Off-Kilter Vocals

How often have you agonized over a vocal sound? You audition mics, preamps, compressors, EQs, and even for the ultimate anguish mic cables. You strive
Publish date:
Social count:
How often have you agonized over a vocal sound? You audition mics, preamps, compressors, EQs, and even for the ultimate anguish mic cables. You strive

How often have you agonized over a vocal sound? You audition mics, preamps, compressors, EQs, and even — for the ultimate anguish — mic cables. You strive for the perfect balance between presence and sibilance, warmth and muddiness. Size matters too: great vocals must be huge, full, and lush, not to mention several other four-letter words. You read articles and interviews, hoping to glean tactics that will make your cheap Neumann knockoff sound like a pristine U 47. You may even lie awake at night, puzzling over how to create the perfect vocal track, one that will make the whole world sit up and take notice.

Well, forget about all that. Who cares about nice, clean, polite vocals? I don't, at least not at the moment. I'm interested in vocals that will alter bodily functions, scare the dog, and result in zoning violations. Vocals with attitude, edge, and a complete disregard for political correctness — that's what I'm after.

I learned long ago to think of vocals as just another instrument in the mix. Sometimes the song calls for a Martin D28, other times for a Les Paul Junior through a Marshall stack. You equalize, process, even mutilate instrument sounds to fit a song, so why hesitate to tamper with the vocal? Is it so sacred? I prefer to break the rules and go for what sounds cool rather than what sounds nice. I'm not talking about subtle doubling or chorusing, delays, or other common tricks; I'm talking about demented, twisted, Frankenstein vocals.


Thanks to all the Beatles, Beck, Tom Waits, and Los Lobos music I've listened to throughout the years, I've developed a large vocabulary of unusual vocal sounds and discovered many ways to create them. My preferred strategy is to get the mutated sound on tape, which has several benefits. The obvious one is it simplifies mixdown — simply bring up the fader, and you're done. Another benefit is that the vocalist approaches the performance differently. A singer who hears a snarling, distorted vocal sound in the headphones instead of a clean, accurate sound will sing with more attitude. It's like that moment when a guitarist discovers distortion: suddenly, a nervous, out-of-tune D chord becomes rock 'n' roll.

Sometimes altering a vocal sound during the recording stage isn't practical. Or perhaps you're mixing a record that someone else recorded, and when you bring up a vocal track, it just sounds too wimpy or lifeless in the midst of the raging tune. Not to worry: in either case, you can do the off-kilter treatments later, in the mix.

You can undermine a good-sounding vocal in plenty of ways, whether in the recording stage or once it's on tape. I'll start at the mic, the beginning of the signal chain, and proceed from there through each link.


As ever, using the right tool for the job is important. If you want large, lush, classic vocal sounds, look to the icons — the AKG C12, Neumann U 47, Telefunken Elam 251, and similar microphones. But if it's attitude you seek, try something less hi-fi.

One now-classic mic for capturing squawky, gritty-sounding vocals is the venerable Shure 520D, better known as the Green Bullet (see Fig. 1). This odd-looking microphone, prized among blues-harp players, has a narrow frequency response and rather drastic midrange peak. That makes it a powerful and easy-to-use tool for capturing off-kilter vocals — just sing into it, and you're done. The same holds true for comparable ceramic- or crystal-element mics such as the Astatic JT-30. Also, keep your eyes peeled at garage sales and junk stores for funky old school-P.A. mics, CB radios, army surplus items, and even toy mics. Although one of those mics on its own may not produce a sufficiently over-the-top sound, at least by my twisted standards, it can provide a great starting point for stirring up fringe vocal flavors. In addition, vocalists often enjoy singing into something that looks like a Star Trek phaser or a Flash Gordon accessory.

When I recorded Susan Tedeschi's album Just Won't Burn, she did the song “Found Someone New,” which was meant to sound like a Beatles outtake. To get the sound she wanted, Tedeschi brought in an odd blue microphone that looked like a plumbing fitting. It had a weird resonance that made for a John Lennon-like “I Am the Walrus” vocal sound, and though the resulting track sounded horrible on its own, it fit perfectly in the mix. Unfortunately, Tedeschi wouldn't let the mic out of her sight, which is why it's not in my mic locker today.


If the mic doesn't sound tweaked enough, try customizing it. You can come up with some unusual effects, and you will probably find that approach more satisfying creatively than using a stock electronic effect.

A favorite trick of mine is to cut the ends off of a water bottle and position the plastic tube over the microphone (see Fig. 2). That adds an additional resonance and an even lower-fi quality to the sound. Cardboard tubes from toilet-paper and paper-towel rolls are other good items for that application. I've obtained cool results from paper cups and the flexible tubing from the back of a clothes drier.

For a really outrageous sound, set up two mics about eight inches apart in a spaced-pair configuration. Have the vocalist hold the paper-towel tube and sing through it while sweeping back and forth in the stereo field. Although that can sound pretty silly on its own, it's a great effect for a background vocal pad of oohs and ahs. It's also a lot of work for the singer, so you need the right talent.

Once, I got carried away and had a vocalist sing while he held a lobster pot over his head and the mic. (Thankfully, he was amenable to anything I could dream up, which is not always the case with singers.) Although the sound didn't work for that song, it was definitely unique, and I expect to find a home for it someday.


Thus far I've addressed two approaches to capturing off-kilter vocal sounds: using unusual microphones and customizing the sound of a mic through external treatments. Another approach is to alter the sound by adding harmonics. I don't mean harmonics in the sense of musically pleasing overtones. I'm referring to distortion — what's known in my circle as hair.

For example, you can impart hair to a vocal sound by cranking up the mic preamp until it buzzes like a duck in a blender. But keep a couple of things in mind. First, if you turn up a mic preamp to 11, you will generally get distortion, but you will also generate an extremely hot output level. Therefore, you'll need to pad the output heavily or use a compressor with an input-level control so that you can turn the signal down.

Second, make sure the vocals are still intelligible. It's easy to get carried away and turn them into a seething mass of indistinct phonemes. (But if that's what you're going for, have at it!)

Some preamps work better than others for that application, and tube units tend to work best. I commonly use a Telefunken V78 tube mic preamp patched into a UREI 1176 compressor, which gives me thick distortion and all the level control I need. Another favorite for crunchy vocals is the Peavey VMP-2 tube preamp. But I've also had good luck with a number of solid-state preamps, including those in consoles. It all depends on the type of coloration you're looking for.

An additional note: when employing a mic preamp to get distortion, I often use a standard (that is, high-quality) vocal mic. I get good clarity up front, and from there I can dial in the amount of distortion I want at the preamplifier. However, if I'm in a particularly sinister mood, I may run a Green Bullet into an overdriven preamp for a completely screaming sound.


Another way to desecrate vocals is to run them through an instrument amplifier. Miking amplified vocals gives you certain qualities that just can't be captured any other way. Also, the options are endless in terms of amp choices, settings, and miking techniques.

For that application, I often use small or medium combo amps, such as Fender Deluxes, because they have a nice range of tones, from clean to extra crispy. A Shure SM57 about one or two inches from the speaker usually works well; if the mic is too far back, you lose articulation. Then again, I once ran a vocal through a tweed Deluxe sitting in a cement isolation booth with the mic positioned about five feet back from the amp. For good measure, I stuck a paper cup over the mic. The resulting vocal sound had a trashy, hotel-bathroom quality that worked great for the song.

One of my favorite vocal sounds came from a vocalist singing into a Sennheiser MD 409 (a somewhat arbitrary choice, but it looked cool) that was patched through a fuzz box at the singer's feet and into a Fender Deluxe Reverb just on the edge of distortion. I stereo-miked the amp with a pair of SM57s and angled the two mics differently to capture distinct tones on the two tracks. The fun part came when the singer kicked on the fuzz box during choruses, adding extra grit and crunch to the signal. One pass and a couple of punches later, we had a scorching vocal that one listener described as “erotic.” The singer was close to the vocal mic, and the SM57s were near the amp, so there was an immediacy and intimacy to the sound in addition to the midrange bite. The amp's natural compression helped accentuate the breaths and between-lyric sounds, which added to the track's sensuousness.

In deference to Lennon, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Leslie. At one time, Lennon was so enamored of the Leslie sound that he wanted every instrument recorded through one. On vocals (on anything, really), Leslies do amazing things: with proper miking, you can get tremolo, vibrato, chorusing, and dynamic panning, not to mention magic. (For tips about recording Leslies, see “Recording Musician: The Earl of Whirl” in the March 2001 issue.)

Many faux Leslies also work well on vocals, in case you don't have a real Leslie lying around. Most multi-effects units provide at least a passable Leslie patch, and many makers of guitar effects offer Leslie simulators, whether electrical or mechanical, that do an excellent job. You can run the outputs from the unit direct to tape or, better yet, through two separately miked guitar amps. Go nuts, but don't forget your motion-sickness medication. One final suggestion: if you begin to lose intelligibility, blend in some clean vocal signal with the Leslie vocal track.


Size doesn't always matter; sometimes smaller is better. One of the easiest small-vocal flavors to concoct is the classic “telephone” sound. A telephone speaker's frequency response is limited to 300 Hz to 3 kHz — the critical range for human speech. Anything much above or below that is gravy as far as speech intelligibility goes. Simply run the vocal through a graphic EQ and nuke everything below 300 Hz and above 3 kHz. Cutting all that high end is likely to destroy the vocal's presence, so it's possible that you will also need to boost somewhere near 1 to 3 kHz, the area responsible for the telephone's characteristic squawk. Now hit the bandpass signal with a generous dose of compression, and you have a small vocal that will stand out in just about any mix. (If you're into authenticity, you could also modify a telephone to work as a vocal microphone.)

A more exotic trick is to run the vocal track through a set of headphones and then mic the headphones from about three to eight inches away (see Fig. 3). Again, make sure not to put the mic too far back, or you'll lose articulation of the vocal. The goal is a nice lo-fi sound that sits comfortably in the mix. Although the frequency content of that sound is in the same ballpark as a Bullet-miked vocal, it should have a distant, more detached quality.

Experiment with combining different techniques. Once, to evoke a Robert Johnson-like vocal, I positioned the singer a couple of feet back from a Green Bullet, which allowed for plenty of room reflections and a distant quality to the sound. I ran the signal through a drive-in movie speaker and miked that to tape. The combination yielded a small midrangey vocal with just the right resonance to sound absolutely spooky.


Recently, while mixing a record, I found that several vocal tracks needed more attitude. Recutting the vocals was not a practical option, so I brought out a couple of my not-so-secret weapons. I set up a Line 6 Pod and a SansAmp GT1 on the console and patched them through some aux sends (see Fig. 4). Consequently, when a vocal needed some kick, I had a whole range of off-kilter effects at my fingertips, from the sublime to the stupid. (Actually, I never use those boxes for guitar sounds, but I love them on vocals and drums.)

For three mixes on that album, combinations of amp sounds from the Pod and GT1 saved the songs; they were on the verge of being dropped from the record until I dialed in the missing edge. On another song, I ran the vocal through a tube mic preamp after first running it through an Empirical Labs Distressor to bring down the line-level signal to a point at which I could get distortion rather than a toe-curling square wave out of the preamp. The tube distortion layered under the clean vocal gave the track the perfect growl.

The one thing you can't do in the mix is alter the fundamental performance. You can dress it up, put some hair on it, crush it with compression, or whatever. But if the performance is weak, nothing can really save it. That's one reason I prefer to effect the sound going to tape; a bizarre vocal sound in the cans is more likely to inspire a great performance than something clean and colorless. It's like going to a costume party: arrayed in unusual attire, you can more readily step outside your normal personality and become anyone or anything.

The trick to creating off-kilter vocal sounds is to think of vocals as any other instrument; don't hesitate to sonically alter them to suit the song. Take my ideas and run with them, experiment with cheap mics and stompboxes, alter mic sounds with various props, and make your gear do stuff it's not supposed to do. Just remember not to get weird for the sake of getting weird — get weird for the sake of the music. There's a time and place for a dry, intimate vocal recorded through a Neumann M 49, and there's a time and place for a singer with a cold singing into a walkie-talkie while wearing a lobster pot over his head.

Only one crustacean died for this column. Sean Carberryis the technical director of National Public Radio's The Connection and a freelance recording engineer in Boston. Check out his site