So I had vocal sessions yesterday afternoon into evening. The past few singers I have had have been kinda honky sounding and I was set out to combat it. This singer in particular has been in before. The closest I had gotten with him was the best sounding mic through a bunch of microphone auditions using a “safe” vocal chain that I would hone during mixdown.
When I audition, I usually go through a real clean preamp like a Mindprint DTC or a Sytek mpx4aii non burr brown, usually I use the former since the mpx4 is hyper-fast as far as response goes. I auditioned a U87, Rode K2 loaded with a nos telefunken, CAD VSM-1 loaded with a nos jan5751, and a 3 zigma lol251. The 3 zigma 251 was the best sounding of the bunch but still lacked some of that magic. So he was coming in again this wednesday and I didn’t feel like pulling out the preset sheets to set up the i.o. I wanted to approach things more aggressively.
Before he arrived I looked at my recent vocal chains. I have been getting into the knack of running a couple of compressors in series when tracking vocals (I have been doing a bit of VO work lately) and I decided to carry this into Wednesday’s sessions. I haven’t been 100% happy with the sound of the DTC compressors for vocals when I hit them hard. When I ride into my dtcs, there is a top end sparkle/sizzle (harmonic distortion) pretty localized to the high frequencies that works great for a lot of things but I was getting bored of the same sound. I have two of them and I had bought some tubes a year ago so I can have different flavors so I finally pulled one from the rack and replaced the compressor tubes with tung-sol gold ecc803s tubes, buttoned it up and turned it on to let the tubes warm up for an hour or so till he arrived. Next I needed to think of my chain of preamp and compression.
I turned on my MDP-1a to let its tubes warm up, went to the patch bay and patched it in front of the DTC then after the DTC, I patched in a channel of dynamics toolbox compressor. So, here is what the signal chain looks like on paper:
3 Zigma LOL251 -> Pendulum Audio MDPa -> Mindprint DTC tung-sol Line Input–EQ–Compressor -> Dynamics Toolbox (ele output) -> DACs
To explain a little of the chain, I loaded my dynamics toolbox with Sowter transformers which is an add-on option that gives you that sowter sound if you choose those outputs, a mid-forward/saturated tone depending on how you push them. I used the electric outputs which are clean.
The DTC has a insert as well which bypasses the preamp section which is transformer based. I wanted the transformer and preamp in the chain.
OK! So Jim arrived. I told him what I had done and he was up to getting closer to his “golden chain” for his vocals. I loaded the session we were going to work on and sent him to “The Money Booth” (vocal booth, that was named that by a band a number of years ago and everyone since then gets a kick out of the name so it stuck) Anyway… I set cue levels and began making passes on the song tuning the chain while he warmed up his voice.
When I work on a chain, it is haphazard and creative but there are primary things I look for and start out for as well. First I establish an overall level of the entire chain then go from there. I started with the MDP1 and set the gain and output knobs level (+48 input gain/5 output level), leveled the DTC and had the compressors and EQs bypassed, and had the toolbox bypassed entirely. I then fine-tune the mic placement.
EQing without an EQ: If I hear something spectrally based that I want to change, I will adjust the microphone first. It was funny, I went to the vocal booth to change the microphone’s placement, stating: “I need to move the mic a smidge”, moved it and Jim commented “That was two smidges, Tom.” I laughed and told him that it was actually a smidge and a half. Anyway, I dropped the mic an inch and a half and angled the mic a little differently to achieve the EQing I was after. I still needed a 1db boost at 4.6 kHz with a Q of .4
After a pass and a half, the vocal sounded good but I wasn’t excited (yet)… So what did I do, I pushed the gain of the MDP1a into distortion then backed off 2 clicks in the loud sections for baseline “max gain before audible distortion” then headed to the input gain and compressor section of the dtc. I did almost the same with the input gain of the DTC but i backed it off a bit more then proceeded to push the compressor on it to -10 to -16 gain reduction (don’t be appalled, the dtc compressor has a slowish attack) with a .02 second release. I then set the dynamics toolbox to level peaks a little more. The excitement began to come out of the speakers!
I then started to ride the input gain of the MDP1a and the compression threshold on the DTC finding the sweet spot of the chain and Jim’s performance. I had to be really careful because I could make the DTC’s compressor pump. I also had to make gain changes in between vocal lines because the MPD1a has stepped gain knobs that audibly “click” when it is changed. It was a delicate exciting act!
Five passes later we were both totally stoked. Jim’s performance was totally ON. I thought I may have been so excited because I was riding everything so deliberately, but when Jim got back to the control room, he was floored. It really sounded incredible.
I tell ya, those tung-sol tubes are really musical. Much much more than the ruby tubes I pulled out and the flavor was spread evenly across the signal. Looking back, the 3 zigma 251 is a very articulate microphone with its own frequency response. Having all that information/detail of Jim’s voice and setting it on a tube/transformer highway, it really did something special. I be liking this new signal chain!
All right! So you either read or skipped to the end… in either case, here is a sample:
“Shady Side” sample mp3 © 2011 Jim Donsky/Woodcrest Studio
Oh, and for the record, there is no eq other than the 1db boost I did on the DTC coming in and the harmony vocals have a mid frequency cut I did with a plugin EQ.
In the mix, the vocals are extremely dry with only the addition of some mid-side processing to give them a little width. The harmony vocals don’t have any of this though.