In The Studio vocal tracks

Published on October 16th, 2012 | by Chris Lyon


Recording vocal tracks that don’t suck – Part 3

So let’s recap. In part one, we discussed what DAW and microphone to use, where to set up your microphone and how to make a home-made pop filter. Part two was about creating a “headphone” mix for the vocalist, organizing your lyric sheets, limiting the amount of people you have in your sessions and minimizing noise (A/C units, ceiling fan, etc).

Now that the basics are set in place, let’s talk about something that is crucial to the overall outcome of your vocal tracking: trusting the recording team.

Having an understanding of the emotional content of the music and lyrics, while having the ability to work collaboratively towards capturing the pieces needed to stitch together an amazing vocal, takes a high degree of trust between the producer, engineer and singer. This is precisely why you see bands wanting to work with specific producers and/or engineers whom they feel have have a good understanding of their artistic vision.

Make sense? Good. Now let’s start recording!

1. Set the appropriate levels on preamp and recording channel

During vocal warm-ups, take the time to adjust the microphone preamp and recording channel,  in that order.  You want the microphone preamp set hot enough that the lowest levels of the singer are clear with minimal noise.  At the same time, the loudest and most emotional parts should never sound distorted (microphone or preamp overloading), and the recorded signal should never red line. In the digital world –  a signal that jumps into the red is not a good thing.

1.  Capture EVERY vocal performance

Make sure to capture EVERY performance, including practice and warm-ups. Many of the best songs of all time were rarely the result of one take. MOST of the time, what seems like one vocal take is the result of multiple takes being combined into one amazing delivery which as a result sounds as one complete and perfect rendition.

In my experience, vocalists tend to deliver some of their best efforts during the first hour of recording. While everything may not be spot on, you will find that a lot of really great ideas and vocal performances come about. Often, some of the best takes are the ones where the singer has no idea you are recording!  It can be devastating when those efforts are lost forever because the track wasn’t armed and recording.

2.  Positive feedback will generate better vocal takes

Always keep in mind  that the singer is putting him or herself on the line with every whisper, every scream and every rendition of their lyrics and melodies. This is why I typically stay away from negative comments in general when critiquing a vocal performance. Experienced vocalists will usually be able to hear when things are off. Even if they aren’t experienced, it’s better to ask the singer something like “how do you feel about that last verse?” Most vocalists will usually answer with “I think I can do that better.”

A little “guided-discovery” can go a long way. Remember, this isn’t a dash. It’s a marathon of effort that should culminate into greatness. Unless of course, the singer is just that good!

3. Take note of diminishing returns

I’ve always found that the more hours spent trying to perfect a vocal in one session, the less effective the vocal performance will be. Welcome to the concept of diminishing returns! After you get to that point where you’re reaching 3-4 hours of vocal tracking, it’s probably a good idea to STOP and start reviewing a few of the really good takes you have accumulated. Then, you can edit some together, do a quick mix (with the vocal line well over everything else), burn reference copies of CD’s for everyone and call it day. A little time away with the mix will enable you to focus on what you like or don’t like.  Then, when you go back into the studio, you can record the appropriate overdubs.

Make sure that you document (typically in the session on the DAW itself), the microphone used, preamp, monitor mix and reverb settings and also save the session with all recording levels in place.

Till next week my fellow ninjas – keep grinding!

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About the Author

is a graduate of the School of Audio Engineering (SAE) in Atlanta, Georgia and has been doing live sound engineering over 30 years. Chris works as a Staff Engineer at Edgewater Records / Atlanta Recording since 2009, has been FOH Engineer for Mainstage 2 at AthFest in Athens, Georgia for the last 4 years and is a Technical Advisor for the Georgia Music Industry Association for Live sound and Recording. He absolutely loves jumping on a console every chance he gets - live or studio, digital or analog.

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