N3GUS’ Top Vocal Recording Tips

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Bristol drum & bass producer N3GUS has just released the vocal track Walk The Walk with Jakes on his PowerOf3 imprint so we got him to give us his top tips for recording vocals.

Before we start, tell us more about Walk The Walk… what did you have in mind when you made it?
Well, when I set out to make the tune, the only thing in my head was the beat. I wanted to make a triplet dnb tune with the jazz influence on the beats. Once they were down the rest of the tune wrote itself. The vibe was very much set from the off. I named the tune ‘Walk The Walk’ and sent it off to J to write to. The rest is history.

What else have you been working on recently?
‘Walk The Walk’ is the first of a three-tune series Jakes and myself are writing. We’ve got the next [working title ‘One Man Army’]pretty much wrapped up now. We’ve got some really good vocals down and I just need to sit down and get busy producing those.

It’s a very different feel from ‘Walk The Walk’, darker and more dancefloor orientated. It has a lot more ‘instrument’ type vocals which I am layering and processing fairly heavily. This is where the ‘One Man Army’ title has come from.

The last is turning out to be a bit of a ‘Walk The Walk’ on-steroids vibe! We’ve got the concept and we’re in the middle of writing it at the moment. I’m going in on the production, lining up some session musicians to record some live instruments. It’s going to be a lot more considered conceptually from the other two and hopefully going to be the climax of the series.

Aside from that I’ve got some interesting collabs in the making. I’m looking forward to hitting LSB’s new studio in March to write some stuff together and there are a couple of other producers I’m talking to about collaborating with.

I have been concentrating on vocal projects recently and I am getting a bit of an itch to write a straight up banger or two so maybe that will happen too!

Great, onto the tips then! How important is it that the singer is well rehearsed and comfortable in the studio?
I think how the vocalist feels in the studio is one of the most important elements in recording. If you want a good performance they have to be at ease with their surroundings. As for them being well rehearsed, I’m sure it matters but it’s not something I concern myself with. Some of the best material I have caught has come from unplanned stuff and ad libs.

How important is getting the vocalist’s headphone mix right?
It’s imperative. It goes towards the vocalists comfort. Each one will want a different level and mix in the headphones so it’s one of the first things I do once they are stood in front of the mic.

What about using a pop shield between the singer and the microphone?
Well, I’ve never tried not using a pop shield to be honest, it’s just one of those things you do. I have recorded vocals in the past with tights wrapped around a metal coat hanger which worked!

How important is using a good microphone?
Of course, it’s important, but you can get carried away. I know people with a big range of mics and they take time selecting what they feel is the right mic for the vocalist. I just have one Rhode NT1a. It’s a good quality all-rounder and I haven’t felt like its left me wanting at any time.

What about putting the mic at the right distance?
That’s something most vocalists I’ve worked with have done naturally. Playing with distance can give a different feel to the intimacy of the recording but as most of the stuff I do wants to be in your face so I tend to record nice and close.

How important is minimising the room’s influence on your sound?
That’s something I’ve spent a lot of time doing recently. Until then I was recording in my studio space, which was okay as it’s fairly well treated for sound. However, I was getting a fair amount of low reflections.

I recently built a vocal booth and put a lot of treatment in there. When we record now I move all of my bass traps in there and it’s sounding good now, pretty dead. Saying that, the room can sometimes influence the character of the recording in a good way.

What about getting best vocal performance / take possible?
Well, the performance you get is the performance you are stuck with. One thing I have noticed is that I often go back to the earlier takes when it comes to selecting. I think you can overdo it and just lose the vibe which comes through in the initial recording.

How important is using suitable compression?
I don’t compress the mic into the soundcard. The only thing I do is run it through my Neve pre amp clone. In reality that does a lot of the work for me. It makes everything sound good.

Do you ever use more compression on the vocal track once it has been recorded?
Yes, as I said, my recordings are usually completely dry. I find it gives me more control and once you’ve committed to a compressor setting in recording you can’t undo it. I will run the audio back out through hardware if I need to but there is so much you can do afterwards that I don’t like to limit myself with the raw recording.

How important is getting the gate right while recording?
Again, this is something I do post recording.

How do you usually EQ vocals?
It’s got to be right for the vocal you have. There’s no set formula I use – it’s more to achieve the desired effect for the tune. There will usually be a low cut but after that it’s open season. I just try to pull the best out of the recording.

What about reverb?
Again, that very much depends on what you have and what you want. As a rule I tend to aim for a very short subtle reverb over the entire vocal and then add more washy reverbs as needed in production.

Have you ever had to “de-ess” vocals? What tips can you give us for this?
Yeah, of course, I’ll usually stick a bit on there. I think that less is more with it. You don’t want to suck the life out of the performance. I use different methods, either using the sibilance freq to trigger a compressor ducking the whole track or a specific de-esser to just wind in those frequencies.

What tips can you give about using echo or delay effects on a vocal?
Just do what feels right and think about what you want to achieve. Again, I think it’s wise to go for the ‘less is more’ approach with these kinds of effects. Just use them once or twice at key points in the track to spice up the production rather than a blanket effect over the whole vocal.

What do you do to ensure the vocal is mixed at the right level in the song?
I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but, as with everything else, the mix is specific to the track. Think about what kind of tune you want to make and what is most important. I like to think about whether the voice is to be treated as an instrument in the mix or a voice. If it’s an instrument then it needs to sit in with the other elements. Whereas, if it’s a voice, then it’s got to sit over everything else (does that make sense?!)

How was the process of recording vocals with Jakes on Walk The Walk?
Well, me and J are good friends so we are very relaxed with each other and so setting the scene and making the vocalist comfortable was not really necessary. The fact we had been tucking into a bottle of rum prior and during the first recording session more than likely added to the relaxed vibes too!

We just had a laugh, Jakes had the vocals written already and we just tweaked them a little as we recorded. There was a lot of ad-lib which ended up being included too.

Signal flow wise, it was my Rhode NT1a plugged into my Neve clone pre and then into my Apogee ensemble and recorded into Logic.

Once we had all the takes we needed I just got to work with selecting the best takes and trying to work out the best arrangement with what we had.

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About Author

Colin Steven co-founded Knowledge Magazine in 1994. He also runs a book publishing company called Velocity Press specialising in electronic music and club culture.

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