A few weeks ago, my group, Satellite Lane, recorded their first EP with The Vocal Company. While the experience was incredibly worthwhile and satisfying, there were things we discovered during the recording process that I wish we had known, which probably would have helped us better prepare for the weekend. There are also a lot of things I discovered about recording that I never knew before.
If you’re part of a group that has already put out multiple albums, won multiple CARAs, appeared on many compilations, etc., then this post will probably not be very helpful. In that case, since you’re already here, here’s a lovely video of a sloth crossing a road:
For those of you struggling to make an album, thinking about making your first album, or disappointed with the albums you’ve already made, try these tips on for size…
1) Where you record doesn’t matter…sort of…
We recorded in my mother’s house, in the den. True story.
Do you need a fancy recording booth or lots of heavy equipment? No. You need a dead room (more on that in a second), a microphone, an interface, and a laptop. True, those things are still very expensive, but they are far less expensive than the big machines you probably think you need.
A dead room is any room with little or no echo. Our vocal percussionsit, Evan Feist, taught me a simple trick for determining dead rooms- Clap your hands and listen to the echo. If there is no echo, you have a dead room.
Also be careful that building machines (heating grates, air conditioners, etc.) aren’t making noise either.
2) The Vocal Company has many microphones.
Not every microphone is built the same. They each use different materials, different parts, different blueprints, etc. Just like a different type of car suits a different kind of a driver, a different kind of microphone suits a different kind of voice.
Did you know you can walk into any Sam Ash and try out their microphones? It’s true. If you’re looking to buy a microphone, try them out and see which one sounds the best. Do some research…don’t just buy any microphone and feel like it will work best for everything you record.
If you don’t have the money for several microphones, then you need to find one that accommodates as many vocal styles as it can.
The microphone I use to record my Docacappella music is an Audio-Technica AT 4040.
Now that’s not the one Vocal Company uses. They use something much better and much more expensive. But if you’re looking for a good overall model that’s not too expensive, I recommend that one.
3) Don’t be afraid to think outside the box .
For one of our tracks, we needed our vocal percussionist to sound like he was playing a washboard, like in a country jug band. After several takes of sounds that didn’t quite do it justice, the engineer suggested chewing an apple and projecting that into the microphone.
4) MIDI matters.
MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is the key to getting a good track. A MIDI file keeps the singers in tune and is the best way for the engineer to keep track of what the right and wrong notes are.
I always felt like MIDI tracks were just a guide to help me stay in tune, nothing more. But after watching our engineer Mel utilize MIDI in fascinating ways, I realized how important MIDI was to the recording process. It helped her learn the songs without knowing them in advance, and created a helpful roadmap for the editor and mixer.
To create a MIDI file, you need a notation program like Finale or Sibelius. You simply input the music into the program and then export the file as a MIDI file. When you export it, use “Type 1.”
5) Be flexible.
Some people record faster or slower than others. Just because you make a schedule doesn’t mean you will be able to stick to it. In fact, there’s a 100% chance you won’t stick to it. Make sure everyone in your group has extra time blocked off in case things change (which they will…trust me).
6) The engineer is and isn’t God.
The engineer does not know your music, nor do they know your arrangements. They are learning this on the fly, so you need someone to be in the room with them to answer questions they might have. Other than that, you need to stay out of the engineer’s way. They know how to get the best takes and how to get the best out of singers. You may want to “direct” the recording, but believe me, they have it covered.
7) Triple track
Did you know that a cappella groups triple track their parts? I sure didn’t. What is triple tracking? It’s making sure that every note sung by each singer has two additional tracks with the same notes. Basically, everything you sing has to be done three times, so that when they are mixed together, it creates a “fuller” sound.
I’d like to end this post by personally thanking The Vocal Company for a productive and fun weekend, especially our engineer Mel Daenke.
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