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Recording Chops Workshop: How To Record Great Vocals

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Recording Chops Workshop: How To Record Great Vocals

Man singing in the shower

The ability to record great vocal tracks in the studio is a benchmark skill for any recording engineer who wants to be taken seriously. These are the tracks that are going to show your clients if you really are the savvy studio guru that those “me at the sound board looking smart” pictures portray you as. Just as the vocal track is exposed and nearly naked, so will you be. So read on, and master each of these essential vocal recording concepts.

How to fine-tune a singer

Great vocal recordings start with a great vocalist. I would love to tell you that you will be blessed with scores of amazing vocalists beating down your double studio door to record their next hit, but that would not be true. Some days, you get the pleasure of recording a highly skilled master, and on other days, the vocalist will make you want to crawl under your studio desk and find a happy place to hide. Ironically enough, it is the latter of the two that will be insisting that you share your opinion with him about how his voice really sounds.

I have a friend who owns a nice studio with bragging rights for having recorded some very notable names in music. One grueling day, we were enduring possibly the worst vocalist we had ever heard. This singer sounded something like a grey whale tripped out on acid. After my friend was consistently pressed for an honest assessment of the singer’s abilities, he finally turned to the guy and said “To be honest, I feel guilty for taking your money to record you”. This is the reality of life in the studio.

As recording engineers, our job is to record a performance from the singer that is one step better than she might have thought possible. As much as we would like to get this result strictly from our groovy equipment we have invested so much money in, we need to have a firm grasp on the fact that we need to work with the singer, inspire her and draw out the best performance possible.

The traits of a good singer

First, let’s look at what you can expect an experienced singer to know. A good vocalist will:

  • Avoid unwanted volume changes caused by head movement in front of the mic. This also includes an awareness of the proximity effect. We will talk more about that later.
  • Use slight distance variations to produce an even volume level through different intensity levels.
  • Control breath sounds by minimizing them or turning her head to the side slightly on large breaths.
  • Control plosives that tend to happen on spoken sounds such as “B” and “P”.
  • Sing on pitch. Enough said.
  • Avoid “testing” your $5000 mic for signal by slapping the face of it with her hand.

Those are some very nice traits to find in a professional singer while recording in the studio. It’s amazing when you get to record such a singer, but let’s take a detour back to reality and discuss some things that you can do as an engineer to significantly affect the quality of the vocalist’s performance

Make sure the singer hears himself in a good mix

Happy singer equals better recordings

When a singer can not hear himself or the mix very well, you are likely to get a few unwanted results:

  • The singer will struggle to stay in tune with the track.
  • An uninspiring monitoring mix usually results in an uninspiring vocal performance. This is the law of the studio universe.
  • When a vocalist can not hear himself clearly, this may inspire him to exhaust his vocal cords by belting it out louder. If you wear out the vocalist, the recording session is over.

Set the mood

Consider this for a moment: When we are recording a vocalist, we are recording an instrument that is alive, has good and bad days and comes into the studio with emotions. How the singer feels about her voice, the setting in your studio or even the worries of life are going to affect the track that you will capture that day. You need to create a setting where the vocalist can escape from the real world and concentrate on that creative flow. To accomplish this goal, there are no rules.

  • Waldo finds the mood in the studioHave candles on hand. Scoff at this suggestion at your own peril. Nothing sets the tone for soft, sultry vocals like dimmed lighting and the soft, flickering glow of a good smelling candle. For a few dollars worth of candles, your studio can become the haven of choice to record inspired vocals.
  • Get into lighting effects. If you have to ability to plan some nice lighting effects into your studio, do it. This will pay dividends over and over in the form of inspired performances. Incorporate lighting that can be dimmed and allows a nice choice of colors to suit different occasions. This is quite easy with the help of LED lighting. It is worth noting that some dimmers, namely pulse width modulation (PWM) types may add noise into your electrical circuits. Watch out for this when planning your lighting and wiring.
  • Get a lava lamp. Don’t argue with me. Just get one.
  • Incense can be put to good use in the studio. Always be sure to check with the client to be sure that she enjoys the smell of incense.
  • Be reasonable with aesthetics. While you may be infinitely proud of the stuffed squirrel that you took down on a big game hunt last year, a singer who does not appreciate meat, hunting, and subtle reminders of death may not give you her best vocal performance with a stiff, dead animal staring back at her. Save animal trophies and inappropriate posters for another place.
  • While I do suggest that you record all vocals dry, go ahead and give the vocalist some reverb in his monitoring mix. He will love you for it.

Look to the sky

See if you can get away with setting the mic a bit higher than the vocalist so that she needs to look slightly upwards to sing straight into it. This will open up the singer’s throat a bit more and encourage more harmonics to be projected to the mic.

Be very careful to communicate with the singer on this one. Overdoing this trick can result in straining the vocalist’s cords. If you are found responsible for cooking a vocalist’s voice for the day, you will become unpopular very fast.

Recognize when you have captured the peak performance

Most singers will need to warm up a bit on the first few takes. They will then really start nailing the track, getting progressively better and better. Your job is to recognize when you have captured that peak performance and are “headed back down”. Get the apex performance, including some good alternate takes and then move on so as to avoid wearing out the vocalist’s limited energy.

Know the difference between perfection and inspiration

If the truth be told, most singers do not really like the sound of their voice. This is going to express itself in the studio through countless takes in the search for that perfect performance. Shift the focus slightly more in favor of an INSPIRED performance. Realize that you rarely get perfection an inspiration at the same time. You’re welcome.

Always be recording

Do not be the fool who fails to hit the record button even when the vocalist is just warming up with the track. Always be in record mode when the vocalist is singing with the and you will one day be the grand hero. I promise you this.

The room that you record in

Yea, you knew I was going to “go there”, right? This is where recording forums explode with discussions, arguments and couch commando tutorials to the power of ten. While knowledge of the importance of room acoustics is on the rise, this is still a subject where most people just cling to the lore of their choice. More power to them. In my opinion, if you record a vocal track in a restroom with a $5000 tube microphone, you still have just recorded $5000 of horrible sound. Since money doesn't grow on trees, we simply do the best we can.

Home made vocal boothNice looking studio room

Size matters

As a VERY general rule of thumb, a bigger room is more likely to sound better than a small room. A few of the reasons for this are:

  • Bass wavelengths are long and need space to develop.
  • Out of control bass frequencies usually require space consuming acoustic treatments to remedy. This space is usually not available in small rooms.
  • It is a bad Idea to set up the vocal mic too close to a wall or reflective surface. In a small room, it is pretty hard to escape from nearby walls.
  • Wall treatments that diffuse sound generally require some “stand off distance” to do their job. For the standard treatments available on the market, a small room does not allow enough stand-off distance.

When recording in a less than perfect room

Did you notice how I was so very careful in describing a recording room that sounds like the audio version of rancid ramen noodles? Yea, I am good. I’m just doing my part to not insult anyone and cause years of trauma counseling because of the mean and hurtful things I said about that horrid sounding recording room that so often graces recording forums as a great place to record. The fact is, most recording rooms sound terrible. Our only choices are to win the lottery or learn how to use the money and resources we have to do the best we can. If you are faced with a less than perfect recording room, there are some remedies to consider:

  • Use gobos. A gobo is a soft, absorbent addition to a room that often is made to stand on its own. These useful tools help control the liveliness of a room and sometimes even cut down on bass frequencies if they are used right. You can buy gobos or improvise some with the judicious use of pillows, blankets and mattresses. Sometimes getting the job done is ugly looking. We do what we must.
  • SE Electronics Reflexion FilterUse a close mounted reflection filter around the mic. These isolating barriers like the SE Electronics Reflexion Filter are becoming very popular in small and large studios alike. They attenuate reflections from behind the mic and provide a convenient measure of isolation.
  • Treat your room with absorption. The Auralex Roominator treatment kit may be the ticket to reasonable acoustic treatments that look nice and will not require you to sell your Harley. It is important that you know the limits of soft wall treatments used alone in a room. Be aware that long bass waves often take long cross-sectioned soft absorption to attenuate. Other types of treatments, such as Helmholtz resonators, are complex but a more compact way to attenuate bass frequencies. What this means to the non-wealthy recording enthusiast is this: When soft absorption alone is used in a room, it will absorb higher frequencies far better than bass frequencies. This results in a “bass heavy” room. Be aware of this when recording, EQing and mixing.
  • Use diffusion. In short, diffusion scatters reflections around a room to create a pleasing ambience that is still “live” sounding. While it is quite a bit more expensive than soft absorption, the result is much higher quality. Most rooms require that you diffuse a minimum of 25% of all flat surfaces for you to really get the nice effect diffusion provides. Check out these Auralex quadratic diffusers. The price tag may shock you, but they provide a much more professional result if used properly. I have never had a client feel anything less than extremely pleased with the effect of proper diffusion.
  • Earthworks SR30 Departing from the concept of changing the acoustics of the room you record in, you may want to consider using a microphone that has excellent off axis rejection. As an example, a mic with an omnidirectional pickup pattern would be a poor choice in a room that has bad sounding acoustics. A Cardioid pickup pattern would be a better choice. This allows you to record more of what is right in front of the mic while rejecting sounds approaching from the back of the mic (room ambience). The Earthworks SR30 is a sweet microphone with phenomenal off-axis rejection that you have to hear to believe.

Auralex Roominator treatment kitAuralex quadratic diffusers

Real ambience: If you have it, flaunt it

AKG C541B set

If you happen to be one of the growing handful of studio owners who have a nice sounding room ambience in a recording room, use it. There is nothing better than real room ambience recorded in stereo to add realism to a vocal track.

The best way to accomplish this is to use a stereo pair of condenser mics set to capture the room ambience in addition to the main vocal mic. Keep these tracks separate so that you can blend them in subtly. Obviously, this is only going to work in a larger room while the vocals are being tracked alone. You may consider turning the ambience mics around so that they are facing away from the singer. This focuses them on room ambience. When a stereo pair, such as the AKG C541B set, are not available, one ambient mic is still a worthy addition to a vocal track.

Microphones

Microphone choice is very important when recording a vocalist. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that any one mic is the best choice for all singers. Each microphone has its own characteristic response curve (how it responds to different frequencies). Incidentally, each vocalist has unique tonal characteristics about his or her voice. A woman with a strong presence at 5kHz is not wisely matched with a mic that also boosts that same 5kHz range. In short, the ideal situation is one where the mic is not only high quality, but is a good match for the particular vocalist’s. Let’s look at a few examples of some nice vocal mics.

Rode NTKNeumann TLM102Blue Microphones BluebirdElectrovoice RE20

Rode NTK

The NTK is an affordable tube microphone with low self noise and the ability to handle fairly loud sound sources. This has become a very popular mic for vocals and has received a few prestigious awards to boot.

Neumann TLM102

Everybody wants a Neumann microphone in their mic locker. This popularity is not unwarranted either. The TLM102 has a fairly flat frequency response all the way up to 6 kHz, where there is a slight boost to add presence and “air” to your vocal recordings. Known for a fast transient response, this mic is found in front of singers everywhere.

Blue Microphones Bluebird

These are unique looking mics that have become popular with vocalists in the studio. While the 135 dB SPL rating is not quite as high as that of the Rode NTK, this shouldn’t be a problem for a vocalist considering that a jet engine has a SPL of about 140 dB. Avoid recording any vocal tracks with your jet engine running nearby and you should be fine.

Electrovoice RE20

Here is a classic mic that is a favorite the world over. This mic is used on a lot of other things besides vocals, but it is hard to not think of vocals and the RE20 together. One of the well known characteristics that this mic is known for is the fact that is has virtually no proximity effect. The proximity effect is a boost in bass response associated with directional microphones when you come within roughly 12” of the mic. The proximity effect can be used to your advantage, but it needs to be kept in check when you have a vocalist with the habit of bobbing his head closer and further from the mic.

Earthworks SR20

This unique looking mic is also known for having very little proximity effect. Its flat frequency response, wonderful off axis rejection and detailed highs makes it worth every penny. If you have not tried an Earthworks mic, you owe it to yourself.

Earthworks SR20

While we could go on and on about all of the mics you could buy, let’s skip the exhaustive mic list and continue on with the art of recording great vocals.

The simple but essential basics

I know, the basics are not the most exciting part of a tutorial on how to record great vocals, but don’t skip them. These are the foundation of good vocal recordings.

Set your input level right

VU meter

Even though this one should be so basic that it is insulting, I still get to endure the sound of vocal tracks that are driven to digital clipping on a regular basis. If your recordings are distorting with that awful digital clipping that sounds like a garden rake scraped across a chalkboard, I am not likely to your recording skills very seriously.

When initially setting the input gain to your recorder, keep in mind that most vocalists get a bit more excited as they warm up, and they begin to sing louder. Be ready for this.

Inversely, don’t leave too much unused headroom in your recordings. I realize that you can normalize the track after it is recorded, but recording a low level signal and compensating for it later only boosts noise and neglects to take advantage of your full bit depth.

Record dry

The main point here is to keep in mind that any effect you record to the track with your vocals is something that you are going to have to live with eternally. If the singer wants to hear some reverb while singing, provide her with reverb that will not be recorded.

Compression, limiting and de-essing also fall into this category. It is OK to use a bit of these effects while tracking to keep things under control, but leave the bulk of dynamic manipulation for later when you can change your mind.

Always record with a pop filter or two

Don’t skip this one. A pop filter helps tame those explosive “B” and “P” sounds that singers often fire at the mic. When these plosives are intercepted before they even reach the mic, the recording will already sound more professional from the start. DO NOT leave this job for a compressor. Also, do not be afraid to put two pop filters in front of a vocal mic. This is often necessary. SE Electronics makes a dual pop filter that simplifies this process. Pop filters also impose a barrier between your prized studio mic and an over excited singer who spits every time he pronounces a “T” or “P”. This has a soothing effect on your blood pressure as you sit in the control room and watch beer tainted spit shoot from the singer’s lips.

SE Electronics dual pop filter

Sizzling sibilance

Sibilance is that sizzling effect that you get when speaking sounds like “S” in front of the microphone. Rather than making a static EQ cut to get it under control, you have two main choices:

  • GENTLY use a de-esser as you are recording the vocal track. A de-esser is essentially a compressor that is focused on the frequencies that get too hot when a person says “S”. The result is toned down “S” sounds without a sacrifice of presence in the rest of the track.
  • Place a pencil on the front of your studio mic so that it divides that powerful rush of air in two as it meets the mic. This may sound like a corny way to get this effect, but give it a try and see if you like it.

Prevent floor noise from creeping in

Singers like to tap their feet. They shuffle around and generally do their best to make you crazy while you try to capture that perfect performance minus thumps, coughs and headphone bleed-through. Although you will try your best to curb the toe tapping and floor noises, you may have to take matters into your own hands.

Grab a set of Auralex Platfeet isolation pads and slip them on the feet of your mic stand. This really helps isolate the mic stand from the floor. Quieter recordings generally make everyone happy.

Auralex Platfeet isolation pads

The proximity effect

As mentioned above, the proximity effect is caused by the ports used to achieve directionality in mics. This effect results in a significant boost in bass frequencies once the singer comes within 12” of the microphone. When a singer is bobbing his head in and out of this proximity zone, it can cause the bass response on your recording to undulate up and down as well. This can be difficult to remove from the track using an EQ or a multiband compressor.

The first step in preventing this from being a problem is to be listening for it. If you have an active singer who likes to move around a lot, try to ensure that he either stays in the zone or out of it, not constantly going between the two.

Another option is to use a mic that does not have such a pronounced proximity effect.

  • An omnidirectional mic does not suffer from the proximity effect. If your recording room sounds amazing, you may get away with using an omni to record vocals.
  • There are two mics listed above that have virtually no proximity effect: the EV RE20 and Earthworks SR20
  • If the mic you are using includes a bass roll off switch, put it to good use here.

Don’t create more problems

Recording vocals is hard enough, don’t make it any harder by creating additional problems to fix later.

Don’t remove all breath noises when editing a vocal track

Believe it or not, breathing is considered normal in most cultures. When we get so focused on turning out pristine tracks, it’s easy to begin to scrub all breathing noises out of the track. A more natural sounding approach would be to simply reduce the volume of breaths that sound excessive. Leave some human sounds in there and it will sound a lot more natural.

Be careful with all pre-processing

Be very careful to avoid over aggressive de-essing when recording. Overdone de-essing will make a singer sound like she has a lisp when she really does not. Admittedly, I once recorded a vocalist with aggressive de-essing applied before it went to the recorder. During tracking, I was a bit distracted by the fact that she was a very attractive woman. After she had recorded some stellar takes and came into the control room to preview them, she noticed her lisp. She left the studio that day amazed that she had never noticed her severe speech impediment before. I was hoping to “fix it later” and could not bring myself to tell her what had really happened. She probably hates me even after all of these years.

This principle applies to compression and limiting as well as any other effect you would want to put on recorded vocals. Only record with enough compression or limiting to keep control of the wildest dynamic peaks. You should apply the bulk of these effects in mixdown.

Do not record a vocalist with autotune turned on. This will make it really hard for the vocalist to gauge how well she is controlling her voice right at the moment. Save Autotune for mix-down time.

If you record with a gate enabled, be very careful to ensure that you are not cutting off half of a singer’s breath or the tail end of sustained notes as they become quieter. This is a mistake that is hard to undo once it is recorded.

Effects, manipulations and modifications

Let’s talk about a few things you can do after the vocal track is recorded to give it that extra shine. Keep in mind that it is always best to polish a vocal track that is really great to begin with rather than try to salvage a poorly recorded track. In recording circles, we call this “polishing turds”. It never works out so well.

Autotune

If you are going to use autotune, I suggest you use it on individual phrases and words rather than just running the whole track through it. This is going to sound way more natural. In your DAW, just slice around the area that needs autotune applied and use file based processing. As an alternative to file based processing, you could automate the settings on your Autotune plugin.

Don’t think that you need to fix all pitch discrepancies. You also do not need to fix pitch “problems” with 100% correction. Try using a lower percentage in your settings for a more natural effect.

Years ago, I overdubbed a violin player 8 times with her playing a different part on each track. As I went in later and “fixed” all pitch errors perfectly, I heard the lush sound of the violin section collapse into a dull unison of perfectly tuned notes. Fortunately for me, I still had the original files to start over with. Don’t make the mistake of making vocal tracks “perfect” with autotune.

Compression

For a person who can handle the art of subtlety, compression is a powerful tool. It tames the portions of the track where the volume jumps up offensively and in effect, brings the weaker parts of the track up a bit.

Standard use of a compressor for vocals may look like this:

  • Attack set to 30 ms
  • Release set to 300 ms
  • Ratio set to a maximum of 4:1
  • Bring the threshold setting down just past the point where the compressor gets triggered frequently but not constantly.

Here is a great way to compress vocals using a chain of compressors instead of just one. This concept works well because one pass of compression at a 4:1 ratio is not the same as two passes at 2:1. When properly done, the multipass compression will sound smoother. Do not attempt this if you don’t know how to be subtle with compression:

  • Set up a chain of 2 or 3 compressors on the vocal track. Start with just the first compressor activated.
  • Set this first compressor to be very gentle on the track. You may also find that a bit faster than standard release time of 100 ms works well on the first and second compressors in the chain.
  • Do the same thing with the second compressor, just shaving a small amount off of the dynamic content.
  • Use gentle settings on the third compressor, but lengthen the release time a bit.
  • Let your ear be your guide. Set up an alternate, single compressor and switch between the two to see which you like best.

It is OK to compress background vocals a bit more aggressively than the main vocals. This helps them sit in the track below the main vocals a bit better. Another trick you might try on background vocals is to compress each track individually and then send them all to a buss and do a combined pass of compression. This will give them a more unified sound.

EQ for vocal tracks

There are a few different reasons why you might EQ a vocal track. You might be looking to remove an irritating room resonance or enhance the presence of the track. Here is a general list of the various elements of a vocal track and where to find them:

  • 80 Hz and below is the low end that usually has no usable content. Use a high pass filter to eliminate the rumbles in this range
  • 100 to 300 Hz contains the boominess of most vocal sounds.
  • 325 to 500 Hz contains the muddiness or “in the box” sound. This is also where the chest tones are for most vocalists.
  • 800 Hz to 1.5 kHz is the region where you hear nasal sounds.
  • 4 kHz to 7 kHz is where most sibilance lives.
  • 5 kHz to 9 kHz contains the presence and clarity in a vocal track
  • 10 kHz through 18 kHz provides the “air” or breathiness.

Whenever you treat a vocal track with EQ, cut with a narrow Q width first and then make your boosts with a broad Q width. Some engineers like to make their narrow cuts, use compression and then apply broad EQ boosts.

To get the background vocals to tuck in behind the lead vocals, use your EQ to narrow the spectral range of the backing vocals:

  • Apply a low cut filter in the vicinity of 150 Hz or even higher.
  • Open up a high cut filter and set it at 14 kHz or lower.
  • These two cuts ensure that the lead vocal will stand out more than the backing vocals.

Spatial effects on vocals

Once again, I find myself wanting to warn you that these effects can really ruin your mixes unless you are able to appreciate the fine art of subtlety. Nothing shouts “AMETUER” faster than a flood of reverb washing all of the clarity, presence and punch out of a track. Spatial effects can add a third dimension to your tracks that ametuer mixes lack, or they can be used to place the singer in a larger space. Utilize both elements for a great sounding vocal track.

Use subtle reverb to add a third dimension

Let’s do an exercise that will train your ears to appreciate the finespun third dimension that a room reverb can create:

  • Start with a dry vocal track.
  • Open up a medium sized room reverb.
  • Turn the mix knob down to the point where the reverb seems to no longer be perceptible. Listen carefully to the vocal track and listen for any reverb. If you can distinctly pick out reverb, carefully turn the reverb down even more ‘till it seems to be gone.
  • After listening for a moment, click the bypass button on your effects plugin.
  • Even though you could not pointedly hear the reverb in the track, you will hear a bit of dimension leave the vocal track.
  • Toggle the bypass button back and forth a few times to appreciate the subtle, yet powerful depth that is present with the reverb.

Keep in mind that we are not trying to create a wide open space just yet. Use this first reverb to provide that elusive third dimension. Next, we will add a reverb that will set the vocal in a bit larger space.

Create a larger space

When you are looking to make vocals sound like they are in a larger space, add in a second reverb tailored to a larger room sound. I oftentimes like to adjust the predelay setting to give the illusion that the vocalist is standing right in front of you in a large room. I find that this predelay scheme also allows the thick dimension of the first reverb to shine through a bit.

When making mix decisions about how much reverb to use, make sure you plug in a set of headphones and listen to the track. Headphones tend to accentuate spatial effects and may provide an alternate perspective.

Substitute delay for the longer reverb

Sometimes using a delay in place of that longer reverb can be a cleaner way to get a spacious effect. Go ahead and apply the shorter room reverb first and then turn on a delay plugin.

Time the delay unit with the tempo of song by using this formula:

  • 60,000/ tempo = delay time
  • If the taps are too fast for the feel of the song, multiply the answer by two.
  • If the taps are too slow, divide the answer by two.
  • Example: 60,000/ 110 BPM (tempo) = 545.5 milliseconds
  • When in doubt, it generally sounds better to have a delay that taps slower than the beat of the song rather than faster.

Tricks

I am going to leave you with some useful tips that would go well in your bag of tricks. It’s fun to have the remedy on hand when different situations arise, and these nuggets fit into that category.

Keep the click track from bleeding through

Williams Sound EAR-41

Imagine, if you will: The vocalist is delivering a breathtaking performance on a heart wrenching ballad. Everyone in the control room is holding their breath, hanging on every last note of sultry perfection. It looks like the singer is finally going to pull off that hot track. You, however, are terrified. Although no one else notices it right now, you can hear the faint ghost of the click track bleeding through into the vocal mic. It is subtle now, but add a bit of compression and the mistake will be obvious. This is not good!

The culprit is a click track that insists on bleeding through from the singer’s headphones into the vocal mic. You would turn the click down but the singer keeps insisting she needs it nice and loud. Here is how you deal with this dilemma like the boss of all bosses:

  • Set the vocal station up with two headphone mixes. One will be for the vocalist’s normal mix and the other will be for the click track alone.
  • For the click mix, use an earbud that goes completely into the ear. The Williams Sound EAR-41 is a mono earbud that would work perfectly. Have the singer insert the earbud in her ear.
  • The singer should then place the regular isolating headphones on her noggin right over top of the earbud.
  • The earbud will deliver the click track more discretely while the studio headphones will help isolate the click from ever reaching the mic.
  • The singer can then have all the click she wants and you get to keep your job.

Use ducking on reverb

I was once recording a band who absolutely loved to hear walls of reverb in their sound. They wanted deep, lush reverb on the vocals, guitars, keyboards and even on the accordion player that they brought into the studio. For a rock band, this can be a mix engineer’s nightmare. This kind of situation may call for reverb ducking.

Simply put, reverb ducking is the use of compression to turn down the volume of a track’s reverb whenever the dry signal is present. This allows the vocals to have a little extra sonic room while still having that towering wall of reverb between phrases.

If you are thinking that this is similar to the “pre-delay” setting on a reverb unit, think again. This is a much more powerful tool.

Setting up ducking reverb is simple. Balancing it with the dry track requires finesse.

  • Buss the vocal track to a second track. This second track will be for reverb only. You can also just duplicate the vocal track if you feel like it.
  • Open up a reverb plugin. This should be set to 100% mix. You need all reverb and no dry signal here.
  • Next open up a compressor. This compressor will compress the reverb but will listen to the first (non-reverb) track to make its compression moves. Accomplish this by clicking on the “key” or “side-chain” button on the compressor. This will open up a dialog where you get to choose what the compression will listen to.
  • Now that the compressor is listening to the dry vocal track and compressing the reverb track, set it for a fairly heavy compression setting. The bigger the ratio, the more the compressor will turn down the reverb during the vocal passages.
  • The “release” setting on the compressor will be a key setting. This needs to be set so that the compressor smoothly allows reverb back into the equation between vocal phrases. I can not stress enough how this one setting is where the magic is.
  • Listen to the combined effect and tweak with it ‘till you go cross-eyed. This trick is very much worth the time it takes to master it.

Locate the side-chain button on a compressor

Check overdubs for tightness

This is a nickel’s worth of advice that will turn out to be worth a dollar. When you are recording overdubs, pan the main track and the newly recorded one far left and far right in the control room. This will cause timing discrepancies to be painfully obvious so that you can grab a tighter take.

Get that gang vocal sound

Band recording gang vocals

Here is how to get a much better “gang vocal” sound for those backing vocals:

  • Set up a single mic for your gang of vocalists to sing into.
  • Arrange the singers in an arch around the mic.
  • Grab a take with this arrangement.
  • Have the vocalists then “rotate” so they all change positions in the vocal lineup in front of the mic. Grab another take this way.
  • Continue having the gang vocalists rotate between each overdub so that everyone is standing in a different spot in the line for each take.
  • Rotating the vocalists between overdubs will fatten up the gang vocal effect.
  • Sit back and marvel at how good you are!



 

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