We are mixing an album. Everything is progressing well, but there are problems with some of the initial recordings. Most of these are related to vocals. Sometimes they are actual problems, such as the vocal sounds too much like in a box and no amount of equalization can correct for that. Sometimes, it is not clear that there is an actual problem, but the vocalist is not happy either way. Perhaps the melody was not right. Perhaps the melody is correct, but a syllable does not hit the right pitch, there is a glaring "aaa", the timing of a word is out of place, and so on and so on.
Vocalists tend to complain about their own vocals. For some reason, they always find mistakes with their own vocals, but often accept the vocals of others. As an engineer, I find it difficult sometimes to acknowledge complaints. As a singer, I must often step back and rethink my complaints about my own vocal tracks.
It is true that vocal tracks are subject to more problems that, say, guitar tracks. The glaring "aaa" is a vocal problem. Compression is so much more often needed for vocals. And so, I have begun collecting tips for the recording of vocals.
- I practice my song, hopefully working on the version that will be recorded. Many problems can be avoided by simply being comfortable with the song. In a practiced song, there will be fewer problems with “aaa”, sibilance, “p” pops and fewer syllables out of pitch. At a minimum, the singer will know the lyrics and will not have to glance at the sheet of lyrics. Most importantly, the singer can relax, focus on emotion, and let the voice open and flow, which will produce a more natural and enjoyable recording. I have seen well recorded unpracticed songs, but that is rare.
- I practice my song in the appropriate key. Someone told me that most people have a vocal range of about 11 notes. This is quite narrow. This range will force many melodies in a specific key. Apparently, most of my blues songs end up in G minor / B flat. This is not to say that all are there. At the end of the day, it all depends on the melody. In any case, it is best to work out the melody and key that fits the voice, than to force the voice to reach notes that it cannot.
- A friend just played with a vocal melody that was quite complex. In short, he changed a blues vocal to something that he said sounded like a pop vocal. Now I am having trouble with the guitar solos. It is the same song, but the same soloes do not work. The pop vocals seem to require that the guitar steps out of the pentatonic scale into the minor scale. Otherwise the dialogue between the vocal and the guitar does not work. This might seem obvious, but these have to work together. This applies not only to melody and arrangement, but also to the production. So, for example, the reverb on the instrumental accompaniment may require reverb on the vocals. Even if the reverberated vocals sound strange by themselves, they may be better in the mix.
- Harmonies work well in certain music styles. In these styles, even if barely noticeable, they tend to hide minor mistakes, give thickness to the vocals and tend to minimize the timbre differences between the vocals and instruments, which differences sometimes make even good vocal recordings sound odd.
- For my vocals, there are specific types of harmonies that work better than others. My harmonies tend to be converging. They may start with a different melody and occasionally deviate from the main vocal melody in a few places, but often converge to the main vocal melody towards the end of the phrase or line. I tend to use two vocals in the harmonies in addition to the main vocal. One is higher pitched than the main, often at the fifth or third of the main vocal. The second is an octave lower than the first harmony, repeating the melody of the first harmony, perhaps simply providing coloration to the first harmony. The few times when I did not use this approach, I was harmonizing on top of someone else’s vocals.
- Compression works, but too much compression loses the natural qualities of the vocal (I suppose depending on the attack and release). I have now resorted to using a one threshold traditional compression at ratios of 4:1 or 5:1 at thresholds that barely clean up the significantly protruding peaks of the wave (attack of approximately 1 ms, release at 250 ms, forward looking envelope detector of about 3 ms).
- Compression on the harmonies could be quite more serious (at lower thresholds). In some sense, losing the natural qualities of the vocals in the harmonies can be beneficial, as then they become a better part of the instrumental accompaniment. Of course, it could just be that this is what I am used to hearing elsewhere. We tend to prefer whatever we are used to, whether better or not. Compression does wonders in making sure that harmonies and the main vocal do not come in and out.
- The proper setup is essential (as with every other instrument) – microphones, placement, signal levels, room, etc. The thing about vocals though is that different set ups work better for different vocals. I have now resorted to using cheaper mikes and mike preamp's, but ones that give my vocals specific bass-heavier qualities that I like.
- The whole setup should be remembered. It is very possible to try to overdub vocals only to realize that either the singer or the mike move a foot or so in the room or from each other and now the recorded vocal sounds like a different person.
- Notwithstanding, I try to get all vocal tracks in the same day. I recently played with my own vocal recordings from five years back, only to realize that my vocals are different now that I am five years older. It seems almost impossible to get the same timbre vocals on a different day, even if the setup is the same.
- Unfortunately, every so often I have to step back. As I get excited about the recording and plough through tracks, I tend to not notice or ignore issues, that I notice later. When all tracks are laid out, I may put the song aside for days. Only when coming back as an unbiased listener I notice these issues.
I realize that none of the above will make me a better singer or a composer – perhaps a slightly better engineer. Surely, it will help me save time and nerves.