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Cattski Espina

Recording The Most Important Instrument

(How I record vocals in the studio)

I love recording vocals. It doesn’t matter if I’m recording myself or someone else. Voice, for me, is the most important musical instrument and one of my jobs as music producer is to treat it with extra care.

If we really think about it, before we knew words (when we were babies), we could already tell the sound of a voice. I’m pretty sure my parents sang to me when I was still in the womb until my toddler years.  As babies, we react to the voice of our mother, and sometimes we understand what she’s saying even if we don’t really understand the words.

My point is, it’s not just about the words.  When we share our voices through song, we are always saying more than the words. Voice is so basic to us that, sometimes, it precedes language. Your voice is capable of expressing more than what you can say. And I’m not talking about vocal skill or technique. I don’t care about your vocal runs and riffs. When I’m in a vocal recording session with a client, I don’t look for the skill. I look for the expression.  I care about the combination of your “inner” voice (some call it the writer’s voice) and your actual voice. I search for the truth. I care about how you use your voice to create a feeling.


One of my challenges in the studio is motivating and inspiring a singer into delivering a great vocal take.  I start by making them feel comfortable and relaxed. If they’re stressed out prior to going into the vocal booth, chances are, they’re going to mess up a lot. And the session will become a test to my patience.

Singers or vocalists can sometimes be overly sensitive characters who need to be coddled. That’s just part of the work. Singers and vocalists are the stars and, I think, it would help them if they are treated like they’re very important.

They also tend to be self-conscious about their voices. To be honest, I can relate. In my early days, I would be anxious prior to vocal recording. I would drink all sorts of teas and swallow this Chinese herbal gooey syrup called Pei Pa Qua. It’s true, some vocalists tend to overthink the job. And who can blame them? It’s not like they can try a different instrument – they are THE instrument.

A good voice and a decent amount of skills are essential in the studio.  But I don’t obsess about skill and perfect execution – I don’t want the singer to concentrate on pitch and timing. In fact, I don’t want them to concentrate on anything. I just want them to believe every single word they sing and embody the story of the song.

For songwriters who sing, I usually ask them to try go back to the time when they wrote the song. I’d want them to get into that world again even if would possibly be painful. I want to capture vulnerability. The nature of singing is to convey emotion. That’s really what the job of a vocalist entails.

Sometimes, when a vocalist is seemingly off and distracted, I bring in an audience in the control room.  I remember during one of Lourdes’ vocal sessions, I asked the rest of my staff to come inside to “watch” her. Suddenly, Lourdes started to sing better as if she was performing onstage. Sometimes, they just need someone to sing to. I know this because when I’m recording as the singer, I always imagine that I’m singing for a crowd. And it usually works because you always want to sing good for a crowd.

Finally, it’s always best for a singer/vocalist to have memorized their lyrics prior to recording.  I always find it somewhat irresponsible and lazy (also unprofessional) when they bring their gadgets to the vocal booth so they can flash the lyrics on their tiny screens.  Also, I don’t actually allow it because mobile phone signal can affect the recording process.  But the real reason is, I don’t want the performance to sound like it was read off a lyric sheet. It’s better that they don’t rely on the lyric sheet so that all they have is their performance. All they have is themselves. No crutch to lean on. That way, they can focus on giving life to the words and to give integrity to the vocal melody.

If singers and vocalists don’t come prepared especially if they are beginners, I would send them home to memorize and rehearse their song.  If necessary, I also would do a rigorous pre-production a few days before the recording schedule.  A little extra prep prior to recording can make the session faster and a memorable one, not to mention, cheaper.


Preparing the singer is just half the job. A huge consideration in the process are the tools to capture the expression. There is an ocean of microphones available in the market, some outrageously priced but with reviews and testimonials so great you’d want to own one in your lifetime. The Neumann U47 and Telefunken U47 classic condenser mics are raved by the experts and used by music’s biggest names. These microphones are priced in the USD 3,000 – 8,000 range. Even if I had the money, it would not be a wise investment considering the size of my business. For now, those mics will have to be a dream.

My chosen weapons are the Shure SM7B Dynamic Mic and the Avantone Pro CV-12 Large Diaphragm Tube Condenser.  I know, for sure, that these are not bad choices even if their prices are only in the USD 500-600 range. Both have great reviews and are also being utilized by well-known producers and sound engineers all over the world.  In fact, the older version of SM7B, the SM7, was used by Michael Jackson in most of his songs in the hit album Thriller produced by Quincy Jones. Meanwhile, the Avantone Pro was used in Taylor Swift’s 1989 album.


So, I’ve got names to drop! Now, what?

I particularly like the Shure SM7B because it brings out the natural sound of the voice. It has a flat frequency response so it’s accurately reproducing the input without enhancements. What comes in goes out. The flatter the response, the purer the track. Vocal sound accuracy is necessary for me. I prefer to have a reference of the true vocal sound before I ask my engineers to compress it and bathe it with effects.  I don’t want us to go so far off from the original sound of the voice. Also, the SM7B is a dynamic microphone so it’s pretty good at off-axis sound rejection.

Meanwhile, the Avantone CV-12 easily became my favorite because of its tube warmth.

Although, I’ve detected a bit of harshness in the higher frequencies, it still provides a smooth sound with a classic glow that only comes from a tube system. And because it’s a condenser microphone, it captures the natural resonance room.

Occasionally, though, I’d use a Roswell Mini MK47.  The clarity of this mic is outstanding without the high-frequency harshness.  In fact, it has a noticeable low-end which I love for my own voice. quite the opposite with its noticeable low-end which I love for my own voice.



Vocal recording is different each time. So, the decision on which mic to use is purely intuitive. Because I know the characters of my microphones, it makes it easy for me to decide. If it’s a new client and someone I haven’t worked with before, I would try to find something on them online just to have an idea of their voice. If the session is for any of the 22 Tango artists, I know their voices pretty well that I would explore and experiment.

In many occasions, I opt to use two microphones to record a single voice. Honestly, it’s not a necessity but I feel it’s beneficial to have the versatility of two microphones. For one, you have two equally usable outputs and, secondly, you now have the opportunity to tweak and get something different out of the pairing. As long as the mic placement keeps the microphones in phase with the vocals hitting them at the same time, then you have two healthy vocal tracks.

In some cases, I have the sound engineer place the SM7B to capture the direct vocal source and have the C-12 as a room mic to pick up the ambiance around the voice. I have a nice sounding room in Room Eleven Recording Studio and I can, confidently, use this approach.


Vocals are very sensitive signals. They are also different each time.  For me, it is imperative that the unique qualities of a vocal performance be reflected in the mix. It should reveal the feel and emotion, as well as, the technical variables – frequency content, compression, and effects.

In terms of my two-vocal-mic approach, it’s a matter of finding the right blend of the two mics and print those two tracks down to a single track in the mix. The downside is losing the flexibility. The other option is to route one track to an auxiliary track. The aux track can have all the processing done to it. Both tracks combined can sound as if they’re glued together and becomes one vocal track in the context of the entire mix.


Vocal recording is just one aspect in the world of music production but it’s a very important part because it carries what communicates the most in a song. It is the most important “instrument” because our ears by nature are attuned to the tone of the human voice.

Going the extra mile in nailing it from the source and entice a great performance from the singer is a necessity in a vocal recording session couples with a strategic workflow utilizing technology and proper equipment.  Vocal recording will always a favorite and the most fun part in the process!