Musical Musings

Singing and recording : What has changed?

by John Milner

The techniques used to record vocals these days are essentially the same as those used fifty years ago. Microphone technology has not really progressed; pre-amplifiers and compressors have not really changed either, though they might sport more features and controls. Even though the way we capture the sound has changed some people still prefer to record onto ferrous tape. Digital recording is no longer new either and dates back to the early nineteen eighties.

So what has changed has changed?

Well, software and accessibility. We are now able to manipulate what we record beyond our wildest dreams. When I started recording in the late nineteen eighties I was using an eight track tape machine which meant when you recorded a vocal it had to be a near to perfect as you could get it because timing and pitch could not be altered at all. Today with a few clicks of the mouse you can move every word around to your heart’s content in an audio sequencer. Auto-tune plug-ins can correct pitch issues in very near real time. To top it all most people with a pc, microphone, pre-amplifier and a modicum of interest in music and recording can have access to all the marvels of the making music in the digital world right there in their front room or bedroom. It does not, however, guarantee they will become the next George Martin or say, Freddy Mercury but it does mean they can record and edit to a pretty decent standard with limited means. For musicians these advantages are obvious as they no longer need to pay for expensive studio time to record their music. Perhaps they will record just the drums at a studio then edit the results to tighten the performance before laying down the other instruments in the comfort of their own home at their own leisure and speed. There is also so much information on the internet that if you do have a technical issue then someone, almost undoubtedly, will have posted a solution on the internet that you can find within minutes. Go back fifty years and you would have struggled to find someone who knew what phase cancellation was in your own city never mind find someone who knew how to correct or avoid it. Skills are therefore becoming less specialized as more information is available to us all.

You would think that this technological revolution would mean there are more amazing singers being discovered. Sadly, the answer is probably no. Why? Well, software is making people lazy and blunting their performance skills. For instance, I record someone singing a vocal; the take is ok but slightly out of time and out of tune. I try to coax another take out of him but he is tired or needs to be somewhere else. “Come on John, a bit of auto tune and a nip and a tuck here and there and it will be fine” he might tell me. On one level he is right. If it is not too bad then it can be corrected using software and good judgment but that will not make him a better singer. These days everyone thinks they can sing. Probably half the singers in the top forty cannot sing properly and their careers rely on clever engineers and the latest software. Let us face it: you need to have talent or work very hard to become a good singer! If I can offer any advice laymen advice it would be as follows:

It is important with vocals as with all REAL instruments to learn how to ''get them down". By that I mean how to get a good take down. Identify your weaknesses and work to work to overcome them rather than relying on software that can sometimes often cheapen the results. Always try to get a good signal recorded. You should not exceed -2 decibels. Try not to record with any equalization and if the performance does not need compression to control it then you can leave that until later too. Always use a pop shield.

A good tip is to really practice singing your lines without the music and indentify where you are going wrong. Then break it down and focus on the bad bits. Let the microphone do the work, you do not need to shout or force it. Try to control your breathing from your diaphragm (this takes practice). Practice your vowels and mouth sounds too as this helps develop clearer execution. Good timing is essential but not difficult to master if you know you lines. Try to know your lines off by heart so that you are not distracted by reading at the same time as you are trying to sing.

Most people tend to sing out of tune when they cannot hear what they are singing properly i.e. the mix is too loud in their headphones or the bass is too loud in their headphones. In fact headphones are difficult to use for many singers; some top producers have the mix coming out of the control room monitors with the singer and microphone in there in front of the monitors (you can use a noise gate to take out the spill later). Try it and see if works for you. Remember not to have the volume too loud or the microphone pointing at the monitors. It is essential, however, to always use a pop shield.

The gap between mediocre and great music is narrower these days as more and more people are having a go at making music and in general we are getting used to hearing mediocre music while thinking it is something special. If you are serious about singing, recording, or making music then strive to improve continually in every area. Do not rely on software to make you sound good rather use it wisely to help nurture and express your music. I record royalty free music for and album for artists and I am constantly trying to improve what I do. To me it is an endless quest.

About the Author: Guitarist / music producer and keen writer. I grew up in Wales and have moved around Europe a fair bit. Started playing guitar when I was fourteen and I am still hooked. I have produced several albums and currently run a royalty free music website. When I get the time I tap away at my first novel which I hope to finish in this lifetime.....

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