how to get that creamy/silky vocal sound? - By John Vestman
Q) Could you please tell me how to get that creamy/silky vocal sound? I use a SM57, or an E-100 patched into an all-tube pre w/eq, then into a compressor direct to my hard disk. Sometimes I use my Mackie”D” to utilize it’s EQ, then into the hard disk. Is rolling off the top end the key or is it boosting the bottom? -Nesz
A) When you listen to an outstanding cd with that silky vocal sound, chances are that there was red carpet treatment at many levels, starting with the expertise of the engineer and producer. Let’s go from the top to see what could be different, and what you can do in your case.
Level One: The source. The sound of a persons voice (technique and tone) has much to do with the sound on cd, not to mention using the correct distance to the mic (6″ to 1′ in studio, up to 4′ live), how warmed up the person is, how consistent they are from take to take. In my 20 years of studio engineering, I often used eq. Once when recording a live big band, the singer, and older gentleman, quietly agreed when I showed him where to stand next to the mic. When they ran down the song, I was astounded at the sound of this man’s voice. It was huge. It was smooth. It was clear. It was bright. It was warm. It was …. perfect. A classic voice that didn’t need a shred of eq! His master tape could have been a cassette and it would have sounded amazing.
Start at the source. Your singer should be committed to producing their very best in the studio and on stage. Tons of Grammy-winning artists use the Seth Riggs technique, so finding someone in your area that teaches his method can be a good idea. Key: Don’t kid yourself into thinking that 5 or 6 lessons will get you sounding like Celine Dion. Singing is an art - it takes time. I learned this technique from Andrew Boettner, here in Southern California, and my full-voice range increased an octave-and-a-half. Increasing your skill increases your opportunity.
Level two: The mic. Top engineers on the best sounding cds are probably using a vintage AKG C12, Neumann U47, Telefunken, or some other super-exotic mic. There are times when lessor mics are used, but the majority of the time there is a priceless piece at this point. *Your budget is the determining factor here. If your artist is trying to get signed, this isn’t a key point. Their performance is. If you are trying to get hired by the majors as an engineer/producer, this is essential. If you are in the studio business, the importance of a priceless mic depends on what your clientele can afford. Sometimes studios rent their prize pieces so that their basic rate is affordable.
Level three: The mic pre’s, eq, & compressor. Again, the top engineers are probably using vintage gear like Neve, Teletronix, UREI, DBX 160’s, or newer discrete or tube units like Avalon, Prism, Millenia, GT, API or Manley. Some engineers ride automated faders and don’t use a compressor at all. Read this * part again in the previous paragraph.
Level three: The monitoring system. Yep. If you don’t hear it right, how do you expect to eq it right, much less pick the best sounding gear? Check my article on Studio Monitor Madness, otherwise I’ll be writing another page here!
Level four: The multitrack storage device. This varies, but most of the time, top name artists record on 2″ analog tape. ADATs and other low-cost digital tape units are improving, especially with better A to D converters. While hard disc recording is excellent at the high-end level (like Sonic Solutions), it has yet to measure up in the low-cost department. The new 24-bit Tascam looks amazing, and time will tell if top-name artists switch over. I know. Roger Nichols says he’s never going back to analog, and Roy Thomas Baker aligned his machines at +12. What can I say. Experts all have something different to say. That’s why I remind you that Rule #1 is “There are no rules.”
Level five: The mixing stage. Once again, I quote Bernie Grundman, one of the top mastering engineers in the world. “Analog is the choice of most high-end mix formats.” We’ll see how the new Alesis hard-disk 24 bit cd machine sounds compared to dats and analog. The features are exciting, just like the features of digital audio tape were at first. It was interesting… I read a newspaper article when digital was first out… engineers were quoted as saying that they couldn’t listen to digital as long as they could analog.
What to know: These technological advances just take time to find out what is superior and what isn’t. Look how long it took for “old fashioned” tubes to come back! Years ago we were all excited by the 5534 chip that had a higher slew rate than the old Motorola 741. Well, one of the reasons we like the vintage DBX 160’s is because they *have* a 741! Tubes have a slower slew rate than chips, and they have more distortion in some cases, yet…. they can sound great!
What isn’t new is the actual process of mixing to make a vocal sound great in the mix. Assuming you have great monitors, you can adjust the enhancement frequencies of vocal eq so that the voice sits in a “pocket” left vacant by the way you have eq’d and panned the instruments. Don’t let common frequencies build up - a sweepable eq is important so that you’re not adding the same frequency to everything in the mix. I don’t recommend rolling off the top at all. That’s where the upper harmonics are. I usually added some high end at around 10-15K, and some mids at 2.5K, and some bottom around 100hz, and sometimes rolled off 50hz…. but it varied from voice to voice. When in doubt, SIMPLIFY. Less is more.
Level six (my favorite): The mastering stage. Hand-picked gear and years of experience is the key. The mastering engineer pays close attention to the sound of the vocal when mastering, and many decisions about what gear to use revolves around how vocals sound through it. At this stage, creating a fabulous sounding cd is not just a matter of a one-box-fits-all device like a Finalizer. Musical decisions aren’t made by those kinds of devices, and the voice is the prime part of popular music.
One time a client’s song had loud cymbal crashes all over the place, and I level-corrected each of them in Sonic Solutions. The unexpected result was that the vocal sounded bigger since all of those harsh crashes weren’t getting in the way.
What to know: Getting a great vocal sound is the same as getting a great drum sound or whatever sound. It isn’t about *doing* something magical. It’s about *being* the kind of engineer/producer/musician who gets a great sound. Be willing to experiment and take time trying new things. Be interested in listening to great sound, and doing the research in order to achieve it. Be open to the feedback of others, and not just stuck in what you think is right. Be a person who doesn’t roll your eyes when your client doesn’t sing so well - we can learn from everybody. Be persistent when you know your client can do a better take - support them in being all they can be. Be patient with your clients and your process.
Not having $500K worth of gear can be the most discouraging feeling in the world if you need that to do your best work. Instead of “needing” so much, enjoy what you have - that’s key to letting go of some frustration which can get in the way of the very success you desire. Great being leads to great doing which leads to great having . And frankly, when we understand that what we have already is great, we are happier in our lives. Being happier is a lot more attractive than being bummed out about what’s lacking. And since the Universal law of “like attracts like” is always in place, we can always choose our levels of attraction in order to have greater success.
John Vestman is a veteran mastering engineer with over 26 years in the industry. His credits include: Hole (Courtney Love), Juice Newton, Ambrosia, Andre Crouch, The Wynans, Great White, Candyman, Billy Davis Jr./Marilyn McCoo and more. John Vestman Mastering is located in Orange County, California, and his web site http://johnvestman.com offers over 40 pages of information about successful studio recording techniques and sound philosophy.