By Jeannie Deva
When I mention “record producer” or “recording engineer” to just about anyone in the music business, I usually get an understanding nod. If, however, I say “vocal producer,” more often than not, I see looks of uncertainty about who that is and what they do.
What is it about the vocals that would necessitate a vocal producer? A guitarist doesn’t need a guitar producer, so what about the vocals is different?
Starting in the mid 1980’s, my involvement with producing recorded vocals began as a response to singers coming to me complaining of difficulties in the studio. They were blowing-out and not giving the performance their producer was trying to get from them and recording sessions were arduously dragging on well beyond projected budgets. Over the years my involvement advanced into a more encompassing role––that of vocal producer.
In this article I’ll share with you tips and advice from my own experience working with singers in the studio as well as those of several of my colleagues who are Multiplatinum, Grammy-winning engineers, producers and A&R reps. In the end I hope you will gain an understanding of how a vocal producer might help you record hit songs and when it would be appropriate to involve one in your project.
Let’s start from the beginning. What’s so special about the vocals? What is it about studio singing that would require a specialist?
Vocals Sell the Song
“It’s the singer, not the song,” sang Mick Jagger way back when. Well, okay––the song DOES matter, but I think you get the point: The singer is the focal point of any recording. No matter how great the rest of your band, the audience usually recognizes you by the sound of your singer.
On your recording, the sound, style, personality and performance of the vocal must be of utmost quality. If so, it will capture attention and interest, building your audience and making hit songs possible for you. In fact, if the singer really knows his/her craft and the recording captures it properly, it’s even possible to transform a “ho-hum” song into something fresh and memorable: such is the potential of an expressive, musical and passionate singer
Singing in the studio is an art unto itself. As anyone who has both live stage performance and recording experience knows, studio vocal recording is vastly different. To start with, the voice is an acoustic instrument. It is “played” based on how the singer hears herself. There’s a sonic loop between ears and mind that is intuitively used by the singer to monitor the muscle actions of their voice. The many components involved in studio recording can and will influence not only how you sing––affecting your vocal performance—but how you end up sounding on playback. In addition, the choices of gear and various “tricks of the trade,” can greatly influence the sound quality of the vocal recording.
Singer or Setup?
Sometimes the singer is just not ready to go into the studio and lay down an amazing vocal performance; they need more pre-production on the songs and possibly more vocal technique and exercise to develop their voice and sing more freely. But just as often, during my years of coaching and producing singers in studios around the world, I’ve witnessed many producers and engineers who thought the singer was subpar when the actual source of the difficulty was poor choice of gear and inappropriate studio set-up.
In one of the first recording sessions I was brought into, the vocalist was having a great deal of difficulty singing the high notes on pitch and without strain. The producer kept whispering to me that the singer had a big pitch problem. After a few takes that were pretty bad, I went into the vocal booth, put on the headphones and asked for the track to begin playing. As I tried singing into the mic, I found that the EQ cut off the treble part of the sound spectrum. This made singing the higher notes impossible! I directed a change in the headphone EQ so as to “open” the treble and instantly the singer had no pitch problems.
The Two Sides of Vocal Recording
There are two sides to vocal recording: the singer’s performance and the technical production. The choice of recording gear and technical set-up joins the two sides together. If you add musical arrangement, instrumentation and post-production that are all conceived to support the singer and the song message––voilà! You have a final result that can be truly exciting.
To help the singer capture the most outstanding vocal performance possible, each element of the vocal signal chain or pathway must be uniquely chosen and matched to the specific attributes of the singer. This signal path typically includes: type of mic and headphones, type of preamp and setting, make and model of compressor (some are smoother and less obtrusive than others), the EQ, the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, a type of recording software such as Logic or Pro Tools). Even the type of cables, such as those made by Blue or Monster, can make a difference in the sound.
Prior to entering the studio, singers have enough to deal with just practicing and developing their song performances without also having to get trained in the technology of vocal recording and studio gear. And once in the studio, the undistracted focus should be on their singular role and achievement of vocal performance. So, who ya gonna call?
Enter the Vocal Producer–The Recording Artist’s Secret Weapon
A good vocal producer knows the difference between a great vocal performance—one that truly sells the song—versus one that could be better and specifically how it could be better so as to help the singer make it great. Understanding rhythm, phrasing, harmony, note choice and music structure would be part of this skill. By the time the session is over, the vocal producer makes sure there is enough selection of performance takes to create the perfect vocal compilation in the editing and mixing. Toward the end, while the session is underway, every second of each vocal pass is accounted for by the vocal producer ensuring everything will add up to a stunning vocal performance.
To achieve trust and maintain teamwork with the singer, a vocal producer needs good communication skills and has to know how to give constructive criticism and positive reinforcement that is honest. As the multi-Grammy-winning vocal producer Kuk Harrell says, “It’s never, ‘Man you screwed up.’ I can tell Jennifer [Lopez] she’s not singing it the right way without telling her that she’s not singing it the right way.”
In speaking with my colleagues, I’ve found that the description of the vocal producer’s role has variations. Some vocal producers also wear the hat of engineer concurrent with giving directions and guidance to the singer. But a vocal producer does not need to be an engineer.
Some producers simultaneously wear three hats: producer, engineer and vocal producer. However, especially with less experienced engineers/producers who don’t have training as a singer or vocal coach, I’ve observed that trying to do those jobs at the same time can compromise the production of the final vocal. And there are many vocal producers who, like me, prefer to focus all of our attention on the singer and so work in tandem with an engineer and the producer of the overall recording project.
Regardless of our differences, on one thing we all agree: A vocal producer is there to elicit the emotion, style, believability and best performance from the singer during studio recording.
The Importance of a Second Set of Ears
AGT finalist of 2013, singer and award-winning songwriter Deanna DellaCioppa knows both sides of studio vocal production. She has been the vocal producer for sessions with such notables as Sophia Grace (60 million YouTube views) and Paula Abdul. Deanna has extensive studio experience singing background vocals for artists such as Celine Dion and, most recently, multiple backing vocals for Justin Bieber’s song “Prayer.”
“We can be our own worst critic,” she told me. “I do not enjoy vocal producing [my own performance] while I’m in the booth for this reason; having a second set of ears outside the booth helps tremendously. As the singer I only want to focus on giving a solid, emotion-filled vocal. I do not want to focus on keeping track of which takes were best, what harmony I should use or the overall vocal arrangement.”
Khaliq Glover (aka Khaliq-O-Vision), producer, Grammy-winning engineer (Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Prince) and mixing specialist shared this with me: “Making a record that communicates and connects with an audience that can’t see you face-to-face is a skill that takes time to develop and it usually needs external guidance. You have to nail a combination of feeling, being on pitch, being on rhythm, having dynamics, having great tone and breathing in the right place. That’s a lot, and it can mess with your head unless you have somebody who can help you keep your eye on the prize and not let you get down on yourself.
“The vocal producer,” he continues, “is there to guide and extract the performance from the singer, which also includes the quality of their voice during various sections of the song. Understanding the difference can go a long way towards capturing an awesome performance. Connection to the lyrics is probably the biggest key to a great performance and a great vocal producer will always make sure that the singer is actually feeling what they are singing so that the emotion comes through.”
The Session Vocal Coach
If the producer is not also an experienced session singer or trained voice teacher, as I am, involving a vocal coach in your recording sessions could be a wise move. I’ve heard any number of faulty directions given to singers by producers that include what to do physically to get a certain vocal sound. As the producer was not a trained voice teacher or coach, many of these directions were in fact making singing more difficult.
A vocal coach who knows how the voice works and is armed with techniques to help the singer use their voice freely without blow-out can make a huge difference in the studio. While a vocal producer will give directions pertaining to performance and style, the vocal coach helps the singer know how to do that. I recently worked on a project at Capitol Records with Warren Huart (Multiplatinum producer/vocal producer, mixer, engineer and A&R consultant for Capitol Records) and this is what he had to say: “The best vocal coaches I have worked with have helped to put the artist at ease and warm up their voice without straining them. If an artist has already established a long-term successful relationship with a vocal coach, it can be a great benefit to have them present, especially at the start of a vocal session.”
A session vocal coach or a vocal producer who is additionally a vocal technique expert will be able to help the singer nail the performance while assisting the singer to troubleshoot any vocal or equipment problems that would hinder a free and expressive vocal performance.
Here’s a story to illustrate: Recently a singer studying voice technique with me arrived complaining about a recording session she’d had the previous night. The producer was trying to get her to sing the pre-choruses in a breathy voice but kept telling her that in doing so, her volume was too low. To remedy the lower volume, he told her to “push” her voice out while singing breathy.
The result was that her voice soon blew out, they didn’t get what he wanted for the pre-chorus and in her lesson the next day I had to rehabilitate her voice. Breathy singing is a subdued sound and it cannot be done loudly without straining the voice. If I had been present in the studio, I would have tracked the breathy pre-choruses separately from the rest of the song so that the recording levels could be raised. In the lesson I showed her how to cup her mouth with her hands so that her breathy sound would be amplified by the microphone. Using that technique in the next day’s session, she gave her producer the sound and feel he was looking for without having to “push” and blow out her voice.
In the Studio
• Set-up: The first thing your vocal producer will do together with the engineer is set up the session. Determining the correct match of mic for you can take about 20 minutes of trying out several to determine the one that brings out the best in your voice. When multiple songs are part of the project, the same mic will normally be used for continuity of sound throughout the album or EP. Once the mic has been matched and the headphone mix is comfortable for you to sing easily, the actual session starts.
• Coordinate with the Producer: It is important that everyone is on the same page. “You must all have the same vision for the song,” says Deanna DellaCioppa. “If you (producer, vocal producer and singer/rapper) do not share the same vision for the end result, this is a huge problem. The producer generally has final say over the final product, so it is the vocal producer’s job to be sure that is captured from the singer.”
• Go for Performance: The entire focus of the singer should be on the performance, not on technique. Any vocal “glitches” can always be fixed in one of three ways: 1. Digital editing such as using auto tuner software. 2. A compilation track for the lead vocal created later (selecting the best sections of different “takes”) 3. ”Punching” (to re-record that phrase or section).
• Full Takes or Sections?: As many of us do, Warren Huart decides on his session approach based on the singer and the song: “Some singers can perform songs best in single, full takes. Some songs and/or singers require recording the song in sections. You have to be open to trying different things to find the best approach for the situation and not just using one methodology.” As I mentioned earlier, when a song has big contrasts in volume, I prefer to record them separately. This allows the engineer to set the input volume correctly for each section so that the singer can use the appropriately contrasting vocal approaches
• The Final Track: Once the vocal producer is certain that several choices of great performances have been tracked for each part of the song, the singer’s job is done and the editing and compilation begins. The ears and objectivity of a good vocal producer are invaluable in searching through all the vocal takes just recorded, fixing notes as needed and piecing together sections to make up the final track.
• Last Steps: With the vocal compilation track completed, mixing and then mastering are the important final steps. As long as the tracking has been done right, you’ll have all the ingredients needed for your mixing engineer and producer to create the magic. But that’s a subject for another day.
Who Uses Vocal Producers?
Kuk Harrell is the vocal producer for artists such as Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez. Warren Huart has vocal produced artists such as: Isaac Slade (the Fray), James Blunt, Marc Broussard, Tori Kelly and Ace Frehley (formerly of Kiss). But you don’t have to be an artist signed to a record label to use a vocal producer. It depends upon whether you want to achieve a level of quality that a record label would consider good enough to represent, distribute and broadcast.
Aubrey Whitfield, a British producer, mix engineer and founder of London-based indie label 2ube Records, explains something I’ve heard echoed by other labels: “If you approach me and you have a release-ready record that doesn’t need re-recording, then that’s going to catch my attention. Why? …. We won’t have to re-record you. So think smartly and produce something that competes with current Top 40 releases and you’ll be halfway there.”
For lesser budget projects still striving to have the edge of radio-ready songs, you might consider tracking your instruments in your home or project studio. Then track your vocals with a vocal producer in a pro-studio and complete the recording with a mixing/mastering specialist.
The Business of Hiring
Vocal producers and session vocal coaches are hired in any number of different ways. They are hired by artists, labels, managers and even publishers to work by the hour, at a flat rate per song or for the entire project. “Every project is different; there is no [standard] cost,” Warren Huart shared with me. “Also, I generally receive points on album sales. Points fluctuate depending on whether you are working on just the vocal or the whole track plus the vocals.”
Producer points are a percentage of royalties received for working on a commercially sold album. A point would be equal to one percent of the retail or wholesale price of an album. One or two points would be typical, but superstar producers such as Kuk Harrell can demand higher percentages. Indeed, a 2012 New York Times article included: “Having the certainty of Mr. Harrell’s ear comes with a price: several thousand dollars per song and, more significant, a cut of the royalties.”
Since production can also get into co-writing, arranging, etc. and this goes beyond points and enters into publishing rights, anything can be negotiated into a contract. Just make sure you enlist a qualified entertainment attorney if contracts are involved.
(Article reprinted by permission of Music Connection Magazine)
About the Author
JEANNIE DEVA is a Grammy member, the originator of The Deva Method®, Complete Voice Technique for Stage and Studio™, a published author, a graduate in composition and arranging from Berklee College of Music and a recording studio vocal producer/vocal coach endorsed by engineers and producers of, among others, Aerosmith, Elton John, Bette Midler, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones. Based in Los Angeles, she also coaches online worldwide and travels on location. For info: JeannieDeva.com, @JeannieDeva
For More information on the 12th Annual IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), go to: http://www.inacoustic.com
Acoustic Guitar For The Recording Songwriter
Sage advice on recording guitars at home
Recording acoustic guitar is a love/hate relationship for me. The beauty and tone of tracking with a nice high-end acoustic guitar, such as a Taylor 810, into a great preamp, such as the Neve 1073, ought to be on everyone’s bucket list. The phrase “tone for days” lives in that recording chain.
On the other hand, tracking acoustic guitar can be a headache. It is a much more involved process than simply sticking any old microphone in front of your guitar’s sound hole and expecting it to sound as epic and elegant as imagined. It takes knowledge, cleverness, and patience to find the right gear and set up that works for you, your budget, your room, and your desired results/sound.
In this article I will give you an honest rundown of the “dos and don’ts”, “that could be cool to try”, and “hmm, I heard about Sylvia Massy doing this trick once”, for recording acoustic guitars at your home studio.
My favorite working solution for recording acoustic guitars anywhere is with my iPhone 5S. (I will pause as you laugh. Done now? Okay.) As a guitarist and songwriter, I want ideas captured when inspiration strikes. There is no better way to capture the moment than by using your cell phone, since it’s easy and usually next to you. If you use an iPhone, try using the Voice Memos app to capture ideas in a split second; it’s where my best, worst, and most honest ideas live in their infancy. Inspiration hits and I immediately reach for my phone and track the idea before it’s gone. It is as about as simple as it comes in terms of recording, but in some cases, the most important—the genesis of creation.
The engineer and tone junkie in me stands up and objects. We also need to capture the sound, man! The richness, depth, brilliance, and punch of an acoustic guitar obviously deserves a better final resting place than on the Voice Memos of an iPhone. Without further ado, let’s dive straight into the deep end and explore all there is to recording acoustic guitars in a home studio.
Before you track, it’s wise to invest in new strings and a reliable tuner. The guitar ought to be properly intonated, and in tune, with fresh clear strings. Make sure the guitar’s strings are properly stretched out so tuning issues become less problematic.
Next, consider where your tracking room is relative to where the guitar is. More specifically, is your studio cold, hot, or say 72 degrees? Do you live in Colorado where it can be freezing outside but your studio is nice and warm inside? A guitar will not stay in tune until it gets comfortable in the room you’ll be tracking in, so try to leave the acoustic in the room/studio (out of its case!) for about 45 minutes prior to tracking.
This will definitely help allow it to stay in tune and let the wood settle in and adjust. During that time, tune every once in a while to make sure the neck and body temperature of the guitar and room begin to agree. Otherwise a cold guitar goes sharp, while a hot guitar goes flat.
Are you tracking with a pick, or your finger? The use of different pick shapes, sizes and thickness will alter your tones and recording. From experience, begin with a medium pick and adjust accordingly. Also, have options and experiment as to which you prefer sonically. Lastly, remember that fingers will produce a tone and volume that is much different than a pick of any size or thickness.
Every guitarist and engineer has a different idea of what sounds “best” when recording guitar. You will need to understand the factors involved and how they contribute to a final result you’ll find pleasing.
The first thing needed to get a good guitar sound is a good sounding guitar. It is simple, but it is true—a guitar’s tone and timbre will have a much larger impact on your recordings than whichever microphone you choose and which set up you opt for. With that in mind, what kind of guitar do you have to track with? Obviously a Taylor will sound vastly different than a Martin or a Fender. Is your guitar bright and detailed, or warm and rich? What kind of wood is it made of? Is it a dreadnought, auditorium, jumbo, concert, or baby?
This will dictate the guitar’s tone and what to base your subsequent decisions on, in terms of microphones and room ambience while tracking. If you own a bright guitar, perhaps you’ll favor a darker, richer-sounding microphone to balance out your sound. On the other hand, perhaps going with a brighter sounding microphone will enhance the brightness you may want to capture as your sound. Ultimately, the only person who knows that answer is you.
Having a good sounding room is important. What’s even more important is that you don’t have a bad sounding room. Ask yourself: is your room overly bright, or dull-sounding? Either natural sound is somewhat adjustable.
In general, I prefer a more lively room. If your room is dull, has poor sound quality, or lacks live vibrant acoustics, then your acoustic guitar tracks will naturally lack excitement via room reflections. Also, a lively room will make the exact mic position a bit less critical, since harder surfaces will cause the sound to bounce all around the room.
To get the most liveliness out of your room, position yourself near hard reflective surfaces. Hard floors without carpet, uncovered walls, and even hard-surfaced furniture can augment your room’s live sound. To further augment your room, try leaning sheets of metal or hardwood boards against one or more walls. This is also a solution found in major recording studios.
On the other hand, if your room is too bright and reflective, try the following to deaden your space. David “Davie” Martinez (Capitol Studios, Stagg Street Studio) recommends hanging up blankets over walls to kill reflections, and placing a rug on the floor if there isn’t carpet. Mic placement in those situations usually depends on where the quietest part of the room is; dealing with noise inside and outside can be a never-ending battle in a home studio!
Barry Conley, veteran engineer and educator, prefers not to have too much liveliness in the recording space when tracking. If the room is too reverberant or unpleasant sounding, Barry will throw down some carpet on the floor and drape some packing blankets over mic stands, even building a little room by surrounding the playing area (on both sides and in back of the guitarist) to make a deader environment. In these applications, Barry would close-mike the guitar; more on this below.
Jeff Gartenbaum (The Village Recorder) recommends something similar. Take a boom microphone stand and hang or drape packing blankets over it. Then those draped mic stands are placed around the microphone and/or the guitarist to better isolate sound and eliminate any nasty room sounds.
For a more permanent solution that will help all recordings, not just guitars, consider treating your room. Try bass traps and other diffusion materials in key areas such as corners, where the walls meet the floor, and potentially a “cloud” over your head to treat the ceiling’s reflections. Proper room treatment will allow you options, when it comes to either close or distant miking, for blending in the sound of your room’s ambience.
Besides your guitar, the microphone or microphones you have for tracking will dictate your decision-making in terms of setup and recording. It is best to take some time exploring your options and determining your budget, as each microphone has its own vibe and characteristics that are its sonic footprint. These footprints are why the microphone ought to be chosen for pairing with the guitar, so that the tone will be there with little left to add or subtract during mixing.
Microphones vary from dynamic, to condenser to ribbon. Each type of microphone has its own inherent strengths and weaknesses. These fine-tooth comb details are worth exploring, as are their individual frequency responses. The inherent frequency response is why you ought to or ought not to pursue using a particular microphone. In general, condenser microphones are the “go-to” for tracking acoustic guitar; their accentuated high end complements the sparkle and definition of the guitar. Large-diaphragm condensers and small-diaphragm condensers each have their place and validity of use. Dynamic and ribbon microphones also have their place and can yield some cool, sometimes unexpected results when used wisely.
A dynamic mic is a tiny “speaker in reverse”. They have strong sound in the upper mids but a slow response to transients like pick noise and a rolled-off frequency response. Ribbon mics have been around forever, and use a tiny metal ribbon in a magnetic field to capture sound. They can be delicate but have a smooth tone with less accentuated highs and very present lower midrange.
Condensers are thought of as having the widest frequency response, mainly due to their clear and present high end. A condenser is a capacitor, and the diaphragm of the mic is a capacitor that turns vibrations into electricity. The sound and performance of a condenser mic depends on the size of its diaphragm; in very general terms, larger diaphragms have a rich and detailed sound but a less even off-axis response, while smaller diaphragms provide more “focus” for close miking.
Next, consider your mic’s pickup pattern. Cardioid has its highest sensitivity at the front, becoming less sensitive on the sides, and rejecting sound coming from the rear of the mic. These mics have a pronounced proximity effect—an increased low-end boost as you get closer to your sound source.
Omnidirectional mics pick up sounds with equal amplitude from all directions, and have no proximity effect. Bidirectional (figure-8) microphones pick up sound in the front and back, but not so much on the sides; these quieter directions are called nulls. The figure-8 pattern is typical of ribbon microphones, but is also found in some condenser microphones; it has the most pronounced proximity effect. Typically, a cardioid pattern will fit a smaller room better than an omni pattern microphone. Omnis often require a room found at a high-end recording studio or professionally treated space.
I will mention some of my personal choices below, but a comprehensive list of mics and manufacturers is impossible to include here. I use mics by AKG, Neumann, Royer Labs, Sennheiser, and Shure on a regular basis, but there are great mics out there from ADK/3Zigma, AEA, Audio-Technica, Audix, Blue, Bock Audio, Brauner, Cascade, Chameleon Labs, Cloud, Coles, DPA, Ear Trumpet Labs, Earthworks, Electro-Voice, Josephson, JZ, Kel, Lauten, Lawson, Lewitt, Manley (shown in the photos), Microtech Gefell, Milab, Mojave Audio, MXL, Oktava, Pearl Labs, Pearlman, Peluso, Placid Audio, RØDE, Samson, sE Electronics, Shinybox, Sontronics, Telefunken, and many others.
As I mentioned before, since the acoustic guitar incorporates a lot of important high-frequency information, using a condenser mic instead of a dynamic or ribbon is rather common. Despite that, dynamics and ribbons most definitely have their place in any recording, whether in a home studio or at a high-end professional studio.
The Shure SM57, a workhorse on snare, electric guitar and vocals, is also useful for acoustic guitar. Most studios typically have at least one 57, so give it a try—it can be useful if you only can afford one microphone for tracking vocals and guitars. SM57s have a woody percussive tone when used to track acoustic guitars. For adding beef to a song or mix via acoustic guitar, the 57 just might do the job.
Paul Logus of PLX Mastering has the following to say. “For home projects, my go-to mic for acoustics is a 57. I set the mic at same height as my head, about two feet or so in front of my face, angled down 45 degrees at the sound hole. Also, I sometimes use a Radio Shack PZM [a “pressure-zone” or boundary mic], placed on my right knee, to record my 12-string with a light pick. Best $50 I ever spent.”
An interesting and unexpected microphone choice is the Copperphone by Placid Audio. It sounds like an old AM radio, and sometimes gives just the right amount of vibe for a part. [To learn more, see Paul Vnuk’s review of the Copperphone Mini on page 18.—MM] Another suggestion, while slightly off topic, is the use of a DI or onboard pickup to send your acoustic to an amplifier, which you can mic up. This can be an interesting tool for eliminating bleed or spill if tracking vocals and guitar at the same time, and with the added benefit of being able to drive the guitar amp near or into harmonic distortion for some unexpected crunch and even fuzz on your acoustic.
With the specific microphone type in mind, I think the next thing you ought to do is determine your budget, as the microphones mentioned vary from affordable, to serious money. You get what you pay for with these microphones as quality and tone doesn’t come cheap. On the other hand you don’t absolutely need to spend a lot of money to capture great tone. An old studio adage comes to mind here: “It’s the fool, not the tool.”
In terms of what to buy, I think being hands on makes the most sense. I suggest spending some time and money renting microphones or borrowing friends’ microphones to try out, and get a sense of what works best with your setup and room. Reading reviews and doing your homework also makes sense. With that being said, there is nothing more educational than being hands-on, doing comparisons of microphones to see what works best for you. Again, there is no predefined or “best” microphone to choose, only what is right or best for you and your budget.
There are a few ways that I recommend trying first, as they are tried and true recording methods. Later, we’ll look at less common methods and explore some interesting ideas to try in your studio recording space.
The most common miking technique is placing your mic about six inches to one foot away, somewhere in the vicinity of where the guitar’s neck and body meet. This is where with a single mic you can typically get a good balance of body warmth and resonance, as well as detail and brightness from the strings. This is a great starting place, but fine tune adjustments usually let you dial in the sweet spot. To this end, I suggest aiming somewhere between the 12th and 15th fret, and adjusting from there.
The next mic position to try would be to put the microphone out in front of the guitar’s body, and in line with the sound hole—basically where it was designed to project sound from! With this setup it is important to avoid the resonance of moving too much air via the sound hole and capturing boominess and rumble. This is especially true of cardioid and figure-8 mics with their proximity effect. I would advise against pointing straight at the sound hole, but rather off towards the bridge a bit, to capture strumming and body warmth/resonance. This is especially true if you have a brighter, more narrow-sounding guitar.
Another benefit to placing the microphone off to the guitarist’s right, near the general bridge area, is that it minimizes noise from the guitarist (heavy breathing), headphone bleed (click), fret noise, and rumbling low end from the sound hole. Try experimenting with moving above or below the typical “horizon” (the strings) for even more tone flavors.
Another option is to simply follow your ears. After all, this is engin-“ear”-ing. While wearing a pair of headphones, listen for what the microphone is capturing. This is especially great if you have the luxury of engineering the setup, while a guitarist strums the guitar in your studio space. Get a decent volume level in your headphones and move the mic around and explore what options you have. Once you get a sound you enjoy, I suggest tracking it and listening back on monitors to make sure that’s the sweet spot. After you dial it in, gaffer-tape the ground as to where your feet were, tape the mic stand’s feet down, take pictures with your phone… do anything you can to etch your sweet spot into memory.
David Martinez says that to find the best spot to place a mic on a guitar, his method is to simply stick his ear by the guitar and move around until he finds the spot he likes best. This is similar to the approach mentioned above, but assumes the luxury of having another person playing as you experiment with listening angles and distances. If you are in a large enough space, or by yourself, try moving around the room as you strum the guitar, listening to the sound changes, and looking for a sweet spot where you get an ideal sound in that particular room.
Once settled on a location, it’s time to adjust the mic. By moving the microphone around the guitar, you can capture or augment specific tones. Want more beef? Try moving closer to the sound hole for warmth and richness. Alternatively, move away from the sound hole and towards the neck to brighten those darker, fatter tones. Try moving the microphone closer to your guitar for a drier close-miked sound. This sound will be the direct sound of what’s nearest to the microphone, but without the room and the more distant parts of the guitar, it could be that you are missing the big picture of what your guitar actually sounds like. If you want to do close-miking and prefer that sound, experiment with an omni pattern mic so as to pick up more room ambience.
An interesting mic set up is to capture what you are hearing, literally. I like to think of this as akin to what overhead mics are for a drum set. Set up one or a pair of microphones at shoulder or head level to capture the guitar’s tone from above. In terms of direction, experiment by placing the mics downwards towards the guitar, or try pointing them towards hard reflective surfaces.
Remember, it is always best to work with what you naturally have between your guitar, microphone(s) and room. Relying on EQ and trying to make your sound like something it’s not will ultimately never be as convincing as the “real” thing. The core sound ought to come from you, the guitar and the mics.
Another option is to mix and match different microphones and different styles of microphones in a two mic set up. Try a small-diaphragm condenser near the 12th fret, with a large-diaphragm closer to the sound hole, bridge, or even the shoulder/overhead area—with the latter, you may be able to get some convincing room sounds to go along with your closer/direct mic.
Using several microphones while tracking is definitely preferable to using a single mic. This path allows you to blend tonal and distance options—say, a bright mic and a dark mic placed strategically for desired tones—and lets you spread your guitar across the mix in varying ways to paint a stereo picture.
Panning your guitar tracks gives a fuller, more accurate 3D representation than just a single mic in mono. Most people prefer a subtle widening with a little bit of left/right panning, but if the song calls for a dramatic hard left/hard right panning, go for it.
As I mentioned above, it is important that you take a look at a given microphone’s frequency response to understand what you’re getting with each mic. One of my favorite small-diaphragm mics for acoustic guitar is the AKG C451, whose frequency response seems tailored for the acoustic guitar. It has a gradual rolloff at 200 Hz and below which helps lessen the impact of the proximity effect when close-miking. The 451 adds brightness, air, and top end with a healthy 4 dB bump at 12 kHz. Here you can really capture the sound of the strings, the pick, and that really present top-end sound which could help your acoustic tracks shine and cut through in the mix.
On the other hand, perhaps you want a less bright, warmer microphone as a sonic pair for a brighter, more present-sounding guitar. A microphone with a flatter or more natural frequency response could give you the flexibility to track your guitar’s natural tone and then adjust and tailor the EQ in your DAW—manually rolling off the bottom or adding top, while still retaining the warmth of your natural signal. A microphone for just that task could be the Neumann KM84 or its successor the KM184. Warmer yet is the use of a ribbon microphone, say a Royer R-121 or AEA R84, on your acoustic tracks. A ribbon paired with a bright-sounding guitar can be an interesting thick and rich sound.
Barry Conley enjoys using condenser microphones on acoustics. “The condenser mic gives me the ‘sparkle’ and ‘chime’ I like in my acoustic guitar sounds. I often use an AKG C414 or some sort of large-diaphragm condenser, behind the bridge and pointed towards the sound hole, plus a small-diaphragm condenser (preferably a Neumann KM84 or AKG C451) pointed at the upper bout of the guitar above the fretboard. Blending these two mics usually gives me the flexibility in sound to fit in most genres of music. I avoid pointing a mic directly at the sound hole (this is where there seems to be a lot of boominess occurring) unless the guitar is ‘thin’ sounding. I also generally avoid room mics on the acoustics unless the arrangement is sparse.”
Jeff Gartenbaum (The Village Recorder) preps most of his acoustic guitar sessions with an AKG 451E and a KM84. He also keeps a Shure SM57 ready in case he is tracking really heavy acoustic strumming, such as what might be found in a rock song.
Vocals and guitar at once
If you want to record vocals and acoustic guitar at the same time, you face a unique set of hurdles. Obviously, the goal is to get great sounds for both, and the most straightforward way to do that is to use the same mic. This takes careful positioning, though, and balancing of the two concurrent sounds. In these sessions, be careful to have the right guitar, one that naturally pairs with the vocal and vocalist. In this case a single omnidirectional microphone can be just the ticket.
Although simple and straightforward, the one-microphone setup is not as common as using individual microphones for the guitar and for the vocal. Really, the biggest factor here is control over the source sound and its eventual processing during mixing.
In this case, David Martinez has some experience. “What has worked best for me is to make the room as dead as possible. Then I just put the mic there. It varies from guitar to guitar. If I am also recording vocals, I will look for a mic that is very directional on the guitar and a better one, if available, on the vocals.”
With two microphones set up on the vocal and on the guitar, experiment with deadening up your room, or keeping it neutral if you had the need to introduce additional hard surface paneling. The lack of natural reflections will help tighten up both source recordings and avoid spill/bleed. One alternative is to try a DI on your guitar in addition to what you can capture with the microphone. Another alternative is to try a ribbon mic on the acoustic and a dynamic on the vocals.
Jeff Gartenbaum notes that while tracking vocals and guitar at the same time, he sometimes uses a figure-8 microphone on the guitar. Remember these mics pick up from front and back, but have nulls (areas where incoming sound is minimized) on their sides. He aims the mic so it picks up the guitar but the vocalist’s head is in its null. Barry Conley goes further and uses two figure-8 mics: one on the guitar, adjusted so its null point is aimed at the vocalist’s mouth, and one to pick up the vocalist, angled so the guitar is in its null. Ribbon microphones work extremely well for this purpose, and can give the acoustic a good sound. Remember that they’ll also pick up a fair bit of room sound, so this technique works best in a nice, lively room.
The preamp, compressor, EQ, and DAW
After the guitar and microphone(s) you’ll need to think about and invest in a preamp. As with guitar and microphone selection, your budget will dictate your options in regards to the preamp. A good preamp will only sweeten the tones you have going on with your guitar and microphone(s), so be careful, do your homework and use your ears. Remember that renting is often an option. You can track with that timeless Neve 1073 and not have to spend very much money owning it.
Besides the preamp, a good compressor is essential. While there are many great choices, you cannot go wrong with a Universal Audio/Teletronix LA-2A or 1176. They flavor your recordings, catch your peaks, even out your dynamics for consistent volume, and are very useful in mixdown too. During mixing, experiment with more than one compressor, in parallel or in series; this can radically alter your tone depending on how you choose to use it.
EQ is also obviously essential, and can be done in hardware (some preamps have EQ built in). Look to possibly filter out some lows, search out problem areas/rumble in the very low mids, maybe boost that present and “vocal” mid to upper mid area between 1 and 2 kHz, and add air up top with 12 kHz or higher.
Lastly, you have the final stage of your DAW of choice. I use Pro Tools and find that it comes with some helpful basic plug-ins for problem solving in even the most well-thought-out tracking sessions. Specifically I recommend the Avid EQ3 and BF76 for your basic EQ and compression needs.
Try adding reverb if you have a dull-sounding room, or need additional size. Jeff Gartenbaum prefers to track acoustic guitar in mono and add depth and width via a stereo reverb. He tends toward this method unless the acoustic is going to be featured and he wants it to take up a lot of room in the mix.
Beyond that, again it’s what your taste calls for and your budget allows. The sky’s the limit!
Finally: some potential mistakes to avoid
When using two microphones, be careful of the phase relationship between them. When setting up, try to get a good sound from one mic before you dial in the second. Once you are dialing in the second mic, try flipping its phase to see which combination sounds better, and eliminate any potential phase problems before tracking. If you’re really serious about killing phase problems, invest in a fine-tunable phase box that lives between your mic and your mixer, like the Little Labs IBP or Radial Engineering Phazer.
Air conditioners, street noise, talking, cell phones, pets, and many other things are potential problems for generating noise and unwanted artifacts while tracking. Look to add isolation from bass traps and gobos. Also, be sure to wear closed-back headphones or in-ear monitors to help eliminate click bleed. When possible, record a scratch track and listen back for clicks, pops, noise and any other crud before digging into the recording. The following piece of advice from Paul Logus also makes sense: “If something sounds bad, move the mic, or play in a different part of the room… or a different room!”
In conclusion, to quote my friend, David Martinez, “When the best isn’t available, then what’s available is the best.” Good luck and have fun!
(Reprinted by permission of Recording magazine)
Brian Marshak (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Los Angeles-based producer, engineer, and guitarist/composer who does music for bands, television, film and scoring. Learn more at brianmarshak.com. Brian would like to thank Barry Conley, Jeff Gartenbaum, Paul Logus, and David Martinez for their insights. Photos by Alice Moore.
For more information on the 12th Annual IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), go to: http://www.inacoustic.com
It was a big night at the Billboard Music Awards last night in Las Vegas. Meghan Trainor was nominated for nine Billboard Music Awards and she won two big awards: “Top 100 Song” and “Top Digital Song”. On winning the Top 100 Song, she beat the biggest names in music business of today: Taylor Swift, Sam Smith, Iggy Azalea and John Legend.
“Oh my goodness, I didn’t think this would happen, thank you so much. I want to say thank you to my Mom and my Dad for believing in me since I was a baby. And thank you to my management, my label and everyone for believing in this song (All About That Bass). I just want everyone to love themselves. I’m glad this song is working. Thank you so much Billboard, thank you everyone”, said Meghan Trainor, who was overwhelmed with tears of joy, and cheers from the audience and the biggest music stars in the audience: Taylor Swift, Mariah Carey, including Meghan’s father Gary. To watch her acceptance speech, click here: https://www.facebook.com/inacoustic/posts/1115032418523166
She performed with John Legend at the Billboard Music Awards. To watch her performance with John Legend, click here: https://www.facebook.com/inacoustic/posts/1115035211856220
Since this time last year, the 21year-old was nominated for two Grammy Awards, performed with top artists like Miranda Lambert and taken the world – and the music charts – by storm, reaching number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 for 9 weeks, number one in 58 different countries (including USA, UK, Canada, etc), selling over 12 million copies, making her hit one of the best selling debut singles in pop history. Her album “Title” debut at number one on the Billboard 200 Album charts and became the fastest selling album in 5 years by a debut female artist. She has also been traveling overseas in places like Europe and Japan performing in her “That Bass Tour,” which she will wrap up toward the end of this month.
Her follow-up smash hit “Lips are moving” hit #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts. Her third smash hit single “Dear Future Husband” is currently #16 with a bullet on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Only turned 21 years ago a few months ago, Meghan Trainor has set the world on fire since winning IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards) in 2010 for Best Female Artist as a 16 year old at the time of her win. Meghan still holds the record for the youngest winner in the history of the IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards).
To be informed on the upcoming 12th Annual IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), click here >>
Title’ nets biggest debut for a female pop act’s first full-length album in over five years.
IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards) is proud to announce that Meghan Trainor debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart with her first full-length album, Title. The set arrives with 238,000 equivalent units earned in the week ending Jan. 18, according to Nielsen Music. It was released Jan. 13 on Epic Records.
The Billboard 200 chart ranks the most popular albums of the week based on multi-metric consumption, which includes traditional album sales, track equivalent albums (TEA) and streaming equivalent albums (SEA).
“No words can describe how I feel. We’re making history!” said an ecstatic Meghan Trainor as she posted on her facebook page.
Title’s chart-topping arrival comes after Trainor earlier led the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart with her introductory hit, “All About That Bass.” The song spent 9 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2014. A variety of critics tipped “All About That Bass” as 2014’s “Official Song of the Summer”.
Title’s first-week units includes 195,000 in pure album sales, an impressive figure, considering January is traditionally a sleepy month for big new releases. The last album released in January to open with a larger sum was Justin Bieber’s Believe: Acoustic, which hit retail on Jan. 29, 2013, and opened with 211,000.
In addition, Title logs the biggest debut for a female pop artist’s first full-length album in over five years. The last to start larger was Susan Boyle, who sold 701,000 copies of I Dreamed a Dream in its first week (ending Nov. 29, 2009).
Trainor’s entrance is the largest opening for any solo artist’s first full-length set in more than three years, since Scotty McCreery’s Clear as Day arrived with 197,000 (in the week ending Oct. 9, 2011).
Both Boyle and McCreery had great TV exposure assisting their debuts, as they both competed on talent competition shows before their albums were released. Boyle rose to fame thanks to her star-making turn on Britain’s Got Talent, while McCreery won the 2011 season of Fox’s American Idol.
As for Trainor, while she wasn’t a reality-show competitor, she has had months of major exposure leading up to Title’s release. Her smash No. 1 single “All About That Bass” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 dated July 26, 2014.
Meghan Trainor’s Title is Epic Records’ first No. 1 album since the Sept. 25, 2010-dated chart, when Sara Bareilles’ Kaleidoscope Heart bowed atop the tally.
If Trainor is No. 1, that means Taylor Swift’s rule in the penthouse with 1989 is over — at least temporarily. 1989 slips 1-2 in its 12th week on the list, after hanging out at No. 1 for nine nonconsecutive weeks. It shifted 131,000 units for the week (down 15 percent).
Kidz Bop Kids warble their way to a No. 3 arrival on the Billboard 200 with Kidz Bop 27, moving 80,000 units. It’s the 20th top 10 album for the long-running series, which garnered its first top 10 effort nearly 10 years ago, when Kidz Bop 7 opened at No. 7 on the March 12, 2005-dated chart.
“What Meghan has achieved is such a far fetched dream that even superstars like Madonna would achieve that people find it incredibly hard to believe in an unknown debut artist. They asked: did that just happen? Can’t be right? IAMA doesn’t really produce superstars. But when they read the newspapers and checked the Billboard charts, they jaws drop and they were left flabbergasted. Even most music magazines refused to even admit it. It’s because Meghan started off as a young fresh unpolished indie artist and that grown to a worldwide phenom”, said Jessica Brandon, artist relations at IAMA. “I have worked in the music industry for 20 years and I have never seen this meteoric success before. Meghan has given so much inspiration to indie artists everywhere. She has achieved the absolute American Pop star dream; the number ones on the charts, platinum records, appearances on every TV show, songs on Top 40 radio all the time”.
As a debut artist with both single and album hitting #1 on Billboard Hot 100 Charts and Billboard 200 Album charts, Meghan joins an elite group of artists to ever achieve this feat: Mariah Carey, Beyonce and Britney Spears. Not even The Beatles, Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson has even achieved this amazing feat.
HOW SHE WAS DISCOVERED
However, 5 years ago IAMA entrants laughed when Meghan Trainor won Best Female Artist at the 2010 IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), she broke the record and still holds the record of the youngest winner on the history of IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards). She did it at a young age of just 16 years old. Many entrants asked “Why is this 16 year old girl that sounds like Amy Winehouse, Adele and Duffy winning an award at IAMA and not me? She isn’t all that great, I think I’m better”.
But when she hit #1 on Billboard Hot 100 Charts, #1 on the Billboard 200 Album Charts (each time she did it be toppling Pop Star Taylor Swift) and 2 Grammy nominations (Record or the Year and Song of the Year), selling over 12 million copies worldwide, they were shocked and speechless. They continued to be shocked when they saw her performing on TV at the famous Macy’s Day Parade and New York’s Rockin’ Eve. She was also nominated for Best New Artist at the American Music Awards.
Meghan Trainor has been grown from a Teen Phenom to a Global Phenomenon. Imagine when her first single “All About That Bass” was released on June 30th, no one outside IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards) even knew who she was. And yet, in less than 6 months, Meghan has conquered the entire world: not only #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts (#1 for 9 weeks), in UK and a total of 58 different countries, multi Platinum in USA alone (6X Platinum). It is the current longest-reigning number one on the Hot 100 by an Epic Records artist, surpassing the King of Pop, the legend Michael Jackson’s seven-week record with “Billie Jean” (1983) and “Black or White” (1991). It is also the second longest reigning number one by a debut artist (Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” is the longest-reigning number one by a debut artist). She is the youngest artist (at 20 years old at the time of her feat) with the longest reigning number one.
ONE HIT WONDER NO MORE & BEATLES FEAT
Yet critics dismiss her as a “one hit wonder” when she hit #1 with “All About That Bass”. That all changed when “Lips are Movin’” hit #4 on the Billboard Charts selling over 2 million copies in United States alone, going Double Platinum. And she continues her feat in December she made history as a debut artist when 2 of her songs are in the Top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100 Charts at the same time “Lips Are Movin'” and “All About That Bass”. the last time a debut artist had two or more songs in the Top 5 at the same time on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts was the Beatles.
SECOND TIME UNSEATING TAYLOR SWIFT OFF THE TOP SPOT
“I told everyone when I send our press release hat Meghan is going to be huge and they refused to believe” said Jessica Brandon. ‘We believe in all our winners in IAMA. If Meghan Trainor, an unknown artist can topple a huge music star like Taylor Swift, no just once but twice, you can do it too”. Meghan Trainor kicked Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” off #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts in September 2014. She did it again this time this week on the Billboard 200 Charts by kicking Taylor Swift’s album “1989” of the #1 on the Billboard 200 Album charts.
Since 2004, IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards) promotes the art and excellence of acoustic music performance and artistry. Past winners include: Meghan Trainor, Charlie Dore (Billboard #1 Hit Artist), Kelley James, AJ Croce, Liz Longley, Maddy Rodriguez, etc. For more information on IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), go to: http://www.inacoustic.com