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May 28, 2020

Vance Powell tiny mic, tiny amp, BIG sound




We begin this excerpt from “Start to Finish: Vance Powell - Episode 8 - Recording Vocals,” with Vance telling Jeff Gorman and Jake Cochran of Illiterate Light that he has an idea for recording one of their background vocal parts on the song “Sweet Beast.” The part they’re going to overdub is the hook in the post-chorus section that features the words, “Na na na na na.”

Tiny Vocals

Vance says the technique he wants to use might be dumb, or it might be cool. As with most unconventional studio ideas, there’s no reason not to give it a try.

The concept is to have them record the hook through a dynamic mic attached to a Fender mini-amp. He gives them an Ampex 1101, the same one he used as the “Sprinkle to Taste Mic” when recording drums in Episode 3. It’s a funky old mic designed initially to be an accessory to an Ampex consumer tape recorder. It later became popular with harmonica players to use plugged into an amp onstage.

Jake and Jeff singing through an Ampex 1101 mic into a Fender mini-amp.

We next see Vance in the live room holding the mini Fender. Outfitted with tiny speakers, it only puts out a limited frequency range. With 1W of power, it’s sure to distort easily.

Vance plugs the mic into the amp, which he places on a music stand facing the musicians. He mics it with Peluso 22 47 LE (the same mic he’s been using for the other vocals), a large-diaphragm tube condenser that’s a recreation of a Neumann U47. He places the mic within a few inches of the amp.

Testing One, Two

Next, Vance gives Jeff and Jake the mic and asks them to sing into it. At first, they’re having trouble getting enough gain. Vance turns the amp up some more, which then starts to feedback until the singers step back a couple of paces.

Because the 1101 is a dynamic mic and not super sensitive, Jeff and Jake finally realize that they have to get right up on the mic to get enough volume.

They practice their parts without the music. Next, we see Vance in the control room and hear the vocal coming through the monitor. It sounds thin and a little distorted—very lo-fi—which is precisely the idea.

Symmetrical Singing

Next, they overdub the part into the song. It’s only a four-measure section. After the first pass, Jeff asks Vance to shorten the preroll—that is, the number of measures they hear before the spot where Vance punches them in to sing the part.

Usually, artists ask for more preroll, so that they can better find their place and get ready for the punch in. But this time is different. The hook section that they’re singing in this overdub comes in directly after the song modulates to a different key at the end of a chorus. It’s harder to come in on the right note if they hear too much of the chorus in the other key, first. So Vance shortens the preroll.

Circled in red are the vocals sung through the mini-amp. It’s just a four-measure section that gets layered six times.

Once they’re comfortable with that, they record six passes of the harmony. Vance explains that he likes to have equal numbers of tracks on each side when he’s layering vocals in a mix.

Try this at Home

If you have access to a mini amp and a lo-fi mic, you can recreate Vance’s technique. But even if you don’t, plug-ins can give you a similar result. For the latter, it’s best to apply the processing after recording the vocals, because trying to track through plug-ins on most DAWs is not convenient.

The first plug-in you want to use is an amp- or cabinet-modeler of some type. Its job is to simulate the sound of the vocal going through an amp, and to add some distortion.

To mimic the distortion of the mini-amp, set the amp modeler with enough gain to get moderate crunch. Alternatively, if the plug-in has built-in distortion or overdrive effects, you can use those. If you can’t get the distortion you want from the amp modeler, you can always insert a dedicated distortion plug-in after the modeler in the signal chain. Don’t overdo it, however. You only want a modest amount of distortion if you’re emulating the sound Vance got.

An amp modeling plug-in, such as Line 6 Helix Native, can give you the amp and cabinet simulation you need.

The next step is to recreate the limited frequency response of the Fender mini-amp with EQ. The idea is to limit the frequencies that can get through, particularly on the low end. You’ll may also want to add some boosts in the high-frequencies to imitate the amp’s tone.

Example 1a: Here’s a call-and-answer style vocal part between a lead vocal and a background vocal group. The only effects are compression, conventional vocal EQ and some reverb.

Example 1b: The same, but with the“tiny-amp” effect applied to the lead vocal, using a Line 6 Helix Native plug-in to get the amp sound. The plug-in is set to the US Small Tweed model. The Drive control is set at 4.6 out of 10 in this example, which creates moderate distortion. The frequencies were adjusted using Pro Tools EQ3 7-Band, with the high-pass (low-cut) filter set to 433Hz and several large boosts in the upper midrange and high end.

The EQ setting used for Example 1b. Notice how much low end is rolled off.

And That’s Not All

The “tiny-amp” effect can also work well on specific instruments. One, in particular, is harmonica. Onstage, many harmonica players use dynamic mics (like the Ampex 1101) and small amps —not mini-amps like in the excerpt—but ones with small speakers such as a Fender Princeton. Typically they’re looking for a sound with both distortion and a limited frequency range.

Example 2a: Here’s a section of a harmonica track by itself.

Example 2b. The Harmonica is being processed by Scuffam S-Gear, an amp-modeling plug-in, before going through the EQ3 7, with a similar high-pass frequency setting, but without the high-end boosts used on the vocal. Also, a Waves API 2500 plug-in is inserted at the end of the chain to smooth out the sound a little.