9 unconventional voice recording techniques

Whether it’s singing backwards or screaming into a handheld mic, sitting at the console, or struggling in the studio, there are plenty of ways to capture great vocal performance outside of the studio. singing in a Neumann.

Today we’re featuring some of the strangest ways artists have recorded and manipulated their voices. From John Lennon testing the patience of Abbey Road engineers to Bjork arranging all the other instruments around his melodies, some of the most creative songwriters have, perhaps unsurprisingly, also led some of the most successful recording techniques. creative.

Check out the fruits of their unconventional methods below.


John Lennon sings from above

The vocal follow-up on “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a legend at this point. Lennon wanted to sound like the Dalai Lama shouting from the top of a mountain. Engineer Geoff Emerick was at first puzzled as to how to proceed, until he looked at a large wooden box with two sets of rotating speakers, called Leslie, which until then had only been used on organs.

After some wiring was redone to reuse the Leslie for a voice, Lennon tried it out on a take of “Tomorrow Never Knows” and immediately loved it. In the final version of the song, the Leslie effect was used from the line “Love is everything and love is everyone”.

Hearing the reading of his affected voice, Lennon was supposedly so inspired that he asked Emerick to hang him from a rope in the middle of the ceiling, give him a push and let him sing while spinning around a microphone. Emerick would continue to tell Lennon that the idea was “under consideration”.


Brittany Howard screams into headphones

For the 2015 hit album by Alabama Shakes Sound and color, Brittany Howard and engineer Shawn Everett sometimes approached to get his vocal sound almost like they would approach to get a guitar sound.

To capture the rising howl of the song “Gimme All Your Love,” according to an interview in Sound on sound, Howard strapped a pair of reverse-wired headphones to his mouth. (Any reverse-wired speaker will act like a large-diaphragm dynamic microphone.) This method took some heavy post-production so that the vocals didn’t “rip out the ears,” as Everett puts it, but it got the sound. who Howard wanted.

The experimentation did not stop there. When Howard wanted muffled sound, she would put cotton wool in her mouth or use an over-the-counter anesthetic to numb her lips and tongue. She also experimented with vocals with a Yamaha Subkick.

Everett remembers Howard found out that she enjoyed singing in the control room in front of control speakers. When she did this, it was often with a hand-held microphone that she had bought on eBay. Both used this method of tracking to their advantage to achieve the muted tone of the song “Guess Who”.


Dan Auerbach lets bleed

Many of us have heard that a large diaphragm condenser microphone is the best tool for high fidelity recording of a voice. Time and time again, we also hear that technically the best way to get good sound is to isolate, isolate, isolate. I’ve heard that even a slight bleeding from the helmet has a very negative effect on the fidelity of a track.

It’s safe to say that Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys, The Arcs, Blakroc, and more) would disagree with all of these statements. He prefers to play in front of monitor speakers when singing and even when producing other artists. Auerbach, who likes the term “bleed bleed,” says most of his favorite records contained at least a little bit of it, either from the playback or from the live band slipping into the vocal mic.

Auerbach also prefers to use dynamic microphones on his vocals. On the Black Keys album El Camino for example, he used a Shure SM58 a lot. Unsurprisingly, this is a dynamic mic that has excellent off-axis rejection (meaning it only captures what’s directly in front of it). A mic like this would definitely help control the bleeding from his monitors.

When Auerbach needs a little more detail on his vocals, he’ll choose a small diaphragm condenser mic over the conventional large diaphragm. He used a Neumann KM184 a lot on the album Brothers.


Thom Yorke sings backwards, backwards

During the sessions of the album that was to become Amnesiac, Radiohead was struggling to find the right vibe for a song called “I Will”. A breakthrough came when someone reversed the song’s playback in the studio. Yorke and company thought the reverse song sounded great.

At this time, Colin Greenwood was listening to a BBC Radio 4 show featuring an English composer who had written an interesting piece of music for a singer. In the composition, all the phrasing was upside down but meant to be sung forward.

The group bonded with these ideas for their song “Like Spinning Plates”. Yorke spent the whole night learning to sing, backwards, much of what was once “I Will”.

The intention was to reverse the vocals backwards so that these lyrics would be heard forward in the final cut. The result is a weird, rambling lyric before the chorus breaks free into the more conventional vocals “And it sounds like rotating plates”.

“I Will”, the song from which “Like Spinning Plates” was born, will eventually appear on the band’s next album.


The prince remains seated on his throne

Sometimes just getting the job done in a practical way is the key to a good voice. Going back and forth from the control room to the concert hall can be exhausting, even draining inspiration, if you’re playing and steering the board at the same time.

In an interview with Reverb, Chuck Zwicky, sound engineer at Prince’s Paisley Park from 1987-89, said Prince’s approach to recording vocals was unique.

According to Zwicky, Prince “always had a mic on a pole above the vocal console. He would take that mic – with the console and tape recorder remote in front of him – and mute all voices from the engineer’s chair. . Every voice you’ve ever heard on every Prince record was cut off sitting in a chair at the console. It was part of his workflow. All that dynamic range and all that focus – how many singers come and go between the studio and control up to readjust something? It just drains the artist’s attention. “


Iggy Pop brings antics onstage in the studio

Confident after a year of touring, the Stooges entered the studio to record their album Fun house. Due to the long tour, they were as tight-knit a band as they had ever been, and they wanted to take advantage of it on the recording.

They set up in the studio as they would have set up on stage. Iggy Pop, struggling as he would have in a live performance, followed his voice with a hand-held mic while monitoring from PA blocks. There was no pop screen.

There is some uncertainty on the part of the band whether or not an Electro-Voice Eliminator style PA cabinet was mic in the room to gain additional distortion. But according to producer Don Gallucci, the distorted vocals on the record were the result of Iggy overloading the mic with sound pressure and occasionally slamming a limiter that was in the chain.

This, coupled with all the bleeding from the band and the sound system (only Ron Asheton wanted to wear headphones), made the vocals and the album as a whole sound wild, especially for the time.


Bjork follows the voice first

Most people who follow the vocals during the arrangement and composition process will first create a guitar or piano track, then add the vocals on top of it. It’s probably not surprising that Bjork is different from most people.

She uses different methods to work on different albums, but many of these methods were born out of a vocal-centric process. Instead of an inspiring chord sequence to her melodies, as is the case with many songwriters, she often snatches them out of the air when hiking or moving around the world.

For the album Vulnicura her preferred recording method was to finish the melody and lyrics of a song first. She decided on the shape and feel of the song as a whole, then immediately followed, composed, and edited her vocals in Pro Tools. She worked on the arrangement of the song’s other instruments outward from there.

By the time she released the album, she had also started using Melodyne, a timbre, pitch and time shift software, as a tool for arranging the strings. This allowed him to build the string arrangements around his voice before transferring them to the string players.


Maynard James Keenan goes for a run

Engineer Sylvia Massy is not afraid to be frank. When recalling sessions for Tool’s 1993 release Reflux she said: “I was looking for the sound of a Neumann U 67 on the voice of Maynard James Keenan, but because the little troll crouched down and screamed in the ground when he sang, it was difficult to hang a Neumann U 67 in the correct position for a vocal pickup. “

She had seen the band perform at local clubs and knew that Keenan didn’t deliver the same energy in the studio as she did live. They tried portable dynamic mics, but even though Keenan was immediately more comfortable with them, the mics sounded too dull.

Massy and Keenan opted for an AKG C 1000 small diaphragm condenser, wrapped in foam and tape to reduce handling noise. The condenser gave a bit more sparkle than dynamic mics and became the go-to mic for sessions.

Besides making Keenan more comfortable with the recording process, Massy also made him uncomfortable. When his screams didn’t come out as well as they had been during rehearsal, she ran him around the block five times. According to Massy, ​​he was furious about it, but it caused his delivery of those screams to be felt on the takes.


Julianna Barwick finds natural reverberation in unnatural places

While she might not be as well-known as the others on this list (or at least not yet), we felt Julianna Barwick’s attempts to create new sonic textures from the oldest instrument in the world deserved. to be mentioned.

As a child, Barwick loved to sing in places with natural reverberation. For fun, she sought out the natural sound of stairwells and church auditoriums. She often sang in public restrooms in Tulsa (stopping when people entered) and in a stairwell at Hunter College. This habit served him well during the recording of his 2016 album. Will be.

While working on the album, Barwick walked the streets of Lisbon every day to a grocery store near the studio. She would often improvise a melody as she walked under an underground passage, the natural reverberation carrying through the muffled sounds of the street.

She loved the sound of the underground passage so much that one day she recorded a vocal melody there and brought it back to the studio. She built around this recording to complete what would become the song “St. Apolonia”.

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