The Tools of the Trade
Jim Marshall recently passed away at the age of 88. You may not know who he was but you have certainly heard his creations. The Marshall amplifiers he created were one of the primary tools of the rock and roll and were used by such musicians as Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and Guns and Roses.
Marshall’s huge sounding amplifiers gave him the nickname the Lord of Loud. He is one of the pioneering inventors who helped create the modern music industry. For me, these trailblazers bring into sharp focus how important equipment and technology is in contemporary music. Professional singers need to know their way around equipment and technology and how to utilize them for best results.
Guitarists must know not just how to play guitar but also how to control their amplifiers and racks of pedals in order to get the best possible sound. As a singer you want to have a basic knowledge of microphones, monitors and the recording studio.
This is the singer’s most important tool and they are not created the same. In the studio you will find very sensitive microphones that pick up every nuance of the voice. For live performance these microphones are often too sensitive and fragile.
Live microphones are usually less expensive and can withstand some pretty heavy handling. It is not unusual to see these workhorses battered and dented, yet still working just fine. The Sure SM58 is the standard live microphone and costs around $100.
Studio microphones are far more expensive, some are well over $10,000. These microphones are also very sensitive to where you sing in relation to the mic, so the recording engineer might have you move around a bit to find the perfect spot for singing.
You might sound better on certain brands and models of studio microphones. Once you find a great sounding mic for your voice be sure to take note of it for future reference.
Monitors are used so singers can hear their voice in live situations. A live band will create extremely loud volumes, making it impossible to hear yourself singing. The monitor is a speaker that is pointed towards the singer that plays their amplified voice back to them. Being able to hear yourself in the monitor is critical for a good performance.
Many singers prefer “in-ear” monitors. These are earbuds that amplify the singer’s voice back to them. These tend to be more expensive and may not be available at all venues.
Learning to sing with a monitor takes some practice. Make sure you have monitors set up in your rehearsal room when practicing with other musicians.
In The Studio
Modern recording techniques have transformed the process for the singer. I recommend doing some home recording with Garageband or a similar program to see how recording and the editing process works. It will make it easier when working with an engineer.
Not long ago you were limited to the number of tracks you could record as everything was on tape. Singers would have usually one track for their vocals. They would sing a take and then go back and “punch-in” new vocals over the mistakes. A tedious process that sometimes would accidentally erase parts of the original take you wanted to keep.
Now the number of tracks is virtually unlimited. Singers now record any number of vocal takes and pick the best parts from each take. These takes are composited into one track for the finished vocal. Even punching-in a word or two is so much more precise with the computer based digital recording.
There are a number of effects that are used on the voice to make it not only sound better but to help it blend in with the other instruments correctly. These effects are not just used in the studio but also in live situations. A working knowledge of these effects can help you sound your best in all situations.
Here is a list of the most commonly used effects.
Reverb: This gives the voice a sense of space, like singing in a large empty room. Reverbs can create different size rooms for all kinds of effects.
Delay: This is an echo type of effect. This is very effective when used in combination with reverb.
Pitch Correction: The most notorious tool for singers. It can certainly be overused but it is a vital help in the studio even with very good singers. Excellent vocal takes can be saved by using pitch correction to make minor adjustments. A huge time saver.
Compression: Sometimes we can sing a note too loudly for the recording or live volume settings. Compression keeps the notes from going beyond a certain volume threshold. Very important for keeping the mix of instruments and voice balanced.
Know the tools of your trade and you will be a better and more efficient singer and musician.