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“Don’t Stop Believin'” is one of those classic rock songs that keeps on going and refuses to fade away. You hear it at sporting events, on television and movies, and on the radio even after 35+ years since it was recorded. Journey had a lot of success at its peak, but this may be song that defines them in the end, so today we’re going to have a listen to the isolated lead vocal from the song.
“Don’t Stop…” is an interesting song in that the chorus only comes once in the song and it’s at the end. I can’t think of another song where that happens but it’s not a song structure that you’d teach an aspiring songwriter, and yet here it is in this huge hit. Let’s get into it.
1. Journey vocalist Steve Perry truly has one of the most incredible voices in music and it’s perfectly on display here. The song was recorded as we entered the age of perfectionism in the studio (thanks to the 24 track tape machine), but this performance is still scary good.
2. I didn’t hear one slight imperfection at 0:33 where he went slightly sharp on “…anywhere” but that’s really splitting hairs.
3. The audio quality of this video isn’t great, but you can still hear that the vocal has in a nice long delayed reverb. If you listen carefully to the decay, you can hear a midrange ring to it.
4. On the B sections you can hear a double slightly to the left and an octave below the lead slightly to the right.
5. The vocal is edited together so there’s no big gaps from the instrumental sections of the song.
Usually on a Friday I post an isolated track from the studio mix of a hit song. The studio is one thing, since we’re after perfection and there are many tools to help achieve that (including hard work). That said, top artists make most of their money from live performances, so maybe we should take a listen to the isolated live vocal feed from those.
Here are 10 of today’s most famous artists live on stage with just their bare naked isolated vocal track. You be the judge as to how good they are.
The performers are Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Rihanna, Beyonce, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, and Mariah Carrey.
Please note: The comments on the video are not mine, but I agree with them.
Adele is a phenomenon unlike any other in music business in at least the last 10 years. With sales of more than 100 million in a time when a million is a big deal, she’s definitely touched a lot of people with her music, and her approach to it. You can attribute at least some of this to the fact that she has some real chops, and this isolated vocal of “Skyfall” perfectly illustrates that. The track uses the “official acapella” from the studio recording, matched to her live performance on the Oscars. Here’s what to listen for.
1. First of all, Adele’s voice is bathed in a dark, slightly delayed reverb. The decay feels longer than it really is because of the amount of verb. Actually, it also has a bit of a midrange honk if you listen on headphones.
2. At the end of the chorus there’s a nice ping pong delay on the last word.
3. There’s actually several lead vocal tracks that overlap. That said, this vocal performance is pretty much perfect, which is somewhat different from other Adele hits that were more “organic” in that a few things were left in that might normally be fixed.
4. The background vocals are spread in slightly left and right to make room for the lead vocal.
5. Compression is used very nicely on the vocal track. You can occasionally hear it on the louder parts, but not so much that you’d ever hear it in the final mix.
Coldplay is a somewhat polarizing group in that you either love them or hate them, but they sure are popular. Today we look at the isolated vocal from their big hit “Viva La Vida” from the band’s 4th album of the same title. The song sold over 7 million copies worldwide and won the Grammy for Song of the Year in 2009, but it has been plagued by controversy. The song also has found much use by sporting teams all over the world.
There has been several plagiarism lawsuits by Joe Satriani and Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) and others, but ultimately a professor of musicology showed that all the songs were similar to the composition “Se tu m’ami” by the Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, who died in 1736. That said, here’s what to listen for.
1. Unlike many lead vocal performances in modern music, Chris Martin’s vocal isn’t doubled. It ends up sounding much more intimate as a result.
2. There’s both a delayed medium reverb that’s a tad on the dark side, as well as a separate timed delay to give the vocal some space.
3. The vocal is heavily compressed, more towards the end than the beginning of the song. There is a bit of sibilance that sounds like it’s being controlled by a de-esser, but that’s normal for a compressed vocal.
4. There’s a vocal glitch at 0:43 going from the verse to the B section the last verse phrase goes a little long against the obvious overdub of the B section.
5. During the chorus, a new stereo delay enters that’s panned hard left and right. The right side is longer and a little brighter than the left.
Here’s a real treat. It’s the isolated vocal track from the title track of David Bowie’s iconic Ziggy Stardust album and it features not only David’s excellent vocal skills, but producer/engineer’s Ken Scott’s impeccable production as well. For those of you who don’t know or don’t remember, I co-wrote Ken’s autobiography Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust and there were so many great Bowie stories that he related while doing it that it’s difficult to pick just one, so I’ll include a few.
Since this is all about the isolated vocal, a great story from the book is about David doing vocals. According to Ken:
“David was always exceptional with his vocals, since 99% of the time it was the first take, beginning to end, with no punches. I’d get the level and he’d sing the song down and that would be it. Sure made my job easy. You’d think there was a mistake when he was laying it down, but when we’d listen to the playback we’d find that what we thought sounded odd the first time through was intentional and worked perfectly.”
OK, how about the technical bits of recording Bowie. Again from the book:
“What I quite often did while recording David’s vocals was use an AKG C12a and a U67 and place them at a 90 degree angle to each other so he was singing in-between them. I came up with this method so I could instantly switch between the two to see which mic sounded better (and maybe even use both), instead of having him stand in front of one mic and sing a bit, then go in front of the other mic and sing a bit. It also had the added benefit of helping suppress any popping and sibilance as well. We didn’t have many tracks at that time, so even if both mics were used, they were mixed together to a single track. Unlike many other recordings of the time, we never recorded the effects because David only did one take, so there was never any time to set them up.”
How about mixing? Again, right from the source:
“The album, like the others that followed, was mixed on a 20 input Sound Techniques console, using moderate board EQ, a single EMT plate reverb, and just a little compression on the overall mix. Compression came from two UREI 1176’s and two Teletronix LA2A’s. The multitrack machines were an Ampex 8 track and later a 3M 16 track. Any delay came from a Studer C37 stereo tape machine with a varispeed.”
Just a little bit about Ziggy Stardust the album, which everyone mistakenly mistook for a concept album. According to Ken:
“There’s always been this whole thing about Ziggy being a concept album, but it really wasn’t. There are only two rock albums that I would 100% consider concept albums; Tommy and Quadrophenia by The Who, and that’s because they were written as a complete piece, whereas Ziggy was just a patchwork of songs. Yes, they fit together very well and one can weave a story from some of them, but when you consider that “Round and Round” was originally there in place of “Starman,” it doesn’t make much sense as a concept. How does “Round and Round” ever fit into the Ziggy story? It’s a classic Chuck Berry song. How does “It Ain’t Easy” fit in with the Ziggy concept? That was taken from the Hunky Dory sessions. All this about Ziggy being Starman is bullshit. It was a song that was just put in as a single at the last minute at the record label’s insistence. So while it’s true that there were a few songs that fitted the ”concept”, the rest were just songs that all worked well together as they would in any good album.”
With those things in mind, here are some things to listen for:
1. Listen to how much reverb is on the vocal during the verse, then how dry it is in the chorus.
2. Listen closely for when the vocal is doubled, and when it sits by itself.
It’s so cool to be able to go back and listen to this again with a bit more of an x-ray on the vocal. Bowie was a exceptional once-in-a-lifetime artist and this is just one of many, many examples of that.
I must admit that whenever I watch the huge stage show of dancers that accompany many popular female singers today, I have mixed feelings. First of all, I’m in awe of the sheer athletic ability now required to be considered a “singer” today. Those moves aren’t easy to remember or execute, but it’s especially difficult when you’re trying to sing at the same time, as some isolated live vocals have shown us.
A big part of me (okay, let’s be honest – all of me) would rather see the performer just stand there and try to carry the audience on vocal ability alone.
That’s not going to happen, and I’m the audience that they’re trying to reach anyway, so it’s a moot point. That said, most, if not all, of these vocalists have real chops, and that’s why it really hurts when you hear less than a great effort from anyone regardless of the circumstances.
That’s just what you’ll hear in this isolated vocal during Britney Spears portion of an HBO special. It’s from 2009, but it’s still no excuse.
It’s hard to call her a “singer” after a performance like that. The said part is that she really did have chops at one point in here career, as this clip of a very young Britney shows.
Contrast that to a Ariana Grande, who is the real deal. She does the moves yet not only stays in tune, but belts it out of the park.
Let’s see – which one has their priorities in the right order between singing, dancing and looking good? These isolated live vocals usually won’t sound as good as from the studio, but we really shouldn’t be surprised when they’re either way below, or exceed our expectations.
The Steve Miller Band has been going strong for almost 50 years now, and if you hear them live today, they’re better than ever. That said, most of Steve’s hits came in the 70s, but they’re still played heavily today and just about everyone knows them from countless plays on the radio.
It’s very easy to forget that even though his songs were somewhat Top 40 in nature, for the most part they were really well-made, especially give the time. Today we’ll listen to the isolated vocal tracks from one of his most famous hits – “Fly Like An Eagle.” The song was covered a number of times by artists like Seal and even The Neville Brothers, and has been used on commercials by the US Postal Service.
Here’s what to listen for (it begins at 0:15):
1. The vocal has a nice medium-long delayed reverb that’s pretty dark so it blends into the track very easily.
2. The vocal is doubled very closely, which was somewhat unusual for a recording in 1977, since the production concept of “tight” was much normally looser than this.
3. The vocals are also compressed very heavily, and although you don’t hear it in the final mix, you can clearly hear compression artifacts when it stands alone.
4. One thing about Steve Miller records is that they’re very disciplined when it comes to the parts. There are very few ad libs, and “Fly Like An Eagle” is a great example, as every note is in precisely the right place with nothing more added.
5. Another thing to notice is that there’s not a lot of leakage or noise. You can hear some faintly in the distance, as well as the inevitable tape hiss of the time, but the disciple extends to recording as well.
“Fly Like An Eagle” is actually a very modern production, even though it was made way back in 1977. Except for the slick automation that adorns all mixes of today, this is a song that still holds up very well.