Send Songs into Orbit: The Perfect Vocal Chain
By Kate Schutt

If you’re a singer or producer, then capturing the best vocal performance is the most important thing you will do in the studio. You might record a hundred tracks of guitar, bass, drums, organ, horns, and the list goes on, but people gravitate to the human voice. Without thought, we fall into its force field, so it has to be there full and ready to hold and move us, to push and shove as need be, to entrance. For the purpose of this article, I will assume you are a singer like me. When you head into the studio, your challenge is to find your own personal vocal chain – a microphone, preamp and compressor – to capture and highlight the best features of your voice for your style of music.

If you are writing and recording music with lyrics, then it is all about how you deliver them. When the doors of a song first open, we, your listeners, do not particularly care about the guitarist’s tone, or about the punch of the drummer’s kick drum. These things are crucial and must get their due in the recording process, but their relevance depends the vocal. They exist in relation to it like planets circling the sun. Your vocal has to be as convincing as the sun. It has to be keen and powerful enough to bring everything it touches to life, or else everything it touches will sadly languish.

Before recording the bed tracks for my latest album TELEPHONE GAME (ArtistShare), my engineers and I took the time to find the best vocal chain for my particular voice and the particular set of jazz songs I’d written. First, we talked about the sound I was after: smoky, warm, present, something that put me right in the room with the listener, something classic yet timeless, old, but not dated.

For this recording, I wanted to try something brand new for me. I wanted to capture the vocalizing between the lyrics. Taking my cue from the great soul singers, like Stevie, Aretha, Gladys, and the rest, I wanted to capture the breath, the ghost notes, fall-offs, and any improvising between the words that were written. I wanted it all: clarity laced with the gritty stuff. On my last record, NO LOVE LOST (ArtistShare), I tended to trim the grit from the final vocal comp for a cleaner presentation, a more austere sound. For TELEPHONE GAME, I wanted the edges of my voice to show in order to heighten the emotion, to share what I really felt and was experiencing when I first wrote and then delivered the songs.

Bed tracks for TELEPHONE GAME were recorded at Canterbury Music in Toronto, Ontario. Canterbury is owned and run by legendary British engineer CONTACT _Con-3E43805F8 \c \s \l Jeremy Darby (Lou Reed, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, to name only a few) and his right-hand man Sam Ibbett. Additional engineering duties were handled by renowned Canadian engineer and producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda (Barenaked Ladies, Ashley MacIsaac, Rheostatics). Darby has a world-class collection of vintage and modern gear. Given the sound we were after, we began by trying different microphones. Darby recalls, “We were going to put up a modified Soundelux U95 with a K67 capsule (which has a darker, thicker low-mid in my opinion). The Telefunken 251 sounded too "light" on your voice. As soon as we listened to the Telefunken U47, it was the obvious choice for you. That particular mic loves your voice.” From the U47, the signal went into one of Darby’s Neve 1084s, with no equalization. So we had the mic and pre-amp, but still needed the final piece, the compressor.

Finding my compressor was all about timing and good fortune. David Miller of Airfield Audio in Toronto had just, that week, loaned Darby one of his hand-assembled Liminator compressors. Officially, this unassuming piece of gear is described as a “vintage designed Class A dual transformer stereo compressor.” Unofficially, I think of it as a little magic box, a gift that keeps giving and giving. Darby explains, “We tried the UREI 1176 limiters on your voice, but they clouded your vocal. Instead, we opted for the transparency of the Airfield Audio Liminator, with the Jensen transformer engaged.” Transparency is one word you could use. Other words include clarity, openness, sweetness and light. I cannot say enough about the Liminator. It captured the high-and-dry clarity of my voice without thinning it out, but instead burnishing it. Every part of my vocal range received fair, equal and exquisite representation.

For those who care, we dialed in the Liminator to these details: 2 db of gain reduction, medium attack and release, output at plus 2, and the threshold at nine o’clock. For those who don’t care about such particulars, I can only say that my goals for my vocal sound on TELEPHONE GAME were fully achieved. There is proof in the final vocals we captured in one full take during the bed track sessions: “If Spring Comes Now” and “Our Legs Are Burning.” I didn’t know I could sing like that. The vocal chain, instead of weighing me down, set me free to sing the music I heard in my mind and felt in my body.

Before TELEPHONE GAME, something was missing from my recordings. I didn’t have the time, knowledge, money, or wherewithal to pay such close attention to my vocal sound. With this album, the game changed. Everything was carefully arranged to be top-notch: the songs, my fellow musicians and the engineers. But most importantly, I had made a fixed and unwavering decision: before we hit the red button, the vocal sound needed to be right for me, for all of us, and it needed to be able to tell the stories of my songs truthfully.

The perfect vocal chain can take your singing to places, whole realms of sound and texture, that you haven’t imagined. It can send your songs into orbit. With it, you can hear things and do things you never thought possible. The vocal chain is to the singer what a great rhythm section is to a soloist. There is nothing like it in the world. Possibilities open up. It’s a rush, and it’s also a big responsibility when nothing stands between you and the lyric…It’s how it should be.

Copyright 2008 Kate Schutt