I'll Fix It In The Mix!
Ive had the pleasure of singing and recording professionally now for over 11 years, most of those years as a member of The Blenders. As a singer in The Blenders, Ive had the opportunity to be a writer, arranger, and performer. As the producer of the group, Ive had the pleasure of testing, experimenting, and learning new tricks on how to get the sound we wanted in the studio. So, Id like to share a bit of my experiences in producing and engineering vocal music.
"Ill fix it in the mix" was kind of my motto for a time. I guess it was my way saying, "Good enough, lets move on" when someone wasnt happy with their 30th take, and the third one was fine. However , that wasnt always the case. Sometimes it really took 30 tries for someone to get the right take. When you multiply the number of takes with the number of tracks, you end up with a lot of sore voices! Ill admit, Im a little picky when it comes to vocal harmony, but one has to be to make a good vocal recording.
As a engineer, I always used to say that a recording will only sound as good as your recording equipment. I still believe that a little, (good gear doesnt hurt), but over the years Ive seen first hand that good gear is only half the battle. The other half is knowing what to do with it.
When it comes to recording techniques, I pretty much do the norm. I start out by getting the best signal to tape, (or computer in my case) using the best microphone for each voice type. I record digitally with Pro Tools, so I like to use a tube mic, and a tube compressor to give it that natural analog tape compression sound. I also try to keep the input levels uniform throughout the song to make it easier in the mix phase. Most of the time I have the two higher harmonies record together first, and then add two or three lower harmonies. The lead and bass vocals are always recorded last. The Blenders usually triple their parts (I occasionally use 4 overdubs per part). One of my goals is to always get each double and tripled part to match the original perfectly. Occasionally with The Blenders, the parts were too tight and they started to phase cancel. Ive always found that allowing some very subtle differences in the pitch of the overdubs created a better chorusing effect with less drop-outs.
After everything is recorded, I crack my knuckles and really dig in. Mixing and post-production is what I love the most. I love to sit back and get into the song a bit. Sometimes Ill add a few notes here and there or sing a color tone track, maybe put some finishing touches on a rhythm track etc. (Of course thats only a luxury I have with my guys. I wouldnt just add a part to someone elses recording would I? Ask Roger Thomas of Naturally Seven.) Once I feel that the recordings are finished, I start mixing.
Mixing is hard to explain and teach. A lot of what I do in the mixing phase is an accumulation of hours and hours of experimentation. Generally I pan lower harmonies wide and higher ones closer to the center and color tones somewhere in between. Then, I route each set of 3 overdubs into their own stereo buss adding a compressor to each buss. (With my Pro Tools system, this is a snap.) I also use compression on the lead and bass tracks. Ill often put a compressor on the stereo mix buss too. With this much compression I get a very even, smooth and present mix. On The Blenders Christmas album, "NOG" I used a compressor on each individual vocal track rather than on a buss. When used at a very low compression ratio, this made the mix very smooth and even. A tube compressor was used on the stereo mix buss to add some warmth. Be careful not to misuse compression. Even though a compressor can really help to control the levels of each part, you dont want to rely on them entirely. Always use it in moderation.
EQ is always tricky, and can be very frustrating if not used a little at a time. I really dont want to get too deep into EQ techniques, because either you get it or you dont. Always remember each vocal part has its place in the frequency spectrum. If the high tenor part has a bunch of low end on it because the singer was too close to the mic, use a low shelving EQ and thin it out a bit, otherwise it conflicts with the lower parts. If the bass track is bright and brassy, bring down some top end and smooth it out a little, or it will conflict with the higher parts etc.
When it comes to effects, I typically use reverbs and delays and nothing else. I use a delay timed to an 8th note or 1/4 note and a plate or short hall reverb. Sometimes I route the delay return back into the reverb send. The delay helps to "pump" the reverb a bit. I do this when a long verb is too wet and washy and a short verb or no verb sounds too dry. I use a shorter verb and use the delay repeats to "trigger" the verb making it last longer without sounding washy. I occasionally use a chorus or some kind of pitch shift effect, but only in certain situations.
Recording techniques may take some time to learn and understand, but if youre into recording and mixing your own a cappella or vocal music, experiment a little. Ask a lot of questions. Dont be afraid of a little trial and error. Dont stop listening! You can learn a lot from other peoples recordings. Keep challenging your knowledge, and most of all, have fun!
Originally from Fargo, North Dakota, Darren has been a long-time member of The Blenders, a highly influential a cappella / pop vocal group. In his last ten years as a Blender he has produced and sung on 6 award-winning albums with the group. Totally Whipped (1992), From the Mouth (1993), The Blenders (1995), Now and Then (1997), Nog (1997), and Love Land (2000), the latest being an album for Universal Records. He now resides in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and has developed his own production company there called Jampack Studio Productions. Since then, he has been bringing his signature vocal production to other a cappella groups such as Naturally Seven, Go Fish, and Tonic SolFa. He has also put his production style to work with artists outside the a cappella community. Some of those artists include Tuck and Patti, members of Princes New Power Generation and the NPG Horns, The Sounds of Blackness, The Steele Singers, Ricky Peterson, and Jonny Lang, He continues to produce and mix albums for The Blenders and other artists under Jampack Studio Productions.
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