It was late at night, at a live-in-concert recording session in Germany. As several thousand fans waited anxiously, the vocalist walked onstage, and picked up a set of headphones. I saw him plug them into the mixer, and figured he was going to make one final check of his vocal sound before the band kicked in. He then turned the preamp gain control up full…not too unusual, as mics don’t have a lot of gain. But then he held the headphones up to his mouth and — started singing. He had plugged the headphones into the mic in, not the headphone out…and he had done it on purpose. Is this what recording vocals in the 21st century is about?
Well, the answer is yes…and no. No, in the sense that a well-recorded vocal through a high-end mic feeding a state-of-the-art preamp remains a supremely important part of the recording art. Yes, in the sense that it underscores a fundamental truth about recording today: anything goes.
The tools of the vocal trade have undergone as dramatic a transformation as the recording process itself. Microphones are better and cheaper; today’s “budget” mics sometimes outperform the champions of yesteryear. Preamps, whether tube or solid state, have noise levels that are measurable only with the most sensitive test equipment. Processing gear ranges from “vocal strips” dedicated solely to vocal, to technologies such as Antares’Auto-Tune (which can correct out-of-tune-vocals) and mic modeling, which mimics the characteristics of particular “signature” mics. Compressors, reverbs, even vocal booths have all enjoyed the results of technological progress.
So what’s the best way to record vocals these days? The answer, of course, is that anything goes. Following are some of the possibilities.
Few topics inspire more debate than the optimum vocal mic and preamp. But note that a mic and preamp combination that sounds great with one vocalist might not work with another. Case in point: once while recording, my voice was recorded with a sub-$100 dynamic mic and a $995 condenser mic. The unanimous agreement was that the dynamic sounded better.
Was it because the mic was better? No. From any objective standpoint, it was inferior. But it had some response anomalies that flattered my voice. The condenser mic was accurate, but my voice didn’t need accuracy: It needed a high-frequency lift, and warmth from the proximity effect (i.e., the tendency of a dynamic to produce more bass as you sing closer to it).
I sometimes wish that all mics looked the same, and had no labels on them. That would force engineers to take a fresh approach with every session. It’s very easy to rely on using old favorites — the assumption is that the mic that worked great on the last session will be equally good on the current session, but that isn’t always true. Furthermore, there’s a matching issue between mics and preamps, so mic X might sound great with preamp A and not so great with preamp B.
Bottom line: Try every mic with a vocalist, record the results, then choose which one sounds most appropriate. I suggest comparing two mics at a time to prevent “option overload.” Choose the best of each pair, then have a runoff among the winners.
Let’s take a look at some other tips…
Synthesizing Vocal Harmonies
Normally, I sing my own harmonies. But sometimes, pitch shifters — because they’re not perfect — add timbral and timing imperfections that actually sound better for some applications.
Here’s an example of creating harmonies using Sonar’s real-time pitch shifting plug-in (the principles are the same for other programs). Note that Sonar Producer Edition also includes a high-quality, but non-real-time, pitch stretch processor. I usually use the real-time plug-in to get the harmonies right, then go back and process the files destructively using the higher-quality, non-real-time algorithm.
Note that there are four tracks of vocals: The teal one at the top is the original vocal. The violet one below that is a “cloned” version, which has been processed with the doubling technique mentioned previously.
The next track (blue) is also a cloned track, but it’s being processed through the pitch shifter set to a major 3rd. However, note that some elements have been cut from this track and moved to the next track down, which is processed through the pitch shifter set to a minor 3rd. As Sonar doesn’t know which notes should receive minor 3rd or major 3rd harmonization, you have to cut up the track appropriately, and move the right phrases or notes to the right tracks. This may require zooming way in on the cloned track, so you can make cuts in the space between phrases.
The standard pitch shifting caution applies — the further you stretch pitch, the less realistic the sound. Sonar’s real-time pitch shifter does not preserve formants during shifts; however, when pitching up a major third the formant change adds a bit of voice-on-helium effect, which when mixed behind the main vocal, can actually sound pretty cool.
Starting with Sonar 5, the Producer Edition includes Roland’s VariPhrase technology in their V-Vocal plug-in. With this plug-in, you can “draw in” harmonics and constrain a melody to particular notes. This makes the process of harmonization much easier, as does a similar feature in Samplitude and Digital Performer. There are also programs like Antares Harmony Engine, and zplane’s Vielklang (among others) that are designed to generate harmonies.
To read the full detailed article see: Vocal Processing Tips Part 1