out-soI just gave him an SM57, and he sounded great.
Reitzas: When I was recording the vocals for the Evitadying scene, Madonna was doing a take and the feel just wasn’t right.After she left the studio I had the assistant bring in a couple ofcouches and set it up like a bed, and got some test equipment, made amorphine drip-type bag-made it like a hospital scene. Madonna came inthe next day and chuckled a little bit, then she laid down and sang thetake on her back and did it in the first pass.
Normally, I use simple ambience to make the artist comfortable-somecandles, low lights, making sure there’s tea and water and honey, maybea couple plants around the area.
Chiccarelli: I’ll record anywhere. The best environment iswhere the artist feels the most comfortable and is going to give youthe best performance. I’ve recorded in the control room, outdoors,inside live echo chambers, in bathrooms, on the porch, lying on thefloor, in the closet…
Chiccarelli: Sometimes the best thing is if the microphone ishalf an inch from a singer, and other times you want some air betweenthe mic and the singer. Obviously, proximity effect works to youradvantage for singers with thinner voices. I personally like to get thevocal as fat and up-front as possible as a general rule. Nowadays, itseems everybody wants that drier, closer, more personable type ofvocal.
I think it’s most important to just figure out what the song istrying to say, and what the singer is trying to do. If there’s ageneral rule, it would be to let your ears and your heart be yourguide.
Vogel: I always start with the mic right in front of themouth, then I move it up about an inch or so and angled back. I makesure it’s at least a flattened hand width away from the mount, sort ofpointing down onto the bridge of the nose. Obviously, when you’reworking with someone like Alanis who’s got pipes from here to New York,I put it a little bit farther away.
Reitzas: I usually do the straightforward three bafflesbehind the vocalist, pop filter about four fingers away from themic.
Chiccarelli: To me, vocals are not like electric guitars ordrums, in that certain techniques are pretty much standard for everyinstrument. Every singer is totally different, every song is totallydifferent, and what works for one singer doesn’t work for anotherone.
Take Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo-the only thing he ever soundedgood on was a Neumann U47 FET. For Etta James, the blues singer withwhom I’ve done a lot records, it was a Neumann M49. For Tom Cochran itwas the Shure SM7. I did some stuff with Beck a while ago, where hewanted a fuller sound from his voice-we used a Neumann tube U47. ToriAmos used a Milab VIP-50, which has a weird rectangular-shapeddiaphragm. Alison Moyet sounded best with the Neumann TLM170. The bestmic for Poco’s singer was an EV RE20, but it never had enough air forme. So we actually mounted an AKG 451 on top of the RE20 and blended injust a little bit of it to get some air on top.
The brand-new Neumann M147 sounds really good, as does theAudio-Technica AT4060. Just recently, I tried the new Audix CX-101large-diaphragm condenser. We did an album with country singer MindyMcCready, and we tried the Audix. In the end, we ended up using an oldTelefunken 251, but the Audix was in the running down to the very end.In fact, it was one particular 251 that won-the Audix actually beatanother 251.
Reitzas: I don’t like to spend a lot of money on mics becausethey’re temperamental, and I think that they’re a little overpriced. Idon’t want to spend $6,000 or $8,000 on a microphone-I’d rather spendit on gear. So for the most part, I rent microphones. I mostly use anAKG C-12 or a Neumann U67, U47 or M49. Sometimes, I use a Telefunken251. I’m using a tube microphone almost all the time.
My new favorite mic is the Audio-Technica AT4060 tube mic. TheAudio-Technica is reasonably priced and has the kind of frequencyresponse that I like in a tube. And it can handle high SPLs, which someof the older tube mics can’t. The kind of music I’ve been doing goesfrom a whisper to a roar. I don’t like multimiking with different micsfor the verse and the chorus. I like to record from top to bottom, so Ineed a mic that can handle the quiet and the loud stuff and still soundgreat.
It’s not always about getting the best sound, but being prepared toget the best performance. I’ve had situations where the vocalist is inthe control room with an SM57, just figuring out the arrangement. I’llalways record everything, so I’ll have the take with the handheld mic.There have been occasions where we’d get a great vibe on a line or twoand we’d use it right up against the recording from a $4,000 mic. Ifyou had a listening test and you put engineers in the room and asked,”Where does the 57 come in?” They could probably tell you. But to thepeople that are just listening and loving the music and the song andthe artist, it doesn’t matter.
Vogel: If I’m doing a male vocal, I generally reach for aNeumann U47 or M49. If I’m doing a female, it will probably be the AKGC-12 first, and then maybe I’ll switch to a Neumann U67 or a Telefunken251. If I need one mic to cover both male and female vocals, it wouldprobably be a 251 if it’s in good shape. I like the new RODE mics, aswell as the new AKG C-12VR reissue. And the Audio-Technica 4033 is notbad for what I’ve been doing lately.
Chiccarelli: Just like you pick a microphone for a singer, Ispend time auditioning mic pre’s and compressors. A lot of times I’lluse an LA-2A, sometimes an 1176. There was one singer I did not toolong ago that the best compressor was the dbx 160X. It didn’t seem tocolor or change his vocal in any way. Sometimes Fairchilds can bereally colorful. Etta James sounds best through a Focusrite Red 3compressor.
Vocals are the most emotional thing on the record. If you don’t packa vocal track with all the emotion in the world, there’s no point inmaking that record. So whatever you can do to connect the listener withthe vocal, do it. If it means using a dirty, ringy old iron compressorthat adds a whole lot of color and personality to the singer, thenthat’s the thing to do. A lot of people have bought this old gear thatcan give a not-so-exciting singer a lot more personality. It’s not likea cut-and-dried scientific thing. It’s much more about art and emotion.I’ve used Sansamps, telephone filters and rack guitar processors. I’lleven put vocals through guitar stomp boxes and cheap guitar pedals.
A lot of times I’ll use Neve modules because they’re really fat andsmooth. If I’m going to do any type of EQ, I like to use tube stuffbecause it’s broader, warmer and friendlier. Pultecs and Summits arereally good. I find that with the EQ of the vocal, it’s not so muchwhat you boost but what you take out-that one little frequency thatmakes the vocal competitive with the other instruments in the track.Instead of boosting the upper-midrange presence frequencies, I mighttake them out. That allows you to turn the vocal up louder in thetrack.
Reitzas: My vocal chain has kind of stayed consistent overthe years: a tube mic into an NTI PreQ3 into an NTI EQ3 into theTube-Tech CL1B. Lately I’ve been going to my dB Technologies 122 A/Dconverter, directly to digital multitrack.
I’m lucky because most of the vocalists that I work with areveterans, and they know how to use a microphone. It makes life so mucheasier when you have a vocalist that knows how to act as their owncompressor. Michael Bolton is one of my favorite vocalists to workwith, because he has fantastic mic technique.
Vogel: I go for whatever sound I’m hearing in my head when Itrack, if it means no processing or tons of processing. I want to knowwhen I do rough mixes that that’s my record. I don’t have to have a lotof guesswork in the mix.
I really like the sound of an ultra-compressed vocal. On the firstAlanis album, we ran her into the dbx 160X and then into the LA-2A. Ialso use the Empirical Labs Distressor. I had Glenn Ballard’s studiobuy two of them, so I have one in each room. The Distressor is in mystandard set now. I like the fact that I can limit the heck out of thevocal-really hold the vocal back-and I don’t hear it pumping andbreathing.
If I had my choice for mic pre’s, I would use the Avalon M5-I alsolike their compressors quite a bit. We used Demeter mic pre’s on Alanisbecause that’s what we’ve always used on her and that’s what we had inthe beginning.
Chiccarelli: Sibilance is always a tough one, but I don’t gettoo much into de-essing when I record. A lot of times, I’ll actuallydip problem frequencies with an equalizer. I’ll pull out a little 7k or5k in the vocal. Sometimes, when I mix, I might set up two channels onthe board and either high-frequency limit that second channel, or dipthe EQ on the channel and just switch over. If I have a couple of wordsthat are sibilant but everything else is fine, I’ll just switch backand forth with the automation. That will save putting a de-esser in theline, because those things can be kind of evil.
Reitzas: I have a tendency to not be worried about too muchsibilance or too much popping. Sibilance and popping can always befixed. If you don’t concern yourself with that, what you get on tapewhen a vocal is not “essing” or popping is more bottom end and morepresence. Usually, on tape, I like to get a full-frequency sound andthen just correct the problems at the mix or before it’s handed over toa mixer.
Most of the time I’m on digital. For pops, I’ll do a D-to-D toanother channel, bus that channel back to the main comp channel, rolloff the bottom end and just punch in around the pops. I just got ProTools 24 Mix+, and I’ll probably start doing more fixes with thewaveform.
Vogel: I usually don’t have pop problems. If I do, I’ll usethe board’s filters to roll it out. Sometimes, I use the old “tape apencil to the mic’s grille” trick.
Reitzas: I like to do some “personal pre-production,” whichmeans I’ll listen to a vocalist’s record if I haven’t worked with thembefore. I determine what their tonality is, and I combine that withwhat I’ve learned over the years about the characteristics of thedifferent microphones. Nine times out of 10, I’ll pick the rightmicrophone so when the vocalist comes in and is ready to sing, we’ll beable to keep the first take. That’s extremely important, because somuch uninhibited personality and spontaneity comes out of a vocalist onthat initial pass. They’re not thinking about it too much, so it’simportant to me to try and guess which is the right microphone to usebefore they sing. Often we’ll end up with something that’s usable fromthe first pass, but occasionally I’ll try a different microphone to seehow it works with the song.
Chiccarelli: The trickiest thing is capturing a performance,and a lot of times that means having everything set so when somebodywalks in the room, you can turn the mic on, turn the tape machine on,and that’s it-first take. Etta James is an old-school blues singer;when she’s in the right frame of mind, you better have everything setbecause that first take is going to be it. It might be it top tobottom-flawless.
I think the biggest thing somebody can do is not burn a singer outgetting sounds. Get really ready, and use a little bit of forethoughtabout mic selection.
Technology may have progressed in past decades, but the essence ofvocal recording hasn’t changed one bit. As David Reitzas, JoeChiccarelli and Chris Vogel have so accurately stressed, effectivevocal recording isn’t about moving air-it’s about moving hearts.