You got a TIGHT PAIR, how did it get that way?
February 12, 2016 8:19 AM   Subscribe

I know nothing about recording or making music. How is something like Tight Pair by LIPPS, Inc recorded? When Cynthia Johnson comes in @ ~30 secs, she sounds like she is singing really loudly. At the same time, she sounds further away from the front of the music than the instruments. I'm curious how this effect is achieved, what volume Ms. Johnson was actually singing at in studio, and any other interesting things I don't know to ask about.
posted by OmieWise to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Higher frequencies are attenuated more with increasing distance than low frequencies. A human voice can therefore sound 'distant' or 'near' depending on the spectrum of the sound, something the recording engineer can tweak quite easily. This is independent of the intensity of the sound, so it's quite possible to make a voice sound 'far away' and 'loud' simultaneously, because our brains are pretty good at that sort of spectrum analysis.

Also, it's possible to tell whether someone is singing loudly or not because vocal characteristics change radically as they go from a speaking voice to a shout. So you can tell that someone is singing loudly even if they're quiet in the mix.
posted by pipeski at 8:45 AM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

It can be done a few different ways. You can have her actually further back from the mic. Or, you can attenuate the mic's sensitivity, requiring her to sing louder to register. Or, it can be done in the mix, where all kinds of magic can be done, even in those pre-digital days.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:49 AM on February 12, 2016

She's singing pretty loud. What's making her sound further away (other than actually being tucked back a little bit in the mix; compare the relative level of the vocal here to any current pop hit) is mostly the echo and reverb applied to her voice.

All the other instruments are just about bone dry, as was the style at the time (there's just a touch of reverb on the drums). The rhythm guitars sound like they might have gone straight into the mixing desk, in fact (meaning they weren't recorded by sticking a microphone in front of an amp; this was somewhat common on disco records for its up-front, crispy sound). The drums are recorded with close mics and just about no room sound. So they're up-front and in-your-face.

We use the sound of a room, and the relative level of "the room" vs the level of the direct sound, to figure out how far away something is. Think of somebody speaking to you from nearby: you hear almost nothing but their voice, and very little of their voice echoing off the walls. Now think about somebody yelling to you from across the room: the echo from the room will be relatively loud compared to their voice.

A lot of the difference you're hearing here is because of that: you're hearing a lot of echo and reverb compared to the level of her voice, which pushes her back into the mix.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:59 AM on February 12, 2016 [10 favorites]

I'm not sure this is all to do with the recording technique and/or room. From a vocal perspective, it sounds as if she is singing at the very top of her "chest voice" (as opposed to the "head voice" or falsetto, which has a softer, breathier sound) and therefore having to sing loudly to hit the notes.

If you try singing a low note, and move up in pitch, you will find a point at which you need to switch over into your head voice. Ms Johnson sounds like she is singing just below where that point is for her. When you reach the top of your range, it becomes harder to hit the notes without putting a LOT of breath into it, and therefore singing loudly. So she is singing as loud as she can in order to hit those notes whilst staying in her more powerful chest voice.

That's a rambly and not amazing explanation; tl,dr: she sounds loud because she is in fact singing loudly in order to hit those high notes in her chest voice. I bet it was awesome to hear live.
posted by greenish at 9:43 AM on February 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

You might be interested in this FPP. If I understand it right, Tony Visconti talks about setting up microphones at three different distances from Bowie, so that when he starts wailing loudly in his upper register towards the end, there was control over how much of a sense of the room made it into the final vocal track.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:49 AM on February 12, 2016

Listening, I concur. She's singing loudly, but is turned down a bit and slathered with reverb.
posted by kindall at 1:17 PM on February 12, 2016

uncleozzy has nailed it.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:52 PM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Since you say you know nothing about recording, let me state some very basics that everyone else is skipping.

Modern recordings (starting around the 1960s) are generally multitrack recordings, usually with overdubs. This means that each person / instrument has a separate microphone and separate track (separate section on the tape) that each gets recorded to individually. So all of the parts are recorded to the tape separately, and often NOT at the same time. For example, a vocalist might be singing into a microphone in a small single-person studio (aka a "vocal booth") while listening to the rest of the band in headphones, already recorded.

Then, later, during a mixing session, an engineer turns volume knobs (usually sliders, actually) to raise or lower the relative volume of each track (the "level").

So they recorded her voice at whatever level, but then turned it down during mixing. she may have been singing at the same time the band was playing, but it's unlikely in a modern recording.

I'm not discounting the other answers above, just laying out the basics because it sounded like you may not have even been aware of the concept of song performers not even being in the same room at the same time.
posted by intermod at 9:31 PM on February 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

What uncleozzy said, plus; compression makes things sound very up front, "in your face". Sing quietly and compress a lot and leave it "dry" (no reverb or delay) and it sounds very intimate, sing loud and compress it a lot and put reverb and/or delay on it and it sounds big. There is a whole world of options and the art of learning to do it right is what people get paid the big bucks for.
posted by bongo_x at 10:02 PM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

bongo_x makes a good point about compression. It's the secret sauce that brings out the flavour. (and of course, over-used too much in some current pop music, resulting in very LOuD-sounding but uninteresting mixes).
posted by ovvl at 5:07 PM on February 16, 2016

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