Monday, February 16, 2015

Recording Tip 49: When tuning remember the doctor’s oath. DO NO HARM! Don’t overdo it

If a little bit is good, a lot more must be gooder!

Speaking of tuned vocals, over-tuning a vocal is one of my pet peeves. While tuning can be a great thing and turn a great take into a spectacular performance, we all know too well the misuses of the technology. Some may say it’s not a real performance. I disagree unless they mean a whole take with no fixes, and that rarely happens with any artist. I’ve sat for hours with a singer singing a tough phrase over and over on multiple passes and then comp five or more takes to make the final version. In my view that’s no more an honest performance than a good emotional take which needs some pitch correction in places.

I recall a country hit a few years ago which had a vocal so over-tuned I could hardly believe it was released. I couldn’t tell if she was a good singer because her vocal was tuned so hard it was unlistenable. It was a hit, but I think it would have a much longer life had the vocal not been tuned so hard. It just sounded too much like a fad, and made no sense for the genre.

Thinking of this brings to mind a story an artist friend told me about an album she did a number of years ago. Now this gal is one of the top female singers in Christian music and has won several “Vocalist of the Year” and Grammy awards. I’ve recorded her a number of times and believe me...she doesn’t need much help in the tuning department. I once recorded her singing live on a tracking session and her performance was so good it was released without a single punch or tuning. Well in this particular case her producer was one who tended to go overboard with auto-tune. She came in to hear how things were going and was horrified to hear the over-the-top the tuning which had been done. She immediately cried foul, saying she hated it. The producer, thinking on his feet said, “Wait! That’s not the right vocal. That’s for the Electronica version!” Well she knew there was not going to be such a version...she wasn’t that kind of artist. The producer mumbled a bit about the right vocal not being in that session. “Can you come back tomorrow? I’ll have it for you then.”  

We’ve all heard the T-Pain effect. When that’s the case, then, yeah...go for it. But when it’s not that kind of song sometimes a bit of sliding into a note can really carry emotion. Flat-lining the note can perhaps be more technically right, but doing too much of that can suck the life right out of the performance. Most often we don’t get to work with a killer talent like the gal in my story. But I still find it better to err on the side of doing less when tuning. You can always go back and tweak a line that isn’t right. And it’s much easier to tweak something again than it is to work backward. Once you flatline that note you can’t undo it. You have to go back and get the untuned vocal and start all over.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Recording Tip 48: Use a tuned and untuned vocal together to make an effect that no plugin can do

A good and a bad can make it great

This is another thing I came upon by accident. By now you’ve probably noticed that many of the tips I write about are from things which happened unintentionally. Sometimes a random mistake will be the best thing for the record if you’re open enough to use it. A lot of good ideas on great albums have resulted from accidents.  

I had just finished tuning a vocal and resumed mixing. I had the tuned vocal up but hadn't yet muted the untuned vocal. When I hit play, the two created a great sound together. It wasn’t something I wanted for the entire song, but it was a great sounding effect which I used for the breakdown during the bridge. This won't always work, of course. Depending upon the singer and how much tuning was done, this trick may not sound good. However, it’s sometimes worth a listen when you're searching for a vocal effect.

You know it just occurred to me...I’ve been telling you I prefer to not have anything in the session that’s not going to be in the mix. I think I should make the un-tuned vocal an exception!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Home Recording Tip 47: To create depth in a mix use high and low pass filters to make certain sounds seem farther away

Filters are often one of the least used features on a console or a plugin. Most of the time they’re thought of as something you use only when there’s a problem. But the fact is they can be one of the best tools you have.

I use them a lot when mixing something which is supposed to sound like an orchestral recording but recorded in a studio. I figured this out when mixing one of these recordings and was trying to get woodwinds to sound like they were back in the orchestra. When recorded, the mics for the woodwinds had been placed close to them and while they sounded good, they were too bright and present as compared to the strings. Adding reverb didn’t do the job. They just sounded like close mic-ed instruments with reverb as opposed to having real depth.

We judge size and distance of what we hear based on how air transmits sound waves. When a gun is fired close to us we hear lots of low and high frequencies. But put that gun fired a few hundred yards away and not only is it softer, but the low and high frequencies have dropped off. Sound effect mixers know this and that’s one way they make a gun sound close or in the distance. Roll off some bottom and top, add some verb and turn it down, and there you have it….a gunshot far away.

So....back to trying to fit the woodwind section in a mix. Since I was trying to make it sound like the listener was in the audience 100’ away from the players, I grabbed some low and high pass filters, rolled a bit of each end, put some reverb on and tweaked till I got that sense of distance I wanted.

That works well for making a studio orchestra sound better, but the fact is heavy, even unnatural filtering is one of the tricks great pop and rock mixers use all the time to give depth and clarity to a mix. If I have a song with lots of background vocals, I’ll put both high and low pass filters to help the parts come through. Sometimes I’ll do it so severely it almost sounds like they’re singing through a telephone. Same thing goes for electric or acoustic guitars. Really, you should consider everything in the mix as something which might benefit from this trick. And when you do this, pick carefully what should have this effect. Do it on too many things though and you’ll lose the contrasts and depth you’re trying to make.