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Vocal support

How to produce great vocals, with Haydn Bendall

Acclaimed producer, engineer and label owner Haydn Bendall tells us how he gets the best results out of his vocalists in the studio.

Starting out at Orange Studios in Soho, London, Haydn Bendall became a piano tuner for Steinway & Sons. This took him to Abbey Road where he eventually became chief engineer, going freelance in 1991 after 17 years. To list his discography would require a whole website, but his mixing and engineering work continues with a special emphasis on orchestral recording. Bendall is now running his own label and producing new artists, notably a promising male soul singer called Jelone.

How do you match a voice to a microphone?
“It’s all about your interaction with the artist. As far as microphones are concerned, you build up an intuitive awareness of which mics suit which types of voices. You’re always listening, and then you’ll be able to do the obvious thing and match the right microphone to the unique characteristics of the voice. But more important are the psychological aspects.”

How do you approach them?
“Right from the off you’ve got to involve that vocalist in the recording, not merely as the singer but as someone with whom you can try out four or five different microphones – even if you already know which one you’re going to use. It’ll make them feel that you’re on the same side, not just someone issuing instructions. Don’t forget: they are nervous. Singing this vocal is important to them. It’s their career, maybe their song – definitely their record, not yours. Tomorrow you’ll be doing another job, but they will be living with this performance every day for the rest of their lives.”

That’s an interesting perspective…
“It doesn’t mean you don’t care, it just doesn’t have the potentially life-changing consequences for you as it does for them. So get them really involved: the choice of gear; where they stand in the room; how you position the mic and the screens. And this right from the beginning, so it doesn’t become you on one side of the glass and them on the other. If you come to a decision together, there’s a greater chance that you’ll gain trust and build a rapport. If I say to a singer they’re a bit flat or sharp in one place, or bit late or ahead of the beat, they’ve got to trust that the judgment is coming from a reliable source.”

How do you keep that trust?
“The vocalist needs constant feedback. It’s no good just saying ‘do it again’. There’s a need for explanation. If you wrote a piece for a magazine and the editor simply said ‘write it again’, you’d want to know why, wouldn’t you? You need to know where the effort is not achieving what you all want to achieve.”

Do these techniques apply elsewhere?
“Yes, it applies to drums, guitars, everything. You’ve got be really on the ball all the time. As soon as that singer – or musician – feels you’re not with them, you’ve lost it.”

Any catchy, one-line tips for us, Haydn?
“You’ll never find a great recording of a bad artist. It doesn’t exist.”