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Just finished a tracking session with a singer who has a huge dynamic range. This musician is otherwise very professional, and is a joy to have in the studio, and I'm not in any way criticizing her. However, there are some variables I'd like to know how to handle should they recur (with either her or another musician):

The was musician playing guitar while singing live in the studio. By the end of the session, we got the takes we needed, and their quality was good. She never needed more than a few takes, but we had to do a few retakes on top of that because of a little clipping. (But hey, six songs in three hours...not bad.) But this is making me wonder:

The extreme dynamic range makes using the pad setting problematic, coupled with a slightly noisy environment. (Read: lotsa planes and trucks today in my normally quiet neighborhood.)

In general, what can one do to cope with a situation like this? Should the tracking engineer ride the trim pot in a situation like this, or would that make the recording choppy? Suck it up and use automation and light compression on the audio in post? Run a second mic for the vocal?

Here's my rig. (Today was the first non-test session with a new computer and interface, after a recent rig meltdown.)

  • Macbook Pro with Garageband, wille export to Logic for mixdown
  • MOTU Audio Express interface
  • SM58 on her vocal and a Studio Projects C1 on her guitar, with a bit of bleed between the two (as anticipated)
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2 Answers

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What Kim Burgaard said is very true. The vocalist has a lot of control over how their voice is recorded. As I'm a much inferior vocalist to those I record, it can be difficult teaching them this technique, as you just want to get a good take.

So what I end up doing is have the vocalist scream. Well, I ask them to warm up and hit the loudest levels they can. I then adjust via that. I try not affect overall sound with compression in the analog domain. With the takes in 24bit, I can use envelopes or a compressor in the mixing stage.

I would stay away from ridding the level during recording. It's more difficult to get the levels right in the mixing stage.

You mention running a second mic for the vocal. I would hope that is what you are doing anyway. I don't think recording the mic and guitar with one mic is a good idea at all. You'll not be able to mix anything.

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No no no no no. A second mic for the vocal; I already had a mic for the guitar and a mic for the vocal. –  Neil Fein May 2 '11 at 4:55
    
But yeah, I do the "what's the loudest thing you'll be singing" question, and set the trim based on that, then add a little for safety. When I add a little more, I always misunderestimate and go too low. Performers often get caught up in their energy and go louder than they thought they would; I'll try asking them to scream! –  Neil Fein May 2 '11 at 4:57
    
The problem with this approach is that you effectively end up raising the noise floor through subsequent compression, since the singer will most likely remain far below the peak level most of the time. Padding or adjusting the gain to keep the transients below clipping both come down to the same end result –  Kim Burgaard May 2 '11 at 5:16
    
I see what you mean. I don't think two mics on the vocal will help this situation any. It sounds like you are doing the right thing. If you have a nice pre with a good compressor, that should help a lot. Though, you'll probably have to play it safe with that MOTU and bring down the levels. It takes time to get to know a singer and how they perform. It sounds like you are going at quite a pace! –  d-_-b May 2 '11 at 5:20
    
@Kim Burgaard, Of course you raise the noise floor. While 24bit helps, it won't be as good as a silent studio with a great pre and analog compressor. However, it looks like the MOTU Audio Express and a noisy room is the environment. –  d-_-b May 2 '11 at 5:26
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Singing with an microphone, both live and recorded, can be improved with a little technique. Compression cannot compensate for clipping and, as you point out, some singers have an incredible dynamic range.

If you look closely at vocalists who regularly perform with microphones, you will notice they either move the microphone or the head to increase the distance between the microphone and the mouth at particularly powerful phrases and sounds. It takes a little practice to internalize and get the timing right, but the result is yet another control the vocalist can use to shape the sound and expression.

Chances are you will be compressing the vocals anyway. A good microphone vocalist is not only able to control his or her own voice, but also control how the dynamics of the voice is recorded. This in turn could lead to more natural and open sounding recordings because more subtle compression settings can be used.

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Thanks, and while this is a good intro to mic technique, it misses the point. The situation is that we have a singer who doesn't know this; until she learns, how to deal with it in the studio? –  Neil Fein May 2 '11 at 4:46
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Well, you mentioned that padding the microphone sensitivity, or adjusting the gain would raise the noise floor. That means you don't really have any other options left. You also mentioned the vocalist is otherwise professional, so she should be able to tell when she is hitting the extremes of her dynamic range. Ask her to move her head slightly back and to the side when she hits those notes and that's probably all you need. –  Kim Burgaard May 2 '11 at 5:20
    
That's what I did, and near the end of the session she was much improved. –  Neil Fein May 2 '11 at 5:33
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