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 1. Vibe

Gotta make our artist really, really comfortable.   Lighting, the right temperature, tapestries, etc.. all really help!   A lot of singers don’t like people watching them as they sing so I often make a “private cubby hole” with cool lighting, and a really great vibe!   Gobo’s with a really cool throw rug over them can be great.   A great vibe and a comfortable singer goes a long way towards getting a GREAT performance… and a great performance always trumps great engineering (but we really want both).

2. Great Acoustics

I prefer an environment with little or no reflections and ambience added later if desired.   I like this mainly because you can always add ambience later, but you can’t remove it once recorded.  There are always exceptions and a great sounding room can sometimes lead me to “break” this “rule”… but our best bet is to track our singer with as little natural reflection as possible.   Gobo’s are great to reduce reflections.   In a pinch or when the budget is limited, standing up a mattress on end or hanging blankets on something can definitely help.

3. Always Record

Yes always record the warmups! Give them several passes to “practice” before you tell them you are recording.   A lot of times those “practice passes” will end up being the best ones because there is no pressure.

4. Great Monitoring (Part A)

Singing with headphones on is really an unnatural experience and takes some getting used to. Many singers never really adapt to it. If the singer cannot hear himself/herself the way they want to, it can lead to a very pitchy and frustrating performance for even some of the best singers.    Don’t be afraid to try multiple approaches until you find one that works.

5. Great Monitoring (Part B)

Here are some monitoring approaches that can help singers that are having trouble:

6. Great Monitoring (Part C)

I find it very helpful for singers that are comfortable with headphones to use a good bit of processing “After Tape”. This means the artist is hearing EQ, Compression and Effects that are NOT being recorded.   I find most singers like a lot of compression and high frequencies from 6K and up to be boosted substantially.   This really helps with pitchy performers. The compression maintains a nice balance of the singer and the track, and the high frequency boost adds clarity for pitch reference.   Placing this processing “After Tape” means it is not recorded and thus I can give the artist a mix they like without being stuck with a sound that might not be what I want in the final mix.

7. Great Monitoring (Part D)

Remove non-needed instrumentation from the singers headphone mix.   Sometimes the mix the artist is singing to can be very dense.   I find using a high pass filter on the entire mix can really help because headphone bandwidth can be limited.   In many cases, I will remove the bass guitar altogether.   If there is a wall of guitars or lots of countermelodies, I will sometimes remove those as well.   Work with the artist as they may not appreciate this approach but sometimes will be thrilled to find that a more sparse mix can make it much easier to hear themselves.

8. The right mic for the artist (Blind shoot out)

This sounds like a “Duh” tip… but so often I find I am tempted to use the most expensive mic or the one I just bought because… well.. it has to be the best right?   Often it’s not. It’s important to do a blind shootout where neither the artist or you know which mic is which while listening back.   Use only your ears to pick which one sounds best (novel concept right??).  You have to be tricky if you don’t have an intern or assistant to help you but if you can do a true blind shootout I guarantee you will often be surprised which microphone you prefer.   Don’t be afraid to throw up the Shure SM-7 or even have rockers and rappers use a handheld.   Sometimes the handheld combined with step 1 can really help inexperienced singers overcome their fear of recording.

9. Use the best mic pre you have available

Be conservative with your settings.   It’s really popular to dial in a little “crunch” by driving the preamp and turning down the output gain, but remember you cannot remove this after the fact.   If you really want distortion consider splitting the signal after the pre and running one direct to your recorder and the other through something “vibey” and crunchy.   I have often “re-amped” vocals through a guitar amp after the fact for a really cool crunch!   One of my favorites was when I actually put my phone in record using it’s built in recorder and set it on the music stand as the singer was singing.   I just let it run… the lofi crunch and cheap compression was awesome… and I just imported the audio file and lined it up with the main recording (mildly tedious but sounded so cool it was worth doing).

10. Light compression to tape

Yes, I know… I am bucking the trend here… but vocals get so heavily compressed in most modern mixes I almost always regret compressing heavily on the way in. I do love a “vibey” compressor for recording. Favorites are:  LA-2A, 1176, Distressor, CL-1B,  and SSL channel compressor. Especially if you are not a “veteran” when it comes to compression and attack/release settings… go light!   You can always “crush” it later, but you can’t “un-crush it”. Using a slow attack time and fairly quick release time and flipping the compressor in and out of bypass to be sure it’s very transparent and reducing no more than 4db to 6db on peaks will keep you from regretting your compression choices later. Don’t forget tip #6 if the singer wants to hear more compression.   Feel free to squash the life out of it in the monitoring path knowing you aren’t committed to it.

Steve Lamm

Steve Lamm is a Grammy Award winning Producer/Engineer/Songwriter and contributor to the Matchless Mix blog.

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