In “The Art & Science of Sound Recording” Alan spells out in detail the technical and creative elements that work together in harmony to produce a great sounding vocal track. He recently took a break from the studio to share his thoughts with [GTR]…
[Tom Brooks] Alan, when it comes to recording vocals, I think it’s really insightful that you devote an entire chapter in your ASSR book to “Preparation”; everything that needs to happen before the singer ever arrives at the studio.
[Alan Parsons] Well, in my experience preparation is absolutely critical to the success of a vocal recording session.
[Tom] What areas do you focus on specifically.
For a start, being sure that the track is in the absolute perfect key for your singer.
[Alan] For a start, being sure that the track is in the absolute perfect key for your singer. The highest point in the song should be right in the wheelhouse of their vocal range to ensure a powerful climax – if it’s too high, the sound will be thin and disappointing, plus you’ll spend hours trying to reach those notes that are too high, wearing down your singer both physically and psychologically.
[Tom] How else do you prepare?
[Alan] You don’t want to waste time after your vocalist arrives. You should have the mic already set up, the signal path wired in (including any outboard gear), and you should have an excellent mix dialed in for their headphones. Have a reverb setup just in case they ask for it in their ears. You want the singer to be able to simply walk in the studio and start singing without having to say, “I can’t hear this, and I can’t hear that”. Have someone sing on their mic beforehand and be sure there is plenty of level on the vocal so they can hear themselves clearly. It makes a huge difference if the singer can walk in, feel comfortable, get inspired by the track and start to create! Don’t make them think about technical stuff.
[Alan] It can be “make or break”. It can be inspirational or completely kill the singer’s creativity.
[Tom] What are your thoughts on systems that let the singer control their own headset mix (such as Aviom or Furman) versus you as the Producer setting it in the Control Room?
[Alan] Systems like the Aviom that allow individual musicians to mix their own headphones can work great for big tracking sessions with lots of players, but for a vocal session, I think it is best for the Producer to control their mix. I want the vocalist laser-focused on singing great, and nothing else. Occasionally on a break I will go in and listen to the mixes people come up with for their headphones using Avioms… it’s a wonder they can play or sing to it at all! Your musicians and vocalists may not really know how to create a great mix – they may not be able to identify and articulate what they really need to hear.
[Tom] “…just make everything louder than everything else…”
[Alan] Right! (laughs) Your starting point should simply be a great sounding stereo album mix. Period. You might want to slightly emphasize a solid pitch reference such as piano or acoustic guitar. And of course, be sure everything on the track including BGVs are perfectly in tune. Don’t make the mix too ‘dense’; leave plenty of room for the vocalist to hear themselves.
[Tom] I remember once when you recommended that a singer just use one ear of the headphones. What is the theory behind that?
[Alan] If the vocalist is singing well with both ears on, great. But if pitch is an issue, it’s always worth trying a take with one ear off; so they can hear their voice acoustically. It’s also worth trying different volume levels in the headphones. If the cans are incredibly loud and the singer is hearing everything electronically instead of acoustically, I think you’re asking for trouble. The headphones need to be at a level where the singer can hear their own voice in their own body, not just in the headphones.
[Tom] How about the room itself? Do you prefer a dead vocal booth or a larger room with some natural ambience?
[Alan] Normally, a dead sounding environment is best so you have complete control. Having said that, I’ve recorded a lot of great vocals in a more reverberant environment, like Studio 2 at Abbey Road. That room has a sound. Especially if the singer is more than a foot away from the mic, you’re going to hear some of that sound. If the singer is right up on the mic it doesn’t make a lot of difference whether the room ambience is present or not.
[Tom] That’s a good point. How do you feel about distance from the mic? Where is the sweet spot?
[Alan] I think a comfortable distance is between 4 and 6 inches away. In the studio, I don’t normally like to record vocals with the singer right on top of the mic. I’ll usually put a pop shield about 3 inches away from the mic and expect the singer to be 2 or 3 inches behind that.
[Tom] For some GTR readers that are recording at home, are there certain types of rooms that work better, or certain types to avoid, assuming that they don’t have a professional studio environment to record in?
[Alan] There are certain nightmare acoustic spaces at home that will not work in your favor… bedrooms are just not kind to vocals, because of the early reflections in a small square room with hard surfaces. You probably wouldn’t want to record a rock vocal in a big church either, due to the huge natural reverb. Having said that, if it was your only choice, if you get the singer close enough to the mic, you may not notice the ambience. As long as the room doesn’t color the vocal sound, you’ll be all right.
The bottom line… no ambience is better than bad ambience.
[Tom] In terms of choosing the best vocal mic, what are your ‘go to’ classics?
Michael McDonald’s voice sounds best on the Manley Reference mic while for Erykah Badu the U67 is the right choice. Every voice has unique qualities and it is the engineer’s job to choose the mic that best features those qualities.
[Alan] The classic, for me, is the Neumann U47. This is the ‘Sinatra mic’ and is also still first choice for many gifted engineers; Bruce Swedien, Al Schmidt, Patrick Leonard to name a few. The Telefunken 251 and the AKG C12 are also excellent. The 251 is famous for female vocals; the only mic that Barbara Streisand, Martina McBride, and Celine Dion will record on. Michael McDonald’s voice sounds best on the Manley Reference mic while for Erykah Badu the U67 is the right choice. Every voice has unique qualities and it is the engineer’s job to choose the mic that best features those qualities.
[Tom] Any other mics to consider? Any suggestions that aren’t in the $10,000 plus price range?
[Alan] I’ve had enormous success with the Audio Technica 4033. It has an enhanced high-end, which is usually good for vocals; similar to the U47. My latest discovery is the MikTek CV4, which sounds great and is very affordable. And of course Michael Jackson famously recorded “Thriller” on a Shure SM7, which costs around $400 bucks! It’s all about matching the voice with the mic that sounds best.
[Tom] You mentioned Studio 2 at Abbey Road. Who are some of the singers you recorded in that room?
[Alan] We did the vocals for Dark Side of the Moon in there, as well as the Hollies and Paul McCartney. There was potential to pick up a little bit of room sound there, but I don’t think I ever had a problem with coloration in Studio 2. Studio 3 was a bit deader and a bit easier to get a completely clean sound. Paul was definitely a ‘Studio 2’ guy; we did “Red Rose Speedway” in there.
[Tom] If you’re producing a singer who gets up close to a mic on a soft verse, and then moves away from the mic on the big chorus… do you appreciate that or do you coach against it?
[Alan] I like it; I call it “self-limiting”. Michael McDonald is incredibly good at that. He’ll turn his head slightly on a loud note and then lean back in on a quiet note. It’s almost as if you don’t have to use a limiter on him. That takes skill and lots of experience to be able to do that.
[Tom] That’s a good segue into the topic of compression/limiting. Do you use a compressor while tracking the vocal or afterward?
[Alan] I’ll normally record vocals with a limiter rather than compression. Almost without exception you need to use a limiter with a vocal. The dynamic range of a singer is just too much. That’s why Bill Putnam invented the limiter; he recognized that in order to get a vocal to sit well in a mix you needed to control the dynamic range; the distance between the softest soft and the loudest loud.
[Tom] So Bill Putnam actually built the very first limiter?
[Alan] Yes, he called it the Universal Leveling Amplifier which developed into the 1176 and it is still used in studios all over the world today.
[Tom] So you use a limiter while tracking the vocal to control peaks. When you’re recording vocal is there a particular vocal compressor you like to use?
[Alan] Fairchild, every time. I’ve been using it ever since I can remember.
[Tom] Nowadays, original Fairchilds are rare and expensive… is there a similar unit that’s more attainable now?
[Alan] There are countless plugins that emulate it and do a good job. Jack Joseph Puig has done a plugin called the ‘PuigChild’ which I think is good. Another choice is the classic LA-2A.
[Tom] How much do you typically compress the vocal?
[Alan] First I’m more likely to adjust the dynamics by pushing individual lines or words up or down. If you over-compress or over-limit, you can start to hear it and that’s usually not a desirable thing. In some cases, hearing the limiter work is a plus, but generally speaking I prefer not to. I often use a Universal Audio 6176, which combines a 610 Tube Microphone Preamp and 1176LN Compressor that does a nice job on vocals.
[Tom] OK, so we’re all prepared, we’ve setup an amazing microphone for our singer, we’ve dialed in the perfect headphone mix, we’ve patched in a great mic-pre and an awesome limiter… How do you approach the recording itself? Do you go for full start-to-finish takes or record section-by-section? Punch in or save everything and comp later?
[Alan] You’ll always get the best feel out of a continuous performance, but there are really no rules. What I normally do is to get them to sing the song 3 or 4 times through, start to finish, and then take the best of those and start punching in. At that point you can focus on one verse at a time or literally one word at a time if you need to; it just depends on the vocalist. The beauty of Pro Tools is that you can keep everything, so you can critique every line over and over… but I like to try and make decisions on vocal takes as they happen.
[Tom] In a situation where you have multiple takes, would you comp next?
[Alan] Yes, then I would create the very best vocal take from all the performances that we captured.
[Tom] Nowadays, with Melodyne and Autotune as an option, does that change how you produce the singer?
[Alan] I generally only consider Autotune if there is an insurmountable problem. I would say that intonation is always the first parameter you should look for when comping. Your first priority is to inspire a brilliant performance from your vocalist, then comp if you need to, and then only use tuning software as a last option.
[Tom] How about effects in the mix? Are there effects that you tend to always have at your disposal for a vocal?
[Alan] There are many options. Double or triple-tracking the vocal or doing it artificially with ADT pitched just slightly up and down, delays timed to the track bouncing in stereo, different types of reverbs, saturation, compressor effects, unusual EQ tricks, re-amping the vocal through a Leslie, and more… and then of course there’s the whole topic of background vocals.
[Tom] Of all the vocal sessions you’ve engineered and produced, is there one that stands out as the most memorable?
[Alan] I would probably say… “Maybe I’m Amazed,” with Paul McCartney. We recorded the entire song in one day, including the vocals. And Paul played every instrument on that song. It was just him and Linda; they were the only people there.
[Tom] Sounds to me like we might need a “Vocals Part 2” article!
[Alan] Agreed, let’s pick up right here in the next issue.