A few years back, I was working on recording string quartets in Alice’s Loft. I was having a lot of issues - the cello was dominating the final mix and I wanted to create a more cohesive, unified sound. I was frustrated and looking for new ideas.
That weekend I got to take a trip to Paris, and looking into one of the furniture stores in Les Halles I came across two beautiful Baroque style arm chairs inspired by Louis XV. They were both very large and oval, and I remember sitting in one of them for the first time - loving the way they looked. Relaxing in the chair, I realised that there was this wonderful dead sound inside of it. When I spoke the sound was flat - the same way your voice sounds in a sound-proof room. I thought to myself, “Wow, a giant shield!”. I liked them so much that I bought two of the larger chairs to use with my quartet recordings, (and of course one for the pleasure of my home).
Once back in Alice’s Loft, I also realised that the chairs had multiple functions. I could use them to create a wall between the upright bass and piano or drums, for example, and one day after numerous frustrations with a vocal session it suddenly occurred to me that I should give one of the chairs a go for the vocals themselves.
I had the vocalist face the chair (it is just over 6 foot) and had them record into the mic while facing the inside of the chair. The sound was great. It not only had the big room sound, but I got the beautiful intimacy of the vocals. Since then, I have now officially adopted the half-size chair and have designated it the official ‘Vocal Chair’.
Now, I’m sure many people are asking why I wouldn’t use our vocal booth instead.
As all engineers can attest to, recording and engineering is like cooking; every recipe is unique. Often the best recipes are created by chance, with a bit of trial and error thrown in. But after a while, each cooks finds their own distinct recipe. It is not always a question of right or wrong but a question of personal taste.
Recording vocals is no different. There is a lot of misconception about vocal booths. Very often when vocalists make preparations for their recordings, they often assume they will be heading for a built-in vocal booth. That is speculation generated from many photos, music videos and documentaries.
While vocal booths are indeed used in many situations, here at Alice’s Loft we use ours predominantly for the recording of scratch vocals and instrumentalists that need separation during recording.
Scratch are the pre-recorded vocals required for bands/musicians to listen to while live-recording. Vocal booths are perfect for them because they create a space that blocks out all other sound, eliminating bleeding into the vocal track. Their inclusion into the mix allows the recording musicians to react and be inspired by the vocalist, allowing the recording to be more natural and concise.
Once a band’s instrumental/rhythm tracks have been recorded, the scratch vocals are discarded. The vocalist is then able (with more time allotted) to record a new track. By having created a space for the musicians to record more concisely, so therein the vocalist gets a better performance to record on top of. It’s a win-win.
The same reason why the booths are perfect for scratch vocals can make them difficult to work with when recording your final vocal track. If the vocal booth is small, it can create issues with the sound waves. The lack of space restricts the sound from reflecting properly, and you can end up with a boom effect - that is, a sound with too much bass that is close to impossible to fix. Also in these rooms, you often end up with a lack of ambience due to the sound-proof walls absorbing all of the sound waves - meaning the engineer has to create ambiance and reverb to add colour to the vocals afterwards. Here's a great in-depth article we found regarding the choice of a vocal booth.
If given the option of working outside of a vocal booth and instead within a large room, I always suggest that vocalists take it. The ambience that is created in the bigger space is unbeatable. Being the lucky owner of one of these rooms, I almost always use it (and my vocal chair) to record. I have found over time that the two together create a wonderful sound that is big and ambient but also very warm, intimate, clear and immediate.
I learned a lot about these differences from Nashville record studio owner/producer Larry Sheridan and when first developing Alice's Loft with my acoustic advisor and guru, Max Hodges. He built the air system in my studio, making the fans and sounds in separate rooms from the recording area, and designed the acoustic spaces in my vocal booth. He was an incredible help. He taught me that the more crooks and crannies you have in your larger room, the better your acoustics will be. When you have large ceilings and tons of uneven spaces like he helped us build, the acoustic dynamics are improved dramatically.
As an engineer working outside of a vocal booth, you will have to make arrangements that work with the type of space you’ll be recording in. If recording in a room with large ceilings, for example, it is sometimes necessary to have a shield around the vocal area. The vocal shield is there to ensure that the focus of the vocals does not get lost in the room. They create a more cohesive sound for a more intimate range of dynamics (something like the dead sound), while at the same time taking advantage of the room as well.
We’ll be focusing on the experience I’ve had with vocal shields in my next post!
This is just one experience in one studio, but in the end, if you can record in a nice size room