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Vocals: 6 Secrets Of In-Your-Face Vocals

August 1, 2009

Do your recordings suffer from vocal tracks that don’t cut it? Are your fans under the false impression that you are an instrumental band? Do paranormal investigators claim the vocals on your CD are actually recordings from the spirit world? Well, read on, because I’m going to give you six ways to put those pathetic whispers you’ve been recording upfront and in-your-face.

Use a Good Preamp

When it comes to recording vocals, beg, borrow, or steal a nice preamp. A high-end box will impart a punchy vibe that you have to experience to believe. You don’t think professional engineers and producers plop down several grand on a great mic preamp just to stroke their egos, do ya?

Pity the Fool Who Doesn’t Get a Good Level

Recording your voice too soft will result in noise and hum when you boost it to in-your-face levels at mixdown. Record it too hot, however, and you are sure to get distortion. So, if you’re recording a sensitive, chanteusetype singer, position the mic four to six inches from their mouth. Put your average rock screamer about one foot away. Also, tell singers to back off the mic a few inches when they get loud, and move in a few inches closer for quiet parts. Beware of pops, plosives, and sibilance. Use a pop filter at all times, and have boomy types sing a bit to the side of the mic.

Go Dynamic

You don’t need an expensive condenser mic to get killer vocals. Inexpensive dynamic mics are tough enough to track screamers, and they can deliver excellent sounds. Superproducer Bruce Sweden used a $350 (street price) Shure SM7B to record Michael Jackson’s vocals on Thriller, the best-selling album of all time, so suck on that. However, if a condenser is best for a singer’s voice, choose a model with a –10dB or –20dB pad switch, and when the screamin’ gets too loud and crazy, click it!

Compress for Success

Vocalists are generally a squirrely bunch with little or no self-control. Even though you’ve set the levels with obsessive-compulsive attention to detail, I guarantee you a vocalist will somehow find a way to cock up your well-laid plans by singing louder or softer than when you were setting things up. A compressor is a great way to mitigate such disasters. A mild ratio of 2:1 with a –10dB threshold is a great place to start. Then, adjust everything to taste until whatever comes out of the singer’s mouth is put down nice and consistent.

EQ to the Rescue

The decent mic/killer preamp approach should take you a long way towards achieving an in-your-face attitude rivaling the girls on Charm School. However, you still may need a bit of help, and this is where EQ can save you. I typically boost a little between 125Hz and 250Hz to capture a bit of meatiness, and then boost between 2kHz and 4kHz to dial in presence and articulation. I also roll off a good deal of the bottom end so the compressor doesn’t bring up any low-end rumble.

Faux Doubling

The all-time Hail Mary play for adding thickness and power to vocals is having the vocalist double a line by singing along with the original take. But let’s get real here. Your chance of getting a single great take that hasn’t been comped from 30 other takes is pretty nil in these days of lowered expectations. So here’s a quick and dirty way to achieve the same thing without giving your vocalist a nervous breakdown.
• Make a copy of the vocal track you want to thicken.
• Use a pitch-shift plug-in on the newly created vocal copy and try these settings:
• Pitch Shift = –20 to –30 cents
• Dry Mix = 0
• Wet Mix = 100 (because you want only the pitch-shifted sound)
• Now, carefully fade up the doubled and pitch-shifted vocal track until it adds density and harmonic interest to the original lead vocal track.
• Pan both tracks to the center, and you should have a vocal track that sounds thicker than snot and more aggressive than a pissed-off rhino.

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