Recording vocals might not seem like the most challenging of tasks when producing a CD, but this delicate and crucial process often ends up being quite draining and taking longer than expected. Producer Larry Hammel, who has just finished shooting some instructive videos focused on this topic, has agreed to share some of his experience with us.
Recording the perfect (or the best possible) vocal track is an art that involves not only technical knowledge but also a certain amount of psychology. Which of these two elements is more important?
I think they are of equal importance, they are both tools used to reach the ultimate goal. When recording a vocal you first need to know what you are looking for ,which sometimes is very elusive and may only rear its head during the process. I go into a session with my toolbox, if you will, consisting of my tuned room, my gear , my experience and my knack for feeling what the artist can do and a sense of where we are at the time. In recording a vocal, you must take a very sensitive, empathetic approach, and you must constantly go with your gut, and that’s where the psychology comes in to play. You have to read the ebb and flow of an artists head space and emotion and react accordingly. The pacing in the studio is critical, you can destroy a session by simply pushing someone too hard or making a ill taken comment, you have to tread lightly and really get into their body, mind and soul. At the best of times, I feel communion with an artist, like I am singing along with him or her, it allows me to sense exactly where we are going and know how far we can get, and thats why I do what I do.
As far as the gear goes, that’s the other side of the coin, its the lens we are all “hearing” through so to speak, and like a great cinematographer you need equipment that will help make tangible, this exchange of feelings, words and language that is music. I use a myriad of “lenses” in my recordings from an amazing $10,000 German mic that literally helps to expose the molecules of ones soul, to a $100 handheld mic that allows someone to be more carefree and live. We combine these with preamps and compressors that symbiotically react to an artist and their unique voice. We are either going for purity, larger than lifeness or some creative statement. Its reaching your goal that matters.
Singing is very self-exposing, in particular for people who enter the studio for the first time. How do you deal with insecurity?
First understand that anyone that sings, is naturally not an introvert. I believe there is a latent or as yet unexperienced need for self expression, analogous to a baby chick pecking its way out of an egg. My job is to get them to peck a little harder and help expose their feelings in song. I have worked with hundreds of singers, and with the proper coaching and coaxing (my trade secrets) they have all come out of their shells and have thrived in the studio. All artists need to be exposed slowly and comfortably as they evolve in the studio. Metaphorically speaking, soon you won’t be able to get them to put their clothes back on.
Should all singers do warm up exercises before they record or are a couple of takes enough to get their voice ready? What kind of exercises would you recommend?
A singer is an athlete, and even more so in the fact that the small muscles used to vocalize are very sensitive. Taking care of one’ss voice is a lifelong endeavor and should include warm up exercises each time you sing whether you are on the road or in the studio. I usually do a combination of yodels and lip trills to get my self ready before I sing. I also like to do a light aerobic workout to get the heart pumping and to get in touch with my breathing. I recommend a visit to a vocal instructor or coach at some point in your career From personal experience I can say that my coach the amazing Cari Cole here in New York saved my voice when I was singing 4 nights a week. To this day, I do my exercises before I sing and I also help my clients with these as warmups. Its not worth hurting yourself by being lazy or naive. Do your warmups!
How long does a session with a vocalist normally last before the performance starts suffering?
I have another analogy I use with singers called the “Are you a Rocket or a Rocky” . Some singers are like rockets in that they can do 3 or 4 takes and then fizzle out, where some are like Rocky Balboa, the harder you hit them the stronger they get. I like to first evaluate a singer based on this, so I can develop a sensitivity for their physical being. From there I am interested in their spirit, and how I can push the boundaries of performance without hurting them in any way. We could go 2 hours and get great stuff, or 8 hours with breaks and really work our asses off to get the same results, the adventure is in knowing that the precipice of the mountain is sometimes a few steps away.
Technically, what are the main reoccuring problems when recording a vocalist?
Sometimes its hard to decide on that “perfect” combination of signal path. The mic, pre, compressor etc. I go nuts over this at times because I would hate to miss a golden moment by not getting the sound just right. So to avoid any unnecessary pressure on an artist, I like to casually record a half day to explore various gear combinations without any stress. You’d be amazed at the great stuff we get a lot of times and if the budget allows, its nirvana. Another issue that crops up is an artist that is under the weather or not warmed up. Here you must do what you can to physically, get the artist up to speed. Drinks, aerobics, rests between takes, coaching and positive reinforcement are all things you use and do to get what you need in maybe the only day you’ll have. 99% of most things can be overcome in the studio with the right approach.
Modern, cheaper recording technology seems to enphasize the high frequencies a lot, and this often creates problems with trebly sounds like esses and tis. How would you deal with that if you didn’t have a whole cabinet full of mikes to choose from?
There are a few ways to conquer “sibilance” both physically and in the mix. An extreme example is a singer I once recorded who just had dental work done (front teeth veneers) and she had this very sibilant whistle sound around 12,000 hertz. I had her go back to the dentist and she had him lightly file between teeth a bit. Sibilance gone! Now you can’t file everyone’s teeth down, but you can use multiple pop filters to help attenuate some of the high end, sing at an angle to the mic to avoid direct sibilant air blasts (this helps for plosive p and b sounds as well) and adjust the singers technique a bit to avoid the problem in the first place.
The beauty of recording in a computer workstation are the great plugins designed for this, we call them “de essers”. Get your self a few of these and see what works best. Remember it’s always a compromise when using plugins like these because overdoing it tends to darken up the overall vocal. These generally work by honing in on the offending frequency and notching out, so I like to get it to work about 60% and live with a little sibilance, better then a lifeless vocal.
Are there some kind of mics that work better on male voices and others that are preferable for female ones?
Traditionally I would say sometimes, technically I would say no. In the past, a Neumann U47 was a most coveted vocal mic, and used on Sinatra, the Beatles and Aretha. A Telefunken 451 was typically used for big airy voiced females like Celine, but there are no rules. There are an amazing amount of microphone types out there and if you have a wide variety in your locker it’s wise to try a handful out on an artist and get the best match, male or female.
Are there some kind of mics that work better for different kinds of music?
In my experience yes, depending on the music, I may pull out a certain combination of mics that I have had success with. For example, the German mic I mentioned earlier, the Brauner KHE, is incredible microphone for ballads and softer songs, think Janet Jackson or John Legend, where you need to hear every gorgeous breath and nuance. For rock, a handheld indestructible mic like Bono’s favorite SM 57 may suffice or the aforementioned Neumann U47 or its modern day clones.