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Vocal Engineering

Vocal Engineering

By Diana Yampolsky

Over the years, I have been assisting my vocal students with the recording of their demo tapes and CD's. I have been in both the best and worst recording studios and worked with both very experienced and novice engineers. In this article, I would like to share my experience as an In-Studio Vocal Consultant/Producer/Expert. A lot of aspiring singers have no idea of what the recording of their voice entails. Let me tell you it is a completely different experience from anything you have ever done - with respect to your voice and the vocal production in general. Now you are wearing headphones and hearing the music through them - it is like having two speakers connected to your head. A completely different perception. Also, you are not singing the whole song all at once. First you are taking it a verse at a time and then, most likely, dissecting it line by line - sometimes even word by word or even syllable by syllable. You need a lot of patience as it takes a long time. Nowadays, a lot of engineers use the Pro Tools program, which allows them to cut and paste not only different words but different syllables flown from track to track. Quite a fascinating experience - however, it is not always useful. This type of recording promotes not always adequate live performance. I personally was completely shocked when I heard Marc Anthony singing a Christmas carol during a televised Christmas concert being held at the White House. The impression was that it was the very first day of his singing career. Prior to that event I was completely in love with his recorded version of "My Baby You". It possessed a perfect vocal and excellent production. His live performance did not resemble any of it. Therefore, in my opinion, it is good to use advanced technology to enhance an already great performance, but not to use it instead of the actual natural performance. Thus, I make sure that all my recording artists will be able to replicate their recordings at least 90-95% live, which is a pretty good ratio.

An important role in any recording project is played by a good, experienced engineer. If they have the proper technology and they know how to use it, they can save a lot of time and aggravation during the recording venture. As an In-Studio Vocal Consultant, I know what I want to hear on a vocal track and a good, experienced engineer will translate it back to me through the means of his technical skills. It is indeed frustrating when the engineer does not know his craft well enough to encourage faster and better production. For example, my recording artist got stuck on one word in a song. She kept dropping that word out of the context and respectively the pitch was suffering. The creative engineer found the solution. For some very mysterious reason the artist was able to sing the word acappella (also called 'On Air" in studio terminology) then the engineer added the instrumental track around that word. This was an extreme measure but in this case it was a needed last resort. At another recording session another artist kept singing one of the words very dark and heavy and the impression was that she was a semi-tone lower than she was supposed to be. The engineer found the solution - he took 4 k out of the equalizer and thus lightened up the sound. The next example is an artist who had to sing the same word on the fourth line as on the first line so that they would rhyme perfectly; for some reason they could not do so. The word on the last line was obviously shorter than the same word on the first line. The experienced engineer helped again. The word was extended through the wonder of technology via time compression/expansion (TCE). Those little details may not be heard or perceived during a live performance as the style, emotions, etc. also play a big role. But during recording everything has to be perfect, or at least close to perfect as listeners can only hear the recorded voice. This is where technology becomes very handy (when used in coordination with actual singing skills).

Through the amazing technology you can also enhance the style. You can create a "radio" effect by adding 3 or 4 k to the equalizer. You can use another program called Echo Farm - it almost works the same as a delay (echoing the previous line thus creating the mirror reflection of the main track) but better; and using this program even the demo song will sound more produced. Using either of the programs may eliminate the need for the backup harmonies and is therefore a really good trick to know about. With respect to the harmonies, you have to be very careful too. Working with one of the not-so-experienced engineers we came to the problem where the lead and the harmonies were sounding blended together - thus promoting a choir quality production instead of the Pop/R&B style. Addressing this problem to a more experienced engineer, we were able to move the lead vocal up front (using the volume rider) and keep the backup a little bit further in the back scene, thus the Pop/R&B song style was not lost or mistaken.

Sound Construction and Reconstruction

Throughout over 20 years experience being in studios, I discovered a magic button - the Fader. Once the plain track has been recorded, it can be greatly enhanced by operating the fader properly and accordingly to the phrasing, style and volume. If my client is not of the caliber of Celine Dion or Brian McKnight, they definitely need an enhancement on their tracks. Partly, as they don't sing the whole song all at once, they sometimes lose the emotion throughout the recording experience, which is totally understandable. That's where I come in with my "magic button". "Playing" with the volume I can give a song a certain lift or certain fade - whatever is required. I can make it lighter or heavier and nevertheless louder or softer. I even could give it a certain "bite", especially at the beginning of the phrases if needed. I like doing it as a last touch during the blend between the instrumental and vocal tracks. It is especially important during the production of a demo CD, as the actual mix is usually not taking place in this instance - especially if a prerecorded instrumental track was used. It's important to note that there are two ways of using the fader. The first is via volume automation done through a computer program which is not involving a manual touch. I prefer the 2nd option, which is the manual vocal riding; which is recorded from the console to the computer. In my opinion, I am able to give it a more personal touch and add more soul to the performance via this method.

In conclusion, if you are a vocalist (experienced or not so experienced), I would definitely advise you to get a Vocal Expert to go with you into the recording studio, as the engineer and/or producer may not be able to give you "sound" vocal advice. They definitely know what they want to hear, but they do not know how to interpret it to a vocalist in the language that would achieve a desirable outcome. After all, there is nothing wrong when the cardiac patient has different medical personnel working on him at the same time in the operating room. In many cases, when a person has a heart attack they are not treated solely by a cardiologist. For example, in cases of a stroke, a neurologist and brain surgeon are required to work in conjunction with the heart specialist. Given all of that, why has the concept of having a Vocal Specialist in the studio not become a standard operating procedure?