Sleep Little Baby–The Engineer Vs. the Vocalist

THE ENGINEER’S STORY

I often read both amateur and self-proclaimed pro “producers” alike lamenting the task of having to work with vocalists. “They’re a pain in the ass,” I read.  “Frickin’ Prima Donnas!” they say.  “Good ones are hard to find,” I also hear.  As the recording engineer and producer for a new track by Scott Sizemore called “Sleep Little Baby” all I can say is how right those guys are!    The guy I worked with was a nightmare!  He had a decent voice… when he was on pitch.  He had okay intonation, when my teeth weren’t grinding like nails on a chalkboard because of his nasally vowels.  He had great vibrato, but practically had to be cattle prodded into singing a laser-straight note when it was needed.  And his range was entirely insufficient to the task.

I’ve long since learned that good recording in the first place is better than studio corrections afterward, but there were times when this joker just didn’t get it.  My hand was forced to warp some audio so that entrances synced, and correct a few pitches of notes that were WAY below Mr. “I’m a Tenor One!”’s range.  I had to force him into take after take after TAKE AFTER TAKE in order to get usable recordings, and even then I had to comp much of the performance from the best of what I got.

I did what I could.  I used the best mic I have—a Sure SM27 condenser for the vocals.  I ensured that the A/C in the house was off, the door was closed to prevent any cats from entering the studio, and that all the TVs and the speakers in the office next to the studio were off as well.  I forced him to warm up his voice properly before recording.  And ensured he had plenty of water in the studio to avoid the saliva clicks and pops that appear as a dehydrated mouth opens and closes in front of the microphone.

Despite all my preparations it was a brutal process. The vocalist was also the composer, so we’d go into the studio, record some scratch vocals, and then he’d see what I saw all along—some harmony wasn’t working or his arrangement was “un-singable” (whatever!) so he’d go back to the drawing board and edit the score.  We’d try it again, and he’d edit again.  He’d get sick, and we couldn’t record.  He’d strain his voice by over-singing (claiming he couldn’t “hear himself” in the headphones or some such nonsense), and we couldn’t record.  He’d have work, play tennis, spend time with his wife, go on trips to sing somewhere else (he claimed it was Carnegie Hall but I’m dubious).  Excuse after excuse, and again, we couldn’t record.  This went on for months.  Finally, after he nailed down the final arrangement, and eventually managing to shake a damn sinus infection after he returned from his trip, I denied him access to chocolate and forced him into the studio for a final push to get this beast recorded once and for all.  It took a week of studio time, but I finally wringed a usable compliment of vocals out of his throat.

From there it was all mixing, but at least that part I could control.  With good vocals, mixing is easier.  A little compression here, some EQ there, along with level adjustments, and before I knew it I had a decent mix to show some people I trust and get some opinions.  The final track is now in Oren’s hands, to be mastered.  I think, despite it all, we might just have ourselves a decent track when it’s all said and done.  I’ll tell you what, though, the stories are true–vocalists ARE a pain in the butt!

THE VOCALIST’S STORY

I had composed a nice little choral piece.  Eight versions of myself singing harmonies to piano accompaniment—simple right?  No big whop!  Not to an engineer.  Oh, no.  To him it was apparently a “very big whop.”  Something about the need for “pristine recording to avoid a buildup of the noise floor,” and “careful attention to mic technique in order to deal with the extremely wide dynamic range of the song,” and also complaining about the “horrible breathiness in your voice when you go below about a C”.  Blah blah blah.  It was like listening to the office IT guy complain about the pitfalls of security monitoring and networking protocols.  BOOORING!  I just wanted to sing my song.

Anyhoo, I needed to try to sing what I had in order to really understand the problems with my arrangements.  So we did spend a lot of studio time doing that.  I would sing a quick version, and then realize some problems and try and fix them.  I’d go back in, sing a little more, and fix a little more.  No big whop.  Engineer’s are slave drivers, though, I’m tellin’ ya. That’s all I have to say.  I mean this guy, was ridin’ my ass from day one. “Why are you recording without a completed arrangement?”  “Make sure you warm up before we start recording.”  “Where is your water?”  “What kind of “ah” vowel is that anyway?  Are you singing classical choral or Merle Haggard twangy?!” “Drink some water.”  “Seriously?  More reverb.  Dude, it’s frickin’ maxed out at the send. I’ll pre-fader it and give you NUCLEAR reverb in the cans if you want, but seriously–you’re just making it worse at this point.”  “You’re off pitch, AGAIN!  Sing it over!”

I can’t even tell you how many times I heard that last one.  “You’re off pitch, AGAIN!  God… you SUCK!”  Uhg!  I swear, no matter what I did it wasn’t good enough.  it’s HARD to sing with headphones on. It’s just not the same.  What am I s’posed to do!?

Despite all my preparations it was a brutal process.  My voice got strained.  I got sick a few times and couldn’t record.  I like spending time with my wife more than the engineer, so sometimes I just said, “To Hell with you—I’m going to the movies!” I had a trip to New York to sing in Carnegie Hall I had to get ready for, so that ate into studio time.  Plus it was just a lot of work doing take after take after TAKE AFTER TAKE!  And it was HOT in there!  I mean, seriously, had he ever heard of a little thing called air conditioning?  Geez!  He finally locked me in the studio for a week without chocolate and forced me to finish it out.  Those quiet parts at the end were a BITCH to sing.  I mean, I’d like to see HIM try and hold a laser-straight pitch at high G at pianissimo for like… thirty seconds and see if he can do it!

Eh… Whatever.  It’s done now.  I’m eating chocolate again as we speak.  He muttered something about “sync issues” and “compressing the vocals” and then disappeared into his studio for another few days.  Apparently he sent it to some guy named Oren to get it “mastered” (whatever that means), and we’ll have a final track done soon.  At this point, I’m just glad I don’t have to work with that dude anymore.

Meanwhile, here’s the final recording:

I don’t know.  I think it sounds pretty good, if I do say so myself…  I think the engineer would disagree though.  And of course, the problems he points out are mostly my fault.  There’s just no pleasing that guy.  ::groan::

My grandmother died last Tuesday.  And I was able to play her the full song (not quite complete but close enough) before she passed.  I’m dedicating this piece to her. She was my second mother, and I will miss her terribly.  Even my engineer shed a few tears over her passing.  Maybe he’s not such a monster afterall…


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