Recording Vocal Groups
There’s something exhilarating about listening to a great vocal group hitting their stride with energy and attitude, and nailing both the groove and their tuning with ease! I’m not talking here so much about a professional classical choir—more along the lines of an enthusiastic group of singers (could be 20 or 30 people) working on one of their CD pop or rock tracks. In the final article in this series, we’re going to be looking at the kind of challenge recording such a group poses, be they adults or children.
The main difference is that it’s likely you’ll have to record them somewhere other than your studio, unless you have an Abbey Road size ambient room big enough to fit a large group of singers into it, of course. What sort of venue would suit, and why ‘ambient’?
Well, the dry acoustics of smaller spaces might be suitable for recording some things but the natural room noise of a medium to large size room (with perhaps the odd reflective surface) is probably going to flatter the sound of a large vocal group, which will work to their advantage and yours as well.
A small theatre, a school hall, a large rehearsal room; I’ve worked in all of these—though I’d probably draw the line at a school gymnasium, as too much reverberation will just drown the singers out. Once I recorded in a double-size shop that fronted onto a busy London high street—not at all ideal when a fire engine chose to pass by right in the middle of the recording!
Here’s an excerpt from a track I recorded a while back in a provincial college theatre. It features a large group of singers (around 150) who rehearsed beforehand for several weeks. They sang in unison; the harmonies were tracked and overdubbed later in my studio by a small group of backing singers:
So let’s say you’re booked in to record a school choir and you’ve had a chance the check the venue out, and it seems suitable. What are the sort of technical and practical issues that might arise?
Technical Aspects of Recording on Location
The kind of tasks that need to happen on a location recording are actually not at all dissimilar to what happens in the studio. You’ll need to provide the singing group with some means of hearing the track. This will probably mean a using a pair of small speakers in the ambient singing area, since it’s unlikely there will be enough sets of headphones to go around. But you will also want to capture their performance with a suitable microphone set-up, and in such a way that there is a minimum of track spilling back through the microphones.
Ideally, you will want to set yourself up somewhere away from the singers in another room, to give yourself the best hope of hearing exactly what you are recording without the interference of the ‘live’ sound coming from the hall. If you are anything like me, you’ll be wanting to set up a few equipment bits and pieces in this new ‘control room’; either a set of speakers or a good pair of headphones to monitor with, some means of providing compression and maybe a little eq to the vocals.
On the DAW side, you’ll want to be able to run the track but also have several tracks instantly available for an assortment of vocal takes, as well as the option to drop-in. I tend to use a laptop connected to an audio interface when travelling; it might be possible to do it all with an iPad or even a hi-end professional field recorder, but I’ve yet to be totally convinced!
Make an Equipment List
Always a good idea before you go to the venue! My sound engineer is a whole lot better than me at this, but let me run through what I would consider taking to a recording of this kind.
Gear for the Control Room
A laptop with DAW software, an audio interface, a small mixer, a stereo compressor, speakers or good headphones for monitoring. All mains leads, all USB/FireWire leads, all audio connections.
A basic talkback microphone is also pretty useful to have. I prefer to take a small mixer, usually because it offers more options than the audio interface on its own. You can input your microphones, use the AUX send to feed the track to the speakers, insert a compressor across the microphone channels and also send the talkback microphone through to the speakers—all very useful options to have.
Gear for the Ambient Room
A four-way multicore long enough to run here from the control room (which might be a school cupboard in the next room!), small speakers and an amp to drive them, a pair of suitable stereo microphones, microphone XLR leads, and stands.
A four-way multicore gives the possibility to run a mono feed of the track and a talkback option to the speakers, while leaving the other two connectors for the stereo microphone inputs.
A Word About Microphones
Commonly, I use a matched stereo pair of large condenser microphones set at 45 degrees, located up over the singers heads at a distance of 4-6 feet to catch the ‘body’ of the group. You can add to this a ‘room’ or boundary mike, if you think the room sound is worth having as part of the performance.
Alternatively, on smaller groups of children I have sometimes used three microphones, and clustered the children around each one in small groups, to get more of a close miked effect. It's easier to deal with the odd voice that doesn’t blend well that way. Definitely use a pop shield on each microphone!
Rehearsing and Recording the Singers
It goes without saying that the singers need to be well rehearsed, but they are also likely to need a bit of encouragement, familiarisation, and direction on the day, especially if the experience of recording is new to them.
I’ve recorded quite a few children's choirs over the years, and have found that I’m more useful if I am in the ambient room with the group, giving them cues and encouraging them to sing out. This approach means I have to work with a colleague who is in the makeshift control room actually doing the recording—so we do need a talkback option to communicate.
What kind of sound am I looking for? Initially I am looking for energy and enthusiasm, with clarity of diction—so like any choir director, I often begin by asking them to really open their mouths when they sing and go for it with enthusiasm.
I also want them to have a positive experience; a sense of enjoyment of what they are doing. Stay relaxed—sing out—smile and enjoy it! Always a good place to start.
Here’s a fun song called ‘Bear in the Fridge’ that I think captures that sense of enjoyment. This was written with very young children in mind. Note the spontaneous laughter that happened just before the last verse—we decided to keep that in.
Children often don’t know how to control the kind of sound they make very well, even if their tuning is good. Getting them to sing out can sometimes create a rather hard ‘shouty’ kind of group sound, which sounds ugly and doesn’t blend well if you try to track it later.
So I always try to encourage them to soften their tone and sing with a little more ‘air’—but keeping the energy levels up. It’s tricky to do, but if they get the idea it can sound great especially on the softer songs.
Here’s an excerpt that illustrates this from another song written for the early years, ‘It Must Be Spring’:
Another excerpt; a quieter more thoughtful song from the same nativity collection: ‘Happy Christmas’. This sounds to me like I chose mainly the girls in the group to sing this—spot the softness of the first word especially.
Tips for a Perfect Backing Track Mix
- Prepare a ‘bare bones’ backing track mix in either mono or stereo, with a clear rhythmic groove, so the vocal group will sing in time.
- Also include strong pitch detail (like a keyboard or piano part) so they will hopefully sing in tune
- But leave out all other non-essentials. If the track has acoustic guitars playing, consider leaving these out as well; they will just mess up your mix later.
- On the day, point the speakers away from the microphones (maybe slightly off to the side) and consider setting them out of phase, so that phase cancellation will work in your favour.
- Run the track, then use a touch of EQ to roll off a bit of the bass end and high treble end, so nothing is likely to cut through the vocal group sound.
- Turn up the volume at first. The singers need it to get their energy levels going while they are rehearsing! But then turn it down as low as you dare while actually recording.
Recording Harmonies with Adults—Mix Issues
I’ve had the privilege of working with several adult choirs in Africa over the years; these groups tend to naturally sing in harmonies. My approach is similar, so I am in with the group trying to encourage them to sing with lots of energy and clear diction.
Mostly I plan to track them twice—or more if the group isn’t too large—so there is then the option after the first take to decide whether one particular harmony needs to be a little stronger, and go for that. I often find I need one take of everyone just singing in unison, so as to give a strong enough emphasis to the actual melody.
Listen to the mix of this simple song chorus and see what you think about the balance between unison and harmony.
Here’s another example, this time of a ‘call and response’ type song, with a soloist who precedes the group who then sing together, this time mainly in unison:
I’ll let the children have the last word with this final excerpt, that has a track arrangement I did that made me laugh out loud when I heard it again recently! It’s an amusing song with a good group sound I think, and clearly they are enjoying themselves, which is really what it’s all about.