RECORDING VOCALS WITHOUT HEADPHONES
***WARNING*** this is a technical blog where I explain how we’re approaching the vocals on our new record.
The time has come. That part I always fear. The part you try not to think about when you start recording an album. VOCALS.
I’m not a classically trained singer, it was only two years ago I actually learned how to breathe properly and save my vocal chords from near destruction, and over many years of recording I’ve learned one thing… I can only sing when I’m playing guitar. Why is that?
With every recording my main complaints about my voice are “I sound like I have a cold”, “I always sing flat”, “I can’t hear the emotion in that take” and “why do live recordings of my voice sound better than when we multi track.” The answer? Headphones.
I did a little research into this, and as it turns out I am not alone. I’m not the only one in the world having problems singing with headphones on. If you are like me and your engineer/producer tells you any of the following things; “It makes no difference”, “You’re just not used to the sound of your own voice” or “You just need to get used to the recording process” that’s not necessarily true. I’ve been through all this. I’ve gotten used to headphones and the initial “is that what my voice sounds like?” shock factor, but the fact of the matter is that headphones have an effect on my vocals, not just sonically but emotionally too.
I’m going to sound like a pretentious twat right now but feeling is important. If you can’t feel the emotion in what you’re singing then what is the point right? How do you do that when you’re concentrating on the extra weight on your head or how hot your ears are getting. Some people are comfortable with it but I find it hard to connect with my music if I’m not listening to the music through the ambience of my surroundings.
Ok, so that’s the arty farty pretentious reasoning out of the way there are also a few other factors that effect some singers when monitoring from headphones. The main one is breathing. Have you ever noticed that people breathe heavier when they’re listening to a personal stereo? That’s because your ears are connected to your nose and mouth, if you yawn you’ll notice that air passes through your ears. Now cover your ears and breathe, its quite disconcerting without music to distract you isn’t it. Now while covering your ears try singing, its weird huh. Now imagine your voice being fed back to you through a sound desk and into headphones without the ambient resonance of your surroundings… its a totally different ball game, right?
Alright, so now you understand that I, and many others, are not being Diva’s or just plain awkward; how do we solve this problem. Well one way would be to have one earphone on and one off (see band aid video for reference, thank you Sting and Midge Ure) this gives you a blend, another way would be to feed some artificial reverb back to your headphones. These are techniques I’ve used in the past but if I’m honest they’ve always been a compromise.
Now, I think I’ve found the solution. Just don’t use headphones. I asked Sam our engineer and producer if there was anyway we could record vocals without the use of headphones. I was only picking his brains, but this was met with a “I’ll have to research that”. A poilte way of saying “STOP BEING SO FUCKING DIFFICULT!”. However this got us thinking and we’ve found a couple of ways of doing it, and I’ll explain the method that we’re using.
Like recording anything, its not just a case of stick a mic in front of what you want to record, there are issues like phase for instance and what microphone to use in what circumstance to get the desired sound. An engineer will always want the best possible sound at all times and this normally means isolated from other sounds to make the mixing process easy and bypass any phase issues. Recording vocals and monitoring your backing track via loud speakers is not really the best way to isolate your source. But if this gets the best performance from your musician then isn’t that more important? Its a toss up but the best engineers in the world understand this and a happy medium must be found.
What Sam and I are doing is to set up a microphone in a dead room as per usual, thankfully the control room has been modified to minimise reflection. For this technique to work you need to use a microphone that best cancels out noise from behind it, like an SM58 (just go with it) set it up on a stand with your pop shield etc as normal. Now record a vocal take by monitoring sound through your loud speakers. Ok now here is the science part; NO BODY MOVE! You’re going to now record an ambient room tone, playing back the section of the song you just recorded (minus the vocal take). Once that’s done you need to invert the phase on that track. What you’ll notice is that by inverting the phase you’ve artificially created a dead spot in the room where the mic is standing. I’m not going to lie, the science of it all still goes over my head but that’s the basic theory and it works. It DOESN’T completely eradicate the spill, but what you do hear is a kin to the spill that would normally come from your headphones if you where wearing a pair.
The alternative method is to have your monitors at 90 degree angles equally distanced from each other and the microphone creating an equilateral triangle. Then invert the phase on one of your monitors. This effectively does the same thing without the need to record a room tone, but you need to keep measuring your set up to make sure that everything is equally spaced apart otherwise your null zone becomes void.
Its still a compromise though as using a condenser mic will not work as it picks up too much sound from behind the microphone. SM58s are traditionally used live because so they don’t feedback from the monitors, but they don’t have as good a dynamic range as other studio mics traditionally used for vocal recordings. This is why the picture above has 3 different microphones placed where they are. This was part of our experiment into what microphone to use on the vocals, with this technique. We recorded a few takes and it seems that the AKG set to a hypercardoid setting works the best out of all the mics at our disposal. The Beta58 and the Senheiser (whatever it is) don’t enough hi end clarity for our liking, but the AKG is something that we’ve been using for overheads on the cymbals. Thankfully it has a hypercardoid which give it a tighter area of front we need whilst making use of the microphones characteristics. If you search online you’ll notice other artists that have done this tend to elect the Sure SM7, its the tits but we can’t afford one. Maybe next time.
So there you have it. Katerwaul has been a massive pain in the arse at every turn for the boys at 45/R, but instead of beating us down with engineer high horse bullshit, they’ve embraced the challenge and found a workable solution they’re happy with to make us more comfortable enabling us to get a better performance.
If you try this yourself, let me know how you get on.