In many styles of music the vocal is the most important feature. No one hums the bass drum part, right? Sorry, drummers!
So with all this significance placed on the voice, it's very important to be sure to capture it and the vocalist's performance correctly.
This conversation was simpler before there were home studios. Then, you, as the engineer, would have the singer set up in the studio's usual place for vocals, using a microphone that was proven to give you the result that you needed. Simple.
These days it is often a different story. The advent of home recording, or anything outside of a usual studio environment, has required us to adjust our practices and habits to work within parameters that sometimes are less than ideal.
If I have learned one thing with this career, it's to be flexible.
In some ways I actually prefer recording in a non-traditional setting. I learned from Phil Ramone the importance of the singer's comfort level over that of a perfect acoustic environment. There are many parts of the recording process that aren't natural, so anything we can do to make the gear 'disappear' is a good thing. I don't know too many singers that wear headphones at home, stand perfectly straight, and sing into a pricey microphone. Do you?
If they're doing a vocal at home, maybe with the thought of, "Let's just get it down," they're sitting in a chair in their pajamas, with no pressure. That same singer can easily be stressed out by "Red Light Syndrome," when we're asking them to nail the perfect take for the ages…and again, and again…
With my current studio setup I just have them sing right next to me.
What I like about this the most is getting rid of the dreaded talk-back button. I've seen sessions spiral out of control with that button's misuse and abuse. If you haven't experienced the 'politics' of that button personally, all I can say is the better you communicate with your talent, the better the session will flow. And don't forget to bring your diplomacy skills too!
Continuing our theme of staying out of the way of the creative process, I've found that psychology plays a more significant role than my mic preamp choice. In the spirit of doing what we can to capture a great performance, I like to refer to this one session from a few years back.
I was working with an artist who was either moody or brilliant. The trick was to catch them at that moment when both were in equal measure. One night we're doing a vocal, and they look at the mic after a few takes. "I think there's a problem with the mic. It doesn't sound right." I checked the patches, settings, everything was the same. We'd been recording the album for a month, so I had the settings dialed in just right. A few more takes later, "I think we need another mic."
Rather than go to the mic cabinet, I said, "Grab your coat, we're going on a field trip."
I knew that there was no point in grinding out take after take. Once the artist gets it in their head that something is wrong, it can be tough moving forward, no matter what you change technically. In this case, we jumped in a cab and I took them to play some pool. We played a few games, came back an hour later.
Without a word, they sat down at the mic and knocked out the song in one take. Perfect. Same mic, same room, different head. Perfect.
To summarize, don't get so caught up in doing things by the book. Every artist and every session is different.
It's up to you to be able to adapt your methods instantly to provide an atmosphere that allows them the comfort to do their best work.