Vocals are the hardest part for most aspiring recording and mixing engineers to master, and actually - more often than not, it’s not all down to them!
There’s a huge amount in the preparation on the vocalist side as well which is too often overlooked. This brings me to the reason why we’ve written this post to help you, help them.. to help you.. Does that make sense?
Anyway, I digress - Here are the 5 steps to create Radio Ready vocals!
As we touched on in proximity effect, positioning is key to a good vocal, and good performance. A lot of artists will fluctuate their positioning while recording, which is natural when they want to get a drink or check lyrics, etc. which means it’s your job to make sure they remain in place for their performance.
A good trick is to make sure you have a piece of electrical tape on the floor that they line their feet up with, or similar so they get a feel for this integral part of the take.
Above, the average distance for a vocalist with optimal power
Warm-ups are possibly the most key thing for a good performance in my humble opinion, aside from confidence.
Imagine you’ve decided to go for a run, (however unlikely in my case). If you didn't stretch prior, likelihood is you’ll end up with a torn or pulled muscle, or cramp at very least. The vocal cords are exactly the same, they are delicate and as a vocalist relies upon good health for their instrument it’s key to make sure a 15 to 30-minute warm-up is in play before every session starts.
Microphone and Preamp choice
If you picture an artist and their easel - Microphone choice is the main color of your painting, and the preamp is the brush strokes and the timbre of the emotion you're trying to portray.
The reason I envision the recording chain is this; the microphone choice varies drastically. A ribbon is dark in color, a dynamic is typically more full of presence and higher mid-range, and a Condenser is much more detailed, bright, and softest in musicality on the lower mid-range.
Matching the microphone to the voice is simply a process of elimination until you are happy, and the vocalist is happy, of course.
Above: the JZ Microphones Vintage 67 and matching pop filter
Now the preamp is the timbre and musical flavor you add on top of that. A tube preamp like the dbx 676 can add sparkle and subtle overtones to the vocal, as well as harmonic distortion.
The Joe Meek ProQ 2 Dual Channel strip (pictured below above the dbx 676) has an iron transformer to add low-end harmonics and boost the low-mid range, but without is relatively transparent in sound and harnesses the musicality of the microphone.
However, my personal favorite out of my arsenal is my Focusrite ISA One due to the transformer saturation added and harmonic distortion created from this.
Another great example of that sort of preamp is the Neve 1073 which is a solid state preamp using input and output transformer to create a warm, revered sound heard on countless records.
Above: the dbx 676 (bottom) and the Joe Meek ProQ 2 (top)
Make sure you and the artist learn the song!
Practice Practice Practice. The artist should have their parts dialed in perfectly in their mind's eye - this isn’t to say they shouldn’t be open to change, or that you shouldn’t be pushing them to get the best out of their performance. Rather, that they have the song well-rehearsed which will only benefit them - less time, less money, more confidence in their ability, and much more open to ideas and change to enhance their tracks!
The flip side is making sure you have either a demo or have engaged in some form of pre-production to learn their songs well too. This will only benefit you, regardless of whether you like the track or such, it makes you look much more profession, much easier to work with, and it avoids the majority of confusion in long sessions where you lose track of where you are in a song (which can be frustrating for an artist that is in a zone and would like to keep momentum).
Above, my engineer ryan larning the tracks ready for the next session
Confidence & A Vibe
It can not be understated the importance of making the vocalist feel as comfortable, in control, and as full of confidence as they can be.
You can have a huge impact on the way your final takes sound from the performer just from your mannerisms, the way you portray feedback, etc. - hell, even my room has mood lighting, incense oils, and a warm lighting to bring vibe, and character to the room so they channel their emotion into the track in the way they and yourselves would ideally like.
Look at any studio and they will have a ‘vibe’ to them, a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ as my french counterparts would say, that makes you want to record, it makes you confident, it makes brings out the best in you.
Make sure your studio and the vocalist your working with feels this as well, even if its as simple as lunch in the common area, or sharing a beer with them while you record - just make sure you don’t have it near your equipment!