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Vocal Cords: Antony Hegarty Unsmarts Technology

January 1, 2009
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IF THERE'S A LESSON TO BE LEARNED from the vocal recording techniques that have worked so splendidly for Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons—careful, you might not want to hear this—it’s that the vocalist should concentrate on rehearsal, vocal exercises, and nurturing one’s psychology, and leave the technical side to the professionals. To detail this approach, EQ spoke recently with Emery Dobyns, who recorded Hegarty’s 2005 breakthrough, I Am A Bird Now, and Stewart Lerman, who worked on 2008’s Another World [Secretly Canadian].

“During the Another World sessions, Antony worked very carefully with all of his string players, handing out charts and going over every note with a fine tooth comb,” says Lerman. “We would discuss the particulars of the instrumentation, rearrange the room for a particular arrangement, and hit the Record button. We basically did a song every three hours.”

Through it all, Hegarty remained completely unconcerned about—and entirely oblivious to—the gear being used to record his vocals.

“I don’t think that part of the recording process is of any interest to him,” says Lerman.

“When he described his songs, it was in ethereal, rather than practical terms,” adds Dobyns about tracking Bird. “He’d say what the song was about, but he wouldn’t give us any clues such as, ‘It’s going to get really loud in the chorus.’ We never had a warning about anything. In order to react to any surprises in signal levels, I kept one hand on the vocal fader at all times. We were really alert and on our toes during those sessions. We never knew when he’d take the vocal dynamics up or down.”

The first session for I Am a Bird Now was for “Hope There’s Someone,” where live vocal and piano tracks were recorded in a converted garage in Woodstock, New York. The signal chain was a Groove Tubes GT55 large-diaphragm condenser mic routed through a MOTU 828 audio interface to Digital Performer.

“It was beautiful out there,” remembers Dobyns. “It was winter, and there was about two or three feet of snow on the ground. The control room had these French doors, and you could look through them into the backyard. Antony’s voice was quite strong in the room, and a big part of the vocal sound is his voice leaking into the piano mics. We added a touch of reverb with an EMT 140 plate in the mix, but what you hear is really just the sound of him singing in the room with the piano. It’s all in the performance. I could have used a Shure SM57 dynamic mic to record him instead of the GT55, and the performance would have sounded no less emotional.”

However, it was difficult convincing Hegarty to leave everything as it was, because he was somewhat uncomfortable with how spare the tracks sounded. As a result, “Hope There’s Someone” became the only track from the Woodstock sessions that ended up on the Bird album. Subsequent sessions landed at New York City’s Dubway Studios, where Hegarty’s vocals were recorded through a Neumann U47 and Mercenary Audio preamps into Pro Tools. The U47 saw action again during the Another World sessions at Allaire Studios in the Catskill Mountains, but the mic was routed through a Neve 31106 preamp and an Urei 1176 limiter before hitting Pro Tools.

“Antony is a very dynamic vocalist, and I used the 1176 because it wouldn’t distort if he hit it really hard,” says Lerman. “And he is very bold—a master. He sang and played live without any gobos or separation of any kind. As a result, his vocals are in every mic in the room—the orchestra mics, the drum mics, and so on. There’s no soundcheck, either. You hit the Record button the instant he makes a sound—it’s as simple as that.”

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