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Acoustic Recording: Placing The Player by Tim Crich

Saturday, December 18th, 2004

For an overdub, place the player in the middle of the room aimed toward the control room. Place a couple of baffles around the back and sides of the player. Perhaps throw a rug on the floor to lessen the room ambiance in the microphone. Recording an acoustic guitar in highly reflective places such as the bathroom generates lots of short reflections, or slapback. If needed, this effect, can always be added later.

Some engineers prefer to record in totally dead spaces, eliminating the natural reverb of a room, for more variation when it comes time to mix. Using an overly dry absorbent space may suck up some the luster of a guitar, especially if the guitar is not close miked. A natural sounding space with a small degree of inherent room ambiance works wells to capture a full sounding track.

As with vocals, dim the lights, set up a table and music stand to create a more intimate atmosphere. Make the effort to pamper the player a bit.

Tim Crich wrote the bestseller Assistant Engineers Handbook. He has over 20 years of experience in the recording studio, and has worked on records by Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, KISS, Billy Joel, Bryan Adams, Cher, Bon Jovi and many more. This article is excerpted with permission from his new book Recording Tips For Engineers, available through www.musicbooksplus.com. For more information, see www.aehandbook.com.

Recording Vocals by Tim Crich

Monday, October 18th, 2004

The Singer
Different singers will be best prepared at different times of day. While one may be raring to go at 9 a.m., another may not really open up until the late afternoon. A tired singer sings a tired vocal. Schedule the vocal session for the singer’s best time.
Better singers will want to warm up. No one can be expected to jump in on any creative endeavour without warming up first. Give her the needed time and privacy. Once she is ready, doublecheck that her cue mix is just right. Encourage her to memorize the lyrics. Something is lost when the singer is reading lyrics from a page. Better that she focus on the feel and interpretation of the vocal, not hunting around for the next line.

The Mood
Commonly, only essential people are allowed in the control room during vocals. Even the best of singers can find concentrating on vocal parts difficult with a room full of people staring at them.
Dim the lights and light the candles, burn the incense, take all your clothes off, create a mood to help the singer feel comfortable, relaxed and confident. The more at ease the situation is, the better the outcome of the tracks. A strong vocal track makes the singer and you look good.

In Record/Red Lights
Wear headphones during vocals. As the engineer, when you wear headphones and monitor the cue mix, you hear exactly what the singer is hearing, allowing you to fine-tune the cue mix as the vocal progresses. Of course, lower the control room monitor levels to avoid influence. A good cue mix is paramount.
Get into it. Get the singer into it. It’s much easier to record an inspired singer. Keep the vibe up, be positive, and be generous. Tell her what you want, not what you don’t want.
Don’t stop the singer unless you must. Wait for the end of the piece. Stopping and starting can be distracting. Let her run through the song to totally get into the flow of it. Be as specific as possible as to what you want her to do. All singers need guidance from the control room. Simply having her redo a track with no indication of what is needed helps no one. Granted this is not usually the engineer’s job, but the producer’s. Commonly, the more you engineer, the more you will learn about production.
When overdubbing, tell the singer to sing along as soon as she hears the music. This ensures she will have the same groove as the original, rather than starting cold on the downbeat of the intended punch in. Once she knows where she is in the song, switch the track to input, so she hears herself singing. Punch in at the appropriate time. Invite her to listen back in the control room and play the results and discuss them. Singers know how they should sound. If you can take her view of what she wants and bring it up a notch or two beyond her expectations, she will sing better.

Louder volume levels can mask slight pitch problems. Turning down the studio monitors will help you hear pitch and tuning issues. Similarly, when a singer is having a hard time hitting notes, turn the cue mix level down. If the singer must have loud headphones, pull the lower frequencies. Loud lows can mess with a singer’s pitch.
Suggest she remove one side of the headphones to hear herself in one ear,
and the cue mix in the other. Maybe record a simple piano or acoustic guitar track playing the vocal melody – no chords, just single notes of the melody of the vocal track. (Of course, not to be used in the final mix.) Add this track in to the cue mix, and maybe remove any other instruments that may be throwing off her pitch.
Try the old out-of-phase speaker setup. In the studio, place two speakers at eye level in a triangle with the microphone, aimed at the singer. Switch the L/R wires on the back of one speaker, then send a mono cue mix through them. The music reaches the singer, but the two signals are cancelled at the microphone.
Consider bringing the singer into the control room. Leave the studio monitors on and do a vocal in the control room with the music blasting directly at her. This might be the best way to get a solid vocal. Set the microphone monitor signal just short of feedback with a non omni-directional pattern. Or she may want to wear headphones in the control room. If so, you would wear headphones as well.

Singers, like everyone else in the world (including you) will have bad days. Sometimes they sound absolutely magnificent and sometimes they sound like a train wreck. If you lose patience with a player, it may not be long until she loses patience with you. The door swings both ways. Not everyone is a virtuoso.
On those rare occasions when the emotions just aren’t flowing, maybe tell the singer to picture one person in his mind. Forget the studio and the microphones, just picture that person, maybe an old love, or a movie star, or even a certain recording engineer and sing to that person.
When a great lead vocal is completed early in the project, the rest of the instruments will build around it. The players need to hear that vocal track so they can weave in and out of the way. A great vocal track inspires the rest of the players to do their best. Ultimately, the best vocals come from well-written songs.

Tim Crich wrote the bestseller Assistant Engineers Handbook. He has over 20 years of experience in the recording studio, and has worked on records by Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, KISS, Billy Joel, Bryan Adams, Cher, Bon Jovi and many more. This article is excerpted with permission from his new book Recording Tips For Engineers, available through www.musicbooksplus.com. For more information, see www.aehandbook.com.

The Soundperson’s Survival Kit Checklist by Karen Kane

Wednesday, August 18th, 2004

– Several of every kind of adapter imaginable
– A set of Allen keys (useful for guitar repairs and various other things)
– Tape – electrical, duct, masking
– Markers for the console
– Soldering tools
– 9-volt batteries
– Meter for testing cables, batteries, AC lines
– Screwdriver set, wire cutters, exacto knife
– Flashlight
– Ear plugs
– If possible, spare cables and speaker wire
– Headphones to do line checks during set changes

Karen Kane has been engineering and producing music since 1974. Her credits, profile and other published articles can be seen at her Web site, www.total.net/~mixmama.

Recording The Lead Vocal, How Many Tracks Is Too Many?

Wednesday, August 18th, 2004

More often than not, the lead vocal is the track that contains the most emotional content of the song. With repeated attempts at recording the vocal, you run the risk of losing that emotion and “magic”. So while it’s ideal for the singer to nail the perfect take in one or two tries, a good engineer knows how to respond the other 90 per cent of the time.

The answer is to compile the best elements of a few different takes into a single, composite performance where each line, each phrase and even each syllable is sung just the way you want. This process is called “comping”. It’s done on nearly every record you hear, even the ones you’re convinced are single, complete takes.

Tip: If the singer is hesitant to record this way, claiming “artistic integrity”, remind them that they’re free to sing the song through from top to bottom, without interruption. Meanwhile, just switch tracks while you’re winding back to the top after each take. (Make sure you’re only sending the current take to the headphone mix – it can be very disconcerting for a singer to begin a song and hear two voices coming out of his mouth.)

In this digital age of virtually unlimited available tracks, it’s tempting to record 5 or even 10 different takes before comping the vocal. But using that many can really overwhelm you and confuse the process. Try utilizing two or three tracks instead. Starting with your first take, tell the singer it’s only a practice take for the purpose of further level adjustment (when in fact you’ve already adjusted everything and are ready to go). This is useful for anxious singers, taking the “pressure” off them.

After two or three takes, stop if you have terrific performances overall. If not, go back to the track with the least inspired take and record over it. Hopefully, you have gained the singer’s trust by now and don’t need to inform them of these details. Continue with this process until you feel that, within those two or three tracks, you have the makings of a great performance.

When you’re ready to start comping, draw lines on the lyric sheet so you can make little notes (check marks, yes, no, good, bad, maybe) on each line of each take. Involve the singer in this process only if they insist – the more they analyze their own performance, the less they’re likely to respond with an inspired, heartfelt one. Once you have usable takes for each line, bounce the winners onto a fresh track (you can also bounce certain lines from “alternate” takes into one take that just needs a few fixes).

Tip: After you have a comped vocal, get away from it for a while (dinner break, TV break, whatever). Then listen to it with fresh ears, and with the singer, to see if you still need to fix something.

This article has been reprinted from the Studio Buddy software. Written by acclaimed producers/engineers Michael Laskow and Alex Reed, Studio Buddy gives hints and tricks on various recording techniques. To download a free copy, go to www.studiobuddy.com.

Recording Vocals Without Headphones by Doug McClement

Friday, June 18th, 2004

Sometimes you’ll find that a vocalist has a hard time monitoring bed tracks through headphones. Here’s a trick I use to overcome that problem.

I set up the vocal mic and put a pair of Auratones, or similar small monitors, about three feet on either side of the microphone; I use a tape measure to ensure that the they are equidistant. I place the speakers 90 degrees off-axis and point them directly at the microphone. I then feed the monitors from a mono cue mix buss, and flip the phase on one of them. Sometimes I roll off a bit of top and bottom as well. The vocalist will hear the speakers, due to the distance between his or her ears, but the speaker output will be 180 degrees out of phase at the mic capsule. Therefore, the bed track bleed, though not absolutely gone, will be down by about 30dB.

Take care not to feed anything to the speakers that you don’t intend to use in the final mix, and don’t run them any louder than necessary for the vocalist to sing in tune and in time. A little bit of bleed won’t kill you. No one ever decided not to buy an album because there was a bit of instrumental bleed in the vocal mic! If you degrade the hi-fi quality by 5 per cent, but improve the performance by 30 per cent, it’s a no-brainer. Always let the technology serve the art!

Doug McClement owns LiveWire Remote Recorders in Toronto.

The Importance of Logging by Marisa T. Déry

Friday, June 18th, 2004

Lately, I have been doing a lot of Forensic Audio – which inevitably means that I’ve been documenting all my efforts meticulously. In this field it is important to have every setting logged, and every scheme properly identified; when you are asked to be an expert witness in court, you are expected to back up your work.

All this has reminded me of something that I, unfortunately, don’t often see in the music world: logging of work done on a project.

When a project starts on a 4-track, gets bounced on to Pro Tools at Joe’s then uploaded at Sally’s on her Pro Tools system only to show up at a studio two months later for mixing, then the Mastering Suite 3 weeks later. Wouldn’t it be nice if all those events were logged?

Too many times I get bits and pieces in the mastering suite only to be asked to “match” everything. The Audio Engineering Society is trying to improve the situation by creating the “Recommendation for delivery of recorded music projects (2003).” This concept includes a CD insert (page 28-29 – http://aes.org/technical/documents) that would be placed with the master revealing the entire history of the project.

It would now be revealed that track 1 used a Waves Trueverb on the chorus or that 4 songs out of 5 are 16 bit while one is 24 bit.

When each song goes through so many different engineers, it is imperative for the sake of the integrity of the project to have a record of everything.

Besides, wouldn’t it be great to have all that info for the box set?

Marisa T. Déry, a native of Ottawa, ON, is the owner and Mastering Engineer for Tamar Mastering in Boston, MA. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, her clients have included the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, James Day, Tugboat Annie and RUSHYA; she has also mastered soundtracks and TV scores that have appeared on ESPN, TLC, Animal Planet and the Boston Film Festival. For more info check out www.tamarmastering.com.


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