In the last issue of GTR, Alan discussed his techniques for recording vocals, his go-to microphones, compressors, creating great headphone mixes, and how to inspire great vocal performances – Now on to Part 2!
[Tom Brooks] Alan, now that we have several amazing vocal takes recorded, what is the next step?
[Alan Parsons] Well, the next step for me is to compile, or ‘comp’ those several vocal takes into one Master vocal track; the Best of the Best. This involves auditioning and comparing each vocal take section-by-section, line-by-line, maybe even word-by-word if necessary. Once you have selected the very best, simply create a new blank track and copy/paste the best vocal lines together. Check the edit points carefully and be sure the breaths in between the vocal lines sound natural – you might need to slide the edit point or crossfade to avoid pops / ticks / awkward breath sounds. Be sure all the lines from the various takes flow together and match exactly in terms of intensity and vocal tone.
[Tom] And then?
[Alan] At that point I would scrutinize the pitch to see if any of the vocal lines could be further improved utilizing tuning software, such as Auto-tune or Melodyne — but only if the vocal really needs it. An important concept to remember: Stop Looking and Start Listening! Don’t stare at the computer screen and try to make the vocal waveform look right; use your ears! If it sounds great, don’t mess with it; leave it alone. Your audience isn’t going to care what the waveform looks like.
[Tom] So true! Then that becomes your Final Vocal track?
[Alan] One last thing, I would duplicate that playlist and then ‘consolidate’ the track; meaning create one continuous track that incorporates all your vocal lines, edits, and crossfades into one audio file.
[Tom] Why duplicate the playlist first?
[Alan] That way, if you ever discover an awkward breath or a pop that you missed, you can always go back to your un-consolidated track and repair it easily.
[Tom] What about the concept of double-tracking a lead vocal?
[Alan] I could write a whole other book about double-tracking. I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule about when to double-track and when not to. I might use that effect in a particular section like the chorus or bridge to give it a unique sound. One approach is to use your other vocal tracks and create the double-track from takes you didn’t use on your primary vocal track. Or, while your vocalist is still in the studio you can simply record one or two additional takes to serve as your doubles.
[Alan] Backing vocals are almost inevitably double-tracked or even triple-tracked, but you need to let the song decide what is best. Another point to consider is that you’ll get a completely different sound if you mix the vocal tracks at equal volume, versus tucking the doubles in at a much softer level. You’ll retain a more intimate vocal personality if you keep the doubles low, just adding a bit of body and density to the sound.
[Tom] As you double, do you use any tips or tricks to keep the pitch accurate?
[Alan] Well, when it comes to great pitch, Erykah Bahdu has the Top 3 Tips:
1. Eat Lay’s potato chips
2. Always record on Wednesdays, and
3. Squeeze your butt cheeks together – it’s as simple as that!
Actually there is some good information on page 136 of the ASSR book — and if you are experiencing pitch problems, there’s a list of things to try on page 137. You can try turning the headphone level up or down, turning the vocal up or down against the track, take one ear off, position the mic so the singer is singing at an upward angle instead of having their head tilted down. Smiling sometimes works… except maybe for a Death Metal album (laughter).
[Alan] For some singers, I find it makes all the difference in their pitch accuracy. Michael McDonald is definitely a ‘one ear off’ singer; he hates headphones. Dominic Dean, an Irish poet and songwriter, when asked why he took one ear off he replied, “I don’t like half the stuff I’m singing.” (laughs)
One thing I wanted to mention – when you are double-tracking, the headphone mix is extremely crucial. If the original vocal track is too loud, they can confuse it with their own voice that they are singing at that moment, and it all goes awry. It’s always best to make a point of turning down the first track against the second track.
[Tom] Can you do the singer’s headphones in stereo, so they can identify that one side is the 1st take and the other side is the current one?
[Alan] An experienced singer could take advantage of that… but actually I’ve had the best luck double-tracking when the singer does not hear the first track at all. I just play them the backing track and tell them to give me another performance. When they’re working to match their first take, it never sounds as good.
[Tom] How about panning for the double and triple tracked parts?
[Alan] I remember working with The Hollies on “Bus Stop” and “Long Cool Woman” where we went for the maximum stereo effect; we placed the main vocal in the center with the double track panned hard left and the triple track hard right. It creates a big wide sound.
[Tom] Jumping over to the producer / psychology side for a moment — any more tips on how to inspire a great performance from a vocalist?
[Alan] First and foremost you need to create an environment where the magic can happen. Keep your comments and suggestions positive, encouraging, and be sensitive. If you jump on the talkback mic right after the singer has put his heart and soul into a take and say, “That was hopeless… You were flat all the way through,” it’s not very likely the next take will sound much better; you just destroyed his confidence. You can deliver the same message with diplomacy and common sense, “Just a bit more focus on the pitch this time and you’re going to have an outstanding take!”
[Tom] Right – same message, but now your singer is motivated for the next take rather than wanting to giving up and switching careers…
[Alan] Exactly. One more point: be fairly active on the talkback mic. From the vocalist’s perspective, there’s nothing worse than giving your all in a studio performance and then hearing dead silence from the producer… or worse yet, watching through the glass while your producer discusses your performance with everyone in the Control Room and you can’t hear what they’re saying!
Lock in and focus on your Artist, not everyone else in the room. Don’t let the environment feel like a ‘college jury’; no vocalist wants to sing for a room full a judgmental adjudicators with their arms folded, just waiting to find a flaw. Make it feel more like a concert with a Control Room full of fans, cheering for the singer to deliver a jaw-dropping, album-worthy performance.
[Alan] I’ve compiled more great input and ideas from my artist / producer friends in the book; Jack Joseph Puig, Erykah, Chuck Ainlay, Patrick Leonard, John Shanks with Kelly Clarkson, Celine Dion, and others. [on page 140-141 of the ASSR book]
[Alan] There are many options: Reverbs, delays, slap-echo, delays timed to the track, chorusing, flanging, compressions, different types of saturation/distortion, unusual EQ tricks, and more.
[Tom] Do you ever print the effects as audio tracks?… or just wait until the mix?
[Alan] I’m usually pretty decisive at the time that I’m recording a vocal, as to what kind of effect we’ll have in the final mix, whether it’s a slap-echo, a short reverb, or a big reverb. When I get to mixing stage I don’t really surprise myself much with trying different effects.
[Tom] Do you have a favorite compressor for vocals? In our last conversation you mentioned the Fairchild 660/670.
[Alan] The Fairchild is a great choice. We had several at Abbey Road, and probably every Beatles vocal you love was recorded through a 660. The LA2A and the 1176 are also used often on vocals.
[Tom] What is your reverb of choice for vocals?
[Alan] It’s hard to beat the sound of an original EMT plate reverb, the 140 or the 250. Universal Audio makes excellent plug-in emulations of these as well.
[Tom] I’m looking at the top of page 143 in the ASSR book where you talk about putting the vocal through a Leslie. . . ?
[Alan] Yes. John Lennon’s vocal on “Tomorrow Never Knows” played through a spinning Leslie speaker and then mic’ed. I think that’s the greatest sound ever recorded!
[Tom] It almost seems like we should try recording everything through a Leslie, just to see what happens.
[Alan] We made a lot of great tracks on Steven Wilson’s album using a Leslie, mostly with the guitars. There’s just an incredible depth you get with it.
[Tom] On albums like Dark Side of the Moon, did you put guitars and vocals through Leslies?
[Alan] We definitely did. The song “Breathe,” along with several others were recorded through a Leslie. Another effect at that time was the Uni-Vibe, the pedal of the moment during Dark Side. We recorded lots of David Gilmour’s guitar tracks through that.
[Tom] You mentioned ‘unusual EQ tricks’?
[Alan] A good example would be the hit song “Smooth,” where Rob Thomas’ lead vocal is put through a ‘telephone filter’ EQ, giving it a distinctive signature sound.
[Tom] In our last conversation you talked about recording Paul’s vocals on “Maybe I’m Amazed.” What are some other epic vocal sessions that stand out in your mind?
[Alan] Well, “My Love” was another great one with McCartney. Also, Allan Clarke with the Hollies; “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brothe,r” and Colin Blunstone of the Zombies. Sarah Brightman, Al Stewart, Bonnie Tyler, David Pack of Ambrosia… and I’ve always had huge respect for John Miles. The first album that I did with him, he probably did half the vocals in one afternoon. He is an incredible talent.
[Tom] I’m curious, do you always use a wind screen or ‘pop filter’ when you record vocals?
[Alan] I do. There’s no sense in losing a great vocal take because of a ‘P’ pop! And if you’re capturing a live performance, especially an outdoor concert, they are essential.
[Tom] Have you recorded many live events outdoors?
[Alan] Oh definitely; in fact speaking of pop filters, one outdoor event comes to mind. It was actually the very last time the Beatles ever played live together, the now infamous “Rooftop Concert” on top of the Apple Headquarters building in London. We were just minutes from starting and the wind was really making noise on the microphones. George Martin said to me, “Alan, we need pop filters – Get me 6 right away.” Well, we were far from the studio and there were no pop filters around, so I had to run to a local drug store. I said to the shopkeeper, “I’ll take six pairs of pantyhose — but they’re not for me.” We wrapped the pantyhose around the mics; VOILA! – problem solved. And the rest is history!
P.S. note from Tom: The fine looking young lad in the orange shirt is Alan, age 19!