How To Prepare For a Great Vocal Session by Alan Steward

How To Prepare For a Great Vocal Session

It’s a fact. Vocals are still (and probably always will be) the most important part of most recording sessions. Not many instrumental productions ever reach hit status. So, you want your vocal recordings the best they can be.

How To Prepare For a Great Vocal Session? 

Where do you start?

Many engineers would jump up and say, ” the mic of course”!

Well, maybe not. The most important thing in a vocal session is the vocalist, of course. If he or she is not comfortable or feeling at their best, the session is doomed before you can even whip out that 3,000 dollar Neumann that you just added to your mic collection.

The second most important part may still not be the microphone, but the room you are recording in. First of all, it has to be comfortable to record in, secondly, it has to be acoustically pleasing and thirdly, it has to be as quiet as possible.

If all of these factors are in place, I would start considering which mic would do the best for the job.

Then, there is the playback setup for the vocalist. This is very often overlooked. If the vocalist does not hear himself clearly enough or the music track is not clear enough, then a good vocal performance is hard to achieve.

Lastly, comes the electronic part of the recording puzzle, the cables, the preamps, compressors and the recording console and other equipment. It’s the stuff that may cost the most money but having awesome recording hardware may not necessarily be the determining factor to guarantee a successful recording session.

So, let’s start from the beginning. Since in most cases the vocals are the most critical part of the song (it’s not called a “song” for nothing), we have to try to capture the best vocal performance possible.

How is the vocalist feeling? Is he or she in good spirits? Well rested? Voice in top shape?

If you get too many no answers from this list of questions, maybe you need to re-schedule. If you feel you can get the vocalist comfortable and confident enough to get a good performance, then go ahead.

Make sure the vocalist has his lyrics together on a stand where he can see them without being blocked by the mic or a mic stand. Make sure the headphones are comfortable and the vocalist knows the correct distance to keep between him and the microphone.

This is actually one of the easiest improvements to make to the sonic quality of a vocal recording: Simply to make sure the distance to the microphone is correct. Too close, and you get pops and breathing problems. Too far and the sound gets thin and tinny. Get the vocalist into the “hot spot” with just a little proximity effect to get the voice sound nice and full sounding but without annoying breath noises.

Now let’s get to the room!

The sonic quality of a room can keep you from having perfect sounding vocal recordings. That you should not have room with standing waves (square, uncovered walls at even distance), that speaks for itself but besides that, every room has its own “sound”.

Just leave the room empty, crank up the mic channel and listen to how much “room noise” you hear in the control room. If you can improve on that with padding, acoustic foam, etc., great, but every room will have a basic sound to it. Of course, you want to make absolutely sure that air vents or bad cables don’t add more noise unnecessarily. In most cases, it’s better to turn the A/C off then to deal with the noisy consequences later.

Finally, we have arrived at the microphone. Many engineers have a large arsenal of mics to choose from and know just which ones to pick for a particular singer. You may not be so lucky to have a perfect mic for every type of voice but in general, if you pick your best vocal mic in your arsenal, you can’t go too wrong. What would be wrong is to test several mics on your vocalist before you start the session. You may wear your vocalist out before he or she even sings the first note. The choice of the right mic for a vocalist should come from experience, not from experimentation.

Now we come to the all-important playback setup.

It is really absolutely critical that your vocalist can hear his voice, and that the background music is in just the right proportion to the vocals. If you can re-direct the output from the monitor lines to your studio, please do so and ask the vocalist if he can hear everything good. Many vocalists that are not that experienced will say “oh, it’s great” no matter how bad the headphone mix is. Use your judgement and keep pressing for more info. “Is the background music loud enough?” “Would you like to hear more drums?” Hopefully you will get some helpful answers.

Don’t forget to add a little reverb to the monitors. Most artists are used to how their voice sounds in a concert hall or club so the totally dry ambiance of a studio may throw them. Make them sound as good as possible in the headphones. Of course, don’t record the reverb, just add some to the headphone mix. Now we come to the final destination of the vocal performance.

The mixing console and the recording equipment.

At that point, you may just want to tweak your levels, add a little compression if needed and hit record. Even though your wonderful DAW sports a signal to noise ration of -95db or more, the noise floor of what comes into your console may not be anywhere near that, so please make sure that you record at the highest possible level that you can achieve without distortion. That’s where a little compression can come in handy to take out the volume peaks generated by your vocalist.

For the rest, cross your fingers and hope that you’ll capture a super performance from the person in front of that microphone.

[author image=”https://www.producerspot.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/alan-steward-avatar.jpg” ]Alan Steward is a Producer, Engineer and Musician with over 30 years experience in the music business. He worked with Grammy winning artists from the Temptations to the Baha Men. His music has been used in TV shows and feature films. He is also well-known as a producer of loops for music production and owns a recording studio in Germany.[/author]

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