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Tips on Recording Vocals for Musicians

Article Vocal Recording Clinic with Kris Crummett
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No matter what musical style you're into, if you own studio gear, you probably record vocals at least some of the time. So when we had a chance to tap into the expertise of Kris Crummett — a prominent producer/engineer — on the subject of vocal recording, we jumped at the chance.

Over the last ten years, Crummett has recorded, mixed, mastered and produced numerous acts including rock and post/hardcore bands like Issues, which reached #9 on the Billboard Top 200, Sleeping with Sirens, Dance Gavin Dance, Alesana and many others. His home base is Interlace Audio, his studio facility in Portland, Oregon, but he’s worked with acts all over the world. He recently mixed The Resistance: Rise of The Runaways, by the metalcore band Crown the Empire, which reached #7 on the Billboard Top 200 as of this writing.

On August 6th Crummett taught a CreativeLive online class called “Flawless Vocals: Recording, Editing and Mixing.” He’s teaching another one on August 7th, “Tracking and Mixing with Outboard Gear.” That class runs from 9AM - 4PM PST (12PM - 7PM EST), and the live webcast is free to watch.

In this interview, Crummett talks about the techniques and gear he uses for vocal recording and mixing. At the end, check out a video excerpt from his "Flawless Vocals: Recording, Editing, and Mixing" class, which you'll only find on Audiofanzine.

From your experience, what do you think are the biggest mistakes made by people recording vocals in their own studios?

Thinking that they can fix things with the computer. That's always the biggest mistake. Thinking that things will magically turn into amazing takes because you have things like Auto-Tune and the ability to edit in Voc-Align, but none of that really matters. I guess the biggest mistake would be people thinking that a good take is a take that's in key — or a take that you can put in key or put in time. There are so many more things to a good take, like diction; making sure the take has emotion, and the right type of emotion for the lyrics; and the right tone of voice. All those things I'll take any day over pitch — any of that stuff. Of course, I love it when pitch is really good too. But there are things that are more important.

Do you sometimes try to set the mood for the session, by doing things like lowering lights and lighting candles in the studio?

Yes. And your attitude is the mood too. Whatever you're saying, whatever you're doing is what the singer’s mood is going to be. And even if you're in a bad mood you've got to kind of roll with the punches, and make sure you don't come off like a dick trying to be happy. You've got to make sure they're in the mood of the song, or that you can get them there.

I assume you try to know in advance who the artist is and try to tailor your approach based on their personality?

Yes, definitely. Based on the personality of the singer, based on the band's appearance, you know what I mean. You wouldn't treat the mood of a Marilyn Manson album the same way you'd treat like — a Sesame Street record. Even if you're recording a Sesame Street record, you'd want to take it seriously and make sure they were making people smile and making people happy.

Anything else you do to make the singer feel at ease?

I'll try to have a little normal conversation before we start. Try to ease that into a conversation about the song. And try not to waste a lot of time. That's the other thing I think can happen. If you start trying to mess with something in a session, or things that you want to do as a producer while the singer is getting ready to sing, don't. Just get to it. Don't waste their time.

 
 
Kris Crummett is a busy producer/engineer who's worked with many rock/post-hardcore bands including Sleeping with Sirens, Issues, and Dance Gavin Dance.

So everything should be setup and ready to go in advance.

Yeah. A lot of times, I'm tracking vocals for a week or two at a time with a band. But if it's the first day, and everything’s setup, the only thing you should be doing with the singer is adjusting mic height. If you have a few mics to shoot out, make sure they're ready to go, quick. The only other thing you want to be checking is like mic pre level and compression level.

Do you use compression on the vocals during recording?

I'm using quite a bit of outboard compression. That's the other thing, it's really hard to sing into a microphone if you don't have compression. So if you're not doing it outboard, you should be doing it on the computer, before the headphone mix.

Without compression it doesn't sound good to the singer?

Singers will strain. I always find that singers strain really hard if they're not hearing their voice leveled out. At least most professional singers I've worked with. And guys who aren't professionals find it a lot easier to sing with compression.

What kind of settings do you typically use on input?

I'm using a [Empirical Labs] Distressor set to a 4:1 ratio. The knobs are basically 6, 5, 4, 5, I think it's what the Distressor says in the manual. It’s no big secret. It’s doing probably about 8 dB of gain reduction.

 
 
Crummett likes to use an Emprical Labs Distressor to compress the input by about 8 dB on vocal recordings.

And you're doing that on the way in?

Yes.

You’re not worried that you're going to want to undo some of that and you won't be able to?

Never. In the last 12 years, I've only ever wished I did more. Never wished I did less.

Other than the compression, is there anything else monitor-mix-wise? Are there any instruments that you like to have a little louder in the mix for the singer to grab pitch from?

That's more up to the singer. Headphone mix is very, very important. If the singer's feeling the drums, then I'll crank the drums. Obviously, if they're singing sharp, you bring the volume down, if they're singing flat, you bring the volume up. If someone's singing sharp, it's probably because they're pushing really hard. Generally, if someone's singing flat, it's because they're trying to listen to the music. And singers don't always realize that. So you've got to ride that fader a little bit.

You obviously don't want the singer to use their voice up before you've gotten what you needed. Do you generally do full passes and then comp?

I usually do take the best three takes, and then I comp. It depends on the music, but I don't usually do super large passes. I usually do half a verse, generally. Wherever there's a spot where you could never tell that it was punched in. Unless the vocals just go and go.

If it's going well you're not going to stop it.

Yeah.

Do you ever do the old trick where you tell them you're just checking levels, but you're really in record?

I do that all the time. [Laughs]

It's amazing that artists aren't hip to that. [Laughs] And has that worked for you?

Yeah, it does. I don't know why, but it does make some people comfortable to think that they're just practicing a part. But we live in a digital world. I'm not using up tape, I'm not ruining passes. I have a 3-terabyte hard drive, I can take some extra takes. No reason not to be rolling all the time. I even roll when people are like, “I don't know what I'm going to sing here. Let me just listen back, I'm not going to sing anything.” I always record, because people will inevitably sing something back really cool, and if you don't record then you don't have it, and then they don't remember what they did.

Are you using Pro Tools?

Yeah, I'm on Pro Tools 10 right now.

Do you have any kind of a system for how you keep track of all the takes and stuff?

I do Playlists in Pro Tools [each Playlist in Pro Tools is like a separate take] . I don't know if this is the most efficient way, but the way I've developed over the years, is I keep every take, and I make a marker right over the take with the take number, and I just keep adding to the marker when I think there's something special. I'll do stuff where we'll have like 30 takes of one section, but I don't really want to go back through all 30, because I know I'm not going to remember what was special about the takes that really hit me. So I just make a marker that says, '.06, .13, .04', etc. So when I get to that section again when I'm comping, I know that, yeah, .06 was the one that was crazy good, an 13 was crazy good.

I see, so for every section you're recording, you make a marker, and then you put the take numbers that you like for that section in that marker.

 
 
Crummett likes to setup Pro Tools markers for the various song sections and then note the good takes in the Comments field.

Yeah. I don't want to get rid of the other stuff, because then sometimes I'm like "Damn, that take's perfect but the word 'if' is so weird. It sounds like pfff" or something, so I have like 10 other takes to find an "if" that's good.

Do you have a system for “saving as” during the session, like using incremental file names, or do you just use Auto Backup?

I use Auto Backup, and my left hand is like I have a nervous tick of Apple-S [the save key command on a Mac]. But I use both, but as far as tracking goes, unless I do a major edit to the song, I don't rename, or Save As the session. I Save As for drum editing, I basically save a backup of the session. And I backup sessions constantly. But when it gets to the mixing stage, I'll do Save As for mix 1, mix 2 because you'll get to mix 5 and then they'll say, "Actually, mix 1 was awesome."

I assume you probably have access to super nice mics?

Yeah. My main mic for probably 80 percent of the stuff I've recorded since the end of 2008 has been a Telefunken Ela M 251. I love that mic. It's just one of the coolest mics and it works for a lot of people. When it doesn't work, I'll either use a Korby U67m, which I don't actually have anymore, but I did use it occasionally, or  my other main mic, a Soundelux U99B. It's a really unique sounding mic, but it really works where the Telefunken doesn't.

Those are all condensers, right?

They're tube condensers.

You ever use ribbon mics for vocals?

No. I have a Coles 4038 that I’ll occasionally for more of a vocal effect. But usually ribbon mics don't have enough clarity for me. They don't have enough top end.

Have you ever used a really unusual choice for a vocal mic? To get some sort of effect?

Yeah, I enjoy using really weird, garage sale mics and stuff like that for effects. I did an album once where the singer had a buddy — I don't know if he was just really into electronics or soldering — but he literally soldered the weirdest capsule —he was just soldering capsules to bodies. We used all these weird handheld mic things that he built and came up with cool vocal effects, cooler than anything you do with a plug-in. One of them, I think was an acoustic [guitar] pickup, actually, with the top ripped off. It was really cool.

What mic preamps do you use usually?

That changes a lot for me. I'm always going through that, "Oh there's got to be something cooler out there, something different." Right now, my main vocal mic pres are a PAU 805 and a CAPI (Classic Audio Products of Illinois) VP28.

All high-end pro audio kind of gear.

Yeah, I'm kind of snobby about that stuff.

We talked earlier about pitch correction. I take it you're not against using it, but you don't want to use it as a crutch, right?

Yeah, and I think it's important not to focus on pitch correction. A lot of younger people who grew up on the music that was popular over the last 15 years, think a vocal is perfectly in tune and perfectly in time. That’s what I want people not to focus on. I think pitch correction's excellent. I think the ability to edit vocals is excellent. But when you're going to track vocals, those aren't things you should be thinking about, or relying on. You should be thinking about the take.

So if the singer is really nailing it on the emotion side, but there are a few notes that are off here and there…

Fix them.

I know from my own experience producing singers that once you tell them that their pitch is off, it gets in their head and then they really mess it up.

Yeah, that's all they're thinking about.

Which do you use: [Antares] Auto-Tune or [Celemony] Melodyne?

I use both. It depends on the singer. With singers with rougher voices — with a lot more grit — Auto-Tune is incredible. Because it manages to tune those [notes]— like when you bring it in and it just looks like fuzz —it will still tune. You have to mess with it a little bit, but it works great. I also use Auto-Tune for harmonies. But then I use Melodyne for main vocals, because its time-stretching abilities are really awesome. I feel like I can manipulate vocals a little bit more, and a little bit more naturally, with Melodyne.

When you're mixing vocals, do you still use outboard gear a lot, or do you have some plug-ins that you really like for EQ and compressor?

For EQ, I'm usually using the newer UAD-2 Pultec, or the UAD Neve 88RS. I always have my Vac Rac on vocals. It's a tube limiter by Inward Connections. It's kind of like an LA-2A, but it's faster. LA-2As kind of lay things down. The Vac Rac has a really cool ability to make things sound like they're not being compressed, but you can level them out to insane amounts.

 
 
Crummett working in his Interlace Audio control room.

Do you use a lot of automation on vocals?

Yeah

So you can avoid the compressor as much as possible?

Actually, I kind of do the opposite. [Laughs] I will Clip Gain [an automated gain level adjustment in Pro Tools] vocals that are super quiet or super loud, but I actually do more automation after the fact. I will level out the vocals and then I'll do automation after the fact to kind of excite them a little bit. Like the first line of the chorus always gets a little bump. Words that are really important to me get a little bump. I know the whole like, "Let's avoid compression and automate the vocals to sound leveled out." But I kind of like to level the vocals out, because I like the compression, because I think it sounds really exciting. But then I'll excite it even more —I’ll bring back some of those dynamics — because I like to hear all the breaths. I like to hear every little thing in the vocals.

So when you're pushing up those little sections are you triggering more compression at that point?

No, it's after the inserts. So it's not changing any of the dynamics [processors]. The only thing it might affect is my reverb send, depending on how I have it set up. It usually only affects my delay send, because it rides with the vocals.

What kind of ambience effects do you like to use on vocals? You like delay more or reverb or both?

I do both. I usually have a shorter reverb with a pre-delay of around 4 to 10 ms, so it kind of sounds like a room, but dropped down pretty low in the mix —just enough that when you get to quiet sections, it doesn't sound like a guy in a closet. And then I use delay to create ambience. So I'll use shorter delays in parts. I usually find myself using shorter delays quieter, and then longer quarter note delays at choruses, or anywhere I want to setup a rhythmic feel. And that's where I get my ambience.

So the reverb is really just giving you a baseline room sound?

Yeah. But if the song calls for it, I will do a reverb as well. I try to mix for what the song needs. But more often than not, I'm doing something that's pretty rocking, and rocking songs usually don't need like a big long reverb on the vocals. 

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The following video is an exclusive excerpt from Crummett's CreativeLive vocal recording class, in which he talks about how to create a reverse reverb effect on a vocal line.

 

 

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