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  Vocal Sound Q&A  

Q) Could you please tell me how to get that creamy/silky vocal sound? I use a SM57, or an E-100 patched into an all-tube pre w/eq, then into a compressor direct to my hard disk. Sometimes I use my Mackie"D" to utilize it's EQ, then into the hard disk. Is rolling off the top end the key or is it boosting the bottom? -Nesz

A) When you listen to an outstanding CD with that silky vocal sound, chances are that there was red carpet treatment at many levels, starting with the expertise of the engineer and producer. Let's go from the top to see what could be different, and what you can do in your case.

Level One: The source. The sound of a persons voice (technique and tone) has much to do with the sound, not to mention using the correct distance to the mic (6" to 1' in studio, up to 4' live), how warmed up the person is, how consistent they are from take to take. (More how-to's here.) In my 20 years of studio engineering, I often used eq. Once when recording a live big band, the singer, and older gentleman, quietly agreed when I showed him where to stand next to the mic. When they ran down the song, I was astounded at the sound of this man's voice. It was huge. It was smooth. It was clear. It was bright. It was warm. It was .... perfect. A classic voice that didn't need a shred of eq! His master tape could have been a cassette and it would have sounded amazing.

Start at the source. Your singer should be committed to producing their very best in the studio and on stage. Tons of Grammy-winning artists use the Seth Riggs technique, so finding someone in your area that teaches his method can be a good idea.
Key: Don't kid yourself into thinking that 5 or 6 lessons will get you sounding like Celine Dion. Singing is an art - it takes time. I learned this technique from Andrew Boettner, here in Southern California, and my full-voice range increased an octave-and-a-half. Increasing your skill increases your opportunity.

Level two: The mic. Top engineers on the best sounding CDs are probably using a vintage AKG C12, Neumann U47, Telefunken, or some other super-exotic mic. There are times when lessor mics are used, but the majority of the time there is a priceless piece at this point. Your budget is the determining factor here. If your artist is trying to get signed, this isn't a key point. Their performance is. If you are trying to get hired by the majors as an engineer/producer, this is essential. If you are in the studio business, the importance of a priceless mic depends on what your clientele can afford. Sometimes studios rent their prize pieces so that their basic rate is affordable.

Level three: The mic pre's, eq, & compressor. Again, the top engineers are probably using vintage gear like Neve, Teletronix, UREI, DBX 160's, or newer discrete or tube units like Avalon, Prism, Millennia, GT, API or Manley. Some engineers ride automated faders and don't use a compressor at all.  That's good old school for ya!

Level three: The monitoring system. Yep. If you don't hear it right, how do you expect to eq it right, much less pick the best sounding gear? Check my article on Studio Monitor Madness and Mixing Solutions, otherwise I'll be writing another page here!

Level four: The multitrack storage device. While analog is highly prized, digital audio workstation systems are improving, especially with better A to D converters. Roger Nichols says he's never going back to analog, and Roy Thomas Baker aligned his machines at +12. What can I say. Experts all have something different to say. That's why we suggest Rule #1 -- "There are no rules."

Level five: The mixing stage. There was a time when Bernie Grundman stated, "Analog is the choice of most high-end mix formats." But that's been changing - particularly when the mastering will be done using Separations.

Does it make a difference to use vintage gear? I think it makes more of a difference to sing in-tune, but the real vintage gear sounds great - otherwise there wouldn't be so many pluggins out there that are imitating it! If it's cost-effective for you, go for it. If not, compare your vocals with the vocal sound on commercial CDs and use your best judgment to get what you like. Great monitors (and/or a great mixing engineer) always help you make the right choices.

You can adjust the enhancement frequencies of vocal eq so that the voice sits in a "pocket" left vacant by the way you have eq'd and panned the instruments. Don't let common frequencies build up - a sweepable eq is important so that you're not adding the same frequency to everything in the mix. I don't recommend rolling off the top at all. That's where the upper harmonics are. I usually added some high end at around 10-15K, and some mids at 2.5K, and some bottom around 100hz, and sometimes rolled off 50hz.... but it varied from voice to voice. When in doubt, SIMPLIFY. Less is more.

Level six: The mastering stage.  Separation Mastering is the most ideal way to take your vocal sound to the next level.  No question about it.  Much optimization is available here.  But check this out -- here's a quote from a respected professional in the July 2006 issue of a major recording industry magazine about vocal sound in mastering:

“I believe that mastering can really do quite a lot to enhance the vocal portion of a mix.  Of course, the client must keep in mind that manipulating the frequencies that directly affect the vocal will also affect any other instrument in that frequency range."

NOT SO with Separation Mastering.

“For example, a difficult problem to fix would be that of isolating a sharply sibilant vocal while enhancing the snap of a snare drum... mastering engineers may choose to de-ess an entire stereo mix in an effort to de-ess a vocal. Although.. this technique can instantly destroy the snap and sizzle of the drum kit..."

There is NO RISK of loosing any drum snap with proper Separation Mastering.

“Do multiple versions of your mix.  Giving the mastering engineer more options to work with can ease your session tremendously."

Why spend time making multiple mixes when you can make Separations and have TOTAL control over your vocal sound in mastering? 

“Running your mix past a mastering engineer's ears before the scheduled session gives you an opportunity to get a fresh perspective and — if necessary — go back and fix some things.”

The excellent engineer quoted in this magazine article made good comments if you're stuck making a 2-track mix.  Some mastering engineers, we hear, have told their clients to go back and remix when they didn't get the sound they wanted!  Separation Mastering nearly eliminates the "go back and fix it" syndrome! 

Doing something new takes a little willingness! We invite you to be willing to check out this format!  It should take no additional equipment... just the tools you already are using!  Read more here.

"I am truly amazed at the imaging, separation, and detail that you were able to reveal. On a couple of songs I could swear that you had access to the raw audio and were able to remix the track!!! Thanks also for bringing a warmth and depth to a fully digital recording that I was fairly sure was impossible without starting from analog tape." -Tom Harter - Green Bay, WI

Q) Could you tell me a little about trim, we have it on our board and need to know exactly what it does. -Rick

A) Trim is the gain of the mic or line preamplifier. That is the electronic component that enables you to change the *sensitivity* of either the mic or the line input. Usually the line input stays at one point, but variations are good when a track comes back too hot.

This differs from the faders, in that they brings the signal up or down *after* the sensitivity control. If the trim is set to high and the mic signal becomes distorted, the channel faders bring the entire signal up or down, including the distortion. When you set up your mics, set the fader for "0" or unity gain by sliding the fader up to a little more than 3/4 of the way up toward the top of the fader distance. This is the ideal place for the fader to be when using it as a mic input. Then, adjust the sensitivity of the trim till you hear no distortion at all even in the loudest case, leaving the fader where it is.

You should rarely, if ever, use the fader to control how hot the signal is going to tape. It should stay put and the trim brought down if you hear distortion or break up. Mic pre is a grittier distortion than actual capsule break up at the mic itself. Mic breakup is a tubbier sounding distortion because the capsule is flexing out of its coherent range.

Some consoles will have a meter to actually view the sensitivity setting, but most these days don't have this feature. Some consoles also have LEDs that light up when clipping is occurring. Pay attention to those lights! They shouldn't come on, unless you want that harsher sounding distortion. I don't recommend it. It's not as cool as creating distortion at the source where it's smoother (like guitars or raspy voice tones, etc.).

If your fader is at unity and a good signal is going to tape, and you've adjusted the trim for a clean sound, the gain structure should be right.

Created 6/12/99 • Modified 8/15/06
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