Master Class: Rock the Vox!

There's a good reason why music-production illuminati dub the lead vocal the “money track”: If it’s not fantastic, you don’t have a record.
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There's a good reason why music-production illuminati dub the lead vocal the “money track”: If it’s not fantastic, you don’t have a record. To casual listeners, it hardly matters how good the instrumental tracks sound. The lead vocal is the thing that grabs their attention and impels them to listen to a recording, or hit the Skip button.

In this article, I’ll detail the techniques that have worked for me when recording lead vocal tracks over the past 30 years. My focus will be on overdubbing vocals to existing instrumental tracks, but much of what I’ll cover applies equally to tracking a singer simultaneously with a band. It all begins with common-sense tips.

Prepare Ahead of Time Nothing drains a singer’s mojo faster than waiting forever while his mic is set up, a preamp and compressor are patched into the signal path, a new DAW track is created, and a headphone mix is devised and routed to his cans. If possible, make sure all these tasks are completed before the singer arrives at your studio. That way, you can immediately get down to making magic together after a couple minutes of ice-breaking chitchat.

I’ll talk in-depth about equipment selection and setup shortly, but a few words about mic choice bear discussion now, before your session begins. If you’ll be working with a singer for the first time, ask her well before the session what her favorite mic is for recording; that is, one that has yielded flattering results on her other sessions. Try using the same mic model if you own it. If it’s not in your arsenal and you can’t justify renting it, choose another mic from your collection that has a similar frequency response, polar pattern, and bass proximity effect.

An alternative tack is to set up a few of your best vocal mics before the session and have the vocalist briefly sing into each one so you can hear which is the best match for her voice. The drawback to this approach is it takes time, something that the project’s budget might not allow. Fortunately, there is a simple way to choose the perfect mic on the spot. But first, a little feng shui is in order.

Pamper the Talent Physical discomfort or an impractical setup will derail a singer faster than any other performer on a session, so baby the songbird. Offer her a warm glass of water so her pipes won’t dry out midway through the session. Set up a music stand on which to place her lyric sheets, if any, and let her decide where to position it; a squinting, craning singer isn’t going to give you a commanding performance. Ask her how she’d like you to adjust the room’s lighting: dim for vibe, or bright for more energy and easy viewing of lyrics. And while you’re practicing your bedside manner, borrow the lyric sheets and make a copy of each for yourself so you can follow the bouncing ball while tracking.

Fig. 1. The frequency-response charts for the Lawson L251 multipattern tube microphone show the increased bass response attendant with progressively higher directionality. (These plots were derived at 18 inches from the mic; close placement would show much higher bass-proximity effects for the directional patterns.) The lower curve in the bass band for each chart is the response of the mic with a bass roll-off filter activated on the mic’s outboard power supply unit.Choose the Right Mic If there’s no time for auditioning mics with the singer, don’t fret. Assuming you intimately know the strengths and weaknesses of each of the mics in your collection, you can usually tell which one will sound best simply by having the talent sing a few lines a cappella sans microphone. If singing a cappella makes the singer self-conscious, listening to him talk will often help you divine the most appropriate mic.

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Choose a mic that de-emphasizes any overly pronounced frequency bands and bolsters weak bands in the singer’s voice. For example, you wouldn’t want to use a mic that has a hyped top end on a very sibilant singer; that would only make sibilance sound worse. If the singer’s timbre is very thin or shrill, consider using a multipattern condenser that will let you dial in the perfect amount of bass-boosting proximity effect to balance his tone. (See Figure 1, as well as “Using Polar Patterns To Shape Tone”.)

A singer who projects loudly should be paired with a mic citing a high maximum-SPL spec to avoid distortion. Conversely, a very weak singer needs a mic boasting both high sensitivity and very low noise; otherwise, your track will be infected with noticeable preamp hiss (especially after compressing it during mixdown). If you suspect your chanteuse has poor mic technique and might sway off -axis while performing, pair her with an omni or wide-cardioid mic that will capture her voice despite her wandering. (One caveat: If your studio’s room tone sounds terrible, use a more directional mic and be prepared to either compress the vocal track heavily or automate its fader during mixdown.)

Get in the habit of listening to vocalists sing a cappella. With practice, you’ll soon be picking the best mic for singers within seconds of them opening their mouths.

Hang it High If you’re using a side-address mic, hang it upside down to get it out of the way of a music stand and give the singer a clear sight line to the lyric sheets. Then ask the singer to stand for a moment within kissing distance of the mic’s diaphragm. Instruct him to hold his head the way he will when he sings—for example, he might look slightly downward at lyric sheets positioned on a stand—and adjust the mic’s height and angle so that his lips are pointed directly at the diaphragm.

Next, tell the singer how far away from the mic you’d like for him to stand. Base your preference on the timbre of his voice, the mic’s polar pattern, and the vocal effect you’re shooting for. For instance, if his voice is fairly deep and you’re using a cardioid mic to weed out room tone, try having him stand five to 12 inches away from the mic; that will reduce the bass-proximity effect that would otherwise make his track sound boomy or blurry. Conversely, when using an omni mic on a rock singer with a perfectly balanced tone, you’ll get a very urgent and focused sound if his lips are practically touching the mic.

Consider all the setup you’ve done so far to be just your starting point. After listening to the singer over your control-room monitors, you may need to make some subtle adjustments. For instance, a persistently bassy sound may impel you to open up the mic’s polar pattern (say, from cardioid to omni) or point the mic at the singer’s nose instead of his lips (that is, farther away from any chest resonance). Conversely, you might need to position the mic below a shrill female singer’s mouth to capture more chest resonance. If she is extremely sibilant, try rotating your directional mic so that it is aiming to the left or right of her mouth; such off -axis positioning (of a directional mic) will gently roll off very high frequencies and soften any offending whistling (see Figure 2).

However you set up your mic, remember to place a nylon wind screen between it and the singer. This will quell any plosives that might otherwise audibly pop the mic’s diaphragm. It will also prevent your condenser mic’s frequency response from degrading prematurely. (See “Charging Ahead”.)

Patch in a Preamp and Compressor When selecting your trinity of mic, preamp, and compressor for recording vocals, a good rule of thumb is to choose a solid-state design for at least one of those items. Too many tube stages can result in an overly velvety tone that lacks definition. You can always add more tube harmonics at mixdown—running your track out to analog gear or using a high-quality tube emulation plug-in—but you can’t get rid of an excess amount after it’s been recorded.

Fig. 2. The cardioid polar plot for the Lawson L251 multipattern tube microphone shows the pattern’s typical rejection of very high frequencies arriving off-axis to the front of the mic. Another pitfall to watch out for is oversaturating the mic preamp, causing unwanted distortion. Begin the singer’s soundcheck with the compressor (placed downstream from the preamp) set to 1:1 ratio and unity I/O gain levels. Heavy gain reduction at the get-go might fool you into thinking your preamp gain is too weak, when in fact it’s too high and the compressor is merely neutralizing it. Downstream compression won’t stop distortion caused by over-the-top preamp gain.

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Once your preamp’s gain is set, dial in a moderate ratio (roughly between 2:1 and 5:1) on your compressor, using a soft-knee mode. (If you’re using an opto-electronic compressor, simply raise the peak-reduction control to increase compression depth as desired.) As a starting point, set the threshold so that the quietest vocal phrases don’t trigger any gain reduction. Peaks should not sound squashed. If the singer is highly dynamic, you may need to chain two compressors in series—each performing moderate gain reduction— in order to handle the most explosive vocal peaks transparently.

For a VCA-based compressor that uses an RMS detection circuit, good attack and release times for recording lead vocals are typically 10–30 ms and 100–500 ms, respectively. (Most opto compressors have inherent time constants that can’t be adjusted.) Faster attack and release times can produce really urgent-sounding vocal effects, and for this reason some engineers prefer using lightning-fast FET compressors when recording vocals. Be careful, though: A radically shaped compression curve will be virtually impossible to correct at mixdown. I generally prefer to use a light touch when recording to capture vocals cleanly; I try my most adventurous processing at mixdown, when it’s possible to undo overly zealous experiments.

Because most amateur and semi-pro singers hold back a little during soundcheck, you should initially set your compressor’s output gain for a –10 to –6dBFS reading on the meter for your A/D converter or I/O box. If you were to set your initial levels higher than –6 dBFS, the singer might push levels into the red later when he cuts loose (especially if you’re compressing very lightly).

The singer’s soundcheck should ideally be his first run through the song (versus setting levels a cappella). No matter how lame your initial ballpark settings might be for your mic pre and compressor, record everything. Magic often happens only once, and sometimes it’s during the singer’s warm-up. During the first take, fine-tune your preamp gain and compressor settings as you listen and watch your meters.

Once all of your gear is dialed in, refer to your copy of the song’s lyrics to set markers on-the-fly for verses, choruses, bridges, and coda during the next take. Being able to jump to each song section with the click of your mouse will speed the session along and help keep everyone’s creative juices flowing.

Tweak the Cue Mix The singer’s headphone (cue) mix—which you set up prior to the session—should be independent of the mix playing through your control-room monitors. You may need to hear her live vocals or a specific instrument at a different volume than what she needs to hear in order to give her best performance. Try to set up an inspiring mix in her cue feed, with the following provisos: Emphasize the kick and snare tracks a bit so she can readily lock her phrasing to the song’s tempo, and mute any gliss-happy tracks (such as fiddle and pedal steel guitar) that might throw her pitch off. If she’s still pitchy, or if her vocal phrasing sounds too loose, reduce the amount of reverb in her cans. A singer whose pitch is consistently sharp probably needs her headphone level lowered.

After all these adjustments, if the singer’s pitch or phrasing is still too loose, try stripping her cue mix down to just her vocal and a basic rhythm section: drums, bass, keys, and one guitar. Reducing clutter in her cans will help her accuracy.

Fix Now or Comp Later If you’re pulling double-duty as producer on the vocal session, you’ll need to choose how to best approach the recording process. Some producers prefer to record a few continuous passes of the entire song, pick the best take and then fix the clams by punching in. I much prefer to record a lot of passes in shorter segments and composite-edit them into one super-take after the singer leaves; that strategy gives me more material and time to raise the money track to its fullest potential. If the singer is amenable, I like to work section by section through the song, recording phrases at the top of their range last so I don’t blow out their voice before we’re finished.

When the session is over, be sure to make detailed notes about the signal chain you used—the specific mic, preamp, and compressor you chose and their control settings—so you can recreate it the next time you record the same singer. Keep your notes in a readily accessible file. It might be months or years later, but when the singer returns to your studio, you’ll have his golden signal chain ready to rock.

Using Polar Patterns To Shape Tone

Multipattern microphones offer various tonal responses depending on the polar pattern selected. This is due in part to a bass-proximity effect inherent in mics producing directional patterns: The closer you get to a multipattern mic set to a directional mode, the more pronounced the mic’s reproduction of bass frequencies.

The omnidirectional, or omni, pattern doesn’t exhibit any bass-proximity effect and usually offers the flattest and smoothest response. No matter how close you stand to an omni mic, its bass-frequency response will remain consistent.

A mic’s bass-proximity effect increases as its polar pattern becomes more directional (see Figure 1). Placed at a consistent distance from its source, a mic’s hypercardioid mode will produce more bass than its cardioid mode. The mic’s bidirectional (a.k.a. figure-eight) mode, if available, will produce the most pronounced bass proximity effect. Knowing this, you can dial in the perfect amount of bottom end for a singer’s track without using EQ. Have the singer stand at a consistent distance from your multipattern mic—initially set to omni mode—and then shift through increasingly more directional patterns until the low end sounds just right.

Charging Ahead

A condenser mic’s electrically charged head capsule attracts fine dust particles floating in the air. When water vapor or fine droplets of spit from a singer’s mouth combine with this dust on the mic’s diaphragm, it forms a cement-like film that prevents the diaphragm from vibrating freely. Repeated deposits progressively degrade the mic’s frequency response over time.

Using a windscreen (pop filter) will protect your mic’s diaphragm from dewy minstrels. A nylon pop filter sounds more acoustically transparent than a fitted foam windscreen, which stifles high frequencies. If possible, power down and store your condenser mics in a closed box after each session to protect them from dust and humidity.

Audio engineer Michael Cooper ( is a contributing editor for Mix magazine and the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in Sisters, OR.