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Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

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Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Jake James » Sun Dec 30, 2018 8:17 pm

Hello Community;

I am self-producing an album of soul music between my modest home studio and my friend's small commercial studio. I have been moving slowly every step of the way, studying, experimenting and learning to get the best sound possible given my limited funds and know-how, and my existing gear. I know I have recorded an instrument right (for my tastes) when on playback it seems to jumps out of the speaker at me rather than sitting flat. So far so good.

As the all-important vocal sessions approach, I realize I will need a lot of time to explore possibilities and get the best takes I can deliver. Even at the good price my friend gives me, I cannot afford to explore the vocal process in a real studio. I have to do it at home.

Here is my signal chain. Despite being centred around 10-year-old technology, I have managed to record some great bass, percussion and synth tracks. Drums and guitar, however, were underwhelming and only came to life in a real studio, largely due to room sound. I expect it will be the same for vocals, and I will work hard to acoustically treat my recording space. Advice in this would be appreciated, but not necessary as there is a lot of info available already online. But if anyone with experience can tell me what equipment to rent in order to maximize the quality of my signal chain, or has ideas of how to optimize what I already have, it would be of great help.

-->Midas Venice desk for preamps and eq
Sounds great to my ear, but perhaps for this crucial step I can do better with a single channel dedicated preamp?

-->DBX 266XL compressor
Used as a limiter to prevent clipping, and only the gentlest compression, if any

-->Focusrite Saffire 56, firewire into late 2009 iMac running Logic Pro X
I have rented a Lynx Aurora in the past and failed to hear a quality difference in the converters. Is this just my untrained ear? I have been told that technology has reached a point where even mid-range converters like on my old Saffire do not interfere with the signal chain. Opinions?

I will also need to rent a mic that handles baritone vocals better than my AKG 414 XLII, which I find makes female vocals shine but is thin for my voice. Personally, I have always liked the tonality of the SM7b. My friend suggested I try a tube mic. What of close micing with a dynamic for proximity and blending with a condenser placed a foot behind for air? Is this ever done?

Here is the list of gear I can rent from my neighbourhood pro-audio store. Suggestions outside of this list are welcome as well. There are many other places I can rent from, but it is convenient to get everything from one source.

http://www.karisma.ca/location.htm

Thanks in advance! :thumbup:
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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby James Perrett » Sun Dec 30, 2018 10:24 pm

You don't need more gear (apart from maybe a mic). In fact I probably wouldn't even bother with using the Venice or the Dbx and go straight into the Focusrite. Room treatment is essential and will be the biggest improvement that you can make. After that you could try different mics but also try your 414 in different positions. Renting mics is a good idea although I'd advise against renting anything too expensive as you'll probably end up wanting to buy the most expensive mic on the list! :bouncy:
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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Sam Spoons » Sun Dec 30, 2018 10:46 pm

Has your mate got a decent mic locker (and, especially, does he have an SM7B)? If so a couple of hours in his place auditioning mics to find the one that suits your voice may be money well spent (and probably cost you less than hiring in several mics to try).

+1 for room treatment (which you have addressed) it makes much more difference than any hardware you could buy.
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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Bob Bickerton » Sun Dec 30, 2018 11:15 pm

It's already been said. Forget the Midas and DBX, go straight in using the Focusrite and focus your attention on mic selection and positioning, acoustic treatment, but most of all the performance!

If the room isn't great then working a nice dynamic close (like the SM7B) will help attenuate the room sound.

And don't mess around with two mics, just keep it simple and focus on the performance - at the end of the day, that is what your audience will notice.

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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Jack Ruston » Mon Dec 31, 2018 7:46 am

An SM7 is one of the most effective vocal mics regardless of cost. It can often be better than a U47, C12 or 251. If you know that you like that mic on your voice, look no further. Just crack on with the performance side. Once you have a mic that's working pretty well on your voice, it's 99% performance. Don't get sidetracked renting and trying loads of microphones unless there's a problem. Treat the room well, find a good position, and sing close.

People DO sometimes use a second mic further back, but in a domestic environment, or a smaller studio, it's going to wind up sounding quite coloured. I don't think I'd bother with that approach personally.

Don't let the technicalities sidetrack you too much. SM7...clean signal path...plenty of gain with that mic...close positioning....take the foam off but use a pop shield. Try one and see what you get.

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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Jack Ruston » Mon Dec 31, 2018 7:51 am

...Also, your cue mix and headphone level is critical. Your voice should be the same level as it would be without the cans on. Adjust the track to that. If using the Midas pre enables you to monitor your vocal in analogue before it hits the converter, definitely use that approach. Avoid hearing any latency at all, even from a zero latency cue function on the converter.
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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby ef37a » Mon Dec 31, 2018 11:00 am

Bob Bickerton wrote:It's already been said. Forget the Midas and DBX, go straight in using the Focusrite and focus your attention on mic selection and positioning, acoustic treatment, but most of all the performance!

If the room isn't great then working a nice dynamic close (like the SM7B) will help attenuate the room sound.

And don't mess around with two mics, just keep it simple and focus on the performance - at the end of the day, that is what your audience will notice.

Bob

I ask in all ignorance Bob. Will the Saffy 56 be quiet enough for an SM7b? We don't know how loud the chap will be and if there are any soft "intimate" tracks maybe look at a Cloudlifter or similar?

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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Bob Bickerton » Mon Dec 31, 2018 11:03 am

Not familiar with the 56, but if worked fairly close, like a stage mic, I’d have thought there’d be enough signal.

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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby ef37a » Mon Dec 31, 2018 11:15 am

Bob Bickerton wrote:Not familiar with the 56, but if worked fairly close, like a stage mic, I’d have thought there’d be enough signal.

Bob

I am sure you are right Bob. Just that the 56 is getting on a bit now and mic pres in interfaces have improved quite a bit in just the last five years.

Ooo! Just thought. There are some nice ribbons about now at sensible prices and a bit hotter than a 7b.

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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Wonks » Mon Dec 31, 2018 11:30 am

The Liquid Saffire 56 was the flagship Focusrite interface when it was new, so they won't have skimped on the pre-amps.

The mic inputs have a gain range of +13 to+60dB and an EIN of 128dB. Plus the pre-amp emulations could be used by the OP to help tune his voice.

Sam Inglis said this of the Focusrite preamps on the Saffire 40 Pro (of which the 56 is basically the same but with two liquid pre-amp channels),

"Like their rivals, Focusrite lay much stress on the quality of the preamps in the Saffire Pro 40, and they certainly deliver decent performance for the money. No figures are quoted for the amount of gain on offer, but there's slightly more available here than on M‑Audio's Profire 2626, and comfortably enough to let you use dynamic mics for applications such as strummed acoustic guitar. What's more, the preamps remain whisper‑quiet and perfectly usable even when you turn the gain knob to maximum, which can't be said for a lot of budget gear."

https://customer.focusrite.com/sites/customer/files/focusrite/downloads/7092/userguidels56eng_0.pdf
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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Jake James » Mon Dec 31, 2018 8:23 pm

OP here;

Thanks everyone for the advice, particularly the vote of confidence for working with what I've got. I will take it to heart and focus my time and money on treatment and mic selection.

My friend has an interesting locker, including a ribbon and some boutique numbers. No SM7, however, so this might be my rental (or purchase :roll:). Pop filter off, windscreen on, noted. I will audition what he's got first. Doubtful he would charge for that, and would probably do a short term trade for my 414.

I had been leaning towards renting the SPL GainStation1, which I have worked with before and liked, but might just let you all talk me into saving some money. Once I have the mic, I will A/B the Midas pres against the Saffire and go from there. If the Saffire does it well enough, I might just haul my computer and interface to a better room rather than treat this one. My old university has sound modules in the basement they would probably let me use.

Given that my setup is potentially mobile, anyone have suggestions for an exotic kind of room that might yield better results than a budget DIY treatment? I am not opposed to recording guerilla style somewhere out in the world, in a room that is naturally dead, or conversely one with a beautiful reverb. I have no deadline and this project is also a learning experience for me. I must admit that I have always wanted to try something like the gated multi-mic style Tony Visconti used on Bowie's Heroes, knowing I can use just the close mic if I don't like the colour. The style I am performing does demand a big open vocal sound. Again, perhaps I just need to be talked out of over-complicating my life :)

Thanks again! What an amazing resource, having so many pros willing to help an indie effort!
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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Tim Gillett » Tue Jan 01, 2019 12:53 am

Jake James wrote:...
I will also need to rent a mic that handles baritone vocals better than my AKG 414 XLII, which I find makes female vocals shine but is thin for my voice. Personally, I have always liked the tonality of the SM7b... :

Re mics, I'd be surprised if the AKG 414 XLII was not suitable for capturing your (baritone) voice. It's a fine, versatile mic, able to capture all types of voice.

To compare two mics "apples with apples" has to be done with knowledge and care, especially when using relatively close distances from the mouth. For one, do you understand proximity effect?

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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Bob Bickerton » Tue Jan 01, 2019 1:38 am

Tim Gillett wrote:For one, do you understand proximity effect?

The OP made reference to proximity effect in his first post.

At the risk of opening the flood gates......... yes, the C414 will be able to record a baritone voice (or pretty much any source) but an alternative microphone may sound better on his particular voice, which is something the OP is exploring.

I prefer an SM7B on my (baritone) voice over a C414 and almost as much as a U87.

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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby CS70 » Tue Jan 01, 2019 2:38 am

Jake James wrote:Again, perhaps I just need to be talked out of over-complicating my life :) !

You do :)

It’s not difficult to record a great take in a room with DIY acoustic treatments, so long you know what to DIY. Treat the room, select a good mic, sing an amazing performance, mix it well, that’s it.

Especially for vocals, it really aint the gear: it’s your singing. You want a big and open vocal sound? Sing big and open :)

Happy new year!
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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Jack Ruston » Tue Jan 01, 2019 11:07 am

Re the room - Unless there's something really wrong with yours, use that. Why? Because you have more control of the environment. You can spend more time worrying about the performance and less time worrying about the room and the setup.

Re exotic rooms - that's a studio.

Re the unusual mic techniques etc - A distraction.

I PROMISE you - this is 99% about your performance. The rest of it is basically a sideshow. As long as the mic suits you, and the room isn't destroying your sound in some obvious way, it's about that communication between you and the listener. If that doesn't work, people won't even last the first verse. Your song, and your delivery is what is going to engage them. I know that's a big mountain to face sometimes, but that's the reality. I've recorded loads of wonderful SOUNDING vocals, that nobody will ever hear, because they're just not that interesting.

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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Mike Stranks » Tue Jan 01, 2019 12:13 pm

Jack Ruston wrote:Re the room - Unless there's something really wrong with yours, use that. Why? Because you have more control of the environment. You can spend more time worrying about the performance and less time worrying about the room and the setup.

Re exotic rooms - that's a studio.

Re the unusual mic techniques etc - A distraction.

I PROMISE you - this is 99% about your performance. The rest of it is basically a sideshow. As long as the mic suits you, and the room isn't destroying your sound in some obvious way, it's about that communication between you and the listener. If that doesn't work, people won't even last the first verse. Your song, and your delivery is what is going to engage them. I know that's a big mountain to face sometimes, but that's the reality. I've recorded loads of wonderful SOUNDING vocals, that nobody will ever hear, because they're just not that interesting.

J

:clap: :thumbup:

I've lost count of the number of times I've asked vocalists, "Do you believe it? Well make the listener believe it to."

The singer Vicki Carr (in the 60's) was known for living her songs as she sang them. So much so that in those with sadness and pathos she'd often have tears streaming down her checks as she sang.

That's extreme, but it's that kind of commitment that vocalists need to bring to their recordings and performances.
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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby CS70 » Tue Jan 01, 2019 1:34 pm

How true. The first times you sing a song, you kinda are into it - that's why you're singing it.. you feel it, you live it, it's a quite deep emotional experience. Especially if it's your own, you know what has moved you to write exactly these words and these notes, and that propels the result to stellar levels.

However, once you've rehearsed and played it many times, and you know it much better and you don't need to read the lyrics etc... it can damn hard to re-create that emotional feeling! It's really annoying :D Sure, certain mannerisms (vocal techniques, breathing, the approach to the delivery) become part of the muscle memory and you can probably do them, but it's so much more powerful when you're feeling them. That's what the audience responds to.

I've experienced myself being (way) less than 100% satisfied with the recorded result because I knew in a different, non-studio situation I would sing the lines much better, much more freely, with much more emotional impact.

That's the hardest bit of recording vocals. So to the OP: stop worrying, set up a quick base in the right tempo and record your vocals _fast_! You can redo the whole base afterwords, but nothing beats a fresh, meaningful vocal take.
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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby James Perrett » Tue Jan 01, 2019 3:25 pm

In the same vein, I know that Kate Bush used to bring objects along to decorate the studio to create the right atmosphere for the song she was working on. An old client of mine used to dress up when he sang vocals to give him the right feel for the song.

Another tip is to record everything right from the start - it wasn't so easy in the days of analogue multitracks as you were often limited in the number of spare tracks when it was time to record the lead vocals but these days you can keep every good take and choose between them later.
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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Bob Bickerton » Tue Jan 01, 2019 8:43 pm

Yes, all manner of atmospheric enhancements can be used but beware candles! Having a smoke alarm go off mid-take is not conducive to a successful take as I once found out with a client :oops:

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Re: Vocal session in home studio: how to improve my signal chain

Postby Exalted Wombat » Wed Jan 02, 2019 12:01 am

Jake James wrote:I know I have recorded an instrument right (for my tastes) when on playback it seems to jumps out of the speaker at me rather than sitting flat.

You may be falling into the trap of over-polishing individual instrument sounds. When everyone's a soloist, the mix can suffer.
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