Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

Craig Clifford : The Quest for the Perfect Vocal Equipment Chain

By Craig CliffordApril 30, 2012


Craig Clifford
Craig Clifford of Stephenville, Texas, is a prolific songwriter who performs regularly with the Accidental Band and occasionally as a solo singer-songwriter.  He has recorded two albums with the Accidental Band and, most recently, a solo acoustic album.  Born in Lafayette, Louisiana, he grew up outside of Houston, then honed his musical skills playing in the coffeehouses in Austin, Texas, in the late sixties and early seventies.  His song writing reflects both his Louisiana heritage and Texas upbringing, as well as his musical roots in traditional folk music, early Bob Dylan, and the Texas singer-songwriter tradition.  Clifford is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Honors Programs at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas

Of course, there’s no such thing in general.  Every seasoned recording engineer will tell you that you have to match the equipment to the singer’s voice, and sometimes even to a particular singer’s voice on a particular song.  That, of course, is easy to say if you have a locker full of vintage Neumanns, a couple of racks of high-dollar preamps, a rack full of professional grade EQs and industry-standard compressors.

But for the independent small studio owner or musicians building a studio to record themselves the possible combinations of equipment are limited.  And so is the budget.  So often the question we face is whether dropping another $1500 or $2000 will give us the missing piece of the puzzle that will get us to the sound we’re looking for.

So here’s a story about my quest for the perfect equipment chain for my own vocals.  If you work in a major recording studio in Nashville or New York or London, probably nothing I’ll say here will be of any use to you—and of course you won’t be reading this.  But if you’re trying to put together a small independent studio with modest versatility or if you’re a musician building a studio to record yourself, your band, and maybe a few of your friends, I may be able to offer a few insights.  So here’s my disclaimer: The main purpose of my studio is to record my three-piece band (vocals, acoustic guitar, electric bass, and drums), myself as a solo acoustic musician and songwriter (vocals and acoustic guitar), and myself with other acoustic musicians (mandolin, banjo, stand-up bass, fiddle, harmonica, etc.).  And occasionally I record demos for other local musicians.

But let’s narrow this story.  After recording two CDs for the band and one acoustic CD with a variety of guest musicians, I was still not happy with the way my vocals sounded.  Upgrading to Lynx converters helped a lot, but I still wasn’t happy.  So this is story of my quest for a perfect equipment chain for my vocals.  And, keep in mind, that even though I do record other people singing, what I’m looking for is an equipment chain for my vocals that I have unwavering faith in.  I want to be able to flip a few switches, maybe make a tiny gain adjustment, and start singing.

Not too long after it came out, I bought Rosanne Cash’s The List, songs from the list of 100 great American songs that Johnny Cash scribbled on a piece of paper for Rosanne when she was 18, and I decided that my holy grail of vocal recording would be to make my vocals sound as good as Rosanne’s on The List. And, of course, I’m talking about the recording quality, not the voices.  Needless to say, her vocals sound good because she has one of the most honey-warm, sexy, intelligent, and distinctive voices in popular music.  My vocals are a fairly rough, in places somewhere between singing and talking, in places full throttle singing.  What I want is not for my voice to sound gorgeous the way Rosanne’s does, but natural—I want it to sound like you’re sitting next to me and I’m telling you a story.  I want my voice to sound natural but better than natural in a way that still sounds like it’s my voice.

So I decided I’d try to find out what equipment was used on Rosanne’s vocals on The List.  The album was recorded and mixed at New York Noise and 12th Street Studio in New York by John Leventhal, Rosanne’s husband, and Rick DePofi.  Without too much trouble I found DePofi’s email.  I didn’t expect and answer but I sent him a message asking if there was any chance he’d reveal the equipment chain for Rosanne’s vocals.  He wrote back: “rosanne ~ Neumann u67 (one of the best i’ve ever heard) ~ daking 52227 pre ~ distressor EL8 compressor.” (That’s another essay, about how independent-minded music folks are willing to share information, but back to my story.)  I knew what the result would be, but I did a quick search on Ebay for a vintage U67. Sure enough, there was a nicely reconditioned U67 for sale. “Buy It Now” price: 7000 greenback American dollars.  Not gonna happen.  So much for duplicating Rosanne’s equipment chain.

So here’s what did happen.

My equipment chain for my vocals looked like this:

LynxTwo converters, LA 610 MKII (tube preamp and compressor), Rode K2 with a NOS Siemens tube from the late 60s or early 70s.  I researched and researched, asked everyone I knew whose opinion I respected.  Should I shell out bigger bucks for a better mic?  No way I can afford to buy a vintage Neumann, but there are some interesting emulations of the vintage mics.  The Bock Audio 251 caught my eye, but it’s almost as much as a vintage Neumann.

So, just to take break from obsessing over vocals, I turned my attention to the equipment chain for my guitar.  I was fairly happy with that equipment chain, two John Hardy M-1 preamps and two Neumann 184s; but the praise for the A-Designs Pacifica dual preamp was ubiquitous.  And less than half of what a Bock Audio 251 or a vintage Neumann costs. At this point I had to buy something.  Result: the Pacifica sounds good on guitar, but after extensive testing I decided that for most songs I like the Hardy preamps better on guitar.

So what was I going to use the Pacifica for?  I decided to try running vocals through the Pacifica.  It was immediately clear that with my voice and my mic the Pacifica produced a more natural sound—not a big difference, but enough to hear it.  Then I decided to try using the Safe Sound P1 for compression with the Pacifica preamp—the LA610 of course has its own compressor.  After a little tweaking of the settings, it worked like a charm.

NOS Telefunken tube

I was reasonably happy, but still searching for just a bit more perfection, and at a price I could afford.  OK, I know there’s no such thing as more or less perfection, but you know what I mean.  I remembered that I had bought a NOS Telefunken tube for the Rode K2 just a while after I bought the Siemens tube.  When running the K2 through the LA610, there was little difference between the two tubes.  But I thought I’d try the Telefunken with the new equipment chain.  Major difference.  When running the K2 through the Pacifica, the Telefunken tube was much richer and much more natural, and with greater presence.  OK, maybe the U67 that Leventhal and DePofi used on Rosanne’s vocals would even be better.  But in my world I have to come up with a solution that won’t break the bank. I think this is it. Or at least it has soothed the equipment junkie addiction for a while.

Here’s a solo recording of a song I recently wrote, “Drinkin’ Hard in Austin,” using the new equipment chain on the vocals.  The mix is still a bit rough, but you can get the idea. If you don’t like the recording quality on the vocals, then send me some equipment!


For more information about Craig Clifford’s music go to www.libnecktroubadour.com

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