Record Killer Lead Vocals

Tips for Producers and Engineers: Part 2 of 2

The lead vocal – it’s arguably the most important track in most songs.  It’s carrying the melody and message and overall tone of the song and it’s what most listeners lock onto over anything else.  Try asking someone how they like a particular song and chances are their comments will be about some aspect of the lead vocals.  So how do you record a great vocal part?  Here are some tips we have found over the years that help the vocalist perform at their best.  To read Part 1, check out our June issue.

Mic Technique: A good vocalist will know how to use the mic to maximize their performance – moving in closer for softer, breathy parts and backing up and turning slightly when they want to belt something out.  We almost always use a pop filter to help eliminate plosives (say the word “pastrami” into your hand and you’ll feel what I mean).  The pop filter is a good visual reference for singers and you can give them a little primer on moving in and out; but mark my words, if the singer is not already a pro at using mic distance, they will completely forget to do it during their performance, anyway. 

We have had good luck using a mic isolation shield (like the Auralex MudGuard) to help minimize unwanted room reflections that can color a vocal performance.  These are especially helpful if you are forced to record in a less than optimal space.  Use low-key sessions (like demos and sessions with friends) to experiment with different mics and their placement.  You get different tones when the mic is set up in different locations around a singer’s face, but many singers intuitively try to stretch up to the mic as they sing, counteracting our efforts.

Getting the level right: With vocal takes we always want to have headroom on the recorded track, but most vocal performances are very dynamic.  There may be a whispered verse followed by an exploding chorus.  You can boost lower parts but you can’t fix digital distortion, so how do you capture both on the same take?  Answer: Input Limiter.  We almost always use a compressor on the input channel set to do the job of a limiter, which means a very high compression ratio, a very fast attack and a fairly quick release.  Depending on the range of signal we might employ some input gain to help boost the lower, whispery parts and set the threshold 2dB lower.

Multiple Takes: Many singers want to “nail” their performance from start to finish.  While that would be ideal, it hardly ever happens.  We like to record the vocalist two or three times all the way through a song, have them take a break and come back into the control room to listen.  Usually we’ll find that one of the takes is a good “base” take. We’ll then replace “bad” lines from other takes.  When we’re done with this process we usually have most of what we need, with maybe a couple lines that need to be overdubbed.  A note about replacement:  while you can zoom down and replace individual words and syllables, it is usually much more organic to capture and replace whole phrases whenever possible.

To Tune or Not to Tune: Some singers are pitch perfect, but unfortunately many are not. Subtle pitch correction can usually do wonders (make sure to set the key on the plug-in to the song’s key – never use chromatic auto-tuning) and many singers will be thankful.  Other singers want to go back in the booth and get it right themselves – and sometimes they do.  But often they don’t and they just end up getting frustrated and embarrassed as they do take after take, trying to improve.

Compression, a Singer’s Friend: Without compression, much of a vocal take can get lost in the mix – all that sexy, breathiness gets buried.  With compression, you can turn up the gain, often in the 7–10 dB range, to bring the singer to life and put them front and center in the mix.  Play around with the threshold and attack so that their loud parts aren’t too loud. The compression ratio should be in the 6:1 to 12:1 range.

EQ: We usually roll-off the bottom end unless the singer is using a low register.  An exciter or Sonic Maximizer plug-in like those from BBE and Aphex might be all the EQ you need to give the track some extra “air.”  If the vocal isn’t quite cutting through the mix, first try to subtract frequencies from other tracks that may be masking the vocals (guitars in the 500–1000 Hz range are notorious examples).  If the vocals still need some help, experiment to find and cut any “annoying” vocal frequencies and boost “pleasing” frequencies (like up around 4khz) with some slight gain.

Where in the Mix: Panning is almost always right down the middle, unless you are going for some kind of effect. If the vocalist has that “It” factor, then we’ll put them up hot in the mix.  But if you find yourself getting tired of the vocals quickly, then work on recording backing vocals and even melody tracks to help strengthen the lead vocal in the mix.  We use volume automation to bring the dynamics of different instruments up and down throughout the song to keep the mix alive and keep the listener interested.  Don’t be afraid to add a little delay to vocals to add excitement (but keep delay times short).  We recommend a separate reverb send exclusively for vocals with a high pre-delay to preserve clarity.

Zac Cataldo is a musician and owner/producer at Night Train Studios, a recording studio in Westford, MA.  He is also co-owner of Black Cloud Productions, a music publishing company. ([email protected])

Brent Godin is a bassist/guitarist and engineer/producer at Night Train Studios and talent scout at Black Cloud Productions.  ([email protected])

Zac & Brent have over 35 years of experience recording/producing artists throughout New England.  Find them at nighttrainstudios.com and blackcloudproductions.com

photo by Brendan Gabriel

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