The Basics of Recording Vocals
Natalie: I am doing marvelously well, Warren!
Warren: Marvelously well. Natalie is an apprentice we got from a recording connection. We talk a lot about mentoring. I’ve done lots of interviews, as you know, with Jack Douglas, and Shelly Yakus, and a whole bunch of really, really great people that have helped me out, and what I want to do is sort of talk about that process, because it’s double-edged.
It’s also — you can be in a studio, and you can be around it, and you can pick up stuff, like a lot of traditional studios, people would just learn by just working their sessions, but to me, mentoring can also go one stage further, and we can talk about things like how to use microphones, and why we’re doing them, how to — you know, whatever it might be. Whatever the instrument might be. Whether it be a vocal, a guitar, a bass, anything live, virtual instruments, whatever. There’s a process that goes into it that you gain experience of after doing it for several years.
So I really wanted to show what it’s properly like to mentor, as opposed to that sort of vague area of, “Oh, yeah, it was really cool, I hung out at the studio for six months.” I mean, that’s good, that’s great, but it’s like, for me, it’s like, what, twenty minutes and talk about how to use a microphone in the right situation, and it is very rewarding to A, do that, and B, to kind of get that information and that knowledge, and then see it in practice.
Natalie: And then you get the shoutout on the Grammy acceptance speech.
Warren: There you go! Grammy acceptance speech, well there you go!
So what we’re going to do is I’m going to — we’re going to show you the basic kind of vocal miking technique, and we have this Lewitt LCT-940, which I use a lot, so we’ll go over there and look at that. I think it’s a good mic to use, because it has so many different variations of polar pattern, to about how it high passes, how you can pad the microphones, and this particular mic actually has dual tube and FET, but we’ll get into all of those details, but I wanted to just give you sort of a breakdown on that, because frankly, if you understand those basics, you can pretty much mic anything. Then you really sort of — it’s just a case of what’s the right mic for the right job, and these days, especially with virtual microphones and stuff like that, you have a huge amount of options available.
So let’s get started.
Warren: So here, we have a large diaphragm mic, which is primarily a vocal mic, but of course, you can use a large diaphragm on pianos, and drums, very popular for room mics, overheads, and stuff.
Large diaphragm microphones are accurate sounding microphones. They tend to have a better frequency response, typically a really, really good high end detail, so they’re great for vocals. This is a Lewitt LCT-940, as indicated on this piece of paper here.
Actually, this is probably a good sideline to say, good labelling is kind of useful, especially when you go into that lovely messy live room I’ve got in there. There’s like, ten microphones on stands being used at the moment recording drums. There’s something on the piano over there. It’s a big mess of cables.
So actually, good organization is kind of nice to label things, because we know that this mic actually takes a very specific cable, so labelling it when you’re moving things around is quite useful, because if this gets lost, it’s a pain in the butt, because it’s not a standard XLR connection from here to here.
Why? Well, because it’s powering it. Condenser microphones typically need 48 volts. This one is special because it’s tube. A couple of things to note, as in like, the old Neumanns, the — a lot of the control is actually on the mic preamp itself. The — what is powering the microphone.
Most condenser microphones, like U-87s, 414s, the typical things you’ll see in the studios, have all of the controls that we’re about to talk about here on the microphone. They’ll have — and old Neumanns quite often had either here or sometimes on the power supplies as well. Like, I think the C-12 has the controls on there, etcetera. So this is quite straight forward.
Very pretty design here. They have the tube in here glowing, or for the English amongst us, the valve. So that’s glowing, which is very nice, but it’s just aesthetic. Just pretty and pleasing.
So as you can see, we’ve put a pop screen on. There’s a lot of opinions on this. I keep the pop screen relatively close. So here we’re looking at, I don’t know, two inches, whatever that is. What is two inches, like, six centimeters? Five or six centimeters? Maybe a little bit more?
Pop screen is to reduce p’s and t’s and s’s and all kinds of, “pah.” Mainly the p’s. That’s really what you’re going to get most of the job out of.
So a couple of things. We talked about proximity effect, if you get really really close, it’s going to get really really warm, if you get back, it’s thinner sounding. I tend to like my singers to sing quite close. Probably that far away is pretty typical. Maybe around about here. Everybody has a different thing, but I like the fatness and the warmness. I always record this into a 1073, and then I use a dbx 160 or 165 into an 1176.
Natalie: So like, a fist basically and then some a little bit?
Warren: Yeah, and you’re going to get — you just sort of have to deal with singers. You don’t want it to be so they can eat it like this. Rock guys, a lot of them will do this. They’ll push it down like that, and they’ll just kind of do this and lean in on it. Sometimes physically bang the thing.
You know, there’s — again, though, there’s guys that get a 57, a 58, Shure dynamic microphone, plug it in, and just do this and sing. You know, the performance is more important. My old girl singer did her first record with Don Smith. You know, a billion and a half years ago. Like end of ’95, early ’96, and she couldn’t sing in time, and we’re like, “You sing in time all the time,” and then Don gave her an electric guitar, taped off all of the strings so she couldn’t make any noise, and then just stood there with a microphone like she was playing a show and sang at the same time, and some of the timing was back, because it was a physical thing.
She was like, “It was like playing in time and swaying with the music,” and I think also, for women, at least in my limited experience of doing that particular one, there’s a physicality to it as well. I think some girls feel like they have to move with the music.
So why am I holding a pencil? One thing I wanted to talk about. This is an English BBC kind of trick that I’ve shown to millions of people. I’ve shown to people in studios, and then gone back five years later, and they’ll show me, like, I’m like, “Yeah, I know, I told you.”
But it’s a good way to break up the air. So you know, quite often, you can just tape a pencil across it there, and it just breaks up the directivity of a “puh.” You can also do it on the back, and then nobody knows.
You know, there’s all kinds of things you can do, but it just breaks up the P over there. But yeah, so it’s quite straightforward. Like I said, two to three inches away, singer back about here, you know, just enough of a proximity to get the warmth, but to each their own. Some people like singers to be 18 inches back. I tend to go probably a little less than like, ten inches, maybe twelve at the most, but you know, I know guys that like them back here.
Natalie: From the mic itself.
Warren: Yeah. Again, you know, it also depends on the environment. If you’re in a really, super dead room, you can get back quite far and if they’re a belter, it’s absolutely fine, but if you’re in a room with a lot of liveness and stuff like that, sometimes, coming back here, you’re getting a lot of the ambience.
Also, important to remember, while we’re talking about this, is the microphone is pointing this way. It’s in cardioid, so it’s picking up like this. So if you’re going to do some deadening, first place you should do some deadening is where the microphone hears. So if you’re going to build a vocal booth, you don’t build around this side, you build it around this side.
So if you are going to build a vocal booth, and you’ve got your singer standing here, dampen around here before you dampen back there. You can buy these things that dampen around there, that’s fine, but do it first around this side. If your room is that live that it’s still picking up from back there, then buy the little semi-circular thing, but if you’re building vocal booths, build them around this side first, because the microphone is pointing that way.
There’s loads of ways you can do this. You can move into the corners of rooms and put up cushions. I’ve seen people do that. There’s all kinds of fun things you can do. It doesn’t have to be that crazy, but then, if your room is relatively dead, unless you’re after the driest vocal ever, it’s also okay to have a little bit of room tone in it. I remember getting a very live vocal and not wanting to, and giving it to Mark Endert to mix, and he was like, “It sounds great! Means I have to put less effects on.”
So to each their own. And again, what’s the most important thing? The performance. So if you’ve got a really good performance and you’ve got a ton of room tone in it, not necessarily the best thing, but it’s better than having a crappy performance that was recorded so well, but was absolutely passionless and had nothing you could identify with.
So this is flat. We’ll ignore this for a second, because this is specific to the mic. But here is pretty typical. Although it has four controls. Four levels, I should say.
Zero dB means zero dB. It means no gain reduction whatsoever. It’s not padded. You’ll hear that a lot. On microphones, even dynamic microphones, you’ll get pads you can put into them, or they might have a pad in them. The pad is because some things you’re going to be doing like screaming singers or drummers, you know, for overheads on drums, or anything loud might distort the signal, so you’ll pad it.
Shelly Yakus is a good friend, who I know you’ve met, he’s a really great producer and engineer, he is big on padding. Just get a nice, clean signal going into your mic pre. He’s really, really big on running pads and stuff.
Zero dB means zero pad, and then if I press this button, I’ve got minus six, so six dB of reduction in signal. Next up is minus 12, and it’s got minus 18, which is a lot of gain reduction, so I believe that would be for an incredibly loud drummer, or I mean, a decent quality condenser like this should be able to go in front of a guitar cab, depending on how loud that is, which could be unbelievable.
Okay, so next, we’ll bypass this for a second for a reason, because you’re not going to see it on another mic, and we’ll go over to the far right, and the far right is just controlling the polar patterns. This full circle here means omni, and omni means picking up all the way around the microphone. So omnidirectional.
If we go a couple of clicks, you’ve got a cardioid. Cardioid as you can see is kind of a heart shape, hence, cardioid, and what that means is it’s mainly picking up at the front. It’s probably hard to see on this little tiny thing, but the back side of it, that’s the back side. Sort of that shape. So it means it’s picking up from the front, and a little bit from the sides.
So it’s picking up —
Natalie: It’s all very intuitive shapes.
Warren: Yeah, it’s all intuitive shapes. It’s sort of a heart shape around the microphone, like this.
So next is a hyper-cardioid, which means it’s tighter, so it just means that it’s picking up a much tighter polar pattern around the microphone, so it gives better rejection. So basically, better rejection is if there’s a ton of other instruments going on in the room, or air conditioning and all of that kind of stuff. In most live situations, you wouldn’t use a condenser microphone. They’re too sensitive, too good, they’ll pick up too much stuff, and they’re really hard to get tight polar patterns.
Natalie: When would you be using that one?
Warren: Well, I mean I would use a dynamic for live, and I’d use condensers for rooms and ambience, and picking up a lot of stuff, but however, this mic is a little bit more advanced I think, because if I go two more clicks, I’ve actually got a super cardioid. So it’s really, really super tight, but interestingly enough, this is a real good one, the figure of eight, which I also have on a U-48. The figure of eight picks up exactly front and back of the microphone, which the U-48 is a very famous microphone, because the Beatles used it on all of their recordings.
It’s commonly thought of as a 47, which is identical pretty much to a 48. The reason why they did that was because John was on one side, and Paul was on the other. So they would sing all of those harmony parts live together. So when you have four tracks that you’re recording to, and you need to do two vocals, you do it at one time on one microphone on one track.
There’s also something unique about that, because when you get guys that have more of an American tradition, who work with the barbershop thing, you get the ability to work off of each other that you can’t get when you’re layering vocals.
So what I do like about this mic in particular, not that we’re selling the mic, but it is a unique feature, we might as well talk about it, is that you can do — you can move between these different patterns. You can go omni to cardioid, and somewhere in between, and omni to super, to hyper, all the way through to figure of eight. So that’s kind of nice. That’s not on all microphones. There are some that have continuously variable sort of sweeps, but a lot of the time, it’s just cardioid or omni, or cardioid and figure of eight.
Natalie: I think the question I’m still having is hyper and super cardioid. When do you use them?
Warren: It’s just really about how much rejection you’ll need. 99% of your life, it’s going to be set to that. To cardioid. Because you want a singer to be comfortable, so you’re actually better off with a decent kind of pickup pattern around it. If you use a really tight pickup pattern, you might get — well, a couple of things. When you get really close to a microphone, you get the real proximity effect. It gets really fat and warm. When you move back away from it, it gets a little thinner.
If you’re on hyper or super cardioid and you’re really tight, that’s a very, very — that reduces to sort of that kind of width. So what you’re going to get is you’re going to get warmth, perfection, super thin. So cardioid allows you a little bit more flexibility, because singers, unless they’re —
Natalie: Gotta get in the mood.
Warren: Yeah, it’s like, singers do this. They move, and you — we’ve talked about it before, we talked about it with Lenny and Alex on the acoustic guitar and stuff like that, the last thing you want to do is impose yourself on an artist. You’re better off having a slightly not perfectly recorded amazing performance than you are having a perfectly recorded crap performance.
All the great guys always made it just about capturing a performance. You’re not — you’re trying to create incredible performances, and yes, there are sonics, and there’s sounds and all this kind of stuff, but they’re there to influence performance, so if you get a really amazing amp and you mic it in a completely unique way, which might be unorthodox, that’s part of the sonics. You know. But if you’re trying to capture something, you don’t stop and go, “Okay, I know you’re working out a part and it’s perfect now, I need two hours to figure out how to record it.”
And it goes back to the ABR that you hear from all the old guys. Always Be Recording. Shelly Yakus, when I interviewed him, he talked about Dire Straits, the end of Romeo and Juliet is this beautiful lead guitar part, which is just so sensitive. It’s about this guy that loses the love of his life, and I remember being a kid and being like, “ah,” for the breakup of my first girlfriend. It’s just — it’s stupid, but I remember hearing that lead guitar at the end and being like, “This is the best lead guitar ever,” and connecting with it.
So I asked Shelly about it, because it’s one of my favorite songs, and Shelly said, “Oh, it was a nightmare.” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Well, Mark went to the end of the song and just started improvising this beautiful piece that you hear at the end, and he couldn’t get it, and then it clicks, and he just gets it.”
And I was like, “Well, what was bad about it?” He goes, “He decided to turn his guitar down to like, this quiet, and we’re in the world of analog, where —” you probably can’t see on camera, but over there is a tape machine, and the thing is, the signal to noise ratio on a tape machine is not too good when you print this level, because that particular tape machine, probably the one they were using around about 1980, ’81, whenever it was, didn’t — it had a lot of hiss. So when you print the signal which is this loud and the hiss is this loud, he said as soon as he turned it up, it was like, [imitating static].
So it presented a challenge, because everyone was freaking out like, “What a great performance!” that they were hearing coming off the console. They weren’t listening off the repro head. As soon as they played it back, it was, [hiss] so he had to get super creative with EQing it and compressing it in a way he could pull out that hiss. So it’s a very specific sound, and he put this really cool delay on it to help disguise it.
Yeah, so it also just goes back to that kind of, it’s great to know all of this stuff and be really prepared, like know the right settings to have on a mic in a situation, so the last thing that’s typical with microphones is this here. Three high pass filters.
So linear means completely flat. Printing the signal as you hear it. The next selection here is 40Hz. What that means is everything above 40Hz is being recorded, everything below 40Hz is being rolled off. Now, it’s not sharp, it’s not like this massive, nothing below 40Hz, but it’s going to be like a gentle slope, just getting rid of low stuff.
I would say 40Hz would be great for air conditioning. 150 is good on acoustic instruments. Probably ultra boomy acoustic guitars. Just because when you’re dealing with acoustic instruments, sometimes, like an acoustic bass, if it was in the middle of a really, really super dense track with tons of other instruments going on, yes, I might print it exactly how I want to hear it in the mix, but when it might be just one acoustic guitar, like on Trevor’s record it’s like one acoustic guitar, one bass, possibly elements of percussion or drums, then I print it flat, because actually, the bass might be the lowest thing in the mix. I might want that really low end to just hold the whole bottom end together, but if I’m doing a more rock and roll bass thing and I’ve got a huge kick, a really super low kick, then I might get away with running 40 on some things, because I don’t want the bass to go below 40. I want the kick to live between 40 and 60, which is typically.
Next up is 300, which would be probably overheads, cymbal mics that had a lot of boomy floor in it, but again, I quite often print overheads flat as well, and then wait until the mix. If you’re blessed to be working with a Vinnie Colaiuta, or a Simon Phillips, or a Victor Indrizzo, or a Matt Chamberlain, if you’re working with one of those incredible drummers, you’ve got a drummer that you can put one mic up anywhere in the room, and it sounds like the best drum mix you’ve ever heard in your life, because they play balanced.
You know, they go, [imitating drums]. They don’t go, [imitating drums]. Younger drummers, and we’re all — hey, when I play drums, it’s not balanced. I’m not a good drummer, but a great, great drummer will play in a balanced way, and you can throw up any mic, in which case, I would print my overheads completely flat and just be able to just pull up my overheads, and go, “Wow, that’s the drum kit,” and if it’s in phase with my snare, it’s like, “Wow, there’s the drum kit the way I imagined it.”
But if I was doing heavy, heavy rock, and everything is smashing the shnizzle out of those cymbals, I might do 300, because there’s a lot of booming stuff going on, and my cymbals end up just being, [splashy cymbal sound]. If you’re not sure, just print it flat and mix it. The better you learn to record, the easier it is to mix, the better you get as a mixer, the easier it is to record, because you just share that information.
Okay, so the one other feature we might as well talk about that is unique to at least this microphone and maybe some others is on the far left is a full tube setting, and on the far right is FET. This is the only mic that I know of. There may be others that do this. There’s a classic microphone made by Neumann called the U-47 that’s tube. It’s a valve microphone. Then there’s a U-47 FET.
So this doesn’t claim to be a simulation. It isn’t. It’s its own microphone, but the great thing about this is you can blend between a FET and between a tube.
I personally just use it on tube for lead vocals, and then I go over there for FET and use it for backgrounds. There’s enough of a difference in the sound that they sit beautifully around each other in a mix, but if I did have the time and the inclination, I might experiment with other things, and you can, but that is all unique to this microphone, but for Katie’s vocals, we’re going to do this, we’re going to leave it linear, maybe you’ll hear it at 40, but we’ll probably just stay linear and just take out any low rumble in the mix. We’ll leave it on zero, we’ll go full tube, and we’ll go to cardioid, and that’ll be it.
Excellent. Well, thanks ever so much for watching that. To me, it’s really important to share and show what it’s like to actually, A, mentor, and B, be an apprentice and learn that kind of stuff.
I think that sometimes I myself have to be reminded of it, and actually, the process of doing that and talking through with you also reminded me of a lot of stuff, and it reminded me, as a role, as a mentor, because I’ve had different things over the years. I’ve had direct contact with guys that are great producers and engineers and had more of an osmosis experience, IE, being in the room, but I also was a musician, and so I was kind of that annoying guy in the band that was always like, “Why are you doing that? What’s going on? Blah blah blah blah blah.”
So it’s easier. I think the reason why I bring it up is because when you’re the musician and you’re hiring a producer or engineer or the mixer, it’s okay if you ask dumb questions, because you know what? You’re paying for it. I mean frankly, if you’re going to go — and that is actually one way I’ve heard a couple of people — Someone was talking to me about this today, he hired a really famous Nashville mixer to mix one of his band’s songs, and then sat there for like, two days asking him a thousand questions, and at the end of the session, the mixer was like, “You know what, you didn’t have to pay me for this. I could’ve given you free advice.”
The mixer got what was going on, but it’s a really relevant thing for me, because I was a musician in bands. When we hired Don Smith to make a record, who happened to be one of the greatest ever engineers. Made Tom Petty records, after Shelly made those records, made the Cracker Kerosene Hat record, made Stones records, Keith Richards solo records, just beautiful sounding albums.
So I got like, a lot of free information from him, because I could be the annoying guy in the band. What’s he going to do? He’s not going to tell me to shut up, I was writing the songs. I was playing the instruments.
Natalie: What was the band? For curious minds?
Warren: Oh no. Yes. Yes, for — you can ask the questions below, and we’ll put links. As a musician, you can ask the dumb questions, so the thing for me for doing this is to encourage, because when you are an apprentice, you are assisting. Most of the time, these days, and for a long time now, interning, working for free, coming in, working the same 12-15 hours that I have to do, but not getting paid. That is very typical. That is very, very typical. You have to do that in LA if you want to get ahead.
You know, Alex is coming here and working for free, and he’s a paid shredding keyboard player, but he wants to make new relationships, and he’s already worked a session with Jack Douglas. And I introduced him, “Hey, Alex is a great keyboard player.” I mean, this is how you get gigs. You put yourself into situations, but I think this is important in this mentoring situation to say it’s okay to ask questions. There’s inappropriate times, like when I’m working with a singer trying to get an intimate vocal out of her, you’re like, “So what mic are you using!” That’s probably not the right time, but during setup, and I’m plugging in the mic and doing it, that was perfect to talk about it and explain, and I think it is appropriate to ask those questions, it’s just understanding — and I think it is important for us as mentors, as producers, engineers, that have interns, to impart that knowledge, because for me, the Produce Like a Pro thing is all about democratization of music, about helping each other out, about creating a real sense of community, because that old school elitism has gone, except for like, six people. The rest of the music industry is hustling and creating opportunities, and the more we help each other, the more we can grow together.
So I think for me it’s like, when I see the recording connection principle, I like it as long — and this is important — I like it if it’s done properly. I’ll be honest, it’s like, if you’re going to end up just running and doing coffee and stuff like that, it doesn’t work, but for me it works when the responsibility of the producer, the engineer, the studio owner is to properly mentor.
So as ever, please go to producelikeapro.com, sign up for the email list, and there’s some kind of subscribe thing flying around somewhere down there, so please subscribe and ask tons of questions, because we’re talking about microphones and stuff, so ask loads of questions, and I’ll try my best to answer them. You can also ask them to Natalie and she can answer them.
So have a marvelous time recording and mixing, and we’ll speak to you again soon.