Making Vocal Magic

Capturing great vocals is arguably one of the most difficult parts in the making of a record. When that magic take is finally down on tape, it can literally be the difference between a hit and a dog. So with all that pressure on the moment, how do great engineer/producers do it?

On the last session you did, what vocal mic did you use and is it normally what you might put up?

John Holbrook: M49. If possible I would try a shootout between three or four different mics, but a good U47 wins a lot. 
Chuck Ainlay: A couple of weeks ago we tracked down in Key West at Jimmy Buffet’s studio, Shrimp Boat Sound, for George Strait’s new record. I’ve been making records with George for about 20 years and I’ve always used a U47 on him. I guess you can’t argue with over 50 Number One singles and that many albums, all selling platinum or better. For other artists, I’d generally have a mic shootout prior to tracking and pick the one that best suited the artist and style of music. The worst thing is when a singer looks at a mic and says, “what’s that” They need to be totally convinced they aren’t wasting a performance.
Brian Mackewich: I generally put up an U87. We have several models, new and old. I find that some female voices are not best represented by the 87, so my next choice is a Sennheiser 414UL. I love its character. Sometimes I will break out my vintage AKG tube for a real big female vocal sound.
Paul Orofino: Since the last thing I did was a hardcore band . . . I opted for a Shure SM-7. Obviously it depends what I’m doing (the kind of singer, music, etc.) But my current favorites are the Neumann U-87, Soundelux U-99, and Gefell Um-170.
Pete Moshay: I ended up using a C12VR, but I always put up a few to try, i.e. M149, KSM32, SM7, Audix VX10, and U87. Ian Hunter wanted to hold the C12VR and wouldn’t use a windscreen or pop filter. I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted it would be OK, and he was 85% right. There were quite a few blasts and pops that had to be dealt with later.

What preamp was inline?

JH: Neve 1073. 
CA: For this record and generally my first choice for vocals is my Martech MSS 10 preamp, serial #002 for vocals, although I’ll try some of my other favorites, like a Neve 1073 module, a GML 8300, JMK JM 130, or the new Presonus ADL 600. I’ve also got these killer prototype preamps that ought to be available later this year made by Upstate Audio that blow just about everything else away, definitely be looking for them.
BM: It was the Aphex 1100A stereo pre, which is a real unsung hero. We also used the Amek 9098, as well, which has great filters.
PO: While using the SM-7, I went to a Geoff Daking 52270 mic pre without using any EQ. I also happen to love DW Fearn, TL Audio, and my Manley Vox Box for some things.
PM: Either the ADL600, Avalon 737sp, Focusrite ISA115 or Liquid Channel. I changed with each song as needed.

Do cables matter?

JH: I think they can make a difference, but sometimes not in the way you’d expect — when I was working on Tigerlily with Natalie Merchant, when we started on vocals the assistant set up the U47 with a boutique mic cable and I was going, “Why does it sound so screechy and edgy?” I said, “Let’s try a regular mic cable on it.” We did and it came out sounding normal again! 
CA: Cables do matter and particularly at mic level so I’ll use just a short run to the mic pre, out in the studio and then run line level to the control room. I don’t go nuts with the esoteric cables, Mogami will do.
BM: Definitely — we happen to use only Canare Star Quad. New York City may be the hardest environment in which to record. Building construction, earthborn noises, and RF is everywhere. Cheap or less shielded cables can cause problems.
PO: I’ve tried most of the exotics (trust me), but still go back to just the standard Mogami, Belden, or Redco, and so on.
PM: Yes, and I especially do not like patchbays and avoid them if possible. I have individual Canare Star Quad cables that I ran directly from the mic to the pre and directly connect a cable to the ADL1000 compressor, then to tape or an Apogee converter. I have used patchbays at studios that sounded so bad that I had to run wires across the control room directly to a tape machine to avoid them. Just because it’s a TT patchbay does not mean it will sound good.

Do you typically use a popscreen?

JH: Yes. I have a Popless Voice Screen that I take with me. At least I know where it’s been! I haven’t tried one of those groovy metal ones yet — I’m curious about those. We used to make our own back in the day — I found that a piece of thin air filter foam worked fairly well. The thick foam things they gave you with the mics changed the sound too much. If you look at photos of the Beatles doing vocals in Abbey Road, you can see the curved screens on the U47s and U48s — I’m assuming they were custom made by the EMI boffins — pretty slick! 
CA: I always use the knitting hoop type stretched with nylon, either one layer or two. The foam type supplied with the mics suck up too much highs.
BM: For close mic work, yes. Each room has new dual-screen pop filters, as some voices overpower a single screen. I like the small 3" screens since they keep the sight lines open for seeing scripts and/or video monitors.
PO: ALWAYS! I never record vocals without it. You take a chance of ruining a great take and/or your microphone. I’ve tried all the major brands but really love the metal-screened version that is now sold by Royer. It works great, lasts forever, and is easy to clean!
PM: I’ve been using one of the metal screen popper stoppers with good results. My SM-7 sounds better without one and so do handheld mics as they are designed with air blasts in mind.

Do you use compression to “tape”, during the mix, or both?

JH: Both, usually. I often like an LA2A with moderate GR going to tape, then an 1176 or Distressor in the mix. Female singers may need a different approach. Some female voices can make a mic pre or compressor sound strained. If you want a natural sound, I’ve found the GML compressor can work wonders, allowing a hefty amount of gain reduction without sounding strained. (Thanks, George!) Sometimes I’ll daisy-chain two compressors on the way in, so that each one doesn’t have to work so hard. And don’t forget to try the RNC in SuperNice mode! I’ve found that some singers respond better to more compression in the cans, so I’ll patch something into the monitor path (or use a plug-in) so they can hear themselves well-compressed, while the recorded signal is less extreme. I like to leave a bit of leeway for whoever’s going to mix it. However, if the super-compressed sound is creating a vibe I would go ahead and print it on another track — you never know. . . . 
CA: I generally use my Vintech CL 1a for tracking on a soft setting just to contain the dynamics a bit and then mix with a GML 8900, where I can work the vocal into the mix in more detail. I may mult the vocal track and do some even more extreme compression with a Urei 1176 and mix that back in with the other track. I also use the Waves Linear Phase Multiband plug-in for problematic vocals.
BM: Yes, but just enough to tape to control the transient peaks. The Aphex 1100A has a wonderful “mic lim” feature that keeps spikes under control before the preamp stage and does not distort, even with high SPLs. For post mixing, I will compress the vocal a fair amount, since it has to cut through the broadcast. Many shows are being aired from servers and captured into Mpeg2 and Mpeg4 formats for distribution. I need to make sure that the elements of my mix stay in place.
PO: I always hit the vocal with a bit of compression to tape, usually very lightly. Typically, to help smooth it out a little, it would be an LA2A/3A, Manley Vox Box, Daking 91579, and just recently, Anthony DeMaria’s ADL 670. Upon mixdown, it gets compressed again, although the setting here totally depends on the kind of music that the voice has to sit in. In this mode, I usually go for a UA1176, Distressor, or the Chandler TG-1 Limiter, which I happen to love.
PM: Both, but if I use the ADL600, I don’t seem to need much at all. There’s something about the way it sounds that makes me not want to use any when tracking (or very little). If I use the Avalon 737sp, the fastest attack and release at 2:1 or 3:1 is very transparent even when in gain reduction. A very important thing for me is to have a smooth gain control knob to ride levels. I always like to look at the first take’s waveform and anticipate any loud peaks by riding the level a bit as it goes down to tape. Humans are excellent at gain reduction. For a tracking compressor, I use the ADL1000. For mixing, I love my Urei LA-22s. I will use two on a LV on a mix and maybe even a UA plug-in compressor.

How about EQ? 

JH: I try not to use EQ on the way in. I will use an HPF though, if it needs it. My theory is if you’ve found the right mic for the singer, it shouldn’t need a whole lot of EQ. Having said that, Walter Sear has this cool old tube EQ from the film industry that was specifically designed to lift dialog out of a track — I want one! 
CA: I rarely ever use EQ while tracking. If the mic doesn’t sound right, then change it. For me, all the other tracks are built around the vocal sound so you got to get that part right to begin with. I may add a touch of EQ when mixing. I like either my Avalon 2055 or Millennia NSEQ for this. They both have a very different character and the Millennia can be switched to either tube or FET. I’ve changed the tubes in it as I thought it was a bit too neutral when originally shipped.
BM: Just a touch. I like to print a vocal that sounds natural. Each voice is a little different and needs some contouring. Most of the time I EQ the voice so it stands out, but it very much depends on the type of content that we are working on. An HBO comedy special is different than a live concert for DVD in 5.1, which is different from a promo for the Food Network. Long form and short form are worlds apart.
PO: I’ve never EQ’d a vocal channel on the way into the recorder, EVER! During mixdown it depends on what I’m doing musically, and how the vocal has to sit within the mix. I’m a big fan of subtractive EQing. If I’ve chosen the right mic during tracking, I usually have to use less EQ during the mix stage.
PM: If you find the right mic, EQ is usually not necessary, but there are always times when a touch will help it sit right. The GML is my first go to EQ for vocals, also my SPL Qure.

Do you have a favorite vocal reverb? 

JH: We seem to be using reverb less these days. EMT plate still works for me. I also like Lexicon units. Lately it seems like there’s some renewed interest in live chambers, which I’m all for. The sonic character of so many classic records came directly from the chamber. It was pretty much the only effect they had, so they used it a lot! Generally, delays seem to work better on vocals in denser modern tracks. My beat-up, old Echoplex still works great on vocals. I figured out a while ago that if you use the footswitch jack as the output you get a wet-only signal, so I can use it in a send-return mode. 
CA: Nope, I’ll craft something for each song. It may be just short delays, a Harmonizer, a combination of ’verbs, a long delay, man, whatever.
BM: The Waves IR-1. Hands down for a post-production, plug-in reverb.
PO: Once again it depends on what style of music I’m doing at that moment, although lately I’ve been using hardly anything on vocals. I love when the vocal is in your face, and it sounds like the vocalist is singing right next to you. But if I had to, I’ve become a big fan of the Kurzweil KSP-8 digital reverb, which is very natural sounding. I could always go to one of my standbys, the EMT 140 stereo tube plate with something as a pre delay, and I absolutely love my old MicMix Masteroom XL-305 Spring Reverb. I find that the plate and the spring need much less level to be audible. For some reason, they just sit very nicely in a mix.
PM: My old favorite is my Lexicon 300 Plates or TC M6000. My new favorite is the TL Space plug-in “Ecoplate” convolution — an old piece of gear (sampled) that has an instant vibe. Also Revibe is nice and blends well. For delays it’s definitely a PCM-42 or Echoboy!

Any tips or tricks you use to get a great vocal sound?

JH: Start with a great singer! Then do a shootout to find out which mic works best for that individual. Try to keep an optimum working distance, the popscreen will help with that. Remember to put gobos, foam and so on behind the singer if you want to minimize the room sound. Recently I’ve noticed that some records seem to have “nasal”-sounding vocals (like the singer has a cold or something). I think that comes from letting the vocalist get too close to a large-capsule condenser — the mic is literally picking up sound through the nasal passages. If you look at old photos of Sinatra or whoever in the studio, the mic is slightly up and away from the mouth, and angled down a bit — something to think about (and nobody complains too much about the vocal sound they got back then). Another trick is to put up two mics — one that’s close for the quieter sections, and one that’s farther away for the screaming — you can optimize the preamp gain for each. I like that story about Bowie recording Heroes, where they set up a whole series of mics at increasing distances and gated them so that as he sang louder more and more of the distant mics opened up. In a similar vein, I made myself a high quality mic splitter box from a Sowter transformer, which can feed up to three mic pres from the same mic. I can then use different preamps and processing for different sections of the tune. For rock ’n’ roll screamers who push a lot of air, often the best mic choice is a good dynamic, like an SM-7 or RE20. 
CA: Some singers just have it. They step right up and deliver the magic. You could put the mic anywhere and it would be amazing. Great song, great singer, job done but just so we can feel we were part of it, there are a few tricks that do make a difference. Begin with a good acoustic space — preferably with no walls closer than six feet from the mic. Use the directionality of the mic to dampen unfavorable situations like windows. If the room is too ambient, then surround the vocal position with large baffles. Carpet is a must so you don’t pick up feet movement. Music stands can be dampened with a piece of carpet. Use the wind screen to keep the singer from chomping down on the mic and moisture off the capsule. Warm a tube mic up at least two hours prior to recording. Try moving the mic slightly up from the mouth to help the singer open up but comfort is most important, particularly if they are reading lyrics.

The headphone mix cannot be stressed enough. I’ve seen where small changes in the mix have made huge differences in performance. I always set up a separate, pre send mix so we can scrutinize the vocal in the control room. If the singer is singing sharp, they may be listening too loud. Keep slippery-pitched instruments low in the mix.
BM: You have to match the mic to the voice. Post voice recording is a little different than for music. Most voice talents have great mic techniques, which is key. If they hit the sweet spot, you are off to a good start. We also have to plan on revising shows right up until it airs. So we keep the record set-up simple — nothing fancy. If we need to get back in days later to do a quick patch, it has to match.

One of the most important elements in getting a great voice recording is the headphone mix. Not too loud, so the talent performs too softly. Not too soft and you wear them out by making them work too hard to hear it how they want it. But just right — so they can hear subtleties, mic placement, other track elements, and vibe. It is a very psychological thing. Try it sometime. If you want a vocalist to “push it,” bring down the voice in the cans just before a take. They will naturally either move closer, or bring the volume up themselves. But it can also backfire big time, so tread lightly.
PO: Praying is always good!
PM: First, get your singer a great headphone mix. If your singer isn’t inspired, their performance won’t be either. Make sure that you have the same headphone setup in the control room so that you can listen to what they are hearing. If you like the mix, they probably will too. Don’t let singers eat a large diaphragm condenser mic. Keep them 6"–16" from the mic and if a singer wants the “in your face” sound, just put a limiter on the insert AFTER tape. Generally if a singer is singing flat, turn them up . . . if they are singing sharp, turn them down. Usually before cutting a vocal, I like to listen to other incredible singers/songs in the same vein as the song we are doing, to help set a bar of where we want to go. There’s nothing like a little inspiration to help you get the blood flowing. Also, nobody said you have to use the same mic for the whole song, try a handheld for the chorus and a condenser for the verses, and so on.