Archive for the ‘vocalists’ Category

Preparing Beats and Instrumentals for a Vocal Session

Friday, March 13th, 2009

I work with a bunch of hip-hop artists and a few R&B singers. Most of the time they bring their own instrumentals to the studio instead of having me write music for them. I usually charge $300 or so to write and produce instrumentals for artists and there are 3 zillion kids with FL Studio using the title producer that will put something together for free.

The problem with free beats is that most of the time the quality of the audio really sucks.  Most MC’s are downloading instrumentals off of the web or the beats are coming in over email.  These are always compressed files which lack accuracy and sound quality.  OGG Vorbis files, MP3’s, WMA’s and Apple’s M4P’s or AAC’s all can sound pretty bad.  If you are starting a recording project, you want to start with the best quality audio that’s possible.  The following guidelines are intended to help people avoid releasing crappy sounding music.  Mix down your instrumentals using the following suggestions as a guide.

  1. Use full-quality uncompressed digital audio like WAV or AIFF files.  At the very least, these files should be 16 bit 44.1Khz stereo files.  I prefer to work with 24 bit files at either 44.1 Khz or 88.2 Khz.  The quality of the audio is much better and is easier to manipulate.  Using uncompressed files is the best way of ensuring that your engineer will be able to make a great mix of your songs.
  2. If you must use a compressed file-format, use FLAC (the Free Lossless Audio Codec) <http://flac.sourceforge.net/>
    FLAC is great because it is lossless, which means that even though the files are smaller than uncompressed files, they sound just as good as uncompressed files.  By using additional processor power you can make FLAC files even smaller.  In a series of tests that I did with my colleague Connor Smith, we discovered that FLAC was capable of shrinking our test file of uncompressed audio at 5.3 MB down to 1.6 MB without loosing any audio quality at all. FLAC files are sometimes small enough for people to email if they are short.
  3. Give the engineer stems. Stems are separate stereo tracks for each of the instruments in the instrumental.  For instance, you would have separate files for the drums, the bass, the rhythm instruments, the keyboards, the samples.  When you give the engineer stems they are able to mix the different instruments with the vocals.  A lot of the time the instruments block out the vocals in a mix.  If you send stems, the engineer can lower the instruments without lowered the drums and the bass. If you don’t bring stems, the engineer can’t leave the drums loud if the instruments are getting in the way of the vocals.
  4. If you have to use compressed lossy files, use the best possible quality that you can get.  OGG Vorbis, MP3, WMA, and AAC/M4P all offer the option of making higher quality files that are larger in size or smaller files that sound bad.  Here’s the audio choices going from best sounding to worst sounding:Ogg Vorbis (.ogg) is Open Source, Free and Awesome <http://www.vorbis.com/>
    Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio (.wma) <http://www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/forpros/codecs/audio.aspx>
    Apple’s Advanced Audio Codec (.aac or .m4p) <http://www.apple.com/quicktime/technologies/aac/>
    Mp3 (.mp3) MPEG layer 3 (Motion Picture Engineering Group) <http://lame.sourceforge.net/>
  5. Use the highest bit rate that you can use with all of the above audio formats.  I recommend a minimum bit rate of 256 Kbps for Ogg, WMA and AAC, but a minimum of 320 Kbps for MP3 audio.  VBR or Variable Bit Rate can be a little squirrelly, so to be safe always choose the highest quality option available.
  6. Find out if the engineer has the same software that the beat was created in.  I have FL Studio XXL so I can get FruityLoops files with the loop bundle and mix the  instrumental with the vocals directly.  It’s very likely that your engineer has software that can work with your format.
  7. If the file was ever a compressed file, you can never make the quality better.  For instance, if a beat-maker emails you a beat as an MP3 and you then convert it to a 16bit 44.1 Khz WAV file, it will never sound better than the MP3 file.  Never try to burn a CD with MP3 versions of the music.  You are just making the problem worse.

Please don’t hesitate to ask questions about file formats.  I can also help you to get great mixes either with advice or you can send me your projects to work some magic.

How to Get Warmer, Thicker Rap Vocals

Monday, December 17th, 2007

This is a response to a student question, from Akeem Custis, about how to get rap vocals to sound thicker, warmer and better in general.

First, your mic and preamp are very important. Some mics are warmer and fatter than others. The same goes for preamps. I have gotten some great results with the EV RE-20, which is a dynamic mic. Mic placement is pretty important on rap vocals too. You want to use a cardioid mic to boost up the lows a little with the proximity effect. Make sure that you have at minimum one really good pop filter. I often use two pop filters: one foam “windscreen” on the mic itself and a metal Stedman pop filter as well. Sometimes I use one pop filter in front of the other or different types. Turn the mic slightly so that the mic isn’t pointed directly at the artist’s mouth. This is called an “off-axis” mic placement and also helps with plosives.

Since I don’t know what you’re recording with, I would suggest first compressing the vocal heavily. With the attack and release in auto, use a 6:1 ratio to reduce gain up to 15 dB, then boost the vocal as far as you can without peaking. If you put a boost of 2-5 dB at around 150 Hz that can also fatten up a track, especially in the male vocal range. If it starts to sound muddy, then just back off on the peak filter. Your bandwidth should be between 100 Hz and 200Hz or about 1 octave.

When you add additional vocal tracks of doubling, you can also create phase problems and end up with a thinner sounding vocal than if you hadn’t added the additional tracks. One way to handle this is to pan the additional tracks so that they’re not all sitting on top of each other. This will tend to sound much bigger than tracks all panned center. Usually on rap vocal tracks, the hooks use doubled voices (or tripled or more) panned out. This creates a bigger vocal production to set the hooks out from the verses. Most of the time, the verses aren’t panned out so heavily and there are many fewer vocal doubles.

I have had really good luck with doing doubles, but using different tones of voice to avoid phase problems. For instance, have the MC record the first take of the track in the tone they would use live. Now do a whisper double. This one won’t interfere with the frequencies in the first take very much. Now do a hard aggressive double. Listen to these 3 takes together in mono to see how you’re doing. Mix the different voices up or down as appropriate.

If you have already recorded the tracks, then you can try using a doubler with the additional voices panned out. This will probably cause some of the phase problems that I already mentioned.

Good Luck Mixing!

How to Prepare Yourself for a Recording Session (Vocalists)

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

Are you new to recording? Do you want to get the most out of your recording dollars? This is a guide that I provide to clients so that they can make sure that they do their best work in a recording session.

Come Fully Rehearsed.
Don’t waste your money by rehearsing or writing in the studio. You want to come in and start working immediately. As a vocalist, you should have the songs completely memorized. You shouldn’t need to read lyrics or music. The phrasing and flow should already be worked out and you should be able to perform the songs acapella, without any background music at all.

All of your concentration needs to be on creating emotion with your voice, getting the tone that you want and performing your best. You shouldn’t have to worry about the words or the notes at all.

Wear comfortable, but quiet clothes.
When you come to record make sure that you are wearing your quietest, most comfortable clothes. Any clothes that rustle like polyester track suits, corduroy, squeaky shoes, big bulky sweaters, and leather jackets are all no-no’s.

Don’t wear jewelry– you don’t want that jingling on your recording. Earrings can hurt if they’re getting pinned to your head with headphones. Leave you cell phone in the control room, because they can cause interference with microphones. I have noticed that “press-to-talk” phones from Nextel and Cingular are the worst culprits in the studio and the Sidekick can cause lots of sound problems.

Get the sounds that you want.
Bring in CDs that have the sounds that you are looking for. Want to get the aggressive distorted vocal from Korn or Nine Inch Nails? Do you want a mellow R&B sound like Al Green or Marvin Gaye? Do you want to get the delay sounds from Perry Farrell from Jane’s Addiction? The engineer that you’re working with should be able choose mics, preamps and compressors to get the tone you want. Everything matters when you’re trying to dial into a sound. How close you are to the mic matters a lot. Most vocals mics are cardioid and they have a proximity effect. This means that as you get closer to the mic, you also get more bass response from the mic and a greater sense of intimacy. Artists like Frank Sinatra and Barry White utilized the proximity response to tune their vocal performances on recordings.

Don’t ask your engineer to put reverb or delay into you headphones. Time based effects, like these, should be added during mix down and actually can cause problems on your recording if they are being piped into you headphones. If you just can’t stand the sound of your own voice in the headphones without effects, then ask the engineer to add as little reverb as possible to avoid any problems later.

Getting a great headphone mix.
One of the engineer’s jobs is to make sure that you have the best possible headphone mix. You should be able to hear yourself and the music that you’re performing with. MCs usually want the headphone mix to be heavy on the drums and the bass so their rhythm is as tight as possible. Singers usually want to emphasize the bass and whatever chordal instruments (piano, guitar, synths) are in the mix so their pitch is correct.

Some vocalists prefer to leave one ear piece off their ear to allow them to hear their voice in the room. This is often a big problem! When you take the ear cup off your ear, the sound from that ear piece is bleeding into the microphone. This can cause the sound of the band to end up on your vocal track causing phase cancellation problems or mix problems for the engineer later on.

If this is what you need to do, ask for headphones that have only one ear piece or bring your own headphones. It’s a good idea to bring your own headphones anyway so that you can listen to yourself on headphones that you already know. Don’t bring crappy headphones! Invest in a set of professional headphones from a good manufacturer. You want the kind that covers your whole ear and feels really comfortable.

Here are my recommended pairs of headphones:

Vic Firth Isolation Headphones. These headphones fit TIGHT on your head and are great for preventing bleed through to mics in the studio. If you need a loud head phone mix and you want to minimize bleed then these are for you. They are made special for drummers who usually need a very loud headphone mix to be louder than their drums. They also block out other sounds in the room and can be used as hearing protectors. Only downside seems to be the rubber ear cups get sweaty in hot or long sessions. These are also not the best sounding headphones in the world and really aren’t designed for critical listening, but for under $50, what do you expect?

Sony Pro MDR-7506 Headphones. These are an industry standard set of studio headphones and they really sound pretty good for the money ($100 or less). They have a “closed ear” design which blocks out some of the outside sounds and prevents bleed into microphones. One of the advantages is that these headphones fold up and come with a nice leather bag for carrying them around. They have both the professional 1/4″ stereo plug and the consumer 1/8″ Stereo plug so you can use them with an MP3 player.

Beyer Dynamic DT-770. These are my favorite all around studio headphones. They have a closed-back design and they block out background sounds. They also do a great job of preventing bleed into the mics. These headphones have some of the best audiophile quality sound that you can buy and they sound simply amazing. After you get used to listening to music with these, you will never go back to an inferior set of cans. They are a little pricey ($250 or less), but they are worth every penny. All of the parts can be ordered in case you wear them out.