An amazing singer doesn’t just have a wide range of notes they’re able to sing – they usually come with a powerhouse of dynamic range too. Vocal performance is all about controlling your breath and pitch simultaneously. This means, at a moment’s notice, a vocalist might go from singing softly to full-on belting out a note.
In a natural environment, this can be incredible to witness, but in the studio, it’s a bit of a challenge we often have to overcome. We need to be cautious about recording a vocal too hot – clipping our preamp or input on the way in. At the same time, we don’t want to constrain the singer too much. Trying to control the volume of their most dynamic notes is more about what we do as the engineer, not what they’re doing as the singer.
Here are a few ways you can “get out of the singer’s way” and let them give you the full range of their voice, regardless of how extreme the dynamics might get.
Recording Extremely Dynamic Vocals
When you’re working with a singer who you know is going to be dynamic, work with them to get the problem addressed during setup whenever possible. This avoids accidentally clipping the perfect take and making your singer do it over again.
Have the mic set to input monitor or record a few short warm ups with the singer. Ask them to sing naturally and to not hold anything back. As they sing, adjust your preamp levels. At the vocal’s peak, you should leave enough headroom on the preamp itself, often leaving 5 – 10 dB of headroom between their peak and 0 on your meter.
As much as we like recording things hot, it’s just not worth the risk when there’s so much you can do in the box to bring their levels up in the mix.
And if your singer is jumping back and forth between soft and loud sections of the song? Don’t hesitate to record them in separate takes so you’re not having to ride the gain on the preamp the entire session! Record the soft parts first, then finish with the screams – chances are you’ll get a cleaner performance of both when taking that approach anyway.
An experienced vocalist may even know how to work the mic for you – naturally riding the level of their vocals by moving closer to the mic for soft parts and backing away for louder ones. Use this to your advantage; a singer moving all over the place might be doing more harm than good in the session, but if their movement sounds good, let them do what they need to in order to feel comfortable and reap the rewards of that movement when you go to mix later on!
Mixing Extremely Dynamic Vocals
If your sole focus when recording an extremely loud vocalist is to keep them from clipping the input, then your focus when mixing those vocals is to maximize everything that didn’t come close to the peak before bringing the entire vocal up to the level it should sit in the mix.
We usually do this in a couple stages. A single vocal track only really needs a few dB of range between the loudest peaks and the rest of the transients to keep things interesting. First, use clip gain to bring up any soft parts if there’s a big discrepancy between those and the louder clips.
Once everything is generally levelled, add compression to tighten that range a bit more. A well-compressed vocal should help remove any “spikes” in the performance that stick out a bit too much and help draw out some of that sustain and body that’s usually just a bit less pronounced when working with a dynamic performance.
Another great way to add a bit of character and space to extremely dynamic vocals is through the use of contextual effects. With a well-timed delay throw or automated reverb, you can get some really unique sounds. These sounds can swell up or be configured to seemingly react to other sounds in your mix.
The key is to introduce these effects at just the right time to make sure you’re getting the absolute most impact out of them that you can. A reverb that’s constantly on is adding ambience and depth, but through automation you can make the effect more pronounced in the sections where it’s needed the most. This is the same concept we use for delay throws, where the delay is disabled until it needs to be turned on.
Check out this example from ex-Crown the Empire vocalist Dave Escamilla, where he demonstrates how each part of your vocal chain has an impact on the dynamics you hear using our Howard Benson Vocals plugin:
Getting It All To Work Together
Look – vocals aren’t the only dynamic instrument you’re going to be dealing with in a session, and as a mixer, it’s your job to make sure they all fit alongside one another. How you accomplish this can vary widely depending on genre, but one of the easiest ways to keep things interesting and dynamic is through the use of sweeteners.
Sweeteners are little samples and sounds that you sprinkle throughout your mix to hold your listener’s attention. They’re what keeps a second verse from getting stale and what makes listening on headphones and immersing yourself in the stereo field so enjoyable.
If you’re not already using sweeteners in your mix, make sure you check out our eBook, The Producer’s Guide to Synthesizers & Sweeteners. It’s got all the info you need to get started!