Frank Sinatra was a tough customer in the studio. He wanted to sing in the room with the band, and the musicians had to be on their game. This was the era of capturing transcendent live performances from exceptional players, so there was no doing 20 takes to acquire “audio data” for comping, no isolation booths, and no headphones. Yeah, Clyde, it was Frank’s way or the highway.
But, even though many recording types are currently under the spell of DAW editing, this doesn’t mean vocalists must sacrifice their “inner Frank” by jettisoning personal comfort in favor of the supposed requirements of technology. For example, if you hate wearing headphones while singing, you can dropkick those puppies—just make sure you are aware of what you may gain or lose by such an action.
THE PRO/CON GAME
The main drag of wearing headphones for some singers is the weird feeling of being isolated from the fury of sound produced by the band. This distraction can sometimes result in a stiff performance that doesn’t match the energy or vibe of the track. Even the slight physical impediment of having foam pads pressing against your ears and a cable dangling from head to toe can be enough of a bother to prevent a vocalist from really letting go. On the other hand, a clear benefit of wearing headphones is that the direct-to-ear sound source can often help pitchy singers find their notes more easily. Likewise, singers who exhibit difficulty with phrasing might lock in better by having the groove pounded directly into their ears. The trick is determining whether headphones are truly one of the obstacles to capturing a great track.
THE SANS HEADPHONES SETUP
If a set of headphones proves to be your “poor-performance culprit,” tracking without them is pretty simple from a logistical standpoint. Drop your mic stand somewhere near your speakers, stand in front of the mic, roll the track, and sing. Some professional recording engineers diminish signal leakage into the vocal mic by wiring the playback speakers out-ofphase and positioning the singer in a “sweet spot” where the mic hears almost none of the backing tracks. It can work, but it can also be too much trouble wiring your monitors one way for tracking, and then switching the wiring for listening back. (I’m assuming most home studios are working with one set of monitors.) The easiest move is to experiment with mic placement and playback volume until you’re happy with the balance of source sound (the vocal) and signal leakage (the track). Choosing a microphone with a cardioid or supercardioid polar pattern that “hears” less sound from directly behind it will also help diminish leakage. I stand a bit to the side of the monitors and keep the volume at a low, but comfortable playback volume that allows me to hear everything I need to find my pitch and deliver the proper energy and phrasing. I also play back the entire mix, rather than select just drums, bass, and guitar to minimize the number of instruments sneaking into the vocal mic. I figure, why go the “I’m free” route in order to cut a more amped-up vocal if you’re only going to delete some of the elements that make your rhythm tracks rage? The goal here is to deliver a thrilling vocal performance, so give yourself a mix that fires you up and triggers all your rock-star neurons.
AH, THE GLORY . . .
The genius of tracking without headphones is only proven by a vocalist delivering a brilliant take that leaves you stunned, excited, and shivering with bliss. You’ll know it when you hear it. ’Nuff said.
OOO, THE AGONY . . .
The downside of singing without headphones has already been revealed—it’s the resulting signal leakage. What this typically means in a practical sense is that you may not be able to bathe the vocal in massive reverb, long delays, and other aggressive processing, because whatever other signals appear in the vocal track will be effected, as well. For example, if you want a specific line to echo-echo-echo, you might hear the drums and guitars echoing, too. Of course, a lot of leakage never hurt Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” productions, so, once again, it’s your personal concept of the final mix that will likely determine your comfort level with signal leakage.