Updated: Aug 30
The genres may vary, the cultures may differ but the spotlight that the vocals get in music is universal. The vocals are the most human and the most expressive element in a song. People invest a lot of money on microphones, pre-amps, outboard gear, etc. to capture that perfect vocals and the perfect tone.
All of us know about the phenomenon of proximity effect. This phenomenon plays a critical role when it comes to recording vocals. The recording skills of the Engineer should shine through when bringing out the emotion and flavor in the vocals.
Hitting the Right Balance
When choosing the mic or in general, the signal chain (refer Chapter 7), the thing to keep in one’s mind is to attain the right frequency balance. No single frequency should override others. This is where the art of recording comes in. It should never cross one’s mind that a not so properly recorded source can be fixed at later stages using EQs. The frequency balance must be achieved at the recording stage itself. This is especially relevant in cases where you need the organic tone of the singer.
There is much written about legendary Engineers trying out different mics for vocals. This is done to achieve the perfect frequency balance and sort everything out right then and there. This is the essence of a recording.
One should never look at the price tag on mics while selecting them for a purpose. Based on the tone that is required for a song, it could be a cheaper mic that works.
The Flavor Factor
Vocals are the deciding flavor of any song. While recording vocals, the rules and conventions that were considered to be rigid may have to be bent little to our liking (refer Chapter 4). Depending on the flavor that we desire to capture, the mic we choose might vary. Having a routine is cozy and comfortable however we shouldn’t be so set in our ways that we’re hesitant to experiment. On a given project, a dynamic mic might work better than an FET Condenser. If the vocals to be recorded are raw, a ribbon mic can do wonders. The character and tone of tube condensers are well known and adored. These can come to your aid if you wish to get a tone that is rounded and warm.
On top of this, there are different combinations of microphones and pre-amps that you can try out. Another way to obtain a different flavor of warmth is by pairing an FET condenser with a tube pre-amp. The microphone is a transducer; it captures the sound and converts it to electric signals. Based on the intensity of the electric signals that arrive, the vacuum tube starts to heat up giving the signal that warm characteristic. In the case of a pre-amp, the transformer steps up the signal it receives and the intensity of the signal received by the tube decides the warmth. In these two cases, the warmth is obtained at different stages and therefore the flavor also varies. On the other hand, adding an element like a compressor (an opto or VCA) after the pre, gives you even more possibilities and flavors to experiment with. Fun Fact: playing around with the pad switch and the polar pattern switch of a condenser can open up even more alleys. Possibilities are endless, this is what makes vocal recordings a serious and vital part of the job.
Given all the technicalities of the matter, getting the opportunity to work with artists and composers who are patient and understand that the goal is to achieve the best product is a blessing. On a personal note, having been able to work with many such artists and composers has helped me grow and learn as an Engineer. This is where one gets the confidence and courage to experiment.
The importance the genre plays in deciding the flavor cannot be taken for granted. Sibilant frequencies are highly sensitive to the human ear and too much of it is considered unpleasant. But there are genres where sibilance can work in favor of the song. Knowing and understanding the genre and what works within its framework can be of huge help here. This is where having a conversation with the Vocalist and the Composer can add value as they’ll be much more familiar with the genre. Getting the flavor is the key.
The Gain Staging
While recording vocals, there are certain ways followed by many to achieve the frequency balance and to get the proper gain staging. Keeping the singer at an appropriate distance is vital here. A widely accepted distance is from the tip of the pinky to the tip of the thumb. Achieving the right gain staging and choosing and comping each take wisely plays a vital role in the case of Modern vocal recordings.
As far as gain staging is concerned, there are no set rules to follow. It completely depends on the chops of the Engineer and his ability to decide what sounds right and musical for the corresponding pre-Amp 0r Interface. However, since every digital recording deals with A/D Conversion, the full-scale value around -18 dBFS can be kept as a reference point. This value has been known to give a tone that is musical and rich. Many audio makers design their plugins considering this value as a sweetspot.
The Importance of Recording
An Engineer shouldn’t limit himself to boxes and conventions (Refer Chapter 4). At the end of the day it’s only the output that counts.
Learning and understanding the art of recording and training one’s ears, helps one to understand the true tonal balance of the vocal chords and and how it fits into each genre.
Without this knowledge, blindly tweaking plugins and trying out fancy new mix methods will be a hollow process. It is the Engineer’s experience that lends authenticity to his work and in the end, only authentic pieces of work stand the test of time.
Take inspiration from the yesteryears; Capture the soul, not the sound.
· Vocals are the center of attraction in a song.
· An Engineer’s recording skill shines in bringing out the flavor.
· Attaining the right frequency balance is crucial.
· Any problems in a recording should be fixed then and there.
· Don’t hesitate to communicate. Put your ego aside.
· Attain the proper gain staging while recording.
· Full-scale value of -18 dBFS has something to say.
· Learning the art of recording is crucial to deliver lasting products.