When Bruce Swedien talks about the way he records and mixes sound, people listen – Bruce recorded Thriller, the best-selling album of all time.
Bruce Swedien has been at the top of his game, leading the way as a true music engineer since the ’50s.
He’s recorded everyone from the Stan Kenton Orchestra to the Count Basie Orchestra, to Sarah Vaughn to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to Roberta Flack to Missing Persons to Barbra Streisand to Jennifer Lopez to Michael Jackson.
Now he shares insights on recording the human voice for today’s singers and engineers.
The Shades of the Human Voice
The most interesting and capable musical instrument of all is the human voice.
It has the ability to communicate a wide variety and range of emotion and an amazingly wide dynamic range.
A well-trained vocalist can easily provide delicate tonal shading; the range of instantly recognizable vocal personality is astonishing.
Two voices can have the same range classification—we could say that they are they same instrument—but exhibit amazingly different personality, color, and emotional impact.
The human voice can be regarded as a musical tone–generating system consisting of an oscillator and a tube resonator called the vocal tract.
The vocal tract contains the individual physical peculiarities that produce a unique sonic character.
The fact that we hear distinct differences in timbre between virtually every singer—and that there is such an incredible sonic range among all singers—is very fascinating and important for the music engineer to realize.
Acoustic Experiences that Shaped Me
My father was a choir director in our church and my mother was a fine vocal soloist, so I guess it’s only natural that recording the human voice has been of special interest to me since the beginning of my recording career.
My mother sang with the Minneapolis Symphony’s Women’s Chorus as a choir member and featured soloist.
So, as a kid I went to chorus rehearsals with her and I also heard many Sunday afternoon concerts with that world-class musical organization.
My early years in the business were spent in my hometown of Minneapolis, listening to and recording many of the fine church and college choirs of that area.
Hearing those excellent vocalists sing in good acoustical surroundings gave my ear a benchmark that has been impossible for me to ignore.
This valuable experience has stuck with me and has been a big help throughout my career.
The Importance of Microphone Choice
Because of the intricate detail that defines vocal character, microphone choice and recording technique are fundamentally important parts of the recording process.
For example, if I were looking for a very breathy or sensuous vocal recording sonic image, I would place the singer as close as is physically possible to a single microphone, thereby eliminating almost all early reflections.
I would even use no windscreen, if possible.
Monophonic Single-Microphone Technique
When using stereo mic technique, it’s the timing and phase incoherence between the right and left channels that set the sonic stage for the listener.
However, when using monophonic single-microphone technique or placement there is no incoherence so the off-mic (off-axis) sounds tend to confuse the sonic image rather than enhance it.
Therefore, it is best to close-mike the source when using a single monophonic microphone to avoid risking any undesirable loss of intimacy.
Though the preceding statement is a generalization—and it is indeed usually best to close-mike when using a mono microphone—that’s not always the case.
To paint something as that black and white runs the risk of seriously limiting creativity in certain recording situations.
In any creative endeavor, there are no absolutes; but, there is great value in understanding the typical prescription for capturing a certain sonic type, style, or timbre.
See Bruce’s Exclusive Interview with VoiceCouncil Magazine: The Man who Recorded “Thriller” Speaks to Singers
Check out Bruce Swedien’s New Book The Bruce Swedien Recording Method for Incredible Audio Insights, Details and Methods – you can find it on Amazon here.
Bruce Swedien is a Five-time Grammy winner and thirteen-time Grammy nominee who has recorded and mixed music for over 60 years including the best-selling album in the history of music, Michael Jackson’s Thriller. See his new book, The Bruce Swedien Recording Method (with Bill Gibson).
This piece is from The Bruce Swedien Recording Method by Bruce Swedien with Bill Gibson. © 2013 by Bruce Swedien, published by Hal Leonard Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation. Reprinted with permission.