I Want The Luther Vandross Sound!
I just heard a Luther Vandross song and really like that very airy sound—like his vocal cords are right next to your ear. I’m doing my own recording: what do I need to do –and what equipment do I need to get to aim for this? Do I need to re-mortgage my house to afford the equipment to do this?
Hey Dave. There are a few things that can help you:
1. The Source! For my answer I am going to assume that you can interpret a musical phrase like Luther Vandross, or create the vibe he creates. He knows how to get his voice to sound like that and when he performs or records, the sound he hears is very powerful part of the confidence it takes to do what he does so well. His mic technique and the sounds he can make with his voice work together to inspire him to do even better.
2. Gadgets! Although these don’t do much to give you the technique or artistry that Luther has, devices like the TC-Helicon VoiceWorksPlus have settings that turn that “air” component up in relation to what happens at the input. That’s very cool and can even help inspire your performance to a new level.
3. Technique! Mic choice, mic technique, the skilled use of compression, and the appropriate amount of reverberation are the tools used by seasoned engineers from the beginning to achieve this type of airy vocal sound. This means you have to get serious about how you record what you record.
I’m producing an album right now and I’m going for a particular version of that airy, in-your-face sound. On this artist, it’s being pretty easy because I tried a lot of mics, I know his voice, and he wants the sound, too, so he is singing with a light and intimate timbre that includes a lot of air.
In the studio, capturing this kind of vocal sound definitely requires a large-diaphragm condenser mic. Position the singer within 6 inches or even less of the capsule and use a windscreen if you’re having troubles with pops. Everything depends on the singer, the song, and the voice. Use your ears to find the balance of intimacy and air and get the singer to work the mic a bit, staying in close for the intimate stuff moving back to between 6 inches and a foot when they’re belting.
Acoustical treatment around the singer is crucial. I use ASC Tube Traps to control the immediate space around the singer but there are cool very cool tools for this purpose produced by Auralex, Prima Acoustics, and others. The Tube Traps have a hard and soft side so I move them in and out and adjust them according to how close and intimate the sound needs to be. You cannot typically capture this kind of vocal sound in a small or medium-sized room out in the open—you must tighten the space up around the vocalist so the reflections don’t cause the sound to be weak and “roomy.” In a very large studio or on stage the reflections are farther away from the source and tend to sound more like a warm reverb. It’s good to tighten the space, though no matter what the room size.
A lot of singers are asking questions about this – so my next blog will deal with EQ, Compression and the “airy sound”…
Bill Gibson is the author of 30+ books about recorded and live sound, including his most recent six-book series, The Hal Leonard Recording Method by Bill Gibson