I Hear Voices
The concept of “scratch” vocals is almost certainly a direct result of how completely unusable they can be, considering all of the leakage from the drums, amps and guitars that usually finds its way into their tracks. Even if that bleed could be considered acceptable, missing a note or forgetting a line would mean punching it in with everyone else playing along, which is definitely not the easiest feat to pull off. Encourage the singer to sing with an energy that is just loud enough to be clearly heard in the phones, without being so loud that it makes its way into the other mics. Stops and a capella breaks should be sung extremely softly or even mouthed, so as to keep the vocals out and the excitement in.
Here’s a really cool trick I developed from my desire to “use all of the buffalo” when recording basic tracks:
When listening back to the rhythm tracks, try muting and un-muting the scratch vocal track. You’ll usually find that the drums sound a lot more exciting and alive when the scratch vocal isn’t muted, even though the performance or sound of the vocal itself leaves a bit to be desired. This is because you essentially have an extra “room mic” at your disposal. Intros, riffs, segues, and solos where there are no vocals can be bolstered by this phenomenon, by simply muting or deleting the sections of the scratch vocal track that have vocals. The end result is a depth and “kicking up a notch” to the drum sound behind these instrumental sections, lending an even more thrilling (and live sounding) dynamic to the band’s presentation.
Can You Hear Me?
In addition to the visual cues we’ve touched upon, audio monitoring is key; if your band can’t hear the music correctly, they can’t communicate it clearly, either. Again, depending upon your situation, solutions will vary.
Most professional studios have headphone amplifiers with more than enough out puts to “feed the cans” for a large band. Presonus, Behringer, Rolls, and ART all provide solutions that can power up to four to six pairs at a time. You may not be in the market to upgrade your studio in this way just yet so, once again, you may need to improvise. If your interface or digital multitrack has two headphone outputs, you may be able to feed four pairs of headphones, utilizing cable splitters you can find at Radio Shack. This doesn’t necessarily provide you with a bona fide monitor mix though. It will be the same mix for everybody, with little or no ability to customize it to suit anyone, much less everyone.
If you have the ability to send a monitor mix (or even better, multiple monitor mixes) to the main headphone outs (or preferably a headphone amp), you’re probably good to go.
Start by taking the drums out of the headphones, except for the bass drum, which helps to anchor things for the rest of the band, especially the bass player. A decent vocal level is really one that’s just loud enough to guide the players through the song with lyrical, melodic or verbal cues. More than that is usually unwanted overkill (except to the vocalist, of course). The bassist often asks for a lot of himself in the monitors, but this can come at the expense of unwanted distortion, because the bass frequencies are hard for the small speakers in the headphone to reproduce at high volumes. If your monitor send has eq, you could cut those lower frequencies, allowing for a higher overall bass level. The guitar or keys need to find their space somewhere between all of that and it can be an arduous process to find a happy middle ground for all. Eventually you will arrive at a place where you can move forward, but keep in mind that you can’t usually get a great performance from a musician who’s unhappy with what they’re hearing. A little extra patience and effort here will pay larger musical dividends later in the session.
The time for tracking and listening back has finally arrived. Be sure to record count-ins (with or without drumstick clicks) at the beginning of each song. Something that goes “1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2…” with the last two counts silent works great and gives you cleaner band intros. Setting and/or readjusting your levels as the band performs will get you to a point where the session starts to drive itself. Relax, have fun and remember that you’re enjoying the privilege of making and recording music!
At the end of these rhythm sessions, you’ll be able to utilize all of the space, mics and other gear to get great sounds in the overdub stage. Close mic the guitar amp and add a room mic as well. Record the family piano in the corner. Sing in the hallways. Stomp and clap in the living room. Explore and discover. This is all the fun part!
Once you’ve recorded all of these tracks, you can then return to your DAW or multitrack and focus more on the finer points of editing, eq’ing and otherwise effecting your tracks on their way to the final mix stage. Arriving at out desired destination: A recording that sounds like you and your band on your very best day, giving your very best performance.
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, singer and songwriter. He will be performing at “La Mesa Holiday in the Village”(Frosty Stage) from 3:30—5pm and at 7pm that same evening, as part of the Songwriter Showcase at Java Joe’s in Old Town San Diego. Portions of this article originally appeared in Recording Magazine. Special thanks to Mike Metlay. www.recordingmag.com