The Unconventional Vocal Recording Techniques of 9 Innovative Singers

Whether singing backwards or screaming into a handheld mic, sitting at the console or thrashing around the studio, there are many ways to capture a great vocal performance outside of crooning into a Neumann.

Today, we're showcasing some of the stranger ways artists have recorded and manipulated their voices. From John Lennon testing the patience of Abbey Road engineers to Bjork arranging all other instruments around her melodies, some of the most creative songwriters have, perhaps unsurprisingly, also spearheaded some of the most creative recording techniques.

Check out the fruits of their unconventional methods below.

John Lennon Intones from on High

The vocal tracking on "Tomorrow Never Knows" is the stuff of legend at this point. Lennon wanted to sound like the Dalai Lama shouting from a mountaintop. Engineer Geoff Emerick was initially stumped about how to do that, until he looked at a large wooden box with two sets of revolving speakers, called a Leslie, which until that time had only been used on organs.

After some wiring was redone to repurpose the Leslie for a vocal, Lennon tried it on a take of "Tomorrow Never Knows" and loved it immediately. In the song’s final release, the Leslie effect was used starting at the line "Love is all and love is everyone."

Upon hearing the playback of his affected vocal, Lennon was supposedly so inspired that he asked Emerick to hang him from a rope in the middle of the ceiling, give him a push, and let him sing as he circled around a microphone. Emerick would continue to tell Lennon that the idea was being "looked into."

Brittany Howard Howls into Headphones

For Alabama Shakes’ hit 2015 album Sound & Color, Brittany Howard and engineer Shawn Everett at times approached getting her vocal sound almost like they would approach getting a guitar tone.

To capture the soaring howl of the song "Gimme All Your Love," according to an interview in Sound On Sound, Howard strapped a reverse-wired pair of headphones over her mouth. (Any reverse-wired speaker will act as a large-diaphragm dynamic microphone.) This method required some heavy post-production to get the vocal to not, as Everett puts it, "rip your ears off," but it accomplished the sound that Howard wanted.

The experimentation didn’t stop there. When Howard wanted a dampened sound, she would stuff cotton wool in her mouth or use an over-the-counter anesthetic to numb her lips and tongue. She also experimented singing through a Yamaha Subkick.

Everett recalls that Howard found that she liked to sing in the control room in front of monitor speakers. When she did this, it was often with a handheld mic she’d bought on eBay. The two used this method of tracking to their advantage to get the muted tonality of the song "Guess Who."

Dan Auerbach Lets It Bleed

Many of us have heard that a large diaphragm condenser mic is the best tool to get a high-fidelity recording of a vocal. Time and time again we also hear that, in a technical sense, the best way to get a great sound is to isolate, isolate, isolate. I’ve heard it said that even a bit of headphone bleed has a very negative effect on a track's fidelity.

It’s safe to say that Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys, The Arcs, Blakroc, and more) would disagree with all those statements. He prefers to track in front of monitor speakers when he’s singing and even when he’s producing other artists. Auerbach, who's fond of the term "controlled bleed," says that most of his favorite records had at least a little of it, from either the playback or from the live band creeping into the vocal mic.

Auerbach also prefers to use dynamic mics on his vocals. On the The Black Keys’ album El Camino for instance, he got heavy use out of a Shure SM58. Not surprisingly, this is a dynamic mic that has excellent off-axis rejection (meaning it only captures what is directly in front of it). A mic like this would certainly help control the bleed from his monitors.

When Auerbach finds himself in need of a bit more detail on his voice, he’ll reach for a small diaphragm condenser mic rather than the conventional large diaphragm. He used a Neumann KM184 heavily on the album Brothers.

Thom Yorke Sings Backward, In Reverse

During sessions for the album that would become Amnesiac, Radiohead was struggling to find the right vibe for a song called "I Will." A breakthrough happened when someone reversed playback of the song in the studio. Yorke and company thought the reversed song sounded terrific.

Around that time, Colin Greenwood had been listening to a BBC Radio 4 program that featured an English composer who had written an interesting piece of music for a singer. In the composition, all the phrasing was backward but intended to be sung forward.

The band connected with these ideas for their song "Like Spinning Plates." Yorke spent all night learning how to sing, backwards, a large section of what used to be "I Will."

The intention was to reverse the backward singing so that that lyric would be heard forward in the final cut. The result is an eerie, disjointed sounding lyric before the chorus releases into the more conventionally sung "And this just feels like spinning plates."

"I Will," the song that "Like Spinning Plates" was born from, would end up appearing on the band’s next record.

Prince Stays Seated at his Throne

Sometimes just getting the job done in a convenient way is the key to a great vocal. Running back and forth from the control room to the live room can be exhausting—even inspiration-sapping—if you’re performing and manning the board at the same time.

In an interview with Reverb, Chuck Zwicky, engineer at Prince’s Paisley Park from '87 through ’89, said that Prince’s approach to recording vocals was unique.

According to Zwicky, Prince "always had a mic on a boom stand over the console for vocals. He’d grab that mic—with the console and the tape machine remote in front of him—and cut all the vocals from the engineer’s chair. Every vocal you’ve ever heard on every Prince record was cut sitting in a chair at the console. It was just part of his workflow. All that dynamic range and all that focus—how many vocalists run back and forth between the studio and control room to readjust something? It just drains the attention of the artist."

Iggy Pop Brings On-Stage Antics into the Studio

Confident after a year of touring, the Stooges went into the studio to record their album Fun House. Because of the long tour, they were as tight a band as they ever had been, and they wanted to take advantage of that on the recording.

They set up in the studio like they would have set up on stage. Iggy Pop, thrashing around like he would have in a live performance, tracked his vocals with a handheld mic while monitoring from PA wedges. There was no pop screen.

There is some uncertainty from the band whether or not an Electro-Voice Eliminator-style PA cabinet was mic’ed in the room to gain some extra distortion. But according to producer Don Gallucci, the distorted vocal on the record was the result of Iggy overdriving the mic with sound pressure and occasionally slamming a limiter that was in the chain.

This, coupled with all the bleed going on from the band and the PA (only Ron Asheton wanted to wear headphones), gave the vocals and album as a whole a savage sound, especially for the time.

Bjork Tracks Vocals First

Most people who track vocals during the arranging and composition process will lay down a guitar or piano track first, then overdub vocals over that. It’s probably not surprising that Bjork is unlike most people.

She uses different methods for working on different albums, but many of those methods are born from a vocal-centric process. Instead of a chord sequence inspiring her melodies, as is the case for many songwriters, she’ll often pluck them out of the air when she’s hiking or moving about in the world.

For the album Vulnicura her preferred method of recording was to finish the melody and lyrics for a song first. She’d decide on a shape and mood for the song as a whole, then immediately track, comp, and edit her vocal in Pro Tools. She worked on arranging the other instruments in the song outwardly from there.

Around the time she released the album, she had also begun using Melodyne, a timbre-, pitch-, and time-shifting software, as a tool to arrange strings. This allowed her to build the string arrangements around her voice before transferring them to the string players.

Maynard James Keenan Goes for a Run

Engineer Sylvia Massy is not afraid to be blunt. When recalling sessions for Tool’s 1993 release Undertow she said, "I was looking for the sound of a Neumann U 67 on Maynard James Keenan's voice, but because the little troll squats and shouts into the floor when he sings, it was difficult to suspend a Neumann U 67 in the right position for a vocal take."

She had seen the band play in local clubs and knew that Keenan wasn’t delivering the same energy in the studio as he did live. They tried handheld dynamic mics, but even though Keenan was immediately more comfortable with them, the mics sounded too dull.

Massy and Keenan settled on an AKG C 1000 small diaphragm condenser, wrapped in foam and duct tape to reduce handling noise. The condenser gave a little more sparkle than the dynamic mics and became the go-to mic on the sessions.

In addition to making Keenan more comfortable in the recording process, Massy also made him uncomfortable. When his screams weren’t coming through as well as they had been in rehearsal, she made him run around the block five times. According to Massy, he was furious about it, but it made his delivery of those screams come through on the takes.

Julianna Barwick Finds Natural Reverb in Unnatural Places

While she may not be as well-known as others on this list (or at least not yet), we thought Julianna Barwick's attempts at creating new sonic textures from the world's oldest instrument deserved mention.

As a kid, Barwick enjoyed singing in places with natural reverb. For fun, she sought the natural sound of stairwells and church auditoriums. She often sang in a public restroom in Tulsa (stopping when people came in) and in a stairwell at Hunter College. This habit came to serve her well during the recording of her 2016 album Will.

During the time she worked on the album, Barwick would walk every day through the streets of Lisbon to a grocery store near the studio. She would often improvise a melody while walking under an underpass, the natural reverb carrying across the muted street sounds.

She loved the sound of the underpass so much that she recorded a vocal melody there one day and brought it back to the studio. She built around that recording to finish what would become the song "St. Apolonia."

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