Tracking Vocal Groups Without Headphones

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a few vocal groups recently and have been refining the process of capturing a choir singing along to a backing track. Good monitoring is essential for vocalists to pitch and ideally in the studio we can give everyone headphones, but not many places can cater for a large vocal group unless your budget stretches far enough for a place like this.

For the Vocal Works Gospel Choirs last album (Fourteen), we tracked in the big room at Real World Studios and hired in 50 wireless headphones from Silent Disco, which worked a treat as it gave everyone independent level adjustment, avoiding spill and  the cable chaos a wired setup would have caused.

For those moments when you don’t have enough headphones, and it’s not worth hiring in a load of gear, there are still ways to get great results.

In this example for Bath Academy of Musical Theatre, the singers had an instrumental backing that they wanted to record over. We didn’t have the facility to give everyone headphones so the setup I went for was quite simple in the end. I used a pair of AKG C414 mics in Blumlein configuration, placed above a monitor speaker with the choir arranged in a circle around the mics.

Now the room you record in will have a big influence on the sound, we recorded this in a relatively dry and well proportioned room (a modern music department in a local school) which really helps by reducing the amplitude of reflections from the walls. This is particularly important when you are playing the backing track into the room whilst recording as it reduces what I call indirect spill which will add unwanted ambience to the backing track.

Placing the monitor speaker below the mics puts it in the most off-axis position in the Blumlein pickup pattern, so you get attenuated direct sound from the monitor speaker into the mics (though this does not eliminate the playback sound from entering the mics), and the monitor ideally should not have an upwards facing driver. Also, you need to set the monitor volume to the lowest you can get away with for the vocalists to feel happy and pitch well.

In the video example, we recorded the soloists individually afterwards using headphone monitoring, but all the ensemble parts (from 2:22 onwards) were recorded live along with the backing track in the manner described. When it came to mixing, I was impressed at how much easier it was to get the backing track to sound good with the choir. In previous approaches I was never completely happy with how the vocal mics added a room sound to the backing track, especially when you start compressing them.

As a way of quickly and easily tracking a vocal ensemble with minimum hassle, this definitely works. I have also come across similar examples of this used in studio recordings, such as using a figure of 8 pattern mic with singers either side on-axis, and a monitor at 90 degrees in the maximum off-axis position.

DIY preamps continued….

As promised in the previous post, here are some sound samples to demonstrate the sonic differences between the DIY EZ1290 Neve-style Mic preamps and the stock preamps on the Universal Audio Apollo firewire interface.

The setup for this was pretty simple, a remote drum recording session where the drummer (the fabulous Mr Mark Whitlam) was given a score and a backing track to record the drum part to. The session was carried out in Marks garden studio cabin, a compact but decent sounding purpose-built space that has been acoustically treated.

Listening to the stye of the track and how the drums sounded in the space I decided to go for a simple 4 mic setup: 2 overheads placed more out in front of the drums to get a more balanced picture of the kit as a whole, supplemented with kick and snare close mics.

The drums themselves were:

Vintage 1960s Zildjian A 14″ hi hats, 22″ Istanbul Agop Azure ride (next to hats), Bosphorus 21″ medium thin ride and an 18″ bosphorus thin crash. Drums …. Snare: Canopus Zelkova, 1960’s premier Olympic 20″ bass drum and 12″ Tom, modern premier 14″  Tom

Of course, all properly tuned…..

On the overheads I used 2 Oktava MK-012 modified by Micheal Joly at Oktavamod, on the kick an Electrovoice RE20 and on the snare a cheap and surprisingly cheerful Audio Technica AT2020 (high SPL handling, nice response, good rejection).

On the following audio examples you are listening to just the overheads so you can hear more clearly the differences between preamps. Note that these are different takes, although the drummer is incredibly consistent, so the comparison is not entirely precise.

Firstly, through with the UA Apollo preamps


And then with the EZ1290 preamps


You can hear the subtle differences, especially when you listen to that ride cymbal from about 10 seconds in. The Apollo preamps are very good, very clear and crisp, but the EZ1290 has a smoother sound, more open and somehow with a better sense of space.  What do you think?

This is the only direct comparison I’ve done but I’ve been working a lot with these preamps on voice and guitar and really like the sound I’m getting, I’m finding I’m using less processing further down the line to shape the sound. I’ve particularly enjoyed the combination of this preamp and the modified Apex 460 valve mic mentioned in a previous article.