Mastering/Mixing Spotlight: Vanessa Iraci, about Vocals and Proximity

Hey folks,

I was asked to work on a duet with the extraordinary Vanessa Iraci, singing "Hurt" by the Nine-Inch Nails with guitar accompaniment.

There was a couple of things that made this particular job very interesting. Firstly, it goes with a video, secondly, Vanessa had a pretty good idea of what she wanted the sound to be like from the get go. It's always a plus, coming into a project with a more or less clear picture of where you want to go with it.
For this one, the voice should be warm and articulate with a very special and specific array of effects on it.
I listened to the recording and immediately imagined a very intimate, almost whispery sound that would support that very deep and revealing song.
I find placing Vocals to be very difficult and at the same time incredibly important, because the voice is often times the center point of attention and the proximity and color changes a lot about the subjective perception of the performance.
Some songs require a lot of air and space for the vocals, others might require a very well defined, almost thin image.
So how can we achieve that?

There's a couple of ways of making signals (voice in this case) seem very close to the listener. Firstly, altering the frequency response. A good amount of bass (somewhere around 100-200Hz, depending on the singer and situation) brings vocals to the front. That however only works if the rest of the production can support it, meaning, the more you have going on in your production, the less room you have to make one particular instrument come to the front and pop out.
Higher frequencies, responsible for the brightness of a signal also work well. Generally, imagine someone speaking directly into your ear at a very close distance. Try to replicate that sound, you'll notice that bass frequencies and brighter frequencies are pronounced.

Secondly, level is a good tool. I listened to a Gregory Porter record the other day and noticed how incredibly much louder he is than the rest of the band. Letting a vocalist overshadow the rest of the band might sound extreme, but it ensures that he or she is always in front and that those characteristic sounds of a voice in close proximity cut through the mix well.

What we also have to think about is reverb. Generally, reverb makes things appear further away than they are. However, if the time between the signal and its reverb tail is long enough (Pre-Delay), you can put the singer into a large room and still have it appear very close to the listener. This is also a great way of making multiple instruments part of the same room and by giving them all different amounts of pre-delay, distributing the space from front to back in a way that almost sets up a stage.

I hope you found that interesting and I'll be back with more blogs soon,

also check out the video of "Hurt"!

-Rob