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The comfort of the performer - Part 3

The ultimate guide to audio recording - Part 95
  • 2

Third and final installment of the chapter dedicated to the comfort of the singer during vocal recordings. Today, for the first time, we will discuss the gear used. However, before looking at it from a technical point of view, I think it's better to linger a bit on the practical side of things from the viewpoint of the performer, so that he/she can deliver his/her best.

View other articles in this series...

Sing, not Sing Sing

As I've been repeating the last couple of weeks, it is essential that the singer feels comfortable during the recording sessions. Yet, budding sound engineers have the annoying tendency to impose technical constraints on the musicians, like "get in there, play over there and, especially, don't move!" This is obviously well meant but it only takes into consideration the technical aspects of the recording and for a musician, regardless of whether he or she has prior experience in the studio world, this might feel like some sort of prison. Certainly not the best situation for a musician to give the best of him/herself. This applies to all musicians but it is especially so with singers for the different reasons I have mentioned since we began this chapter on recording vocals. So make sure that the technical conditions are not a constraint for the performer! Does this sound too abstract? Let's see a practical case to clarify things.

Take, for instance, the singer's mic. Ideally, you would want the singer to stand in front of a large diaphragm condenser mic with an anti-pop filter. Problem is that, in real life, some singers prefer to sing holding the mic in their hands and even move around. What can you do then? Well, in my humble opinion, rather than limiting them, you should let them be and find a technical solution that works, whatever the situation. To really drive my point home, let me tell you two personal experiences I've had.


Some years ago I was working with a young rapper. Like many rappers he was used to rap with the mic in his hand and almost glued to his mouth, which is far from being ideal. I first tried to record him the "traditional" way, but his voice was incredibly dull, whereas live he shows the same edginess as Eminem in his good ol' times. It was obviously impossible to have him carry a condenser mic given the sensitivity of such mics to handling. So I decided to give him an SM58 and let him perform as he was used to. Plus, I doubled the recording using a C414 with omni polar pattern placed at about five feet from him. Combining both of these tracks and compressing it all we got exactly what we needed for the track we were working on: presence, air and, especially, expressiveness! Granted, technically speaking, when you listen to the voice on its own, the take is questionable. However, within the mix it works wonders. What else could you ask for?

Along the same lines, I once had to work with a singer who liked to bob her head left and right when she was singing. The place we were recording in was a bit small and had more than questionable acoustics, so it was impossible for me to place the mic further away to try to minimize the frequency impacts of her untimely bobbing… But then I had the idea of using three identical mics placed in a semicircle around the artist's head. And I also filmed the different takes with my cell phone placed on a stand. During the editing session I began syncing the video to the different takes and edited them choosing, for each phrase, the mic towards which her head was tilting at that particular moment. The final comping was simply amazing and you'd never imagine the vocals were recorded in such a complicated manner!

I hope with these examples you understand the importance of being creative to make the life of the singer easier in order to get "the take." After all, isn't it part of the audio engineer's job to find technical solutions that serve artistic expression? I personally believe so.

See you next time for some new adventures in recording!

← Previous article in this series:
The comfort of the performer - Part 2
Next article in this series:
Headphone mix for the singer - Part 1 →
  • Nantho Valentine
    Nantho Valentine
    336 posts
    Hi Dave,

    Thank you very much for this comment full of wisdom :bravo:

    I've never had the chance to record with one of your mic, maybe one day ;)
  • dave thomas
    dave thomas
    New AFfiliate
    1 post
    Hi Nantho, lovely article on recording vocals. We had some of those exact situations appear during my tenure at Ocean Sound Studios in Vancouver thru the 70's and 80's. I remember on a couple of occasions giving the rock vocalist an SM58 to hold and then putting the U47 back a few feet in OMNI onto another track. The difference in vocal performance holding the 58 was much more energetic than the one singing "Frank Sinatra" style into the U47.

    I can remember giving another singer a SM58 or 57 and playing the tracks back through speakers so it sounded like he was performing live in the room. This also corrected his pitch as he was going sharp in the headphones.

    Yes, there was leakage but less than a live concert and the vocal performance was so much better and in tune.

    OMNI is a really good option for recording vocals when the vocalist is moving around but you need to have a properly treated room or put screens around the artist. There is no proximity effect in OMMI.

    OMNI also works well when you have 3 vocalists singing BG parts at once.

    When Roy Orbison and KD Lang recorded CRYING at Ocean Sound the U47 was in OMNI so it picked up both KD and Roy singing at the same time. KD told me it was so inspiring to have Roy singing into her ear and the vocals would not have the same impact if overdubbed one at a time. The U47 only has Cardiod and OMNI while the U48 was Cardiod and FIG 8. Studio "A" at Ocean was a large room with panels on the wall that could be flipped to provide a live room for strings or a more controlled room for rock bands and vocals.

    Figure 8 can be useful if the vocalist is not comfortable without holding a acoustic guitar and you can aim the side of the microphone (maximum rejection) at the acoustic and the front of the mic at the vocalist. You can put a reflection screen or Gobo on they rear side of the mic in Fig 8 to reduce the room sound.

    These are some of the reasons we build microphones with multi-patterns and don't always rely on Cardiod.

    Sometimes you can try giving the artist and electric guitar that isn't plugged into an amp.

    I have also experienced problems with some "World Class" mics in certain rooms that are not treated properly.

    For example, the U87 when placed in CARDIOD in an untreated room can produce a "honk" or "nasally" sound, if the room sends a lot of untreated reflections back at the rear of the U87, then this sound can be prominent.

    The rejection of rear sound in a U87 is down 20db from 200hz to 10khz but 400hz and 800hz are only down 10db. This means any reflection coming back into the rear of the microphone will be quite audible at 400hz and 800hz.

    A rear reflection shield can cure this problem but just throwing up a U87 will not always be the best solution.

    This is not a promo shot but actually a picture of John Oates singing into our CM47 microphone during a studio session in Nashville last year. I am very proud of this picture of John using our microphone.

    However, I posted it to show another tip that can make some performers more comfortable. Notice he is holding 1/2 of the headphones to his ear while his other ear is hearing his voice in the room. This can really help in some cases with pitch and performance. Just pan the headphone mix to one side to reduce leakage from the side of the headphones open to the room.

    Cheers, Dave Thomas

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