RECORDING TECHNIQUES

MOTOWN ENGINEERING SERIES No. 2

THE EXCITING COMPRESSOR

By ROBERT DENNIS

Editor's Note:

Motown developed a mixing method that allowed presence, bite and intensity on lead vocals. Even when the vocals were mixed at an even level with the music, you could hear every word clearly. I've released two past articles on this subject and every time I get bombarded with comments about how great the technique is.

The Pre-Motown Mix

In the 1950's and early 1960's records were generally mixed with the vocal far louder than the music. The vocal had a very natural sound to it except the there was a lot of reverb applied to the vocals. The artist that really had this sound was Frank Sinatra. Back then, when listening to Old-Blue-Eye's records, you heard the music way in the background. This sound, however, wasn't exclusive to Frank. Even the "Rock & Roll" records of the time, like Elvis & Ricky Nelson had the vocals way out front.

The Motown Mix

Motown had a "better" idea. Motown was selling "excitement." The thinking was that the rhythm of the music is what made the record exciting and what the kids danced to. There actually was a lot of melody and important lyrics in these old records - but rhythm was the key. Actually Motown started a revolution in mixing and most modern rock (and even pop) releases are mixed in this style, even today.

Regarding reverb, another Motown innovation was to have more reverb on the music than on the vocal. There were three custom built reverberation chambers at Motown - all used during a mix - unheard of in those days. Again today a typical control room today has 4-8 (or more) effects devices for reverb (and other effects).

The 1970's "Exciter"

In the 70's a processing device by Aphex called the "Aural Exciter" (probably a tradename), started gaining popularity. The exciter took any instrument and generated a high-frequency signal component that could be added into the mix and would add "excitement" to the sound. A lot of people were impressed with this device (and clone devices that followed) especially to make the vocal sound brighter. I was very unimpressed. To my ears the unnatural high end added by the compressor may have added excitement but it also destroyed the vocal's natural characteristics. Another reason I hated the exciter units was I was familiar with the "Exciting Compressor" used at Motown a decade earlier. the name "Exciting Compressor" is mine but the technique I believe was first used by Lawrence Horn at Motown in 1963.

When a producer would ask me for an exciter, I would tell them I had something better - the Exciting Compressor. Every client I used this on was very impressed and happy with the result.

The Motown 1960's Exciting Compressor

With the Motown mix approach there were problems. If you wanted the lyrics to be heard you had to use a lot of compression on the vocal so that the the softer words could still be heard over the higher-level music. In addition you boosted the "presence range" (around 5 kHz) with an equalizer. The only problem with this is that it took the life & natural dynamics out of the vocal.

Lawrence Horn came up with a brilliant idea. He took the vocal and split the signal so that it when to 2 console channels. Before the vocal signal went to the second channel, it went through a compressor. Now he had two channels of the vocal - one compressed and one uncompressed. On the uncompressed vocal he added very little with the equalizer and he added the reverb. On the compressed channel, he compressed the h**l out of it and added a ton of high-frequency equalization. What he would do is bring up the "natural" channel to full level to get the basic natural sound on the vocal. On the other compressed and equalized channel, he brought this up just enough to add excitement and presence to the vocal sound.

The result was nothing less than amazing. In the mix the vocal sounded very natural and bright. None of the music ever "stepped on" the vocal and you could hear each and every syllable in the lyrics. The vocal never got lost.

Using The Exciting Compressor.

I don't know if anyone at Aphex knew anything about this technique - BUT - the purpose of their product and the older Motown technique seen basically the same. As you try this technique out you will find it works for other instruments as well. Often the frequency of EQ needs to be changed for the instrument. The vocal works well with tons of 5kHz to 8 kHz added to the "exciting compressor;" guitars work better with 3 kHz - 5 kHz and bass guitars work better with 800 hZ to 1.5 kHz.

For analog recording or working with an analog console, splitting the vocal into two console channels is easily done with a Y-chord or similar function at the patch bay. For digital consoles, it's a little harder; usually the best results are obtained by actually having two vocal tracks recorded on the tape.

Bob Dennis

Copyright 1997, 1999  Robert Dennis - All Rights Reserved

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