A successful Los Angeles producer/engineer opens his bag of tricks
By Greg Ogan
Working as a mainstream music producer in LA, I’ve been fortunate enough to produce and engineer a plethora of vocal sessions with top-of-the-line singers and artists. I’m often asked about my vocal production techniques; I explain that it’s different for every situation I encounter. What I’d like to do here is focus on what I would do during a final vocal tracking day with an artist with the intention of releasing the song publicly. Hopefully I may be able to provide some ideas for your own sessions.
Setup and shootout
First off, I like to organize the song and tracks before the singer arrives. I like to turn everything down so that my vocal tracks start out being a little louder than the music. I import my vocal tracking template, and I always check the mic and music levels in the headphone mix. I then make sure I have the lyrics on hand. It’s important to know where we are in the song and to connect to it. Lyrics help with punching in on words, as well as having a mental picture of the song’s meaning.
In an ideal situation, I like to do a microphone shootout when the singer arrives. That’s when I line up a few mics going through the same style pre, ideally one that’s clear and transparent, and run a section of the song with the singer trying each mic. When I’m comparing the mics to each other, I look for the one that brings out the best qualities of the voice. It may be a rich-ness, it may be a bright high end, or a fullness—I go with whichever one makes me feel the best. I also listen for each mic’s bad qualities and stay away from them. For example, I may need to go with the mic with the least amount of sibilance.
I’ll pick certain gear depending on the session and genre. On a rock vocal session, I’ll want to go with vibey gear that has color, possibly a Neumann U67 or Shure SM7, a Neve preamp, and a Universal Audio 1176 or Empirical Labs Distressor. For a more modern R&B pop sound, I may lean towards a Sony C800 and the Millennia STT-1. That combo is really nice, bright and clear. For rap/urban sessions I’ve used different variations of clean and colored gear.
Tracking with effects
When recording, I like to EQ and com-press to “tape,” although I don’t process the vocal too hard unless it’s a creative move. I know there are many schools of thought on this, but in this digital age of plug-in awesomeness, I like to get some magic out of the real hardware before I put on plug-ins. For EQ I like to simply cut lows and boost highs, cutting around 100 Hz and boosting just a little around 14–16 kHz. As for compression, I like to gain-reduce by around 3–6 dB, depending on the compressor, with moderately fast attack and release.
I really like the singer to hear their voice sounding as beautiful as possible; I’ll feed them a monitor vocal with compression, EQ, reverb, and delay—see my template article for specific settings. I try to create an atmosphere and vibe for the singer so they can really get into the music, which supports a great vocal performance. I always ask the singer to holler at me whenever they want a change; with the template it’s easy to accommodate their needs.
When it comes to vocal production styles, in terms of vocal parts and organization, I have a few thought processes. There’s what I call the rock or “organic” vibe, the radio pop vibe, and the sleek and shiny R&B vibe. Every situation, song, and singer may call for different techniques, but this is the best way for me to describe how I may organize tracks and parts.
The “organic” vibe is when I want the listener to really picture a vocal performance from top to bottom. This is where the lead vocal is the star of the show, and the song moves and grows around that vocal. If there are background vocal parts, I always like to picture a section of background vocalists singing behind the lead vocalist.
As for mixing those background vocal parts, one rule I always live by is symmetry. If I’m recording background harmony parts, they’re almost always in pairs, because I like to pan each note symmetrically “around” the lead vocal. If I want to get doubles of the lead, I’ll always get three total. There’s the one lead who’s alive and up front, and then two backrounds that are blended lower and panned 50% (or so) to the left and the right. For harmony parts, I like to pan them accord-ing to note: the higher notes are wider and the lower notes are narrower. I like the separation and soundscape this creates.
For a more mainstream radio vibe, the approach is different. I see it as painting the song in different puzzle pieces that come together to form a whole picture, i.e., each section of the song is treated differently for what’s appropriate to that section. For a verse, it may be one vocal that’s intimate and up close, the prechorus is starting to be stacked and harmonized, and the chorus becomes lush stacks of vocal textures and background oohs and ahhs to create a big landscape that pops out.
In these cases, the stacks may generally be more dense. The “lead” part may be 1, 3 or 5 parts stacked. The harmonies could be 2 or 4 tracks per note blended in. There could be those oohs and ahhs or back-ground lines that are also stacked heavily. In these cases, I stick to my law of symmetry. If I have 4 or more tracks per note of a part then I pan in varying degrees. For the lead note (let’s say I have 5 tracks) I’ll pan the main track down the middle, and the four other tracks 100% left-100% right, and 50%left-50% right, an even spread of vocals.
For harmonies I’ll get 2 tracks (doubles) of each note, panning them left and right by pitch. I’ll try not to pan any note to the same degree. Because most pop vocals are really dense, each section is flown through-out the song. That means that if there is any section with repeating lyrics and melody, the same performance is used each time it occurs. To have the song build, I may introduce harmonies or accompanying parts later in the song, or add certain ad libs to create the illusion of an actual performance from top to bottom.
For R&B vocals, I combine the two philosophies of organic and pop treatments. During most of my R&B productions, there is a lead performance from beginning to end, where each section is an expansion upon the last, adding runs and licks and vibe. However, at the same time there is heavy vocal production in terms of stacks, harmonies, little ear candy riffs, runs, counter melodies, etc. R&B vocals are very sleek and shiny, and to achieve this I get tons of layers of vocals. These are the most intense sessions in terms of organization, mixing on the fly, and track management. I’ve gotten up to 8 tracks of each vocal part! I always stick to my rules of symmetry, by panning in various degrees, and keeping everything even.
Comping, tuning and editing vocals is a very in-depth process with lots of options, worthy of its own article. To sum up my philosophies: I don’t like the result of (or enjoy) over-comping, over-editing, and over-tuning. In this day and age of technology and potential perfection, I like to keep vocals feeling human. I don’t remove breaths, and I comp in bigger phrases, if possible. I enjoy comping vocal takes with the singer in the room… if I trust them and think they know what they like. If the vocals need a lot of repair, I will do it on my own time without them.
If the vocals either need a ton of repair, or need very little repair to keep an honest performance and organic feel, I will use Celemony Melodyne to tune the vocals. If they need that radio shine and tight tuning, I will use Antares Auto-Tune, tuning the whole performance and changing notes by hand if necessary. To keep things tight, I will use Synchro Arts Vocalign on background parts.
As far as mixing is concerned—well, at least rough mixing during a tracking date—every vocal part and section is assigned its own bus for independent level control and processing. See my vocal template article for more details. Whenever I have a lead vocal going down the middle, I’ll always add a compressor to it before it hits the bus that already has another compressor inserted. I usually serially compress most lead vocals like this. There are other vocals going to that same bus as well, and I really like to glue it all together that way. I’ll send to reverbs and delays as appropriate for the song and the part of the song. When a singer exits the booth, they want to hear the song down as quickly as possible, so most of these rough mix moves are happening during the recording process.
This sums up my mindset during vocal tracking days. The one factor I didn’t mention is external input from artists, significant others, producers, managers, labels, etc. That’s always a wild card! I can’t stress enough the fact that every situation is different, but hopefully some of these principles can guide you to some cool creative results.
Greg Ogan (email@example.com) is a writer-producer signed to The Writing Camp/Sony/ATV, and former chief engineer for J.R. Rotem and Beluga Heights. His credits include Britney Spears, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Sean Kingston, and Kelly Clarkson.