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Preparing for a Vocal Session

 Ways to patch a reverb into the Monitoring Chain


by Rich the TweakMeister

part 1  part 2  part 3

Most of the problems 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. 

Microphone Preamps


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 a lyric 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        Sub Outs                    Aux sends                         Aux returns

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.  


Example:  Focusrite 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 sequencer.


Example:  MOTU 828mk2

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. 


Alesis NanoVerb


Browse more multieffects processors


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. 

Cool threads from our forums

More Articles on Microphones and Preamps by Tweak

Mics and Preamps Index of Articles
Microphones Introduction
Mics under $100
Set up a Vocal Session
How to Process Vocal Tracks
Recording Vocals
M-audio Solaris
Cad E200
Mic Preamps
High Quality Mic Preamps
Great River ME1-NV
FMR's Really Nice Preamp
Voicemaster pro
Shure SM7b
Sennheiser MD421
Rode NT1a
ElectroVoice RE20
TLM 103 by Neumann
Shure SM57
Microphone Prices
Prices of Mic Preamps


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