Tony Huerta of Sonic Audio was published in the Shure Notes articles for Audio Engineering:
Take 6 Production Manager and Engineer Tony Huerta:
A Cappella Studio and Live Recording
The Take 6 story began at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1980, when freshman Claude V. McKnight III formed a quartet known as the Gentlemen’s Estate Club. When tenor Mark Kibble heard the group rehearsing in – of all places – a campus restroom, he joined in the harmonies and performed onstage with the group that same night.Fast forward almost thirty years: The a cappella jazz group known today as Take 6 are not only the heirs to the rich tradition of the doo-wop and gospel groups of the 1950s, but also the leaders in the second wave of jazz and pop vocal groups that emerged in the 1990s.
With these noteworthy legacies at their foundation, these multiple GRAMMY winners continue to look and move in a forward direction as the first decade of the 21st century unfolds.
With a new CD due to release in Spring of 2016, we turned to the group’s engineer, Tony Huerta, to break down the complexities of recording a cappella music and producing live all vocal mixes. Here’s what he had to say.
Sharing the Knowledge
I’d like to share some important tips and techniques I’ve developed for recording a cappella music – a genre where the instruments are human. We’ll talk about the live aspects of a cappella performance, too –there’s a relationship between the perception of the live performance and the perception of the recorded material by the same artist. The energy and visual of a live show erases 90% of mistakes in the artist’s performance. You don’t have the luxury in a recorded piece. The mix and recording has to almost be flawless, but still capture the energy the audience would remember from a live show.
A Genre Defying Description
A cappella has come a long way from the days of barbershop quartets and doo wop groups, evolving into a style of music that offers a full spectrum of percussive and instrumental sounds. The lines between pop, jazz and R&B are blurred. Probably the best evidence of this is seen in the a cappella group I’ve had the good fortune to work with – Take 6. This group of six men has garnered 10 Grammy Awards out of 24 nominations in the past 27 years with the awards spread over a number of different categories – jazz, R&B and gospel —including several for producing.
Let’s get started. It’s time to answer this question: “How do I capture that sound in a quality studio or live mix?”
Keys To a Great A Cappella Recording
The first key to a great recording is microphone selection that leads to overall EQ in your final mix. You’re going for clarity over warmth. It’s great to have a full selection of top-notch microphones at your disposal but more important than price is the EQ each mic reproduces. If you don’t have that kind of money, it’s ok. I don’t have a closet full of expensive mics, but my cheaper ones have very specific uses as written about below.
Get ready to throw out your conventional thinking about vocal recording. Specific EQ is everything in an a cappella mix.
“Specific EQ is everything in an a cappella mix.”
You already know that a cappella means no instruments. The real translation is “in the church style” from the times when instruments were not allowed in the church. Modern a cappella is far from “vocal-sounding”. Drum sounds (beatbox) produced vocally have infiltrated the style along with vocals with guitar effects and enough bass riffs to make even your 70s funk band happy. I’ll build this mix for you from the bottom up starting with drums, bass, backing vocals, lead vocals, and finally, special effects.
Recording the Beatbox/Vocal Percussion Tracks
How do you record the vocal drummer? The “beatboxer” is another term for the timekeeper of the group who will produce sounds consistent with the EQ and timber of a real drum kit, along with other sounds like record scratching, congas, timbales, and other percussion instruments.
First, I place four microphones around the performer just like I would a drum kit using four tracks. I use two handheld dynamic mics for kick and snare, one in each hand, and two condenser microphones placed as overheads. Microphone selection is key here. You need microphones that will pick up the frequencies of real drums – the kick, snare, toms, and cymbals. Start with the kick. I have tried every microphone possible to find the perfect vocal kick sound and have found that microphones designed for a real kick work the best and provide the EQ I need. Specifically the Audix D6 or Beyer M88.
Vocal Kick Microphone Placement
All you care about at this point is the EQ the mic puts out. The microphone should reproduce a clear low end below 80Hz without coloring the sound with wind noise off the artist’s mouth, and reproduce the EQ of the beater smack of a real kick with an EQ peak around 4-6 kHz. Have the percussionist hold this microphone in his non-dominant hand and work with the angle of attack on the mic to find the best on/off axis sound. You’ll know the EQ is right when the sub pumps and the smack takes your head off. EQ it just like a Kick Drum.
Vocal Snare EQ and Microphone Placement
Next, let’s work on the snare. This is probably the most important component of all the percussion tracks. Focus on the specific EQ of a real snare drum and you can’t go wrong.
“Focus on the specific EQ of a real snare drum and you can’t go wrong.”
I break it down as the three EQ areas that make up a complex snare sound; 250 Hz – 900 Hz for the body of the snare sound, 2.5 KHz – 4.0 KHz for the smack of the stick on the skin, 6 KHz and up for the sizzle of the actual snares on the bottom of the drum. Picking the microphone that best suits your style of song is key here.
For instance, if I’m going for a classic 80s snare sound, I would pick the mic that best represents 250 Hz for the body, 2.5 KHz for the smack without a lot of sizzle. I choose between several different microphones for the snare; usually dynamic instrument mics that I’d usually use on a real snare or on congas in a live show. I have used the Shure Beta 57, SM57, and a special SM57 with Gaff tape around the head, it changes the characteristics slightly and gets a cool body tone. I use them straight on the mouth and have the artist touch lips to the mic in very close proximity held in their dominant hand. Although it’s vocal, these artists can really make a full bodied snare sound with just their mouths.
Now, this is the important part for creating separation in the two mics. Have the drummer make all of their sounds into the kick mic. When making a snare sound, they will take the kick mic away and move the snare mic inform of their mouth. It becomes a kind of “dance” to make this work, but the results are awesome!
To capture the rest of the sound coming off the artist, I use two DIFFERENT high-quality overhead condenser microphones. I place them about a foot higher than the artist’s head, just over the shoulder on either side of the head, pointed down toward the mouth. They are equidistant from each other and follow the 1:3 ratio in spacing to minimize phase issues. 1:3 ratio means The overhead microphones are one unit up from the artists mouth, and 3 units from each other.
Pan the tracks hard left and right to give the artist the ability to pan their own performance by turning their head. EQ the overheads just like you would normal drum overheads including high pass filter. They will pick up the rest of the kit like the high hat, toms, and cymbals. I use a Shure KSM 32 on one side and a Rode NT5 on the other. It also helps reduce phasing.
Mixing and Sampling
After recording a few good passes, the last thing I do is record several takes of individual sounds at the end of the track. I take tom fills, several different crash sounds and high hat samples. Also, I always make sure to take two mics for every sample sound. For instance, I will have the beatboxer put the kick mic right in front of their mouth, with the snare mic directly off the corner of their mouth. Then I have them give me a kick sound. The mics capture the thump of the drum, and the smack of the beater, both elements you will want to mix later to create a vocal kick drum sound like a real kick drum.
“Walk the line between the natural beatbox sound and produced sound to match the style of song you are mixing.”
I also get elements of the snare that might be missing in the artist’s original snare track, like smack or sizzle that I can lay over the top of the snare track to make it hit harder. You will use these sounds as samples and lay them over the existing drum takes. When it comes to mixing, you can use these sounds simply to enhance the tracks or, use them like a hip hop producer and totally program the drums with the samples. Walk the line between the natural beatbox sound and produced sound to match the style of song you are mixing.
Recording Vocal Bass
The bass and remaining vocals are not as complex and require less time and energy. Tracking should be like normal vocal production – except for the bass.
Think of tracking the bass as though it were a real bass. Real basses don’t breathe and neither do the vocal basses I record. I track line by line from breath to breath to get a clean continuous track. It takes patience to record three takes in this manner. I use two like tracks mixed slightly left and right to thicken up the tracks. Again, EQ is the key.
I use one of several different condenser microphones, chosen depending on the vocalist to pull out as much natural bass sound as possible. I record them at the closest proximity I can without a high pass filter with two pop filters to make sure no air noise is recorded. I never roll off bass frequencies on a vocal bass. Although most bass singers truly don’t sing as low as 50 Hz, the low end presence is still felt in the mix.
Mixing Vocal Bass
Since vocal basses usually sing one octave higher than instrumental basses, I might put a very light pitch sub-harmonic effect on the tracks tuned one octave down, blended into the mix to create a subtle low end feel. Keep in mind the sonic quality and EQ of the kick you recorded earlier and blend the two as if you are mixing instruments.
I generally EQ the bass up several decibels at 70 Hz and below, a cut between 80 Hz to 125 Hz, a sizable boost at about 4.0 KHz and again above 10 KHz. I go for thick across the mix, but not boomy at 100 Hz or muddy at 200 Hz. The extreme boost in the high end compensates for the lack of attack from the bass voice. You don’t have the plucked attack of the string that helps an instrumental bass cut through the mix. You must make it cut through with EQ.
Lead and Backing Vocals
The lead vocal is probably the easiest part of the overall recording session. Here are a few tips and tricks, including what I do to record a great lead.
- I set the mood in the studio by dimming lights.
- I make sure that the soloist can’t be seen by anyone. I don’t want insecurities to color the session.
- I try to put the artist in the state of mind that matches the track feel.
- I also ask the artist to tell me what the song means.
And finally, I tell the artist that we are going to take a dry run as a warm up. That gives me a take without the singer overdoing it; the artist is relaxed and that will often be the best take in the session.
“I’ve never heard a good fifth take – the first and third are usually the keepers.”
I let the artist know that we will do four takes; he/she doesn’t have to get it right on the first or even the fifth try. Even if the singer wants to do more at this point, the song takes on a different feel and the singer starts to push the performance. I’ve never heard a good fifth take – the first and third are usually the keepers. Finally, I never let them do the fourth take… They will always try too hard on the last take anyway.
In editing, I take the best lines from all four takes and combine them for one comprehensive track.
Backing vocals should be recorded on the best condenser microphones available. Since you will be focusing on blend, tuning and timing, I usually use the same brand and model of microphone for all of the backing vocals to ensure consistency in EQ and focus on clarity and brightness and air as opposed to warmth.
“…focus on clarity and brightness and air as opposed to warmth.”
The most common mistake I hear in live and studio a cappella is that it is generally too warm in the frequencies between 160 Hz and 400 Hz. Warmth is fine on the soloist but all other parts need an EQ adjustment down at that lower mid range. In harmony singing, frequencies multiply upon themselves dramatically in that range when in tune, and the mix takes on a muddy or indistinct sound.
The harmonies and clarity in the mix are best represented by a slight boost in the frequencies between 2.0 KHz and 4.5 KHz to bring out the attack/brightness of the vocals, and a slight boost above 10 KHz to 12 KHz for sibilance and airiness. I’ve found that 99% of the audience will accept that odd EQ as clear and distinct. It allows the listener to aurally pick out individual voices.
And here’s a live sound note: Take into account the acoustic properties of any venue if you’re mixing live. If your venue or sound system has any slight boost at 80 Hz through 100 Hz or 200 Hz through 400 Hz, you might need a larger than expected cut in those frequencies in order to compensate for the a cappella performance and harmony.
Editing and cleaning
When tackling the editing phase of a cappella recording, I go for clarity. I mostly remove all breaths from backing vocal tracks and bass tracks. Breaths from the vocal percussion tracks are removed if I am going for more of a produced sound and not if I’m producing a natural product.
“You might think that people will notice the missing breaths. They don’t.”
You might think that people will notice the missing breaths. They don’t. Just make sure and leave the lead vocal breaths in and no one will notice the others that are missing. They will perceive the song as ultra clear instead of hearing 25 tracks of breathing.
Mixing it down
Here are a few of my basic rules and tips. First, I mix from the bottom up. I compress and EQ the kick and bass to work together. Just like mixing instruments.
To thicken the bass, I pan one bass part left and insert a slap delay effect panned right the same amount. I set the delay time to 15-20 milliseconds and adjust the volume until the bass is panned even across the mix. Then I build in the rest of the percussion tracks, always making them sound as if they are instrumental. Step out of the box a little to make it happen. Don’t worry how your EQ curve looks. No one will ever see it when they listen to the CD in their car. Make it sound good!
I work on fitting the background vocals into the mix with compression and the EQ tailored to each voice. I will also use the slap delay thickening trick on background vocals to spread them in the mix, as well as sometimes double tracking them. Play around and see how blended you can get the vocals with EQ. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Those background vocals are too blended!”
Go for something different. The human voice is amazing, make it sound that way. Take your time.
The Take 6 Experience
We asked Tony Huerta to explain how he gets great sound in live recording. Here’s what he told us.
First of all, the members of Take 6 are exceptional musicians, vocalists and performers. Every note and part is critiqued and perfected. But even with the best musicians in the world, there‘s still room for a bad mix. Remember what I said: the sound engineer can ruin a great concert or enhance a great audience experience. The engineer will stop being transparent if the concert sounds bad. Here are some of my ideas for success in mixing a cappella.
1. Listen to the room.
I start by listening to the room with a flat EQ and familiar songs that I have heard on multiple sound systems and stereos. I listen for frequencies that stick out especially focusing on the low end and low mid-range between 50 Hz and 630 Hz. I insert a 31 band stereo EQ on the main L+R send off the mixer including any center/side fills and remove any frequencies that make the room sound muddy. I don’t ever use pink noise or software that adjusts the EQ to flatten the room characteristics.
“Don’t mistake your technical prowess as automatically pleasing the audience’s ears.”
Although the room is technically flat using that equipment, the human ear will always perceive the room as not pleasing, and you, the engineer, will have the audience perceive your mix as flat sounding. Don’t mistake your technical prowess as automatically pleasing the audience’s ears. Now that the room sounds good, let’s talk about specific mix ideas for a cappella sound.
I run the system in L+R+Sub, making sure the Subwoofers are sent their signal from an Aux Send from the board. I Low Pass filter the EQ on the Sub send, and HighPass Filter the Lows out of the Main L+R. Where the frequencies cross over is important! I use that cross over point to take out nasty 90 Hz – 120 Hz muddy frequencies in the room.
2. Start with the drummer.
I start with the drummer and split his input into 3 channels using internal soft patching on a digital mixer. This opens up the opportunity to EQ and place effects on the upper drum parts without affecting the kick channel and vice versa. The three channels are as follows: one being the kick, the second being the snare and over-head channel, and the third as a vocal channel in case they sing on the same microphone. That gives you the ability to effect and EQ it differently than the beatbox channels for swift mid-song changes to all vocals. Make sure the vocal channel is muted when they are drumming. I also route the kick channel to the Aux Send I set up for the Subwoofer.
For microphones, I prefer dynamic microphones that can handle high sound pressure levels (SPLs) I use the Shure Beta 58 on Joey Kibble from Take 6, since it can be wireless. Then I give the drummer a short break so I can dial in the bass and other vocalists.
3. Next the bass.
I ask the group to sing a vamp or section of a song that can be easily repeated. I have the bass start off and start working the EQ. I send their low end to the subwoofer auxiliary send and brighten the track as described in the recording section above. The goal is to make the bass huge without being muddy at 100 Hz or 200 Hz through 400 Hz. Never put a high pass filter on a vocal bass. The human voice is so dynamic. Even though most basses can’t sing notes down to 50 Hz, they have natural sub-harmonics that will sound and ring down there. Let it thump and be sonically low. I prefer vocal basses to use Shure’s Beta 58 or the Sennheiser 845/945 capsule. I NEVER use a condenser mic on bass! NEVER! The capsules can’t handle the close plosives or SPL without coloring the final signal. Dynamic microphone coils can reproduce those needs sub frequencies with a more true sound.
4. Now the backing and lead vocals.
Next, I have vocalists sing the vamp with the bass, starting with the lowest part above the bass part, working my way to the top voices. Each person has different characteristics and needs to be EQ’d to sound the best.
“Each person has different vocal characteristics and needs to be EQ’d to sound the best.”
Once I’ve worked through each part and have the whole group singing at once, I bring up all of the parts to hear them all together for the first time. It will be apparent at that time if you need to remove some of the low-mid frequencies between 200 Hz and 400 Hz to clear up the mix. Then add in the vocal percussion to fill out the mix.
5. Then, add the effects.
For a final touch, I add in the effects. I usually have four effect units but two good reverbs will do. I use a short, warm hall reverb set between 1.8 and 2.8 seconds decay, and a second bright hall reverb set between 4.0 and 5.0 seconds decay. I blend the two depending on the song. I use one delay as a timed 3-bounce delay that goes with the tempo of the song, used only as a special effect on certain parts of songs. The other delay is for the bass, a slap delay set at 15 milliseconds for thickening just like in the studio. I pan the bass left and the delay return to the right, blending them until they are even in pan and thick. I only use the bass thickening delay if the mains in the venue are closer together.
Finally, audience perception …
There is something about an a cappella performance that touches the soul of the audience. Maybe it’s that the performers aren’t relying on instruments to interpret their musical and artistic talent to the audience.
What you hear from Take 6 a cappella is a direct path into their musical world as they feel it, totally human and raw in its form, directly from the heart. The energy needed to perform as they do is nothing short of amazing. They don’t have an instrumental section of the song to catch their breath, they are the instrumental section.
The key to success as live a cappella engineer is to remain invisible – and mix for clarity. The keys to success in the studio lie in your ability to capture enough energy and translate it into a recording that’s as incredible as the live show.
Shure Notes thanks Tony for his invaluable assistance with this article. Feel free to contact him directly with more questions or for clarification on the above article at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Find out more about Tony and his projects at sonicaudiopro.com