Want Great Vocals? Ask!

Brandon Drury —  August 5, 2011 — Leave a comment

I’m not sure why this was so hard for me to get. My opinion that singers are whackjobs is well-known in these RecordingReview parts. That’s okay. We are all a little crazy. Singers just happen to be more likely to have a collection a women’s nipples in a shoebox.

It’s really easy to treat singers like the special kid. Why? Well, most of the time you have to. Not long ago my non-musician brother wanted to hang out for a few sessions. I had forgotten to give him the speech about how there are certain things you just can’t say in front of people when they are singing that you can say pretty much any other time. He didn’t break any rules too bad, but it reminded me just how critical it is to always feed them positive info and how unintuitive speaking like this can be.

The default position when starting engineering is to simply assume that those big dogs are just incredibly skilled and that everything they touch magically turns from poo to gold usually by knob turning on fancy gear.. Well, somewhere in there you record a guitar player who plays in time and in tune and you say, “Ohhhh, so this is how it works!!! Ah haaaaaaa!” Then you record a drummer who can balance a kit. Once again, you are running down the street naked with the king’s crown in your hand. (Eureka) And so it goes.

I’ve gotten really into this idea that I shouldn’t be inconvenienced in any way by these damn bands, except for maybe the time they chew up. Everything I have to do is probably something THEY should have done. Should I turn up the snare? Nope. The damn drummer should turn up the snare. The kick drum is too ringy? The drummer should select a different drum that isn’t so ringy or find a way to rig or play his current drum to get the sounds he wants. Again, it’s not my job. I can go on and on about how my engineering has improved 20x by simply refusing to do much of any.

This kind attitude makes it sound like I’ve gotten old, lost my drive, and I’m simply not putting in the effort I used to. Nothing could be further from the truth, although I believe that “less is more” is a truck stop t-shirt that every engineer should own. I’ll get people who argue with me until we start picking specific situations. Then, suddenly, the work is pretty much always on the musician. All I have to do is make sure I don’t screw it up when I capture it.

Back To Vocals

I’m not sure how it eluded me for so long. I think it is due to me being very careful what I say in front of a singer. I took it too far.

The past two sessions I’ve recorded vocals with no compression and no EQ. Just a mic preamp into the console into the converter.

When my instincts say, “Oh, there’s that dreaded 220Hz sorta-boxy, sorta-muddy thing”, I don’t reach for the EQ anymore. My days of that crap are over.

Now I say, “Hey singer, I’ve got a problem.” I play them the track and say, “You hear that ‘ummmmmmm’ sound in there?”

They say, “Yeah.”

I ask, “Can you find a way to sing without that in there?”

At first their face contorts as if I’ve told them that their sibling is a frog and they almost believe me but don’t want to. It’s usually followed by an extended version of “Okaaaaaay” with confusion.

What’s funny about this is us humans are really good at equalizing our own voices. Do a Gilbert Gotfried or Rosanne Barr impersonation. You’ve just boosted the hell out of 3k. Now do a Barry White impersonation. You’ve just cut the hell out of 3k. Easy.

These are extremes that are easy to hear. Most singers don’t stop to think about the low mid junk they are spitting out. I’m positive that some incorrect technique is at work here in the singer department. Some butt-kicking vocal coach would probably notice it in 2 seconds and tell them something that makes no sense – like sing with your stomach – and a day later they’d have the problem eradicated from their technique.

I don’t know anything about all that vocal coach business, but I know a vocal that needs EQ when I hear it. Ironically, I’ve never really figured out why EQ doesn’t do anything to solve the problem short of extreme measures that radically alter the vocal sound into something totally unnatural (but sometimes fun).

As always, solving the problem at the source is the right approach. I even do it with sibilance. If there’s too much “esss” and it’s distracting from the engineering, I’m sick of de-essers creating unnatural lisps and such. I just tell the damn singer to hit it one more time watching their “s” sounds. 60% of the time it works every time. This is ultra effective when the take is already finished, but the “s” sounds are bad. I’ll edit in the new, more-pleasant “s” sounds and the problem will be totally solved. This is the sort of thing I used to spend hours tearing my hair out back when I had any.

What I like most is it empowers the singer. In most cases when they are singing with the wrong organ, there is a certain thing happening that isn’t ideal for the song. There’s usually a creative barrier of some kind getting in the way. With this technique, I find that they are more honed in on their thing and a more effective weapon.

I’m not even using high pass filters anymore. No need, except for maybe rumble when using a mic with no shockmount. The proximity effect is something the singer can work. If I need more thickness, I pull them in. If I need less I push them away. Most singers instinctively stand where they sound best by the third take.

That’s how I’m getting away with zero EQ. Once in the box, I’ll toss a compressor on it. It’s UAD 1176 if I want the vocal more in-your-face. It’s a UAD LA-2A if I want it big and smooth. It’s a UAD Neve 33609 if I want them “more there” and it’s a UAD Fairchild if I want them “vintage more there”.

Effects Of No Compression

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I love tracking with compression. I’m changing my tune on this one and I’ll tell you why. If myself and the singer 100% knew what we were going to do on the next verse, I could do it. A country singer who already knows the perfect approach to the next verse is a good example. That’s an easy one to predict as country vocals don’t go from whispers to screams too often.

For all other music – the kind of music I do pretty much every day – you never know what the hell the singer is up to. There are times when they nail their tone and approach, but this is like a home run in baseball. It happens 2-3 times a day at most. For the rest, there is some literal soul searching going on. The problem with vocal compression while tracking is it tames all those flaws. It just so happens a compressor isn’t as good as taming them as a singer is. When I use my various hardware compressors, I’m looking for tone. I’m not necessarily looking to mask problems the singer needs to deal with.

What I’m liking right now is when the singer self-corrects. It’s like the time that Arnold switched to battery backup power in Terminator 2. There’s something almost magical about it.

For example, I was tracking background vocals from a guy who isn’t a pure singer. The first thing he noticed was that he was attacking each word really hard. You could see it on the console meters and the waveform on the screen. He was giving it hell. He immediately said, “Man, that’s really annoying.” I told him he could probably smooth those out. With a few runs he got more comfortable and realized that there was no compressor there to help him out.

The tracks we ended up with were far superior to what we would have gotten with the safety net of compression. Don’t get me wrong, who knows how hardcore I’ll go with compression in the mix, but that’s another story.

Looking back, it was totally embarrassing in Mix It Til You Puke Volume 1 that I included THAT vocal track. I was using a lot of brand new gear and the Universal Audio LA3A turned out to be more difficult than I was used to when dealing with singers who were in the middle of “soul searching”. It looks like next week we’ll be retracking that vocal and I can not wait! I’m pumped to A/B the new and old.

All the tracks that we’ve A/B’d with the tracks I compressed while going in had some form of compression I wasn’t digging. In other words, the soft vocals weren’t compressed enough for my tastes and the loud vocals were too compressed. It was hard for me to find a middle ground. This is something that I hate dealing with. Just another interesting result of the no-compression method is if they are singing softly, they ask me to turn them up. When they sing too loud, I have to turn them down either with the preamp or the console fader. The vocal is always recorded at what are optimum levels for the singer, which always end up being pretty much optimum levels for the song. I don’t have to deal with verses that are too soft and choruses that are too loud.

This is tiny stuff. It takes 5 minutes to go into a song and adjust this stuff. However, when more and more things line up as feeling right, it feels more and more like an elegant, simple solution like all the physicists are trying to achieve. We instinctively know that 11 pages of String Theory are screwy, but E= mc2 couldn’t get much more elegant. That’s a good sign that something is right.

Affecting The Big Picture

Today we tracked a vocal with harmonies and the whole 9 yards. We had quite a few layers of vocal tracks on this thing. We did a lot of doubled, hard panned soft stuff with a lead vocal down the center. Harmonies were doubled and hard panned frequently. In choruses, sometimes there would be an extra track. When the session was over, even the singer (who I’ve worked with extensively) said, “That sounds pretty much finished.” We didn’t have reverb, delay, modulation or one single effect on the thing. Just a bit of light UAD 1176 compression on each track. He was right. These were the most finished sounding vocals I had ever tracked.

I can’t wait to mix them and see what I can scrape up creatively in the effect department knowing the vocals are right as is.


Once again, when in doubt, make the other guy solve it. If he’s not giving you what you want, ASK!

Saved Comments

pounamu – 08-16-2011, 01:40 PM Edit Reply
Brandon I would swear you have had a holiday since I last read any of your articles? Totally on the button. (I am not commenting that all your older articles were wrong, this new one shows out not as intense). Yes this has parallels with my development as a musician and probably many others as well. Control starts at the source. Best Steve

Chadfish – 08-16-2011, 01:55 PM Edit Reply
This is why jazz musicians are the most awesome to record! They know how to control themselves. I love the idea of making singers do their job. I’ve never recorded with any EQ or Compression, so I guess I just naturally work the mic with proximity, and also paying attention to the timbre of the track both with my mouth, as well again with proximity. Make ‘em earn it!

moleunion – 08-16-2011, 02:02 PM Edit Reply
I totally agree with this concept! One question… are you ditching compression for the singers monitoring as well? Or maybe just using very light compression in the monitoring? That’s what is sounds like to me in that you want to get your singer to fight their own natural balance without any help from a compressor, only later to polish it up with compression.

Sanger – 08-16-2011, 02:11 PM Edit Reply
So simple, yet so profound. It probably makes the singer’s live performances better too.

bepatrick – 08-16-2011, 02:44 PM Edit Reply
Brilliant post, Brandon. I especially liked the reference to e=mc2. I’m relatively new at this and reading everything I can, but this stands up against anything I’ve read, however elegant. You’re posts are usually good but this one is really upper crust.OTOH, why women’s nipples? I’m not saying why nipples, but why only women’s?

dedymann – 08-16-2011, 02:49 PM Edit Reply
Great article .. Thanks I defiantly going to think about some of the things here next time I record vocals ( or any other thing )David*The Long Beach***Recording * Studios – Long Beach Music, Voiceover and Foley recording in long beach California

DanTheMan – 08-16-2011, 03:23 PM Edit Reply
This is an excellent article Brandon! I’ve been thinking more and more along these lines as I play/write/sing/record, etc… Fix it at the source and everything becomes easier. Instead of “fix it in the mix” it should be “get it right from REC”.


paul999 – 08-16-2011, 03:28 PM Edit Reply
Great article! Very true.

Ripprock1 – 08-16-2011, 03:49 PM Edit Reply
Thank You so much for saying IT. I know a few singers that need this info.

IMF OnSite Recording – 08-16-2011, 04:01 PM Edit Reply
The last band I did had a vocalist that was real competent. She actually would point those things out when listening back (and I had stopped using compression while tracking vocals half way through the song) and even coached the bg vocal guy and it came out sounding great without any effects, which made for a good start when it came mixing time. Unfortunately, she decided to plow the lead guitarist and broke the band up since the rhythm guitarist was her boyfriend. I told one of them… “couldn’t you guys wait until we got some iTunes sales before doing this?”

PaulSR – 08-16-2011, 05:21 PM Edit Reply
Asking (forcing) the vocalist to eq their own voice has an added benefit, it also teaches the vocalist much about his/her voice control they may not have considered. This can also make the ‘live’ engineer’s job easier. As a vocalist/musician/recordist, I appreciate this tip. Thanks

fHumble fHingaz – 08-16-2011, 07:34 PM Edit Reply
Great article, Brandon.

brandondrury – 08-16-2011, 08:08 PM Edit Reply
are you ditching compression for the singers monitoring as well?
Yes. No compression at all. For the longest time I loved having compression in the headphones, but that takes away accountability. If there really are parts that need to be boosted or reduced quite a bit, I can do that with the console fader on the way in. That’s no biggie. So far I’ve not had any problems with that.If anything, I’d rather give the singer’s monitoring zero compression and compress on the way in to the actual track. It’s a strange sound at first to have zero compression on a vocal, but I can’t argue with the results. I wouldn’t have expected it to work out that way.
That’s what is sounds like to me in that you want to get your singer to fight their own natural balance without any help from a compressor, only later to polish it up with compression.
I wouldn’t say “fight their own natural balance”. I’d say 100% in-your-face hear that natural balance. Brandon

BlackCatBonz – 08-16-2011, 10:08 PM Edit Reply
Bruce Swedien said, “Compression is for kids.”When someone says, I can’t get my guitar to sound good after I record it…. we usually say, it’s because the guitar sound is crap to begin with.Part of your engineering journey just reinforced in your mind that if you’re not capturing it correctly at the source, it will always have that hint of shit smell on it.That’s engineering sound where it takes place.Excellent observations!

carl – 08-16-2011, 10:20 PM Edit Reply
I never used any compression on my vocal recordings, and yeah, I learned quite a bit from it. The “attacking every word too hard” issue was just one of them…

R8R9R0 – 08-16-2011, 10:34 PM Edit Reply
Interesting…I’m currently not using any compression at all as my studio is only 9% set up…I have learned to make the vocals work, as best I can, without the use of compression…Your articles are always interesting….

Chased – 08-17-2011, 01:56 AM Edit Reply
Hey Brandon, agree with the comments here, especially old matey who opines that your articles are somehow less intense lately – it’s like they are a bit more awed, bit more humbled in the face of new realizations perhaps? But I did want to comment that this post is not a whole long way from the position you take in KHR, and which I quote shamelessly when encouraging others to buy it: namely, “hate mixing when tracking” or similar. This opinion, and its brothers that refer to mixing and mastering, are amongst the central tenets of my mixing/blending manifesto as it stands today. Nice to see that time and age aand experience have not wearied them…

Nanowire – 08-17-2011, 02:08 AM Edit Reply
Great article. In my beginning days of recording I didn’t even had the gear to record compressed of eq’ed. I still don’t to this day. And now you’re explaining me why it can sound crappy from time to time I lately recorded some heavy metal grunting. That’s loud, but very consistent in level. So no eq or compression there either. I didn’t mix it, just tracked it in Cubase. The lead guitarist of the band mixed it in Garage Band. The mix sounded pretty impressive to me. A happy band is a happy me.

feegs – 08-17-2011, 02:11 AM Edit Reply
Yes i dont record vocals into compression either, I find that when singing the vocals you have to be aware of the peaks, getting to close or far away. I just use mic technique to get the track even, sometimes even turning away from the mic slightly on certain vocal lines…Takes a bit of getting used to it but works for me. From there it UAD plugs.

Nomad – 08-17-2011, 12:08 PM Edit Reply
Does this mean that somehow the band is responsible for your hair loss? Is there any way to insure this kind of thing? You know, like the bar owner somehow being responsible for the drunk?

Time and again it always comes down to the musician and the mike. Yet musicians are the last to think about it.


BenJaMan – 08-17-2011, 01:38 PM Edit Reply
60% of the time it works every time
yup :-) engineers already have alot to do… make the vocalists do their job not try to fix it all yourself

miccimiao – 08-17-2011, 02:26 PM Edit Reply
All of a sudden nobody has ever recorded with compression.I like compression in the headphones, because it allows all kinds of sounds to be heard properly and to elaborate on softer sounds, by being more confident.Still, i will definitely try the “no compression in the headphones” method.

tjsmith – 08-17-2011, 02:50 PM Edit Reply
Brandon, I have a question about this? I recently used very little compression while tracking female vocals. While editing, a lot of slight syllables and small words were hard to “stand out” in the mix. (i.e. the back half of a word, the beginning of a phrase where the melody was almost too low for her to project.) My remedy was to edit those portions, however tiny, and raise the volume of them until they were as noticable as the rest the vocal, without making it sound funky. Upon mixing, I did use API EQ and compression plugins (presets for female vocal) to add some depth, I didn’t go overboard with the plugins. So, what are the possible disadvantages or downsides to repairing/correcting vocals in this manner? (by manipulating the lower parts) ? If it works, is it right? Or do I run the risk of making it sound unnatural? Thanks for the forum. I tracked with a Manley reference mic, a Behringer preamp (yeah, I know) then the API plig-ins. The mastering guru at Terra Nova Mastering in Austin did comment on the vocal and asked if i ran them through a high dollar Preamp because they sounded really nice. lol I was embarrassed to say what I used, but he asked. Maybe you could do a preamp challenge like you did on the drum overheads and discover some great “low-ball” preamp!….or not.. TJ Smith

andrejg – 08-22-2011, 06:09 AM Edit Reply
why use compression at recording stage at all? can’t you add it later?

bayouland – 08-23-2011, 01:30 PM Edit Reply
When I was coming up through the ranks back in the mid 80s, I NEVER recorded with compressors. Understand though, we had natural tape saturation, which is a form of light compression when pushed just right. The thing is this, when I was pushing the tape hot, just like recording with compression, once it’s done, you can’t remove it. We HAD to make decisions like this as we recorded out of necessity, because unlike plugins, we didn’t have 24 channels of every effect to use during mixdown. Now we have the best of both worlds. If you want the sound of tape saturation, just call it up with a plugin after you record. If it just doesn’t sound right, take the plugin off. So I’m with you Brandon. I still NEVER record with compression. I have plenty enough hardware and software compressors to pretty much get any effect I want. The two most musical effects we have are compression and EQ. A hell of a lot can be done with them. However, it’s when you DON’T have to use them that the home run is hit.

constantrecordings – 08-23-2011, 01:55 PM Edit Reply
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS ARTICLE! At last, a return to sanity! It always has been supposed to be about the talent of the musician, and it seems like the whole music world has been straying from that. Thank you for reminding everyone where the responsibility really lies.

2dogs – 09-17-2011, 06:58 PM Edit Reply
Indeed the responsibility to make a great recording rests with the musicians. Its how we get them there as engineers that makes the difference. Psychology 101 does help. But how far can I push a newbie singer. Recently I got one to improve by 100% but its not enough to hide the lack of experience. That’s where we come in as engineers to achieve a commercial grade product. And that! my friends is where our experience comes in to play.

tgascoigne – 12-07-2011, 04:08 AM Edit Reply
Originally Posted by 2dogs
Indeed the responsibility to make a great recording rests with the musicians. Its how we get them there as engineers that makes the difference. Psychology 101 does help. But how far can I push a newbie singer. Recently I got one to improve by 100% but its not enough to hide the lack of experience. That’s where we come in as engineers to achieve a commercial grade product. And that! my friends is where our experience comes in to play.
Could not agree more, experience is always the answer. But, someone help me with this one: Traditional Sea Shanty groups can have upto 25 singers. That’s 25 egos, 25 possible ‘out of tune’ moments and alot of freaking microphones/gear etc. What would the experienced engineer do in a situation where these 25 egos start telling you that they can’t hear themselves in the mix or ‘that guy is too loud or he is to dominant or, and get this, (this kills me) ‘I don’t want to be heard as much as that’!!!! I tell you, it’s like dealing with stroppy children sometimes. Maybe, the Psycholgy to use in this situation is to open a box of candy to calm them down? Gaz

VocalBoothToGo – 02-08-2012, 03:34 PM Edit Reply
Cool story bro. You totally nailed it. All the best equipment in the world is not going to make up for a mediocre effort from your vocal talent.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

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