Neumann U87 Condenser Microphone
Other microphones, the Telefunken C12 or Sony C800 have their own sound. But if I'm working on a project where we're going to spend a week or two just doing vocals, I will try to get the artist to do a quick microphone shootout, where I put up four microphones and we try to choose one.
Additionally, if we want to keep getting more expensive: a Neumann U67. I would be happy with that mic, probably happier than with the U87. For a lot of the ballady stuff that I've worked on, the Neumann U47 works well. I’m very comfortable with the Neumann large diaphragm condenser and tube condenser line.
The same thing goes for mic preamps. I'll work with what anybody has, but it's nice to have a few standards. The standard that everybody likes to use is some kind of Neve 1073. Those are fantastic. I've had really good luck with Avalon 737s. Those are really great microphone preamps.
I do compress to tape, or compress to DAW. I usually add just a little bit of compression that the artist won't notice. It's really weird for a vocalist to go for that high note—that really loud moment—and all of a sudden something grabs their vocal and turns it down.
Some artists struggle in headphones because they can't feel the air moving. They're used to moving a lot of air in space, and so sometimes I'll ax the headphones and throw a pair of speakers in the room, so it's like they're singing, and they just have a wedge or something. They feel like they're doing a live show.
And actually, I've done it where I've recorded them in the studio, if they're using the studio monitors, I'm on headphones, and we can stop and there's no talk back button or anything. They're actually just talking to the producer and to me directly. There's not that moment of “Oh, is the button down so they can hear what I'm saying?” We're in that moment, and the line of communication is open. It's like singing in somebody's living room.
What are other ways to make sure vocalists are comfortable in the studio?
Always have some water and tea around, especially for a high end client. Some clients may be used to staying in a five-star hotel and having their needs met very quickly. It's usually going to be a long day—more vocals than they're used to singing, even in their show.
Then it comes down to the speed at which you operate your DAW. You have to be ready to go at a moment's notice, and use the tools within that machine to make you as fast as possible. If the vocalist has an idea, you want to be ready to record immediately. There is no time to make a new track. That track should already be there. There is no time to create a delay on that vocal. You should have created it before the session started.
It’s good to have a couple reverbs and a few delays that are synchronized with the BPM and ready to go. When they put on that headphone, you've already been out there, you've listened to the headphones, you know what it sounds like on you. It should already sound like the way it's going to sound when it's mixed.
How do you decide to use tuning software or not?
I am a proponent of tuning, but it's like good compression: if you hear it, you’ve done it wrong. But before we start manipulating the vocal, you need to make sure you’ve recorded the best take you possibly can.
In pop music, things are supposed to be perfectly in tune. I don't think you can have a vocalist sing a wrong note in a pop song these days. Everything has to sound intentional.
Unfortunately, our listeners are not used to hearing mistakes anymore. Mistakes sounds old, out-dated, because everything that we're putting out from a vocalist's standpoint is pitch perfect. I'll occasionally have to tune bass guitars, cellos, and bass pieces, stuff like that. Rarely anything other than monophonic instruments.
I do want to be sensitive to vocalists out there, though. It's not because they sang it incorrectly. I'm trying to use the technology to bring it to another level. I'm trying to make it sound like that evening that they had a year ago, where the crowd was into it, the band was into it, and they were spot on. That's hard to recreate in the studio.
Sometimes it comes down to timing. I may only have three hours with a vocalist before they've got to get on a plane and go to a different country. Maybe the reason why that artist has to get on that plane is because they have to do a show. So I don't want to make that artist try to sing one note for three hours. Maybe they're having a tough time hitting that note today.
We all have those moments where we just can't do something, physically, considering the pressure, considering the environment. I don't want them to exhaust themselves or injure their voice. I want to assure them that it'll be totally fine.
A well-tuned vocal is also easier to mix than a vocal that hasn't been tuned. It seems to fit in better. Your bass guitar has been tuned with a tuner, your guitar has been tuned with a tuner. A piano tuner has probably come in a tuned the piano perfectly, right before the session. All these things are perfectly in tune. Why shouldn't the vocalist have that same consideration?
Any tips for recording vocals at home?
Blankets! Lots of blankets.
One of the best things to do is get a few boom mic stands and hang blankets behind the vocalist. That's what we would do in the studio. We used gobos—movable walls—and would put them behind the artist. Go to the U-Haul store and grab some packing blankets. Get two cheap boom microphone stands, put them behind you, and hang those blankets behind you. Make a comfy little nook for yourself.
Closets can be really good too. Depending on where you are, you could take the microphone and you could put it in the closet. Hopefully you have a bunch of clothes hanging in there, right? So you've got all this absorption material behind the microphone, and then you've got the two blankets behind you. You might spend fifty bucks, and I think you'd have actually a pretty decent vocal booth.
And if you're living in an apartment, know your neighbor's schedule! Know when you can record and not annoy the crap out of them.
You've also got to remember the polar pattern of your microphone. If you're recording from home, I have to say, a hypercardioid microphone is your best friend.