Zen of Recording

Anatomy of a Vocal

Recently, I happened upon this “sidebar” that was included within an article about recording vocals that I wrote for Recording magazine in the spring of 2013. It’s incredibly specific in its references to the tools and techniques used, which is most notable for the fact that I no longer use any of these products except for the Recording King guitar and very rarely, the Eurkea channel strip. Thanks, as always, to Music Maker Publications editor Mike Metlay for graciously allowing me to share this with you here.

While preparing to record the Seaholm Mackintosh album Monarchs, we knew that we wanted the core of it to represent our live presentation: two-part harmonies with one or two acoustic guitars and a minimum of overdubs. To that end, most of the songs were recorded “live in the studio” with both of us playing and singing at the same time. Subtle atmospheric touches were added later. Ironically, the song “If I Were A Bird” best showcases this simplistic approach, even though it was tracked separately, due to scheduling constraints. Here’s how we did it.

I first recorded my acoustic guitar performance in Vegas Video 9, using an Avantone CV 12 tube mic aimed parallel to the upper bout of my Recording King RO-16 000 style acoustic guitar, at a distance of about a foot away. I find that this position gives the best tone without the unwanted bass heaviness you can reap from sound hole miking, or the distracting fret squeaks that can result from a 12th-fret neck positioning. This mic was connected to a PreSonus Eureka channel strip, with the compression set to a 5:1 ratio, with a medium-fast attack, a medium release time and no eq. I played to a click set at 118 BPM.

I performed the song several times until I was satisfied with the feel, then I comped the takes together into a solid guitar part.

I then set up a track for my vocals using an MXL V87 condenser mic going into a second PreSonus Eureka channel strip with the compression set to a 4:1 ratio, at a fast attack, with a medium-fast release time. I also added some very subtle eq to the signal, boosting 1dB at 200 Hz with a medium “Q” for some body, 1 db at 800 Hz also medium Q to bring the vocal a little more “forward” and 3 db at 20 kH with a narrow Q z for a touch of “air.”

I engaged “Loop Record” and laid down several vocal takes, settling upon Take 6 as the best and therefore the basis for my “master” take. I began to listen through the song but quickly became distracted by some pitch issues and a dynamic unevenness of the vocal in relation to the guitar. I decided to instantiate AutoTune with some very light pitch correction (Retune: 41, Tracking: 35, ‘Chromatic’ mode with A#, C#, D#, and F# disabled) a touch of Waves RVerb (www.waves.com)and a bit of limiting via the free Antress “Modern Lost Angel” LA-2A simulation VST plug-in. Then, I carefully listened through again, inserting markers at the points I felt may need further fixing.

After I had comped together a vocal performance I was satisfied with, my attention returned to the guitar/vocal balance. Since this guitar part would be the primary instrumental backing for the song, I wanted to be sure it stayed focused and provided a strong foundation for the vocals. After some experimenting, I found an unorthodox solution by running the guitar through iZotpe’s Nectar vocal processor, even though it’s technically not intended for that purpose. I subsequently exported that effected guitar to a stereo file and replaced the original mono track with it.

I added some handclaps and decided to switch the reverb to Cakewalk’s Sonitus:fx Reverb.

Later that day, we tracked four takes of the female vocal, singing into the same Avantone CV 12/Presonus Eureka setup I had used for the acoustic guitar. Again no eq was applied, as the CV12 innately has a beautiful “lift” above 10 kHz, which suits female voices particularly well. We edited those takes together quickly, but that still left a couple of trouble spots which were promptly re-sung. The compression from the Eureka and the CV 12’s tube, along with a solid harmony performance meant that no further effects were required, apart from a touch of reverb.

She then added a whistle solo, which was subsequently thickened by duplicating the track, pushing the copy back about 100 milliseconds and rolling off the highs above 1.2 Khz and the lows below 320 Hz. I also added a touch of compression via PSP’s Old Timer compressor to the original whistle track and panned them apart 33% and 66% respectively.

Finally, we decided the arrangement needed a little more “weight” at the bottom, so I added a simple bass part with a cheap old Yamaha played through a UA 6176, compressed at 8:1 with a 4.5 dB Low shelf boost at 200 Hz and a 4.5 dB high shelf boost at 7 kHz.

After panning our vocals apart slightly to intimate our live performance setup, the only volume automation we did was to the beginning of the whistle solo and adjusting the trim on a few of the clips in my vocal. The result is a recording that very closely replicated our live sound!

Monarchs was released in 2012 and received a San Diego Music Award nomination for Best Pop Album. Visit https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/seaholmmackintosh to hear, buy or know more.

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