Creative Vocal Sampling
Using Samplers for Vocals
With a creative mind and a decent digital sampler you can work wonders for your music. Brian Howarth provides a sampling strategy for constructing and manipulating vocal arrangements.
For many years now multitrack tape recorders have been used to record all the instruments and vocals that appear on virtually every record, tape, cassette and compact disc that we hear. The majority of musicians, bands, singer/songwriters etc, will all use some form of multitrack tape recorder to produce a demonstration tape of their material and the expense of this production will depend to a great degree on the level of sophistication of the tape machine itself.
Up until just a few years ago, the cost of using a recording studio per hour varied proportionally with the number of tracks possessed by the tape machine. Obviously this is a simplistic view of studios in general but, nevertheless, recording studios have been and still are advertised as '16-track', '24-track' etc, and this has become an overall consideration for artists wishing to record.
In recent years the 'home studio' has been rapidly increasing in popularity and small, portable multitrack machines using cassette tape instead of open reel tape have been welcomed with open arms by all types of musicians who have at last found a lower cost method of recording and mixing their own compositions.
Cassette-based 'ministudios' usually have four tape tracks on which to record, and more often than not this means that the artist will need to 'bounce down' tracks in order to have all the instruments and vocals etc recorded in separate takes. This process of 'bouncing down' invariably results in a certain loss of sound quality in the final mix, as tape hiss and background noise have a cumulative effect on each 'bounce'. Skilled use of recording levels and equalisation can help alleviate this problem to a degree but the real answer is to record the whole production in as few takes as possible.
If we consider the case of a solo singer/songwriter recording a new demo song, it is theoretically possible to record the vocals, an instrument (keyboard, guitar) and perhaps a drum machine in one take. Most artists, however, will want to obtain a level of production quality in their work that will inevitably require more instrumentation and vocal parts than can be recorded in this one take.
If we look a little closer at our situation, we will see that the types of audio information we wish to record can be divided into two distinct categories from a recording point of view:
1. SYNTHESIZED SOUND
For the sake of this argument, let us say that this category contains all the audio sounds that could possibly emanate from a MIDI-controlled device. This would include virtually any sound that has ever been produced by a keyboard, be it piano, synthesizer, organ, harpsichord etc. It would also include drums and percussion.
2. NATURAL SOUND
This category covers all audio information that is produced by essentially non-electronic means. Obvious members of this class are vocal sounds, which can be anything from a grunt to a soaring melody or from a barely audible whisper to an ear-piercing scream. Other sounds in this class are guitar, wind instruments, and indeed any other sound that has ever been produced by plucking, bowing, scraping, striking, or blowing some sort of object.
By using a MIDI sequencer or (describing it by its more respectable title) MIDI Data Recorder, we can record a large number of tracks containing MIDI information which controls the sound generating devices which in turn produce audio information contained in the first category described above. The obvious benefit here is that we can achieve this without using even one track of our multitrack tape machine. The obvious play-off is that we need an independent source of sound for each track we record on the sequencer. But before you rush out and buy half a dozen assorted synthesizers (!), check out some of the numerous multitimbralsynths or expander modules that are available (Roland MT32, Yamaha TX81Z, FB01). These fulfill the above requirements admirably. Some of them even contain all the drum/percussion sounds you are likely to require.
Having recorded a number of tracks of MIDI data into our sequencer, we will eventually arrive at the stage where the only sounds that are left to record are those classed above as 'natural' sounds. This would seem to imply that we can go no further without actually recording something on to audio tape.
"Don't forget that any line of vocal - or indeed any instrument that is repeated anywhere within a song - need only be sampled once and then triggered via MIDI wherever it is needed."
It is now time to consider a device that can actually belong to both classes of sound sources described above, and this wonderful device is truly a product of twentieth century technology. Yes, you've guessed, it is... the sampler.
With a sampler, you can digitally record any of the sounds that are described above as 'natural sounds', and you can also use it to reproduce any of the sounds in the 'synthesized' class. More importantly, however, for the sake of this discussion is the fact that it is a MIDI-controlled device.
Let us assume that we are putting together a demo cassette of a song which will consist of a number of backing instruments, a lead vocal line, and a single vocal phrase in each chorus which needs to be sung in three-part harmony. Assume also that only one vocalist is available (probably yourself). Finally, let us assume that the only tape recorder we have access to is a stereo cassette recorder which does not allow us to record overdubs. By using a digital sampler it is possible to record the whole demo in one take, and here is one method of accomplishing this. (You will obviously need some form of mixing desk for this procedure.)
First of all you must use your MIDI Data Recorder (ie. sequencer) to record all the backing tracks to your song. An example of backing instrumentation may be drums (which may come from a MIDI drum machine or multitimbral synth module etc), bass (again from a synth or multitimbral module) and keyboards (the sky is the limit here; it depends entirely on what you have available in the way of synths, modules etc).
When you have recorded all the backing tracks that you need on the MIDI Data Recorder, get it to play them back and record yourself (or the vocalist you are using) singing along to the sequenced backing onto your stereo cassette recorder. You will use this version of your demo as a guide for the three-part harmonies.
It is now time to make use of your sampler. Because you will be using the sampler to record the three-part harmony line for the song chorus, you must first work out roughly how long the vocal harmony phrase lasts in seconds. Multiply this figure by three and then set your sampler to a sampling rate which will allow you to record an overall sample of this length. Hopefully, this will still provide a reasonable bandwidth for your vocals but don't worry too much if the bandwidth seems a little low - because it will be three-part harmony this will tend to compensate to a degree for the lack of top-end frequency response. (If you are wealthy enough to own a sampler which has endless megabytes of sample memory, these restrictions will not apply).
You must next prepare your sampler to record the first harmony part from your microphone. When all is set, you should play back your demo cassette containing the rough backing tracks and monitor the sound on headphones. When the tape reaches the chorus of your song, sing the first harmony line into your sampler just as if you were recording a vocal overdub.
"With a long enough sample time, for instance, you could record whole verses of lead vocals or even whole songs!"
A few words about triggering your sampler to record are in order here. Most digital samplers allow you to manually trigger the Record Sample function. This method of triggering is usually preferable to auto-triggering, particularly on vocals as auto-triggering can sometimes clip off the initial attack portion of your voice, depending on the trigger level (threshold) you have set. With a bit of experimentation you will no doubt find the best method for your own particular sampler.
You should now have a decent recording of your first harmony phrase stored in your sampler's memory. Now set your sampler to record a different sample and repeat the above procedure for the other two harmony parts.
At this stage in the proceedings you will need to set up a 'map' or 'patch' or 'program' on your sampler that allows you to trigger the playback of all three samples together from a single MIDI Note On (keypress), for instance. Having done this you can check to see that your three-part harmony is both together in terms of tuning and timing. You will probably find that you will need to finely adjust the 'start point' of each of the three vocal samples to get them to 'sing together', particularly if you have used manual triggering of sample record. One added benefit of this type of recording is that you can 'thicken up' the overall sound by assigning each sample twice and then using your sampler's 'fine tune' function to detune them slightly.
If all has gone well so far, you can now record this sampled harmony on a spare track of your MIDI sequencer by simply setting it to record and then hitting the correct note on your keyboard at the time when the harmonies should appear in the chorus of the song. (Don't be confused here: you are not recording the actual harmony phrase itself on the sequencer, only the note you require to trigger the harmony samples stored in your sampler.)
Now play back your overall sequence and sing along with it to check that the harmonies appear at the right time and in tune with your lead vocal. If this is OK, you can record your final demo onto your stereo cassette. Remember that this is the final mix and you cannot then remix your lead vocal/backing balance. A couple of trial runs, however, should indicate the best mix to go for, which should be reasonably easy because you will have had ample opportunity to mix everything else - keyboards, etc - except the lead vocal.
If you can live with this method of producing demos, you will no doubt see that the same sampling techniques can be applied to instruments other than vocals. Another commonly used instrument on demos is guitar, and with judicious use of your sampler you can insert some tasty lead guitar licks as samples whilst playing rhythm guitar parts 'live' on the final take along with the lead vocals.
As samplers are produced with larger memories and longer sample times the above methods of recording will become easier to implement. With a long enough sample time, for instance, you could record whole verses of lead vocals or even whole songs! Don't forget that any line of vocal - or indeed any instrument that is repeated anywhere within a song - need only be sampled once and then triggered via MIDI wherever it is needed.
If you already have a small multitrack machine such as a four-track ministudio etc, you can take advantage of digital sampling techniques to greatly expand its usefulness. By using timecodes and synchronising your MIDI Data Recorder to the tape itself, you can achieve incredible results from just a small number of tape tracks.
By carefully arranging your songs and using your sampler creatively, you could quite soon eliminate your need for large multitrack recording machines; even to the point where for relatively little expense you could be in full command of your own Tapeless Studio!
Feature by Brian Howarth
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