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Vocalist Comfort with Headphones Modular Synthesizers
Old 20th December 2010
  #1
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captainate's Avatar
 

Vocalist Comfort with Headphones

I realize this topic has been covered at least once before, but I think a new thread is deserved. Mods please delete or merge as necessary!

So I just finished tracking an EP with my band, and for the first time ever I was behind the mic as a vocalist. I have perfect pitch, and I was appalled to hear when I listened back that I sang a few cents flat! I have always known vocalists in the studio were prone to singing flat, but attributed it to nervousness or vibe (whatever you want to call it) and headphone usage.

I always suggest the old tricks (open-ear cans, verb, one-ear off, et. al.) but never realized how freaking hard and unusual headphones are for a vocalist. I know there is always going to be a learning curve, and experienced vocalists can simply overcome this tendency. But the only saving grace for my vocal take was using "really open" open-ear cans and using both my hands to pull the headphones off my head by about a centimeter.

I'm wondering if there are any other useful tricks out there, without ditching the headphones completely and therefore maintaining isolation. Thanks,
Old 20th December 2010
  #2
Gear Addict
 

GREAT topic.

My observations:

The voice is like any other oscillator, in that it shares all those various characteristics like attack/decay/sustain/release, modulation possibilities, etc.

May I point out that Eastern music often uses 22 note scales, etc.

I point this out to contextualize the following statement:

Sung pitch is not a single pitch.



There is a gliding-to-the-pitch effect that begins flat and sharpens until it slightly overshoots the target pitch, then stabilizes at the target pitch.

Vocal skill makes this happen very rapidly and very accurately to the point that it can really sound like perfect tone production. But when you start singing over beats, drums, bass, rhythm, syncopation, etc., the voice adapts.


It adapts because you hear yourself.


Unamplified, the ADSR and modulation envelopes are psychoacoustically perceived with only the air as a carrier medium, AND the voice is required to produce the VOLUME to compete with other sonic elements.

Using an SM58 and a PA for a rock band, the psychoacoustic monitoring environment changes those parameters.

Using a mic and headphones changes this all even more.

Less volume is required, which means the vocal muscles are NOT going through the usual muscle memory procedures.

Meaning that the muscles are going to be UNCONTROLLED in the context of singing through phones because there is an auto-feedback psychoacoustic principle via which we learn to vocalize as we DESIRE. Desire and objective are major points here. If you have a specific way you want to sound, have a desired feel of sound, you'll be anchored more tightly.


All this means that the monitoring environment -- how your voice eventually feeds back to the auditory nerve, and also is transmitted through skull bones to the brain -- is critical.


The whole oscillation process of the vocal muscles must adjust.


You need to simply sing scales, and sing basic songs a capella, through headphones every day for a month. And you will most likely be amazing. Ramp up to more complex material!



EDIT: By the way, I went into this level of detail not to offend you, because it seems like you know what you're doing, but so that others reading this thread might see more of where I'm coming from.

Last edited by andonwego; 20th December 2010 at 09:26 AM.. Reason: info
Old 20th December 2010
  #3
Registered User
These are my opinions - no doubt not shared by everyone - but FWIW ...

The purpose of headphones is to avoid leakage - so any attempt to leave one can off the ear or whatever is defeating the purpose ... use some comfortable supra-aural cans (over-ear, rather than on-ear) with a high decibel rating ...

Some form of ambiance is necessary to help pitching and provide comfort. A reverb could be used, but frankly I think the best solution is a room mic mixed in with a preamp monitor signal. This also avoids the sense of isolation, and allows the engineer to communicate with the artist without punching in and out.

A digital delay might also be a good option for inspiring a vocal performance. Or not. Let the artist choose what they want to hear.

Zero latency is necessary (IMO) which means an analog solution, because anything that requires A/D and then D/A gives enough of a delay to be a phase nightmare. Consider that the artist is hearing their voice via bone conduction first, and they will be very aware (at least subliminally) of any ugly phase issues.

For many people, bass in cans will be perceived sharper than it really is - by as much as a semitone - if it is too loud. Try to create monitor mixes that favour mid range rhythm instruments for a strong tuning reference.

A good use for autotune is to smash the vocal guide track into submission, and then the vocalist can use it as a reference for laying down the keeper track. The beating that occurs when the vocal strays from the perfect pitch provides good feedback ...

I recommend having a small monitor mixer for each artist, that they can tweak to their own hearts content, and has zero affect on the clean tracking chain. It becomes their headphone amp, FX loop, room mic channel, etc.
Old 20th December 2010
  #4
Lives for gear
 
T'Mershi Duween's Avatar
 

Getting your monitor cue mix is crucial. You can sometimes have too much "you" in there when you need very little. Or not enough "you" in there!

Playback volume is also an issue. Some singers need to blast it and others need a very low level so they can actually hear themselves in their "head".

Like LSD, set and setting is also a very important element to coaxing a great vocal take. Low lights, candles, hot herbal tea, a little wine (or whiskey and honey) works wonders to "loosen" up a nervous vocalist. Keep out anyone who does not need to be in the room! A relaxed vocalist is a confident vocalist.

I hate comping lead vocals from multiple takes. I'm from the old school. Get the song going, start singing until you "chump" it and then stop, back up, get the singer singing before the flub and punch in. Of course you need a good engineer and/or producer who knows when the take is cooking. You can always fix small errors later. A great take delivered with passion is much more desirable than a "perfect" but sterile one. We all know about the evil tools that can make it "tuned" after the fact.

I've worked with great "live" singers that just freeze and get progressively worse as they realize that they are singing flat and are having an off day.

I've also worked with punk rock singers that have limited chops that nail a vocal in one take! Attitude and confidence are key.

So much psychology is involved in capturing a great vocal take.

Headphones suck. I mostly hate them.

There's always the out of phase monitors/p.a. speakers/non-headphone approach, but that takes skill and practice. But some bleed can be good for vibe.

Fresh ears are also important.

I've seen countless sessions bog down (even with great vocalists) when the vocals ain't happening.

My favorite trick is tell the singer to run through the song a couple of times while I "get levels". Of course I'm recording the whole time! I've sneakily gotten great takes from people that way. Cause as soon as you say "we're recording" people get self-conscious. Smoke and mirrors and tricks are your best friend. As is "comfort" reverb. heh

And if a band wants to do background vocals as a unit, make them rehearse the parts singing with just an acoustic guitar, off mike, so they (and you) can hear if the harmonies/parts are working.

Nothing sucks more than getting ready to record vocals, only to find out that what sounded good in a loud band context sounds like **** when they are wearing headphones and trying to sing it.

Don't even get me started with not knowing the lyrics!

If I had a dollar for every time I had to stop a session so a band member or singer could write/finish the words...

Good luck!




heh
Old 20th December 2010
  #5
Gear Addict
 
captainate's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by andonwego View Post
You need to simply sing scales, and sing basic songs a capella, through headphones every day for a month. And you will most likely be amazing. Ramp up to more complex material!
Thanks! GREAT response!heh

But I can't give this advice to the countless vocalists that show up expecting to sound like they normally do, but have no experience in front of a studio mic.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Kiwi View Post
The purpose of headphones is to avoid leakage - so any attempt to leave one can off the ear or whatever is defeating the purpose
I know it would increase leakage, but it's certainly more isolating than any kind of monitor!

Quote:
Originally Posted by T'Mershi Duween View Post

My favorite trick is tell the singer to run through the song a couple of times while I "get levels". Of course I'm recording the whole time! I've sneakily gotten great takes from people that way. Cause as soon as you say "we're recording" people get self-conscious. Smoke and mirrors and tricks are your best friend. As is "comfort" reverb.
My favorite trick as well heh
Old 20th December 2010
  #6
Gear Head
 
BrianW's Avatar
 

I'm sure you've already tried these methods?



Click here for Ronan's explanation of the "speaker phase trick" etc.
Old 21st December 2010
  #7
Jr. Gear Slut 2nd class
 
chessparov's Avatar
 

Am starting a small side project with a buddy to record local bands (primarily kids) in his instrumental teaching studio

Took some convincing from me but now....

NO HEADPHONES for final vocal track recordings-yay!!!

Will primarily have them sing to monitor(s) ala Bono, Paul Rodgers, et al.

Free at lastheh.

Chris
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