Rockstar is a persona that transcends language and eras of music. Ask someone to name a rockstar from the sixties and you’ll get one of the Beatles. Ask in the seventies and you’ll hear some of the most famous names in classic rock; guys like Robert Plant, Mick Jagger & Ozzy Osbourne. It goes on through the decades – hair bands in the 80s, grunge in the 90s…
Today, you might think that the term “rockstar” has faded out, but a quick listen to Top 40 shows you that the title is still alive and well. Rockstars have shifted from strictly rock and roll frontmen to pop singers and leaders of every imaginable genre. A rockstar singer is someone that’s at the top of his or her craft, whether they’re singing an R&B hook or growling out a grindcore chorus.
And while there’s a ton of variation between genres and vocal styles, mixers need to approach a rockstar vocal performance with the same laser-precise focus – a task that can be overwhelming if you’re new to the vocal production world.
Where To Start
If you have the privilege of working with a rockstar vocalist throughout the process, a bit of extra work during tracking can give you everything you need to make a killer lead vocal track during mixing.
For starters, you should test out various microphones if they’re available at the first session you begin recording the singer.
This might sound like a luxurious or excessive step when you know that you’ve got a great sounding go-to mic, but I can assure you the results are worth it. While Neumann microphones are the poster children for expensive vocal mics, there’s a reason you see singers opting for the occasional SM7B, Blue Bottle, or various clones: some voices just sound better with other options.
Making The Most Without Equipment
Even if you don’t have an extensive microphone selection to choose from, there are steps you can take to ensure your tracking session sets you up for success when you get to mixing.
Spend time with your singer recording different takes, even if (and when) they nail the performance on the first take like the rockstar they are. That variation will be a life-saver when you go to edit the vocal and you realize one of the verses was cut short and you missed it during tracking.
Have your singer come up with new ideas in the recording session to keep things creative and inspired. Anyone can get bored recording the same thing over and over again, but giving him or her some flexibility and creative direction can bring a new dynamic to the mix that might be missing without your help.
Once you’ve got a handful of solid vocal takes, move on to adlibs and harmonies. Get your singer to show off their rockstar voice and push their limits. Even if none of it gets used in the final mix, your singer gets to feel out their boundaries in the forgiving studio environment - something that isn’t always a luxury on the road or in rehearsal.
Mixing A Rockstar
You want to know the best part of working on a song with a rockstar? You can make the vocal the highlight of the song, which is huge when you’re after a commercially successful song.
Think of all your favorite songs: the vocal is always clear and present at the front of the mix. If it’s not, you’re left wanting more of it.
Being left wanting more is great for a song as a whole, but if you want more out of the vocal, the mixer didn’t do his job. There’s a difference between hearing something great and wanting to listen to more and being disenchanted by a poor vocal mix in an otherwise killer song. Spotting this difference is an imperative skill for a vocal producer and commercial mix engineer to have.
A professional vocal can only be achieved with a dedicated attention to small details. Focus in on what makes your vocal unique, interesting & captivating. Accentuate those features and build your mix to support them if you’re looking for a hit.
Tools of the Rockstar's Engineer
You know every vocal recording you’ve ever heard is distorted, right? No joke, we use a lot more distortion than the average listener would expect, in ways the average listener rarely notices.
Harmonic distortion is the most common element introduced through compression. Tools like Gain Reduction Deluxe add harmonic saturation and body to vocals, and can do it transparently or noticeably, depending on what you want. It’s a versatile tool that doesn’t just capture my signature vocal sound, but is getting used across the industry from hit country producers to pop music.
Rockstar vocals have always been built around strong dynamic control and impact. It’s not uncommon to find multiple levels of compression, limiters & other dynamic processing on a single vocal track. Once it’s passed its own signal chain, it’s bussed to a vocal bus and on to the mix bus – both of which can commonly be found with their own bus compressors.
Rockstars are Timeless
Once you’ve got a solid foundation, your rockstar vocal mix is just about done, but we’re still missing one of the biggest pieces: time.
When you think of a strong, gliding vocal, do you think of the space around it? The biggest mix trick any engineer has up their sleeve is the time-based processing around a vocal. A good delay can take a small, boxed-in voice and make it pop out of your speakers.
Multi-head delays are great at adding complexity to a vocal without being too noticeable. Reverbs can do the same, putting your singer in whatever space you’re after.
Want your rockstar to have an intimate sound? Put them in a small room with some slapback delay. Going for all-out arena rock? Boost those reverb times up for endless vocal tails!
How Do You Accentuate A Rockstar's Voice?
Are you taking full control of your rockstar singer’s vocals when it comes to mixing, or are you taking a more hands-off approach in an attempt to let their natural voice shine through?
If it’s the latter, I strongly recommend trying your hand at a more involved approach. Just because a voice is good from the get-go doesn’t mean you can’t make it better with a bit of practice and creativity.
Come join the vocal production discussion with thousands of like-minded engineers and producers in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum. Whether you’re just trying to find shortcuts to keep your vocals in tune or you need to bounce some signal chain ideas around with others, we’ve got it all.
Get creative with your mix – rockstars don’t play things safe when it comes to their art!