How to create vintage-sounding vocals in the modern age

“Vintage” vocal production is growing ever popular in modern music.

Closely tied to lo-fi, this sound is heard all over the countless YouTube channels dedicated to hours of anime chill-out, RnB, and hip hop. It’s the sound of resampled acapellas from a time when analog was king. Its distinct sonic flavor adds depth and character to a record as effortlessly today as it did then – only now, the vintage vocals are in the context of modern instrumentation and digital DAWs.

However, it’s difficult to legally license other artists’ acapellas, and those that can be are generally overused. It leaves the musician with few options to experiment with if they want to achieve something suggestive of these older decades of music. This is why we at 91Vocals decided to make a vocal kit which guarantees all original sounds, but with an exiting palette of vintage-inspired vocals to play with.

Many are aware that there’s a range of effects that can be used to replicate that low fidelity sound of, say, a 60s record. But it’s arguable that the appeal of a decade’s sonic character comes from the crucial artistic choices that were made by studio engineers at the recording stage, carrying their own unique set of era-defining qualities that separate them from modern recording techniques. With this in mind, here are some of our best practices for achieving a great vintage-sounding vocal.

1. Experiment with the room

Recording technique is one of the most important things for a vocalist to be aware of in the studio, and the room is the first item to consider. A good-sized room with a high ceiling and few unwanted reflections is a great start. It’s important to note that unlike modern vocal recording, throughout the 50s and 60s it wasn’t uncommon for soul, jazz, and blues artists to record in large studio halls. Back then, the singers might have been separated only by ‘gobos’ (acoustic isolation panels) that screened off their microphones from the other musicians.

One of the biggest changes over the years has been the studio environment; bedroom producers didn’t exist and studios didn’t always have the luxury of isolating every instrument. When it comes to getting a vintage vocal sound, instead of close micing singers and squashing every ominous frequency in the room, try experimenting with room size and shape. Choose the living room over a wardrobe, a high ceiling instead of a low ceiling, or the center of a room opposed to the corner. Don’t discount the room as an extremely useful asset to your recording.

2. Embrace early reflections with your microphone placement

An often overlooked but very important component is the early reflections of a room. Try placing the singer several feet away from the microphone and embrace those early room reflections. Be careful though, because if you place the microphone too far away from the singer, reverberations will mask the actual sound source itself. Singers with naturally resonant or bass-y voices can afford to step even further away to roll off some of the low end frequencies. Singers with thinner, brighter voices may want to stand a little closer – around a foot away from the microphone will capture more of the room while minimizing sibilance.

3. Use a tube microphone (or an emulation)

In an ideal world, everyone has access to an authentic vintage studio microphone. But in reality, most of us are using modestly budgeted, versatile large diaphragm condenser mics. While there are some good value vintage microphone emulators on the market, such as Slate Digital’s Virtual Microphone System ML-1, some producers feel that nothing beats the real thing.

Tube condenser microphones require a vacuum tube to boost the signal from the capsule, unlike the phantom-powered condensers most of us probably use. This older technology, though more expensive, is still regarded as unrivaled for its warm tones created by the heated tubes. If it’s sonic authenticity you’re after, get your hands on a tube microphone like Sontronics’ Mercury. With its fully sweepable polar pattern, you can bring more or less of the room into your recording, and your vocals will instantly benefit from its rich and creamy tones that mirror vintage vocal recordings.

4. Add warmth to your vocals with the right pre-amplifier

As with microphones, real analog pre-amps can be pricy. That said, UAD certainly delivers with its affordable range of preamp emulators. Through A/B testing a handful, I found that the warm tube character of the fantastic UA 610 B and the classic Neve 1073 delivered high definition and discrete presence to support a well-rounded vocal sound. The relationship between microphone and pre-amp is a fine art – always use your ears and not your eyes to achieve the sound you want.

5. Preserve some natural quirks

These days, we’re pretty hot on de-essers, reductive EQ, pop filters, and microphone-isolating ‘eyeballs’ that attenuate the miscellaneous sounds our mouths make. I sometimes think this very technical approach sacrifices some of the vocal performance’s character and muddies the microphone’s tone. Personally, I don’t mind an audibly sharp inhale or a slight plosive on the microphone if it adds something positive to the recording. Some of our favorite Beatles and Michael Jackson records are characterized by the sounds of stray background vocals, foot stomping, and finger clicks. These are the Easter eggs that listeners can discover, sometimes many plays after the first listen.

That said, an experienced studio vocalist can control their sibilance and plosives. An ear for these will help you determine how essential a windscreen is for your recording, but if you can go without one, you welcome more of the microphone’s unadulterated tone and the singer’s natural quirks. These add up to a sound that’s evocative of the eras where less accessories were used.

Check out our latest vocal kit “Dusty Acapellas & Lo-fi RnB Vocals” to hear these vintage-inspired vocal recording techniques in action.

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July 12, 2019

Kate Wild Kate Wild is a singer, top-line writer, and arranger who is also the founder and director of 91Vocals, a royalty-free vocal sample label.