Comping Performances to Capture Fiery Vocals
Transforming from paper-thin whispers to an emotional tempest, Antony Hegarty’s vocals are revelatory. A centerpiece of Antony and the Johnsons’ intimate chamber pop, Hegarty’s dynamic voice offers a challenge to engineers who want to capture his acrobatic range without clipping parts of the performance. The vocal sessions for the band’s new album Swanlights took place independently from the instrumental tracks, over four months—giving engineer/producer Bryce Goggin, who has worked with the vocalist since 2003, ample time to craft complex voice parts from hundreds of takes.
Hegarty spent extensive time recording, often laying down long, improvised performances that were later cut up and re-assembled. Goggin estimates that for every one note that appears on the record, they recorded 35–40 ideas in his Trout Recording Studio in Brooklyn. With so much editing required to assemble the right vocal track, he decided to track straight to Pro Tools. “It’s amazing compositing with him, because I can play back five passes and he recalls phrases from each one,” says Goggin. “His recall is fantastic, and the objectivity he brings is incredible.”
Hegarty’s flexible, dynamic voice presented a unique miking challenge, due to Hegarty’s intense, quick-changing, near-operatic vocal style, and his method of listening to himself on headphones and reflexively altering vocal melodies to shape and color his performance. Goggin’s standard setup included a Neumann (FET) SM69 microphone, set about two-and-a-half feet back, run through a Langevin AM 16 preamp and Neve 2254 compressors, which were robust enough to handle the extreme dynamic range that the singer put out. “One of my major concerns was his dynamic performance, so I needed a bulletproof mic,” Goggin says.
Goggin bounced the Pro Tools tracks off his Studer A80 MKI 16-inch 2-track and ran them through an RCA BA-45 solid-state stereo limiter/compressor/preamp to add analog warmth and provide sonic consistency. “There’s disparity in source on that record,” he says, “so by sitting down and taking each track and putting it down to a 2-inch machine, I could effect each track dynamically and do quality control. When I run it through a tape machine, I’m already limited by [a 30 dB dynamic range]. Being forced to work in that limited dynamic range means I’m policing the dynamics while I’m bouncing to tape; I’m riding a fader to tape. It would be impossible for me to do that while I’m tracking him live, because he’s so unpredictable.”
“When you’re deep in the micro, you sort of lose sight of the big picture sometimes, but I have to tip my hat to Antony,” says Goggin. “He always keeps an objective overview of the arc, and all the revising helped the arc of the song.”