Quite a few years a back, I was approached to produce and record a jingle package for a minor league baseball team. I got an old time Dixie band to perform the piece, with a great lead voice, but I needed backing vocal tracks to simulate a large crowd cheering the team’s name from the stands, to give the effect that the recording was of a baseball game. Being way over budget (and pressed for time), I had no idea how the hell I was going to effectively gather an entire crowd to generate the sounds I needed, and getting professional vocalists to stand behind the lead voice in the room simply wasn’t in the realm of financial possibility.
I was, however, slated to give a tour of my studio to a local girl scout troop later on in the day, and I figured if I could elicit some free help from this band of cookie-slingers then my troubles would be officially over. So with a little smooth talking, I ended up with an extremely energetic group of young girls that were more than happy to have their voices put to tape.
But there was a problem. I didn’t have 23 sets of headphones readily available, so I had to improvise. I had to find a way of monitoring that would not, of course, be heard on the final track. So I decided to pull off the old phase cancellation trick, as well as try out a few tricks that have since proved invaluable.
A lot of artists have employed the phase cancellation tactic in their sessions throughout the past, as it is a great way to cut vocals without having the burden of using headphones. To start off, you place your monitors in an exact equilateral triangle with a microphone set to a cardioid pattern. It’s important that you make sure that all three objects are on the same plane, or level with the others. Then, throw one of the monitors out of phase and position them so that the two monitors cancel each other out at the exact point of the rear of the microphone. Sure, some monitors have a phase reversal switch on them, however most do not — so know that you can make a cable that is out of phase simply by switching the hot and cold wires. In setting up this way, you have two things that are ultimately working in your favor. The cardioid mic is not going to be picking up any sound from behind it, and if your speakers are set in the correct position — directly out of phase — there will be no sound to pick up in the first place.
This procedure ended up working quite well. We emptied out the live room as much as we could so that there was a natural, almost slap-back, room reverb. We placed the girls at one end of the room, and the mic and speakers at the other. Since we had used the aforementioned technique, the mic was not picking up the playback, so we were ready to cut the track. The first track really just sounded like a bunch of girl scouts screaming “St. Joe Saints,” so we decided to stack the tracks by recording a bunch of additional takes. To achieve sonic disparity (so it didn’t sound like the same voices merely layered) we moved the group around the room for each track and set them up in different positions and then proceeded to record 10 extra tracks.
But when it came time to mix, I still just had 10 tracks of girls screaming — and I needed to make it sound like an entire crowd. So I decided to take an Eventide Harmonizer and pitch four of the 10 tracks down various degrees. It was pretty scary how well this worked. Using my digital audio workstation (Pro Tools), I then physically moved (or “offset”) each of the tracks by 3–15 milliseconds so that they each started at different spots, which really made the sound thicker (this is a great tactic even if you only have one track that you want to “beef up”). A large room with a long decay time served as the perfect reverb for a project like this, and after adding a few banked sound effects of a bat cracking and some cheering in the background, I had accomplished my goal of effectively recreating a large crowd sound with a small group of people. And you can too — with a little smart placement of your mics and monitors, a little multi-tracking, a little reverb, a little harmonization, and a little help from your friends.