Tracking vocals without compression

Discussion in 'Mixing & Editing' started by bmcadams, Sep 10, 2005.

  1. bmcadams

    bmcadams Guest

    I'm a professional musician, not an enginner, so maybe I'm missing something. I've been tracking vocals for a singer through a pretty good signal chain of Mojave Audio Mic/Focusrite ISA220/G5/Digital Performer.

    The problem is that she is a singer with a HUGE dynamic range, from whisper soft to amazingly loud, very talented. She hates compression and won't let me touch it. I tried limiting the ISA220 output, but we wound up with distorted takes that were very nicely limited.

    We did some vocals at a major studio with no problems. Is there a trick I don't know about? Does anybody still ride the faders? If I set the levels to her biggest notes, the quiet notes barely appear on the waveforms. Is it a matter of having a super-transparent compressor?

    Any advice is greatly appreciated.

    Thanks in advance.
  2. geeknik

    geeknik Guest

    I usually will try to do different tracks. If a part is lower like a whisper I will take that to a different track so i dont have to do too much work as far as mixing goes. Waves rvox is really really good for compressing vocals after tracking. I usually just try to track with a little bit of headroom and then add the compression on accordingly. I am a newbie myself though.
  3. jonyoung

    jonyoung Well-Known Member

    Dec 31, 2003
    I usually do vocals through a rack mounted tube pre, and ride the gain when doing extremely dynamic vocals. Since any compression done during tracking is going to occur after the pre, it's no solution for preventing distortion, only final level to tape or disc. The other challenge is to determine if any possible distortion is happening at the mic capsule itself, in which case a pad is which case more gain is needed for the soft passages, more gain ridden on the hotspots. A real domino effect! While I admire large dynamic range abilities in a singer, it's not necessarily the best studio technique to use. I've tracked some vocalists who know how to compress themselves using various breathing and projection techniques, making my life much easier.
  4. atlasproaudio

    atlasproaudio Active Member

    Feb 17, 2001
    Tampa Bay, FL
    Home Page:
    I would 'ride the faders' (or the waveform, same difference) or compress during mixdown if she is that against compression. And she better have PERFECT mic technique to even have the qualification to comment on not using a compressor (or analog limiter). But for all practical purposes, riding the fader is basically the same thing as compression, and IMO in many ways a great compressor is superior to riding the fader. The human hand cannot react in terms of microseconds.

    What many musicians, and singers in particular don't realize is that their voice is going to dissapear off the stereo mix, if they had their way in this regard. I don't think it's the dynamic they really want to retain, it's the whispery/soft versus the aggressive/projected. If those two types of performances are put to the same actual decibel level on the recording, the way she performs is still going to come through and the human brain will perceive it as being lower in volume when it actually isn't. And this way the person listening to the final recording won't think the engineer is an amatuer flake who doesn't know what he/she is doing.
  5. JoeH

    JoeH Distinguished Member

    Jun 22, 2004
    Philadelphia, PA/ Greenville, DE
    Home Page:
    Hey look, "Purists" don't want to HEAR anything happening to their sound, but the reality is that the moment a sound (music) is recorded, signal processing begins. As soon as it's put into a track, DSP'd and mastered onto a CD, and pumped out of a radio tv or internet broadcast, bad things can happen to good sound. She'll get comp'd & squashed whether she likes it or not.

    Your job is to capture the sound and make it work. Chances are, your singer knows what she's talking about - to a point. What she doesn't want is BAD, pumping, cheesy compression/limiting that even the most non-techies can hear. You want to get the sound you need without triggering her audio alarm bells.

    I'd suggest a trick that I have had great success with. (please credit me when you make your first million selling smash hit and get asked how you did it. :twisted: )

    Since everyone's working with DAWs and mutlitracks nowadays, extra track count is easy enough, and in this case you'll want make two tracks for your singer. Put up TWO identical mics, each running to their own preamp, or one mic with a splitter. (I prefer TWO mics, FWIW). Set one for up close and breathy, and set the other one for screamin' slammin' loud (Probalby at least -10 db pad, maybe -20). Track them both at the same time, and let'er'rip. Don't worry about the distortion in the 'senstive" track. You'll be cross fading out of that in mixdown. Simply cross-fade/split/edit from light and breathy to loud and screamin' as needed.

    You may want to then do a "comp" track or a bounce, and some overall levelling, but at that point, you can get it sounding great; with plenty of level and NO pumping. No one should be the wiser, and she'll think you're a genious. Plus, it beats the hell out of just 'Riding the faders" - that's a compromise in getting good SNL anyway; neither preamp level is the right one, if you go that route.

    Of course, you'll end up doing SOME kind of DSP, but in the end, nothing that should drive your diva bonkers.

    Good luck!
  6. jonnyc

    jonnyc Guest

    I say just compress and do it lightly and don't tell her. Sometime artists don't know whats best for them.
  7. CoyoteTrax

    CoyoteTrax Well-Known Member

    May 25, 2005
    Home Page:
    I'm with Jonnyc on that. Compress it and don't tell her. Compression is a beautiful thing. Beautiful :cry:
  8. baslotto

    baslotto Active Member

    Jul 28, 2005
    I was just stopping by and I noticed the "very talented [singer]" comment about her voice.
    I experienced that "very talented musicians" have dynamics for a reson. That reason is that the music sounds freaking great with those crescendos and diminuendos. Something that compression kills. Interpretation is a skill that few singers have and being able to produce very high and low notes is not a skill, it's a gift (I know you can develop it... I have 4 octaves myself after studiyng every day, I konw..)
    If the singer that you are talking about is very talented and she is wispering something "for a reason", then don't be hard with a comperssor. If she is not that talented and she cannot control her voice then go ahead and help the music, which is what this is all about. :D
    Cheers!! Bas.
  9. Clive Banks

    Clive Banks Guest

    real world dynamics arent the same as the recorded world.

    that is good advice.the artists need not concern themselves with any aspect of the recording unless it is a creative desiscion.
  10. jonnyc

    jonnyc Guest

  11. jonnyc

    jonnyc Guest

    IMO thinking like this isn't totally correct. I've heard compression misused constantly, I've got a guy that does work for me sometimes and he just compresses the crap out of everything to the point that you can really hear it squashing. I think very light compression and only enough to clean up the sound a bit is perfectly fine and I've never noticed it squashing the dynamics of the vocalist. So yes compression can ruin a very dynamic singer if used wrong, however a talented engineer should know how much to use to get it "better" sounding.

    sorry about quoting twice if it could be removed that would be cool.
  12. baslotto

    baslotto Active Member

    Jul 28, 2005
    I'm totally agreeing with you guys, I just say that the game must be played well from both parts. A talented singer, like any musician, is able to play with dynamics in order to give a good interpretation. I'm not saying that compression on vocals is wrong. It depends on how it's done. Personally I'm against a wave that looks like a "brick". I like to hear variations in dynamics, it makes the music more interesting if it's well played. There are techniques with software plugins that help this thing too. Drawing a threshold automation around the soundwave is one of them and it could sound interesting and more natural. Not always, but sometimes it can be one of the tricks.
    Obviously it also depends on the genre of music.

  13. mixopenta

    mixopenta Guest

    Another thing is that a talented singer also should know how to adjust his/hers distance to the mic when singing soft vs loud passages. I.e. up close when singing soft, back off when singing loud.

    This technique is however introducing another problem known as the proximity effect. Either way the hi fidelity sometimes needs to take the backseat because it's just not possible to have it all...

    The human ear does have a limited "SNL ratio", but it beats the crap out of any recording device or media ever invented by mankind to this date anyway.

  14. sharmon

    sharmon Guest

    Hi, i think it also depends on the type of music that she is singing. I recently recorded a prog rock/speed metal band with a female singer, the voice had to be compressed otherwise it just wouldn't come thru the guitars, bass and drums. However, if the music is something like Ani DiFranco, well again it depends on the particular song, but here one could aford to have a much larger dynamic range. I like the idea of using two mics a lot, very simple, but hey, i never thought of it!

    But i really do think that some singers could be a little more "educated" when it comes to recording in a studio, it's just like the drummer that likes to bash at those cymbals and tickle the snare! Come on!!

    I guess a combination of all the posts given here would give the best result. Tho i'm secretly in favour of just doing what you need to do, and hey, does she need to know about it? As long as it sounds natural, and it maintains her artistic view, who's to know? Ignorance is bliss right? :)
  15. sharmon

    sharmon Guest

    Also, depending what kind of a person she is, i would try talking to her and explaining that "effecting" a voice happens in a live, un-amplified format too. If she sings in a church it will sound different, if she sings in a auditorium, different, outdoors, different... Thats effecting the voice too! Just cos it doesn't utilize plugins or outbouard gear, doesn't mean that the voice is not effected... My point is, that by using compression, reverb, delay etc, we are only trying to replicate a natural phenomenon.... Might work...
  16. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Well-Known Member

    Dec 12, 2001
    Oberlin, OH
    Home Page:
    Just did a recording this weekend of a singer and piano. She has quite a range but I was able to record it without using a compressor. This was a remote recording and I was doing it using the Mackie ONYX mixer into a laptop computer using Trackation software. I set the level so when she was screaming it was about -2.5 dBFS and let the lower levels fall where they were. It came out GREAT with no real problems. This lady is a real pro and knows how to work the microphone (Blue Bluebird) and is a trained opera singer but now does mostly Broadway type shows. The recording we were doing was original music from a song writer in the style of the great singers of the 30's and 40's.

    I think too many engineers today are trying to get the maximum level and with 24 bit recordiing you have quite a built in dynamic range to start with so you don't have to use all the bits all the time.

    Altough I prefer a good compressor on vocals you don't always need or want one.


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