During a recent (and rare) lull in his hectic schedule, Pro Studio Edition asked Bob to share some of his tips and thoughts on how he gets the best vocal performance on tape.
Do you have a philosophy of recording vocals?
Recording vocals for me has both a technical and a musical dimension, both of which must be addressed together in all recording projects.
Let's start with the technical dimension. What has 20 years of engineering taught you about recording vocals?
Most people think of getting the right drum sound or of miking the piano as the test of an engineer's skill, but I truly believe that recording vocals is the hardest skill to master in all of recording. It takes a tremendous amount of time to master. Every artist, song, vocal instrument, and environment is different for each recording. I have learned to try to get the cleanest, truest signal to tape. I use little or no EQ, recording essentially flat, and I choose the microphone very carefully.
What microphone do you like to use?
That depends entirely on the situation. I try to select the microphone for each recording that I believe will best suit the character of the singer's vocal sound and the character of the music. Recently I was working on an album with Veruca Salt, which features two female lead vocals. For Nina's voice I chose a Shure SM7 and for Louise, a Neumann Tube 47. Each seemed right for the singer and allowed me to create character distinctions between the two. Generally, I look for a mic that has a strong signal but won't peak easily, add a lot of sibilance, or pop too much.
What about signal processing?
Using minimal EQ and compression - watch out for over-compression and sibilance when tracking vocals - I like to record vocals digitally to get the cleanest, quietest track possible. Then at mix time the track is always clean and consistent. When it comes to mixing, I try to start with a present sound and go from there. These days I tend to prefer a fairly dry sound. I might add a little AMS Harmonizer to give the track some size, but not too much. I like a little reverb, especially an EMT 250 or a good plate, but again, not too much. After that, placing the vocal in the mix. Other processing is a matter of taste or the style of the band or music. Of course, over-compression, distortion and other exaggerated processing has its place in modern recording.
Can you discuss the musical dimension of recording vocals?
These days I produce a great deal, and I often present the engineer with some technical challenges in my attempts to help the artists give their best performance. For example, in order to make a singer feel more comfortable I might have him or her sing in the control room, listening to Auratone speakers instead of headphones. It doesn't make the engineer's life easy, but the point is to help the artist do their best possible work. And with today's technology there aren't many problems for which a good engineer can't find solutions. During the tracking I'll do whatever it takes to make the artist feel confident, comfortable and creative. And during the mix I'll use whatever technology I need to make the mixed song sound right. I might use three different compressors at the same time on one track if that's what it takes - other times I won't use any.
What tips can you pass on to singers and bands who are new to the studio?
Make sure you're comfortable with the approach on the vocal and that you are not trying to do something new or unnatural. Be sure you can hear well and don't be afraid to say so if you're having difficulty. Don't be afraid of the sound of your own voice and try not to get frustrated. Most of all, remember that recording is work. Unlike a live performance, no vocalist does it in one take. Almost all good recordings are built from the best parts of many performances. Getting better is simply a matter of hard work.
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