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Vocal Production Tips: Mitch Allan's Gold Chain

Nov 16, 2017

The vocal producer for Demi Lovato and Adam Lambert reveals his secrets for crafting a killer vocal chain that will make any singer feel comfortable and inspired.

Vocal producer Mitch Allan

Vocal producers are the unsung heros of the pop world. Given that most contemporary pop records are written and produced by someone other than the performing artist, the vocal performance is really the main contribution from the singer. Their voice can transform a good song into a great song, and make a great song into an unforgettable one.

But helping a singer deliver a great performance is not something only top vocal producers deal with – it’s a task anyone producing or recording vocalists contends with on a regular basis.

Vocal producer and songwriter Mitch Allan has produced some of the biggest vocalists in pop today – Jason Derulo, Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert, Selena Gomez, and, over many years and multiple albums, Demi Lovato – most recently in her hit album Tell Me You Love Me. We’ve asked Mitch how he helps all of them achieve top recorded performances, time after time, and which skills he thinks are must-have for anyone tracking vocalists in the studio. The simplicity and directness of some of his methods may surprise you.

What Does a Vocal Producer Do?

Mitch, let’s start with the first question some people may be asking: What does a vocal producer do? Why is a vocal producer needed, in addition to the song’s main producer?

A good vocal producer has the special talent to separate themselves from certain aspects of the track and concentrate solely on the vocal, in the hopes of creating a performance that will stay relevant until the end of time. We are the equivalent of a film's director advising the actors how to deliver the writer’s dialogue. When talking about a song, in most cases you’ll hear about the track’s producer but not much about the vocal producer. As someone who does both, as well as being a songwriter, I’ve learned to compartmentalize these abilities. I always try to send a performance back to the track's producer and the artist that I would be proud of if I were the main producer.

Demi Lovato, “Tell Me You Love Me”

How much of your work is about artistic direction, how much is about psychology and motivation, and how much is about audio engineering, that is, finding the right vocal sound?

It’s all three, pretty much in equal parts. It’s about guiding the singer toward a certain feel or interpretation of the song; it’s about motivating them to take their performance as far as possible; and it’s definitely about getting the right vocal sound, including giving the vocalist the right sound in their headphone monitors, so they can hear themselves in just the right way.

Artistic Direction and Motivation

To what extent do the singers you work with already know exactly what feeling they want to express in their performance, and to what extent do you guide them towards a feeling you envision?

I work with some pretty amazing talent so I usually take a step back when we first start recording to see what they are feeling. They have all gotten to where they are by using their gifts so I like to trust their first instinct. In those cases, they know exactly what the intention should be so I try to help shape that for them. But if I do feel like they are missing the mark, which sometimes does happen, I’ll ask them to come into the control room and to discuss the lyrics. I’ll ask them to read it to me and tell me what the song means to them. That usually opens up to a discussion on some past memory that attracted them to the song in the first place, and once they make that connection, we’re off and running.

How do you motivate a singer to give a better performance when they might already feel satisfied with their takes – but you're not?

In those cases, I just ask the artist to trust me and do a few more takes as I get ultra-specific. Once I get what I need I will comp the takes and cut it together with them in the room so they can hear what I hear. After that, they’re usually convinced that I have their best interest in mind and a bond is formed. Most of my repeat clients know that my only goal is for the audience to lose their shit when they hear their song on the radio. Once they know my intentions are pure, I usually get the best performances.

Choosing the Right Vocal Chain

Selecting the right mics must be important.

50% of my job is making sure I am using the right mic, the right pre-amp and the right compressor on the singer’s voice. For Demi, the mic I have is a Vintage AKG C12 from around 1968 that has been meticulously maintained by Toby Foster, who is the go-to guy for vintage mics in Los Angeles. It’s my go-to for a powerful female vocalist. At the moment, I’m loving it through a Neve 1073 pre. On male pop vocals, I am partial to a U47 or my Telefunken 251.

You’ve also mentioned the importance of the headphone monitor mix.

Definitely. To create a great vibe, I want the artist to get the same bells and whistles I do. When I’m recording a vocal, I like to hear exactly what the singer is hearing so I can push them to focus on the things I would be focusing on if I were them. So, their mix is my mix.

Do you use the same vocal chain to deliver the headphone mix to any singer?

Yes. Every artist has a unique voice, but I’ve created a vocal plugin chain that I can tweak quickly during the session to sound great on everyone.

My go-to plugins in this chain are the Renaissance EQ, the CLA-76 and/or the Renaissance Vox compressors, and then Renaissance Reverb and H-Delay. Believe it or not, I use all factory presets when the artist is in the room so I can move quickly and make the artist the priority and not the computer. I find that the simpler the setting, the better and quicker everything moves in the session.

Vocal producer Mitch Allan comping with his all-Waves plugin chain

Mitch Allan comping a vocal session with his all-Waves plugin chain

What’s your basic tracking and routing setup for that chain?

I usually create five input tracks, one for each section of the song, and then ten ‘comp’ tracks to keep all my good takes. My input tracks are all set up the same: I have the 6-band Renaissance EQ in slot one. Then I insert R-Vox or CLA-76 ‘Blacky,’ using the vocal preset. The inputs and outputs of the compressor vary as to how hot my preamp is feeding into my DAW.

I then create two aux inputs for effects, with Renaissance Reverb on Aux 1 and H-Delay on Aux 2. Every artist seems to love that combo when listening back on their headphone monitors.

So, it’s really a ‘less-is-more’ approach – that’s the real magic of it – since I can achieve so much using only a few plugins. I can break it down further in this way:

1. Equalization – Renaissance EQ

First in my chain is the 6-band R-EQ: I use it to chop off everything in the vocal from 160 Hz and below. The last thing I want to hear is plosives or any pops. So, I use it as a basic high-pass filter, but knowing I’ve got five other bands of EQ always makes me comfortable as I get deep into the tracking process.

What I also like about the R-EQ is that it’s totally transparent and has zero latency. When tracking a vocal, that is the best compliment I can give to a plugin. R-EQ allows me to move quickly so that the singer does not even know what I’m doing, only that the track is sounding better with each take.

R-EQ also helps when I stack multiple vocals. There’s always a build-up of low mid-range frequencies when you start to stack vocals. We’ve all had that ‘boxy’ sound to our vocal mix. With R-EQ already on the track, it’s so easy to find that frequency quickly, create the right EQ curve to take it out, and then copy the plugin to all my vocal tracks.

2. Compression – Renaissance Vox and/or CLA-76

Second in the chain is either the R-Vox compressor, or the CLA-76 ‘Blacky’ – or both. For me, Renaissance Vox may be the best vocal compressor ever made. It’s always the last compressor on my vocal track, no matter how many compressors are in the chain before it, because it takes the vocal from wherever it was to ‘right in your face.’ I really have no idea how it accomplishes this, I only know what my ears tell me. It adds the level of excitement every singer wants in their performance.

I also like having the CLA-76 ‘Blacky’ in there, depending on the singer. The reason I sometimes take it out is that some singers have a much more pronounced ‘s’ or ‘f’ sound when they sing, and if I find that the CLA-76 brings these out too much, I just stick to the R-Vox.

3. Effects – Renaissance Reverb and H-Delay

For effects, I use a simple R-verb set to the default ‘Hall’ and H-Delay set to an 1/8th note ping-pong return. This combination sounds inspiring to most artists I have behind the mic.

Renaissance Reverb was the first reverb plugin I ever owned, and it still maintains its position in my vocal template as both ‘Reverb 1’ for the lead and ‘Reverb 2’ for the backing vocals. If there are a ton of background vocals or stacked harmonies, I will usually add a second aux with the R-verb, using a different room setting – usually a large room – to keep the backing vocals separate from the lead vocals in terms of their spatial relationship.

Does everybody want full-on reverb and delay in their headphones?

You know, the funny part about reverb and delay is that some singers can’t sing without them and some singers can’t sing with them. Usually an artist likes to have a little bit of ‘sauce’ on the vocal when they track – but some do prefer a bone-dry approach.

So, even though I know I’m going to sweeten up the vocals when I go to mix, my only concern when I’m tracking is making the singer comfortable so they can give me the best performance. If the singer wants no effects on their vocal, I’ll go for that, even though the effects would have made it easier to hear how the vocal would sound in the final mix. I will always opt to make the singer feel more comfortable while tracking.

Comping on the Fly

What’s your process with the vocalists as far as listening to the takes? When do you invite them to listen to what they’ve sung so far?

When I’m tracking a vocal, my goal is to allow the singer to feel like the process is as seamless and glitch-free as possible. My only concern is getting a great performance. From a technical standpoint, this means that I need to set up my session in a way where I can comp the vocal on the fly, so the singer is listening to a semi-final performance come together in-between takes, without waiting.

Is the control room mix the singer is hearing identical to their headphone mix?

I use the same plugin chain on the comped ‘mock-up’ track. The only difference is that I’m running everything through separate auxes for each layer: all lead vocals go through a ‘lead vocal aux,’ all background vocals go through a ‘background vocal aux,’ all ad lib vocals go through an ‘ad lib vocal aux,’ and so on. On each track of the comped vocal, I‘m only using Renaissance EQ as a high-pass. Each of those tracks are routed to their final aux with the same plugin chain I’ve described earlier. Sometimes on the auxes I will add an additional Waves SSL E-Channel for subtle EQ, and maybe an additional R-Vox compressor to really put the vocal in your face.

Compiling super-quickly while the singer is recording is also important because by the time we’re finished, I know whether I have the right performance. But you know, we’ve talked about psychology and motivation – if you’re recording vocalists, I can’t stress how important it is for you to develop these quick comping skills. It’s always fun to watch the reaction of the singer when they come back into the control room and I push play and the vocal literally sounds like a finished record!

I’ve always felt like if the singer can hear the magic happening in the moment, it will inspire them to raise their level of performance and give me a dynamite vocal take. And that’s really the number one thing we’re all looking for in a song.

We hope you’ve enjoyed Mitch’s tips and will try them out in your own sessions. Looking for more vocal mixing and production tips? Check out our huge collection of vocal mixing tips and tutorials, including 10 tips on mixing vocals with delay and how to get vocals to pop in the mix by double-stacking compressors.