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Recording vocals, the quick guide

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Recording vocals, the quick guide
Recording Vocals…

By Jude May



So here is part 2 of my doing stuff proper in the studio. Dedicated entirely too recording and balancing vocals. I will also cover other important aspects of the session including the headphones mix, lighting and ambiance. We will start with preparation for a typical vocal session. For this tutorial you will need a mixer with preamps, a stand alone pre (optional) a mixer, a compressor and something to record to. All my examples refer to a computer, although a multitrack tape or hard disk recorder will also give great results.



I would suggest having tea, coffee, beer and water at the ready (the beer is mainly to shut the producer up, and so you have something to drink while patching before the vocalist arrives. At this point id also suggest you have a good meal. This will help you concentrate during the many hours a session can go on for.



Now for getting the signal chain set up. I can only really give you the “with a console” option as I have never recorded vocals any other way, nor do intend to.



Starting with a console, compressor, pre amp, a large diaphragm condenser mic and stand with shock mount. My method of patching is this. Mic – preamp – desk channel 23 – post fade direct out – compressor – computer/multitrack tape machine – channel 24 line input. My reason for patching this way is fairly simple. It gives you control of the level heading into the compressor. By doing this you can pre-empt the loud sections of the singing and pull the level down. This lets you control the compressor rather than it controlling you. If you were to use the compressor built into the channel strip or patched into a pre fade insert you run the risk of over compressing the loud sections. To me, compressors in channel strips are all but useless while tracking. They do however tend to stand up quite well when used at mixdown



Some people will be up in arms at me suggesting compressing vocals before they hit the computer, but these are probably the people who don’t FULLY understand the principals behind digital audio. Unlike tape, there is no headroom in digital audio. We make a false headroom by setting our input to -12dBfs (dB full scale) but in doing this we reduce the quality of the recording. That’s right, digital is not a clinical format to record to. Quantize errors occur at all levels below 0dBfs. Only when the level sits at full-scale do you get the full benefit of digital media.



Even when recording at 24 it is still advisable to compress your more dynamic inputs. As for sample rates… most of us here write electronic music which by its nature is fairly heavily compressed and either released on CD (44.1k) or record. Since I don’t have much experience with records I’m going to give any advice on them. I see very little point in recording at 96k for electronic music. If you really need to chew up extra hard drive space and CPU cycles record at 88.2k, it will give less dither noise when you bounce down to 44.1k.



As for EQing to tape, I don’t really do much. I find that this is better done at the mixing stage unless you really know your vocalist’s voice. However I do advise using the high pass filter on your channel strip (or in the mic itself) to help prevent “P” and “B” pops in your recordings.



Now before your vocalist arrives make sure you have a few audio tracks ready to record various takes. I would also suggest you do a test record yourself. If you’re a crap singer like me just have a chat into the mic while the computer is recording. Listen back to your test record, while doing this listen for cracks, mic stand bumps or rattles and ambient noise. If you notice any of these now is the time to fix them. If you have cracks or pops check your driver setting are not too low and all leads are connected properly. Mic stand noise can be cut down by using shock mounts and resting the legs of the stand on dense open cell foam. As for the ambient noise, all I can suggest is hanging thick blankets and sleeping bags around the vocalist to cut down on flutter and reverb from the room.



Setting the mood



If you have lights you can dim, do so. I don’t know many people that can relax while surrounded by bright lights so let’s not ask it of the vocalist. Soft reflected light is my favorite. Something like a lamp shining up the wall can not only look good but also help create a cozy vibe.



Some people use incense to help them relax. I strongly advise against it. You will find after a few takes your vocalist may start to sound like tom waits. Not really a good thing for most of our music. Same goes for smoking in the studio. That’s a big no no! The diaphragm on a condenser mic is very delicate and they really disagree to the tar and smoke from cigarettes. It coats the thin diaphragm and makes it less sensitive to high frequencies. And as for pot, well don’t smoke that near your mics for similar reasons.



One last word on the lighting. If you do have the lights dimmed don’t adjust them between takes. I’m told it can affect the singers’ ability to pitch properly.



Mic placement



Recording an acoustic source is not as easy as just throwing a mic up and cranking up the gain. Each and every mic will sound different, even two of the same model. You really have to listen thru the headphones while the “talent” is singing. Only by doing this will you be able to work out the exact height and distance from the mouth. This is a very (if not the most) important step in recording vocals. Every step from here in relies on this placement. If you get this right you can spare yourself a lot of effort when it comes time to EQ and balancing come the mix. Again there is no hard and fast rule for getting this right. Your most valuable asset will be called upon heavily to get this right. By the way, I’m talking about your ears.



Headphones mix



This will vary a lot from vocalist to vocalist but a good starting point is this:

Plenty of kick, snare and hats as this is how they will get their timing

Bass synth / guitar as this will be the root note for most chords

Pads, helpful for pitching correctly

Vocals (duh!) id suggest patching these from a pre fade send on your input channel, not the output from your computer due to latency issues

Vocal effects Providing the vocalist with a lush room reverb can also help pitching as well as removing the “boxed in” feel that can come from tracking thru headphones.



These are all things you can (and I suggest you do) setup before the vocalist arrives. When he/she does rock up to the studio you don’t want to have your arse in the air trying to find a dodgy lead. This sure as hell will not inspire confidence in your ability to do a good job!



When he/she does rock up, start with a cuppa and have a chat about what you want to get out of the session. This will let the both of you know how many different songs you are going to be recording. After the mandatory drink its time to get into the studio. Start by playing thru the track a few times so they can refresh their memory, I’d even suggest you have them infront of the mic doing their warm-ups. During this time you SHOULD be setting your input gain on your preamp and checking the gain thru the rest of your signal chain. Once you’re happy with this, play the track and have the vocalist sing along with the headphone mix. I DEMAND you record this take! This is often going to be the best take of the day. The reasons for this are simple: the vocalist is relaxed, they probably don’t know your recording (hehehe) and well, there is less pressure than when the producer is on the talkback mic saying “yeah that’s great, but lets have one more go. This time with feeling please!”

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Tracking



Now the hard part. Capturing the perfect take. As an engineer your job is almost if not as hard as that of the vocalist. If you follow my advice on patching you will have to ride faders. There is no two ways about it. You can not get a “perfect” vocal take without doing so. Remember, you are trying to capture the soul of your singer and that of your track. “An ounce of preparation is worth more than a pound of cure”. Remember that, it will save you so much time in editing and post production. And if you’re anything like me you will find hours of wave form editing a real pain in the arse!



Get yourself in the right frame of mind and away you go. I can’t really comment on how to ride faders. That you just have to learn for yourself, sorry. By the second or third run thru the track you should have your fader moves pretty much sorted out.



Editing



Now that you have a few good takes recorded to your program of choice it come times to cut them up and keep only the best sections from each take. When doing this make sure you do all your edit points on zero crossings to avoid clicks and pops in playback. If it is un-avoidable make sure you use your sequencers cross fade options to give a smooth transition from one clip to the next.



If you are working on a slower and sparser track you conceder using some of your many vocal takes and double tracking them. This is done by panning the first track hard left and the second hard right. By doing this you create a lot of separation between the two and also a sense of movement as the two tracks timing differs and shifts on words.



Autotune™ anyone?



We have all heard the disgusting abuse of Autotune™, however it has the ability to save a take that was perfect timing wise but has a few bum notes. If you own this plug-in I’m sure you might have had it save your skin at least once. It surely has for me! So much so I’m considering buying the hardware version for some of the bands I tour with! If you don’t own it, get the demo from the Antares website and check it out for yourself. It can be found at http://www.antarestech.com/products/auto-tune4.html



Mixing



I gave a rough guide to balancing vocals in my last tutorial but I will recap and go into a bit more detail here. I will also suggest a few processing options you might not be familiar with.



Once you have the rest of the track fairly well balanced its time to move into getting that vocal polished up. I like to “Y-Split” my vocal into two or more desk channels. One will go thru my compressors, EQ, de-esser and the other will be for effects sends. I have a few reasons for doing things this way. Firstly as the vocalist hits the loud sections the compressor will pull them back into the mix. With the effects sends on a separate un-compressed channel they are free to breath and increase the stereo image presented. Here is an example. Your vocalist reaches the chorus and starts to really let it rip. Your compressor pulls the vocal into line and all is good except the sends to you reverb get squished resulting in bugger all level getting to them. Now the way I and many others patch allows the stereo image of the vocals increase the louder they get. This is all because of the reverb’s input being allowed to see an uncompressed signal. This won’t work for every track, but when it does not only does it sound good but it makes you look good in the eyes of the vocalist!



As for dynamic processing we have a few options available to us. These include compression, limiting, de-esser and dynamic EQ. Most people are fairly familiar with the first 3 so I won’t go into much detail with them, the last however is incredibly useful and in my opinion underused.



Dynamic EQ’s allow you to home in on a troublesome frequency band and control its dynamics. For example, you forgot to use a high pass filter when recording and now you have “P” pops thru the otherwise perfect take. You could grab a parametric EQ and try to remove the problem frequencies. This will kill all the bass in areas without any problems as well. If you were to use a dynamic EQ and carefully set its ratio and threshold you can remove the pops but still leave the full spectrum in place. As I write this I’m actually using one over an entire mix to even out the mids (mainly cos I cant find another stereo EQ lying around the work!)



And now to sum up…



So there you have it, my quick and easy guide to recording vocals. The main points to take away from this article are these: be prepared, don’t use pre-fade inserts while recording, and make your vocalist feel comfortable. If you follow these tips and develop them to suit your on styles of music and working methods soon enough you’ll end up with a Midas touch. Not only for wiggling faders, but for all skills in acoustic recordings.







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someones been reading 'mixing with your mind'
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Jude you farkin rock, been trying to do vocals for a while and i suck! This may help or it may not cos i still suck!
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Is it worth just recording vocals in a studio and getting someone else to muck around with it all?
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aijii, some of theis advice is BASSED on my take on mixing with your mind. i have not coppied it. i have my own way of doing the patch that has come about from stav's advice and my limitations in the studio.

Kilby, come over for a beer (or 6!) and pizza and i can show you it in action

CS, if you go to a good studio, with a good engineer you will get great results. it will also cost you a good ammoutn of $. you can do it yourself ad get almost as good results provided you have a good preamp, compressor and mic
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Excellent jude (I am a vocal recording dunce :/)

"Soft reflected light is my favorite. Something like a lamp shining up the wall can not only look good but also help create a cozy vibe."

^^ Queer eye for the studio guy?

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I hate it when you're right and I'm not.

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Quote:

Originally Posted by Jude May

aijii, some of theis advice is BASSED on my take on mixing with your mind. i have not coppied it. i have my own way of doing the patch that has come about from stav's advice and my limitations in the studio.

Kilby, come over for a beer (or 6!) and pizza and i can show you it in action

CS, if you go to a good studio, with a good engineer you will get great results. it will also cost you a good ammoutn of $. you can do it yourself ad get almost as good results provided you have a good preamp, compressor and mic



This saturday Jude if your not busy mate? I'll bring the beer?
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Quote:

Originally Posted by djkilby

This saturday Jude if your not busy mate? I'll bring the beer?

Quote:

Originally Posted by dopeamine

Sticky.



Great work with this Jude!
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You're the meat on their spitroast Eshan.
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Quote:

Originally Posted by djkilby

This saturday Jude if your not busy mate? I'll bring the beer?

studio is tied up this weekend, your place maybe?
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Why didn't you post this before I did my nokia entry?? :S

Most important rule: "Have a vocalist with a decent voice ".. then again, Sid Vicious.....
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It fell from space onto Bootsy Collins' farm and that's how he got The Funk"


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well i was going to say find someone that can sing.... but it was easier to write about autotune and for that matter use it than find a good vocalist!
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Quote:

Originally Posted by Jude May

studio is tied up this weekend, your place maybe?


sounds good mate, although i dont have all that much to record anything!
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we were going to talk bout recording? i just wanted to get you drunk
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hahahahaha thats cool dude, please feel free to get me drunk! But dont take advantage i'm only young! :p
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sure, and i bet your "sweet and innocent" as well

so whos up to write about compressors and gates?
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Anyone looking to recordsome vox in a nice studio... High end equipment and an awesome booth! if your interested- bo_x@bigpond.net.au
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hey Jude, I didn't see the use of a pop shield mentioned anywehere in your article...
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Thanks for the tut. As one who sometimes is the vocalist I would recommend always recording the first take - the one that you tell the vocalist you are not recording just getting the levels - it is often the best take.
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Quote:

Originally Posted by presto music

hey Jude, I didn't see the use of a pop shield mentioned anywehere in your article...

yes, good point. i did forget that. as i dont own one it kinda go left out. my bad
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You dont need a compressor.....
do a dummy take and zoom it vertically
then watch the wave of the dummy take while you do a proper take and just ride the fader baby.


And the best advice ... use talented friends...they will be more than willing to help.....PROTOOL
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^^ I just noticed that.... what does PROTOOL mean in that context? dunno? who's gooroo 1 post two months ago? HAHAHHAHAHA
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Quote:

Originally Posted by gooroo

You dont need a compressor.....
do a dummy take and zoom it vertically
then watch the wave of the dummy take while you do a proper take and just ride the fader baby.


And the best advice ... use talented friends...they will be more than willing to help.....PROTOOL

thats shit man, quite often your "guide track" will be your best take. why ruin it by not compressing and riding the fader?
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Is it possibble to record flat onto hardrive, then export to say Cubase and ad reverb there????? If that works than you are sweet with a mixer that has a mic input, like my allen and heath 92, straight into line in on your comp from aux 1 on mixer. record with soundforge 7.0 and then drag and drop to software....protool or cubase......

I know its a an amateurs way to do it, but you'd be suprised what people do to get sound these days.

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i'm sure an opto or electro compressor is going to be a shit load quicker than your hand moving a fader even with a slow attack time
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yes and no,

a good engineer can tell when the loud bits are about to get belted out and can adjust the level acordingly
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You could always slam the guide track with compressor and let that sit under the second take. Works well for strings, never tried it on voice. Has anyone?
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yeah, in most things requiring dynamics (ie acoustic stuff) it stands out like dogs balls
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waves has great plugs for voices
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true, ima big fan of almost all there plugins. dosent help in the recording stage tho
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hmmm this will be handy - thanks!!
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glad to see that over a year later people are still finding this helpful.


as before, any questions please feel free to ask
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mic fright
what are some tips on getting rid of mic fright? i start the song, get in the groove of it, then i get the butterflies and bam - this shy timid voice comes out...am I shy of hearing my own voice or something?
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Pint of Tequila ought to do the trick...
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Quote:

Originally Posted by Skerik

Pint of Tequila ought to do the trick...


haha! yeah - i thought of that, but liquor doesn't give my voice control - it knocks out the jitters tho!
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Jude very informative keep it up. I didn't read all of it but it sounded good keep it up
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Quote:

Originally Posted by psycodelick

what are some tips on getting rid of mic fright? i start the song, get in the groove of it, then i get the butterflies and bam - this shy timid voice comes out...am I shy of hearing my own voice or something?


yeh, have an assistant on the computer that knows there way around the program you use. this way they can hit record without you even knowing

this is what i do all the time with my vocalist
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Awesome tute man, much appreciated
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