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Tips and Techniques for Recording Vocals
Written by Sean Carberry - © 2005, PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc. Reprinted with Permission.
If I had a nickel for every time someone has asked me what's the best vocal mic to buy for x amount of money, I'd have one huge pile of nickels. I don't mean to imply that it's not an important question, because it is. But the only simple answer is "Whichever one sounds best," a reply most people don't find helpful.

The problem is that the only way to respond effectively is to ask more questions: What kind of voice are you recording? What style of music? What mic preamps and other gear do you have? What's the recording medium? What's the purpose of the recording (demo, fun, commerce)? What other microphones do you have?

These questions all lead up to a much larger one, the one that most people seeking opinions about vocal mics are really asking without realizing it: how do I record a great vocal track?

The choice of a microphone is just one part of the equation. It's an important part, naturally, but it's not the major determinant for recording a good vocal track. You might even say it's a red herring. Some of the greatest vocal recordings ever made were captured with microphones that many studio snobs would never consider using for the task.

My favorite vocals stand out in my mind because of the performances more than the actual sound. (Although great sound can elevate the quality of the track, it's ultimately just a vehicle.) All that a high-quality microphone guarantees you is a better shot at getting a great-sounding reproduction of what may or may not be a good performance. The old "garbage in, garbage out" cliché definitely applies.

So how do you record a great vocal track? It helps to have a great singer deliver a great performance of a great singer singing a great song through great recording gear. Of those four elements, the easiest one to compromise on is the recording gear. I will discuss gear in this article, but I also want to talk about ways to use it to produce a better vocal performance. My focus is exclusively on the recording process. Mixing is a story for another time, especially considering that you can't do much about the performance-other than some pitch correction and editing-once you're at the mix phase.

You might be surprised to learn that the quality of the headphone mix can often determine whether a singer gives a good performance in the studio. Even top-notch, highly experienced vocalists need a good monitoring reference when tracking. Some singers are more fussy than others, but the more comfortable they are while singing, the better.

If a vocalist has to think about what he or she is hearing, that will surely have a negative effect on their performance. If the singer is doing anything other than singing, you've lost. Without having the proper monitoring, the elements of pitch, emotion, and energy will suffer, and self-consciousness and loss of focus will likely result.

So the first step is to determine what the singer needs in the mix. If you have 48 tracks of instruments, densely arranged with all kinds of potentially distracting sounds, it can be difficult to create a good cue mix. Sometimes the arrangement for the recording is more complicated than what the singer is used to. This is frequently the case with singer-songwriters who are venturing into the studio for the first time. They're often baffled by singing along with drums, bass, guitars, strings, layers of synths, and percussion. Remember, just because it's on the multitrack doesn't mean the singer needs to hear it.

When it comes to the headphone mix, less is more. You should strive to build a mix that features only the essentials, keeping the "sweetening" elements out unless the singer asks for them or they're necessary to elevate the singer's emotional intensity. It's also vital to keep the mix clean enough to give the vocalist a solid pitch reference. A muddy headphone mix can blur the singer's sense of pitch. If a singer is having intonation trouble, I listen for elements that might be causing the pitch confusion. By pulling out an instrument or two, you can often clean up the mix and make life better for everyone.

Another important factor is how loud the singer's own voice will be relative to the rest of the mix. Whether due to vanity, hearing impairment, or just force of habit, many singers like their voices to be incredibly loud. Others prefer them lower. Regardless, the first thing to do is ask! Don't guess or do it the way the previous singer liked it. Ask what they want and give it to them. The same goes for reverb. Some singers want lots, others none, and others might want delay. Again, ask and make it so-it's always time well spent.

Some inexperienced singers have no idea what works for them in the headphones. Occasionally, I have to play games like varying the vocal level in their cans over the course of a take to see if the performance gets better one way or another. You need to do whatever it takes to get the singer singing and not thinking.

Another detail is the headphones themselves. Some singers carry their own or know from past experience what make and model they like. If possible, find out beforehand and get a set. At minimum, make sure you have a couple of different brands and models available at the session. This is an excerpt from the following article: Tracking the Elusive Vocal.

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