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  • recording vocals and compression

    gentlemen; though i'm comfortable recording my musical arrangements in converting midi to audio (sonar 4/motif7/reason 2.5), i've recently begun recording vocals in my home studio. i use a audio-technica 4040 mic with a eureka presonus preamp. here's the issue; i've had difficulty getting a good even signal throughout my efforts, AND, given the singer's technique/style, a less than quality recording based on the recording input levels. problem is, while i can get a good signal relatively well, determining peaks as well as getting good signals from lower, more intimate parts has proved quite difficult. my soundcard is an emu1212 which has compression and gate built in.

    therefore, my question is what is/are the recommended techinique(s) in applying compression and gate at the recording input stage. i work with a co-producer who swears by recording (he uses protools) WITH gate and compression in order to achieve the consistency of signal, but it seems to me he's in the minority. i've read and heard from pro engineers that getting that good signal is an acquired skill; one i'm willing to practice to achieve (which is basically what i'm doing), but i'm looking for a variety of opinions/rules/techniques that i can apply to my environment that will maximize my efforts. also, what techiniques can be applied using compression post-recording phase, if such a techinque exists? any articles or forums that will help educate me are greatly appreciated.

    i work in a pretty small room (approx 9' x 9'), with a consideable amount of treatment (moving blankets and auralex foam on walls and a portion of the ceiling with carpet on floor) to deaden reflections, so i generally get a pretty tight sound. i've erred on the side of not having the vocals hot enough and bumping them up incrementally with sonar's audio processing (3db's at a time), but if i record with compression and gate at the soundcard level, is it feasible to add more input from my preamp to obtain that "perfect" signal?

    i realize this question is a bit drawn out, but there's much to consider, so thanks in advance for any and all replies.

  • #2

    therefore, my question is what is/are the recommended techinique(s) in applying compression and gate at the recording input stage. i work with a co-producer who swears by recording (he uses protools) WITH gate and compression in order to achieve the consistency of signal, but it seems to me he's in the minority.


    I will sometimes record vocals with light/moderate compression, and a lot of other engineers do the same. I've never heard of *anyone*, professional or amateur, recording vocals with gate. Why would anyone risk a gate cutting off a quiet part of a vocal, or the tail end of a phrase? Also, I'd like to point out that using a gate will do absolutely nothing to give you consistency of signal in the way that you are describing, and that if one must use a gate at all, it'd be far better to do it after the vocal has been recorded.

    Getting a good signal is a skill, yes, but it starts with the vocalist. The vocalist working the mic and singing well. That's an art. Intimate parts are so much a function of the vocalist working the mic, moving in, pulling away during peaks, etc.

    And finally, if you are recording at 24 bits (and why wouldn't you be?), you have plenty of headroom, so I wouldn't get too obsessed with having the levels always "hot".

    While an AT4040 and PreSonus are hardly the height of professional gear, they are good enough that if you are not getting a good, solid, consistent vocal sound, it's not the equipment.

    I hope this helps.
    Ken Lee on 500px / Ken's Photo Store / Ken Lee Photography Facebook Website / Blueberry Buddha Studios / Ajanta Palace Houseboat - Kashmir / Hotel Green View - Kashmir / Eleven Shadows website / Ken Lee Photography Blog / Akai 12-track tape transfers / MY NEW ALBUM! The Mercury Seven

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    • #3
      And finally, if you are recording at 24 bits (and why wouldn't you be?), you have plenty of headroom, so I wouldn't get too obsessed with having the levels always "hot".


      I agree with everything UstadKhanAli said. To expand on his point above, in 24 bit I usually aim for peaks around -10dB and average levels around -15dB.

      The compressor in your Emu is a software compressor, aka, a plugin. There is no benefit to using it while tracking, since you can get the same result by applying it as a plugin on the track after the initial recording. The benefit to this approach is that you are not "stuck" with it, i.e., if you don't like it you can always change the settings or remove it. If you record with it on the way in, it's burned onto the raw track and can't be removed.

      Some people like to use a hardware compressor on the way in, but I can't think of any reason to use a plugin compressor in this manner.

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      • #4
        Just to clarify my position, I figured the original poster was talking about using a hardware compressor/gate on the way in, not a plugin.

        If we are discussing plugins with the assumption that we are not printing (recording) the effect, then I'd be more inclined to leave it off because that way the vocalist would have a greater tendency to use decent microphone technique since s/he would be able to hear the dynamics more. I'd still not bother to use a gate because it would probably be rather disconcerting to hear breaths, tails of phrases, etc. mistakenly clip off. It's really difficult, even with a really good gate, to set it correctly for something as erratic as vocals. And I'm really good at setting gates.
        Ken Lee on 500px / Ken's Photo Store / Ken Lee Photography Facebook Website / Blueberry Buddha Studios / Ajanta Palace Houseboat - Kashmir / Hotel Green View - Kashmir / Eleven Shadows website / Ken Lee Photography Blog / Akai 12-track tape transfers / MY NEW ALBUM! The Mercury Seven

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        • #5
          also, what techiniques can be applied using compression post-recording phase, if such a techinque exists? any articles or forums that will help educate me are greatly appreciated.


          The short answer would be: whatever sounds good.

          With compression (well, EQ and other stuff too), you really have to listen very closely. You adjust, listen closely again, adjust, listen, listen, listen.

          Play with the attack. If the consonants are coming across too heavily, what people sometimes do is they quicken the attack so the initial transient doesn't poke through. Do this too much and the vocal might sound unnatural or lifeless, so one must be careful.

          You play with the Attack, Threshold, Ratio, and Release Controls and go from there, starting with a relatively mild ratio (2:1, 3:1) and a mild Threshold setting to where you are compressing only several dB at the most (2-4dB). This is a STARTING POINT from which you tweak the controls; I am not saying that these are the ideal settings.

          But it really depends on the song, the vocal, the genre, etc. You have to listen, listen, listen.
          Ken Lee on 500px / Ken's Photo Store / Ken Lee Photography Facebook Website / Blueberry Buddha Studios / Ajanta Palace Houseboat - Kashmir / Hotel Green View - Kashmir / Eleven Shadows website / Ken Lee Photography Blog / Akai 12-track tape transfers / MY NEW ALBUM! The Mercury Seven

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          • #6
            I use a light compression for tracking, maybe shave 1-3db off the peaks. More is added during mixdown. If you read Mix, or go to Gearsltz, you'll find that the pros ride the fader during tracking as kind of a manual compressor. I would not advise this method while recording people who can't do it twice the same way.
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            • #7
              Riding the fader is a beautiful thing. Obviously, you have to be intimately familiar with the song to do so. But the advantage is that this often sounds more natural than any other method of compression.
              Ken Lee on 500px / Ken's Photo Store / Ken Lee Photography Facebook Website / Blueberry Buddha Studios / Ajanta Palace Houseboat - Kashmir / Hotel Green View - Kashmir / Eleven Shadows website / Ken Lee Photography Blog / Akai 12-track tape transfers / MY NEW ALBUM! The Mercury Seven

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              • #8
                I will sometimes record vocals with light/moderate compression, and a lot of other engineers do the same. I've never heard of *anyone*, professional or amateur, recording vocals with gate. Why would anyone risk a gate cutting off a quiet part of a vocal, or the tail end of a phrase? Also, I'd like to point out that using a gate will do absolutely nothing to give you consistency of signal in the way that you are describing, and that if one must use a gate at all, it'd be far better to do it after the vocal has been recorded.

                Getting a good signal is a skill, yes, but it starts with the vocalist. The vocalist working the mic and singing well. That's an art. Intimate parts are so much a function of the vocalist working the mic, moving in, pulling away during peaks, etc.

                And finally, if you are recording at 24 bits (and why wouldn't you be?), you have plenty of headroom, so I wouldn't get too obsessed with having the levels always "hot".

                While an AT4040 and PreSonus are hardly the height of professional gear, they are good enough that if you are not getting a good, solid, consistent vocal sound, it's not the equipment.

                I hope this helps.


                All good words. I agree, using a gate when tracking on the recording is a bad idea, because while it may not be an issue in a louder song, a more dynamic, quieter one, you may start to hear the background noise turn off and on.

                If the vocal levels are way off, perhaps the singer is more accustomed to a live performance. In the studio, a singer needs to cut down on their movements to and from the mic (unless that is an effect you are going for), and I dunno whether you're using a dynamic mic, but that will increase the amount of proximity effect (bass) when moving to and from the mic, so you'll get a prompt dropoff of bass frequencies with lots of movement to and from the mic. In that case, try a condenser if you already haven't.

                The studio also reveals many things too--plosives, for example. While singers can get away with that onstage, they need to control that air on P's, B's, and watch the hard sibilants.

                You can remedy this with some compression to even out the levels, but if the singer is moving around lots and back and forth to and from the mic, it will definetely be difficult to get a consistent level. In that case, alot of preparation and proper studio technique will go a long ways in saving you the headaches later on down the road. Get a good headphone mix for the singer so that they can audibly hear what they are doing well (they may be fighting to hear themselves in the mix), and get a good monitor mix for yourself in the console room or tracking room. If the volume is all over the place there, the mic is just getting what is inconsistent about the singer's technique. If the volume fluctuations vary only in comparison to something like a chorus as to the verse, you could manually ride the faders later on or do some compression.

                If the volume fluctuations are wildly divergent in each chorus and verse compared to the other vocals in that section, there's some major problems in the singing style. Even half decent mics will do a good job of capturing overall volume of what's being put into it.

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                • #9
                  all good advice here. some of my techniques include:
                  - a pop screen. this keeps the singer a minimum distance away from the mic at all times. also angle the mic slightly away from where the air pops out of their mouth, especially when using a condenser.
                  - a rough demo take. this allows you and the singer to evaluate your techniques in an objective manner. you can improve the signal quality and they can hear where they should lean in or back away from the mic.
                  - some hardware compression on the way in. you can always add more later. you can't take it away. always err on the side of less compression here.
                  - the singer's comfort is your top priority. you must be critical of their performance in a tactful, upbeat way (e.g. "that take was pretty good, but i think you're still warming up. i've heard you NAIL that verse before in practice, so i KNOW you can give me something better") if something isn't working, move on to something else and come back to it tomorrow.
                  - good headphone mix. add a bit of reverb to the outgoing (NOT the ingoing) vocal signal if you can and make sure their voice is clear but not overpowering the other instruments. they need to give it like they do when the rest of the band is there.
                  - vocal doubling. this doesn't work for all styles of music, but in rock it sounds great, especially on choruses. the takes should be done EXACTLY the same, not one more raspy than the other or whatever. it sounds almost magical when you nail the second take and you hear one voice but it kind of warbles a bit. here's a great vid from butch vig about recording nirvana and doubling vocal takes:
                  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2MzHTw0qO4

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                  • #10
                    Hardware compression on the way in isnt usually needed when recording at higher bit rates. It can also be an impediment to to a singer who knows how to worke his dynamics singing properly. I could see using it in the headphone mix with some reverb or echo, bot I wouldnt print to disk with it unless theres a combination of the following creating an issue.

                    Lower bit rate, recording to tape, being too close to a mic or vocal parts go from whispers to gorilla lungs may benifit from compression but with its ability to automate volume changes theres are always losses which is a loss of dynamics which can be used by a pro to promote feeling in the music. No dynamics can mimick a monotone speaker that can create a ho hum lack luster feeling to words that should be jumping out and grabbing you.

                    As far as gating goes its usually a simple task to envelope or silence between vocal parts to reduce noise. Exception might be a live recording and you want to minimise bleedover but they're trickey to set up and have to be adjusted differently for different tempos and lounness so isolation is a better route or just leaving the bleedover in the mix as ambience if the room sounds good enough.

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                    • #11
                      I always record vocals with a GATE. If you set it up right, you don't loose anything. This quiets the track from noises [I don't have a sound proof recording studio] and cuts most of the breathing out allowing me to mostly skip the "track cleanup" process also. Actually, I think I generally use a gate to cut all extra hiss from keyboards, drum machines, effects units etc.... I just like a nice quiet track.

                      Generally, I will compress or limit my vocals when recording also. Not a LOT, just enough to be helpful. I don't put on enough that I will regret it later. However, I would never recommend gates and compression for a new guy

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                      • #12
                        I personally strongly dislike cutting out breaths from my vocals. As always, YMMV.
                        Ken Lee on 500px / Ken's Photo Store / Ken Lee Photography Facebook Website / Blueberry Buddha Studios / Ajanta Palace Houseboat - Kashmir / Hotel Green View - Kashmir / Eleven Shadows website / Ken Lee Photography Blog / Akai 12-track tape transfers / MY NEW ALBUM! The Mercury Seven

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                        • #13
                          Hardware compression on the way in isnt usually needed when recording at higher bit rates. It can also be an impediment to to a singer who knows how to worke his dynamics singing properly. I could see using it in the headphone mix with some reverb or echo, bot I wouldnt print to disk with it unless theres a combination of the following creating an issue.


                          And it's also useful if you have a compressor that imparts a certain character or if someone who is particularly erratic in their vocal levels.
                          Ken Lee on 500px / Ken's Photo Store / Ken Lee Photography Facebook Website / Blueberry Buddha Studios / Ajanta Palace Houseboat - Kashmir / Hotel Green View - Kashmir / Eleven Shadows website / Ken Lee Photography Blog / Akai 12-track tape transfers / MY NEW ALBUM! The Mercury Seven

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                          • #14
                            I like using hw compression before the DAW depending on the singer / song / mic / pre. Mild settings except when going for an effect. I also use a gate in software, set-up post-fader, to avoid hearing the room noises during tracking with sensative condenser mics. The gate is not printed.

                            Good luck!

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