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I was at the NAMM trade-show in Anaheim last weekend and went to a really great panel about vocal recording. Although NAMM is mostly a trade-show with manufacturers demoing new and exciting products, there are a few opportunities to get educated in audio on the second floor of the convention center. In their Hot Zone there were multiple panels of really interesting material, everything from how to succeed in the music to road stories from seasoned veterans like Alan Parsons.
One of the panels talked about vocal recording techniques. It was hosted by the SAE Institute, with Mixerman and Joe McGrath as panelists. Mixerman is well known for his Daily Adventures of Mixerman, and Joe McGrath has worked with artists such as B.B. King, A.F.I. and Green Day to name a few.
During the two hour session I took a bunch of notes, and I am happy to share them with you here below:
Use Whatever Mic Works
Even though many people will tell you to use this or that microphone, because that's how it was done on this great record, sometimes it doesn't matter. What worked on a different record and a different singer might be completely inappropriate for your needs.
There is no one-stop microphone for vocals. Every singer is different, and every session demands a different approach.
Focus on the Vocal
When you're tracking a live band, and everything is playing at once, minor mistakes or problems are irrelevant.
Mixermand talked about his session with Ben Harper where everything was tracked live. When tracking everything live, don't worry about minor instrument mistakes. It doesn't matter if the performance as a whole, and especially the vocal, is great.
You can't expect everything to go exactly 100% according to plan, and since the listener is probably focused on the vocal, those little imperfections just make the record more authentic.
Don't Tear Down a Singer
Sometimes you need to coach a singer in order for him to nail a great take. Some guidance and constructive criticism is a great way to get a better performance out of a singer, but don't tear him or her down with too much criticism.
If you're doing take after take after take without any success, maybe it's time to take a break; come back another day; or figure out a different way to get the performance you want. There's no way you're going to get a great performance if you've crushed the singer's ego with too much criticism over his singing.
A Great Take is a Great Performance
On the other hand, if the singer does an amazing job, then minor sound issues are trivial compared to the soulfulness of the performance. Just like minor instrument mistakes don't matter when you're focusing on the vocal of a live performance, the same goes for minor sound issues in the vocals when the performance is perfect.
On the whole, imperfections are fine as long as the listener is captivated by the great performance of the artist. Nobody cares if there's minor headphone bleed, or even tiny tuning issues. It's all about the performance of the artist.
Don't Sing Too Much
Don't try to nail an album's worth of songs in an afternoon. It's too stressful and absolutely unattainable. Even a great singer struggles to nail that many songs in a day.
Rather, spread out your vocal recording sessions to make them more enjoyable and productive for everyone. You can't expect a singer to just nail every song in one take, sometimes you need to spend time punching in an making everything sound perfect. If you're trying to make everything perfect in a limited amount of time, you're setting yourself up to fail.
Mix the Way You Like
Of course, every engineer has a specific way that he records and mixes. At one point a minor fight broke out between the panelists when they argued over their respective mixing techniques. Both of their sounds are good, and they obviously have a footprint in the industry.
That just goes to show how no one mixing or recording technique is the same. Mix the way you like, and make things sound like they way you like them sounding. Hopefully, other people will like that sound as well.
No one technique is wrong, it's how you use them. If your techniques in the aggregate sound terrible, then you might need to re-think your mixes, but if you broke the rules with everyone loving the outcome, who cares?
Don't EnginEye, EnginEar.
Last but not least, use your ears. Even though you might think that EQ curve looks good for a vocalist, it all comes down to how it sounds. It's good to use your eyes for a bunch of different things, checking the meters, gauging the speed of the gain reduction meter on your compressor, and yes, even checking EQ curves every once in a while. But in the end, it all comes down to how it sounds.
When confronted with someone criticizing your mixes, you can't say to him: “But it looked so good in DAW at the time...” In the end, it's all about how it sounds, not how it looks. Don't Engineye, enginear.
It's always great to get some perspective and ideas from the experts in the field. Mixerman and Joe shared a lot of insight into both of their respective approaches to vocal recording. The performance is the most important part of any production, sound always comes second.
Don't overload your singer with too much work and don't go overboard with criticism. Use the microphones that sound right for the job, even though they're not the industry standards. Don't focus on minor mistakes when the recording as a whole is amazing, and use your ears and conviction to get YOUR sound. If it sounds good, it is good, regardless of how you made it.