We show you how to get great results from self‑recording singers.
The last 18 months have been tough for vocal groups. By its very nature, ensemble singing has been one of the highest‑risk activities within the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, so opportunities to perform, or even to rehearse, have understandably dried up. Singers are a resourceful breed, though, and there’s been a surge of interest in technological methods for maintaining the group music‑making experience, despite lockdowns and social‑distancing restrictions.
One avenue that’s seen masses of activity is remote vocal‑ensemble production, where each singer tracks themself independently at home, and those recordings are subsequently stitched together and mixed in a DAW. This can seem pretty straightforward on the face of it, not least because plenty of solo artists on YouTube are making it look easier than it is. (I’m looking at you, Jacob Collier!) The reality, though, is that there are numerous pitfalls that can undermine the quality of the outcome, or else render the task unfeasibly labour‑intensive. So in this article I’d like to share my own experiences of doing several recent remote productions with the Don Camillo Choir (www.doncamillo-chor.de), one of Germany’s leading pop/jazz choirs, and pass on some of the most useful workflow hacks.
One of the fundamental problems with recording singers piecemeal is that they don’t receive the visual and aural cues they’d normally expect while performing. So the first task you need to contend with is how to get everyone singing their parts in sync and in tune. A well‑established method within modern a capella production practice involves mocking up the arrangement in MIDI, so as to create a piano guide track for overdubbing purposes. (For more insight into this approach, check out our interview with Pentatonix’s producer Ed Boyer back in SOS January 2016: https://sosm.ag/ed_boyer_pentatonix.)
Programming this guide part can be something of an art in itself if there’s any degree of tempo variation involved, but the Don Camillo Choir had sensibly made life easier for themselves in this case by choosing fairly metronomic arrangements. Even so, it’s not easy to record with any feeling alongside a MIDI keyboard part, so we refined this strategy slightly to make things less unnatural for those singers who had little overdubbing experience.
Firstly, the musical director made a video of himself conducting the arrangement in sync with the MIDI sequence, thereby recreating some of the familiar visual cues, and this was overlayed semi‑transparently atop a scrolling view of the sheet music. This made it straightforward for singers to both watch the conductor and read the notes simultaneously. This wasn’t only a convenience for the singers, though: it also meant that they weren’t tempted to turn their heads off‑mic while recording. The second tweak to the workflow was that only one singer per part was asked to record with the MIDI piano. Once those recordings arrived, we edited them together into a new guide track, so that all the subsequent section‑singers could sing along to that instead.
Another big hurdle to clear is that most choir singers don’t know much about recording their own voices. As an SOS reader, you’re likely to be pretty tech savvy, and it’s easy to forget how confusing and intimidating audio technology can seem to the lay person. As such, it’s really worth investing a little time in educating all of the singers on the basics of vocal recording. I speak from experience here, because I didn’t initially do this myself, and I can assure you it was a false economy; I’ve now seen every vocal‑recording mistake in the book, including tracks from two singers who, independently, managed to sing into the wrong side of their large‑diaphragm condenser mics!
...it’s easy to forget how confusing and intimidating audio technology can seem to the lay person.
The training doesn’t have to be anything particularly formal or fancy; just an hour‑long group Zoom call can make your life immeasurably easier come the editing and mixing stage. Seeing as I’ve now done several of these orientation sessions, here are some suggestions about what to cover:
Prevent unwanted vibrations reaching the capsule. Suggest that the singers use a suspension mount if they have one, make sure that the mic cable isn’t stretched taut, and avoid tapping their foot on the stand base.
Set up the mic in relation to the singer. This advice needs to be simple (for the less technically minded), but is nonetheless applicable for the inevitably wide range of different vocal mics people will be using. I recommend a miking distance about nine inches away from the mouth, to avoid extreme proximity‑effect bass boost. A mic placement above the plane of the lips usually helps too, by avoiding plosives (no need to faff with a popshield!), excessive sibilance, and nasty comb‑filtering from desktop reflections. And make a special point of reminding the singers to take a sip of water before every take; otherwise lip noise can become a real editing headache later!
Minimise background noise and room ambience. This involves setting up away from sources of background noise; using a cardioid mic and pointing its null towards any unavoidable noise sources (eg. your laptop’s cooling fan); and setting up your singing position so that there’s plenty of absorptive material directly behind you — perhaps a thick quilt hung from a curtain rail, or an open wardrobe full of clothes.
Avoid distortion. This is basically a lesson in gain management but, again, you should try to keep the advice as simple as humanly possible. I focus on just two things: (a) identifying the relevant input‑level meter; and (b) twiddling the correct preamp gain control, which is usually to be found on the audio interface or, for all‑in‑one USB mics, on the mic itself. Level peaks anywhere between ‑18 and ‑4 dBFS will usually be fine.
Sort out the headphone monitoring. This can become a massive can of worms, so I’d urge you to find the most foolproof method possible. For my part, I advise singers to switch off vocal monitoring entirely and then slide one headphone earcup off their ear to hear themselves. Yes, it’s low‑tech, but it side‑steps all the hassle of dealing with interface latency, double‑monitoring problems, and headphone‑mix headroom, all of which can turn into a massive time‑suck if you end up having to troubleshoot every participant’s unique hardware setup!