A few weeks back I was asked to participate in the "Face the Music!" panel (a Fiero Flair production) at the California Lawyers for the Arts Music Business Seminar. This was the second time that I had participated in this event and it is always a treat for me. Looking back, being a part of this event in the past was the original inspiration for this blog.
For me it's always a great treat to hear what emerging artists are putting together as they begin their careers and start developing a library of their own recorded materials. But while it excites me to see what they're doing, it also demonstrates to me how few of them know how to utilize the recording equipment correctly, or are able to find engineers that are capable of helping them.
What makes these engineers so good and sets them apart in their industry? Vocals. It has been demonstrated that anyone can be fooled by instrumentation and orchestration for bands or artists, but the way that vocals get set up in a mix is an art form that can be very hard to get right.
Let me emphasize here: I am NOT talking about the performance of the vocals. That aspect is solely based on talent alone. Good engineering of bad vocals will only expose them more. Some might argue that many of the pop artists out there are poor vocalists that have a career based on image and no vocal talent at all. I'd argue that you have to have a starting point, and while some of these pop princes and princesses don't have the world's greatest voices, some of them have a set of pipes that can light the venue on fire, but the material they are asked to perform does not emphasize that.
So what is it that makes a good vocal track? Intelligibility. How can you enjoy the vocals if you can't hear or understand what's being sung? Setting a vocal track apart takes 3 pieces of understanding:
First and foremost, you have to make room for them in the mix. This means working with the EQ in order to make sure that the vocals will not be stepped on by the guitars, keys, bass, drums, or any other instrumentation involved. Keeping the frequencies surrounding enunciation in the voice will allow for the crispness to cut through the mix and help make the vocals the focal point.
Once you have the EQ set the next part is balance of signals. This might seem like an obvious thought, but there are so many times that I hear tracks where just turning the vocals up in the mix would have been a problem solver. This can sometimes involve a great deal of automation to make sure that the vocals rise and fall based on the levels of everything else supporting them.
The last piece of keeping the vocals the focal point of the mix is compression. For those of you unfamiliar with what compression actually does I'll give you the base line overview. What a compressor does is limit the gap between the highest levels of volume of a signal and lowest levels of volume of a signal. So if a vocalist is varying how loud they are singing the compressor allows you to limit the level of variance. It does this mainly by putting a soft ceiling on how loud a signal can get. A hard ceiling would be a limiter and could potentially cause distortion, but with the soft ceiling of a compressor, signal can breach the highest levels but still go above. By knocking the level of the loudest signals down, you are able to turn up the overall signal without distorting when the performer hits those emphatic notes. In turn, this also means that the vocals can be much more consistent throughout a song, allowing your EQ and balance to always remain out in front of the rest of the band backing them.
This isn't to say that vocals shouldn't rise and fall with the dynamics of a song. Songs should have ebb and flow, a rise and a fall, but the vocals should not get lost in the mix when the song rises because everything around them rises faster and louder.
Keeping these thoughts in mind when you're mixing your next vocal track will help you create a song that will add a level of professionalism to the recording and stands up against the best engineers.