Preparing for a Vocal Session
Ways to patch a reverb into the Monitoring Chain
by Rich the TweakMeister
part 1 part 2
that occur on vocal tracks are a result
of not taking the time to properly set up the session. For this article I
will assume you are not recording yourself, but someone else. Here's the mental
checklist I use going into a vocal session and some tips to help you get it right
the first time.
1. Does the vocalist have the lyrics written down?
It is best if they were given
these a few days in advance with the rough instrumental track. This allows
them to practice in the proper key and figure out how they are going to approach
the material. If you don't take this step, the vocalist will have wing it
on the fly and do their experimenting with the clock running. If you did not
get them advance copy, do you at least have the lyrics printed out for them in a
big easy to read font? Give them a clipboard so they can write their notes
right on the lyric sheet.
2. The Mic should be set up
prior to the session and the preamp
level should be set. If you are using a compressor going in, have that
setup too. You might have to tweak that a bit once they arrive but if you
have typical generic setting already set up this will be easier.
3. You have patched a reverb into the monitoring chain.
You should not have the signal
of the reverb going to the recording input, but only to the monitors and headphones
so the vocalist hears their performance with reverb. Most vocalists will give
a better performance if they hear some depth on their voices. We'll get more
into this below.
4. Songs are loaded and it plays back as it should
Tracks are created for the incoming
audio and all systems are go. Create several empty tracks in advance. Make
sure your CPU has some headroom for the session. Freeze tracks if you need
to create more headroom.
5. Take great care to make your vocalist comfortable.
This is critical. Keep extra people
out of the session. Recording a vocal is like exposing your soul. The
vocalist may not want to do it if all your homeys are sitting there cracking stupid
jokes. It's the vocalist's performance that is going to make the song and
you want them to feel relaxed and confident. You might have some refreshments
available. Some vocalists like to have a little lemon juice to clear their
throats. Some like a little wine or water.
6. Don't make them practice too long before recording.
Vocalist's typically deliver their
best in the 1st hour of the session, so don't waste their voice on superfluous stuff.
If you need to test out different mic and preamp combinations have everything setup
to make it easy for you.
7. Never give negative feedback to a vocalist.
Don't say, "You sounded
a little off key there, lets try again". Instead, say "What did you
think of that take? They will probably say, "Oh I thought I was a little off,
I want to try it again." Let the vocalist judge their mistakes. It is their
voice on the line. You should, however, make sure they know when you hear something
you like. "That was great the way you held that note!"
8. Is your material really ready?
Of course if you are free-styling
this is not an big issue. Getting the vocalist comfortable is paramount.
But if this is a standard song with lyrics, you should have spent much time making
sure the lyrics ring out just right. This is a craft in itself. We have
writing forum here at studio-central hosted by Dugz Ink. Dugz has put
together a lot of resources for you check out on your way to writing your next song.
Ways to patch a reverb into the Monitoring Chain
You might wonder why this is a
big deal. For some vocalists, its not, but for many, it is critical and they
cannot perform without hearing their voice in reverb. But its all basically
an illusion. You are not actually recording the reverb, only the bone dry
signal. We do this because we want to be able to add reverb later when the
song is finished. This way you can choose "the right" reverb for the song
once the tracks are done. Should it be a large hall sound? Or a small
room for that intimate sound? Those decisions are best made during the mix phase.
Also many vocalists want WAY more reverb than you could ever allow in the final
mix. Its a psychological thing. Reverb kind of glues their words together
and hides some little blemishes in a nice way. They feel they are singing
better, and when they feel they are, they usually gain boldness and confidence,
which in turn can lead to a fantastic performance.
There are many ways to do route a reverb into the
monitoring chain. The way you choose depends on the gear you have on hand.
1. At the hardware mixer.
Perhaps the easiest way is at
a hardware mixer. The sends/returns, and alternative busses and direct outs
are designed for such common studio routings. However, not every mixer is
able to achieve this. Those with direct outs or an alt-3-4 bus are perfect
for the task. Basically, you need two busses for this operation, 1) a dry
bus, which sends the non-effected signal to the recorder or audio interface/soundcard
and 2) a "mix bus" that combines the wet and dry signals together. The dry
bus can be either the alt-3-4 bus or the direct out. The signal leaves the
preamp section of the mixer and goes straight to the recorder. On the mix
bus, you patch a reverb into the sends and returns of the mixer and the mixed signal
goes to the main outs, which can be monitored by headphones by the vocalist.
When using a mixer like this you want to make sure the software monitoring switch
in the sequencer is turned off, to avoid a doubled signal. Because you are
monitoring the track directly at the mixer, you do not want to monitor it post-cpu.
The signal that you monitor has no latency and will allow for excellent timing as
the vocalist sings the track.
Example Mackie 1604 VLZ Pro
CR Outs go to monitors.
Sub outs (also called ALT 1,2,3,4 here) go to soundcard inputs.
An aux send goes to the reverb, the outputs of the reverb goes into
the aux returns.
2. At the Preamp.
If you plan to add effects here,
check the preamp before you buy. Some can do this easily and some cannot.
For example, those with a zero-latency feature will have a separate send output
and a bus where you can patch in your mix out of an audio interface or hardware
mixer. An example of this kind of preamp is the Focusrite Voicemaster Pro.
This type of setup requires you have an available mix feed to send to the preamp.
The advantage here is you can give the vocalist a custom mix that includes their
voice, reverb, and the mix, and you can adjust the level of each. Many vocalists
want to hear themselves louder than the mix and want generous reverb. This
method gives it to them the way they want it. The only caution here is to
make sure you have 1. a separate hardware reverb and 2. and audio interface with
multiple outs (at least 4) or a hardware mixer which has an additional set of outputs
to feed the mix input on the preamp. Usually, a mixer tape out works great.
You want to make sure that software monitoring at the sequencer is off or you may
get a doubled signal in your monitoring chain.
Voicemaster Pro back panel
Note the FX send which
foes out to a reverb and the FX return which goes back to the preamp
from the reverb. The -10 or the +4 output sends the dry signal
to the soundcard. You connect a secondary mix out of the mixer
or audio interface to the EXT Monitor input. On the front panel
are controls for FX level, headphone level and headphone mix.
3. At the audio interface.
Check to see if there is a
cue mix feature on the audio interface. What this basically does is route
the output of the mic to both the audio track in the sequencer and to the headphone
out separately. If you have a send on the audio interface (not an insert),
the signal will go through that to a hardware reverb and you can bring it back through
another input pair that passes through without being recorded. This is a little
tricky to setup, and not all audio interfaces can handle it. Generally speaking,
those with plenty of i/o usually have some direct monitoring/effects facility.
These routings are not made in the sequencer, but in the control panel outside the
MOTU's Cuemix control
panel allows you to route signals coming in to the audio interface to
any of the outputs before the signals go into the sequencer. You
can route the mic input and additional hardware reverb inputs
as well as the sequencer output to the headphone jack to create a custom
mix tailored for the vocalist.
4. In the sequencer.
The better sequencers will have
a way to do this though it may take some experimentation to get it right.
Here you need to have software monitoring on in the sequencer. There is a
little bit of latency here, but you have to deal with it. Basically you create
a separate bus in the sequencer that is dedicated to reverb and put a reverb plugin
on it. From the recording channel, or the input monitoring channel, you create
a send to deliver the signal to the bus. At the main out of the sequencer,
you will hear the bus and the recording channel. However, only the dry mic
track is recorded. Every sequencer is a little different in the way
they implement monitoring, so here you have to get into the fine points of the manual,
but if you persevere, you will succeed.
What's a good reverb for the monitoring bus?
The good news here is that almost
ANY reverb will give the results you need. I use an Alesis Nanoverb, an inexpensive
reverb i would never use for recording, but monitoring, it's just about perfect.
You don't want to sell the farm to get a reverb that will never make it on your
tracks. Vocalists like the easy preset reverbs as they can just dial up a
setting they like.
Summing it all
If you prepare adequately for
a vocal session you have a greater likelihood of getting one of those stellar once-in-a-lifetime
performances that can make your work stand out.
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--Emerson (1803-1882) U.S. Poet