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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Do You Want To Do Another Take?

posted by on April 19 at 10:45 AM

Today we’re talking with engineer / producer, Kevin Suggs, about recording vocals.

Kevin has worked with Cat Power, The Minus Five, Smoosh, and Math & Physics Club. He’s the in-studio live performance engineer at KEXP and a staff engineer at Avast!

Kevin talks about mics, compression, and getting the take. Kevin is a guru, he knows how to work musicians. He knows when to say something, and when to be quiet. During a session, you might not even notice him, and that is a skill like any other.

So tell us, Mr. Suggs, what is to know about recording vocals?


Photo: Marlon Schaeffer at Ground Control Studio - Brooklyn, NY.

Suggs: A very important part of any recording is the vocals. Music listeners tend to key on the voice, or the singing. Often, it’s what people pay attention to first.

Mic selection: When working with a vocalist that I have never recorded before, I like to do a little mic shootout first. Iíll set up a few different mics that are available, ranging from really good condensers to everyday dynamics. Iíll have the singer sing through a verse and a chorus on each mic, then come into the control room and weíll have a listen. They may be similar, but there will be one that is going to have that certain quality to it that works best with the singer’s voice. Youíd be surprised that sometimes it turns out to be the lower end everyday mics, such as the SM58 . Of course, the high end condensers and tube mics do win out much of the time as well.


Mic Placement: I like the vocalist to get right up on the mic. Microphones have what is called proximity effect. This means as the vocalist moves closer to the mic, their voice will sound warmer. Iíll put a pop filter (to minimize plosives and keep the spit off) about 2Ē from the mic and tell the vocalist to get right up to the screen.

Compression: If itís rock music and the vocals are going to be competing with big guitars Iíll squash em pretty well. 6 to 8 db (or more) of compression isnít unheard of in these cases. If the music isnít that thick you can do with a bit less compression. I always compress vocals at least a little bit to knock off the peaks. If Iím tracking to analog, Iíll hit the tape really hard. I mean bury the needle if its rock music. The tape will add more compression and give the voice a really rich tone.

Getting the performance: Itís important to get a good mix in the cans for the singer. Some singers like their vocals much louder than the music, and others like it sunk down in the mix. Whatever it takes to help them stay on pitch. I like to go for the performance. Iíll have the singer sing through the song three or four times from start to finish. Iíll record each pass and then comp them together.

Comping: Comping is the process of taking the best parts from all four takes and compiling them into one outstanding take. If after compimg there are still a few lines that arenít right, they can be punched in. I feel this method helps the singer stretch out and perform the song instead of just singing the parts.

Donít be so over critical as to produce the feeling out of a vocal track either. Iíll take a slightly flawed performance sung with mass attitude over a perfectly executed one that just lays there any day.

RSS icon Comments


-- awesome thread and post. i'm digging these studio tips and hints. very cool!!!

: )

Posted by Aaro)))n Edge | April 19, 2007 1:21 PM

Agreed. These Sound Check things are sweet.

Kevin, you talk about "buryihg the needle" and hitting the tape hard. Could you explain.

I wish I knew more than I thought I knew.

Posted by mansiontown | April 19, 2007 2:16 PM

and I meant to ask what recording Cat Power was like.

How was it getting her to get the take? Was she easy to work with?

Minus Five rock.

Posted by mansiontown | April 19, 2007 2:18 PM

What I mean by burying the needle is putting it all the way into the red and then some. You can realy get that sweet analog tone if you hit it realy hard. You don't want distortion, but even with the needle pinned all the way to the floor you should still have some room before that happens. On realy heavy rock stuff I'll keep the needle pegged whenever the singers mouth is open.

Chan was a pleasure to record. All her takes where pretty damn cool. She tottaly knew what she was going for at all times.

Posted by Kevin Suggs | April 19, 2007 2:32 PM

Thanks for keeping the vocals where most of us listeners want it--so we can hear hear hear! More Chan please.

Where in the world is Trent Moorman now?


Posted by Tante | April 19, 2007 3:02 PM

Dr. Love? I'd love some Suggs love on my project.

What do you do when the singer absolutely can't hit the note and the band doesn't have the heart to tell them it sounds horrible?

How do you kindly say, " That sucks ass. You shouldn't be anywhere close to the mic." ??

Posted by ayudame | April 19, 2007 4:12 PM

Thanks for this. I've been doing a ton of home vocal recording of late and getting the compression right has been frustrating me. I finally talked to an engineer friend who has recorded my voice and he told me that he used a band-specific compressor (like a "de-esser") on my vocals to soften the range between 2k and 3k and take out some of the piercing edge, and then another compressor (usually a tube simulator) for the whole thing. Trying to figure this stuff by trial and error when there are literally thousands of possible options is truly maddening.

Posted by flamingbanjo | April 19, 2007 4:14 PM

and what is the Trent nudeness status? Kevin, any word?

Posted by bleezy | April 19, 2007 4:15 PM

Well, I haven't come across many singers that are just beyond help. If someone is having a hard time I'll just be patient. Sometimes they don't have the mix right or don't even know what they need to hear in order to sing better. It can take a while to figure out what works best in their mix. The beauty of the studio is that you only need to hit the note once and then you have it on tape. If every note they sing is wrong, well then you have a problem. I try not to use the term "Sucks Ass" too much. It sorta brings the vibe down.

Yes, compression is a wonderful thing. Most compressors roll off a little high end naturally. That helps smooth out the voice as well

Posted by Kevin Suggs | April 19, 2007 4:31 PM

did someone say cat power chan marshall rules

I think trent is in the NYC

Posted by rafael | April 19, 2007 4:44 PM

keep the posts coming these inside the mic posts are awesome

Posted by Amadeus | April 19, 2007 4:45 PM

Yes, Trent is in NYC. Was supposed to be in North Adams, Mass. but we had some equipment issues.

New Haven tomorrow.

Thanks a bunch, Kevin. Doctoria de amor.

Posted by trent | April 20, 2007 2:21 AM

Great piece. One clarification: the "Proximity Effect" means there's a disproportionate increase in the bass response of the microphone. This effect is less pronounced in dynamic cardiod microphones (like the SM58 you mentioned) than in omni or bi-directional condenser mics. My experience is that this extra bass boost can make instruments sound "boomy", which is why the SM57 (same guts as the SM58) is popular on guitars, a bit back from the amplifier's face. Thanks Kevin & Trent!

Posted by Scott Kennedy | April 20, 2007 11:33 AM

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