Microphones, Mixes, and Studio Magic
by Matt Howe, Barbra-Archives.com
Glenn Gould, noted and eccentric pianist — who identified himself as a “Streisand freak”—wrote “the Streisand voice is one of the natural wonders of the age, an instrument of infinite diversity and timbral resource.”
In Classical Music terms, Streisand has a Lyric Soprano voice—which doesn't mean a lyric voice ... it's the kind of “color” of the voice. (For comparison, Streisand fan and voice teacher Nando Uchôa emailed me that Maria Callas was a Dramatic Soprano; Renata Tebaldi was a Lyric-Spinto soprano; and Judy Garland fell into the mezzo-soprano category).
Streisand has a two octave range. Over the years her voice has deepened and her high notes diminished. But Barbra's amazing tonal quality is still there, even in the recordings created past age 60. And she is still an amazing interpreter of lyrics, which effects a song's phrasing.
Besides her amazing sound, Streisand's singing technique makes her unique.
“... her recitative-like approach allows Barbra to sing with considerable rhythmic freedom. She places some words off, rather than on, the beat or reserves the final word of a measure until the chord change of the next. Her consistent (if often gentle) enunciation of the final consonant sound helps with textual clarity and rhythmic definition...”
Classical music composer and unabated Streisand fan, Silvio Palmieri, summarized Streisand's voice succinctly: “The Streisand art of singing has nothing to do with the range. Her legacy is in the legato, the phrasing and diction... her instinctual way of making music, the way she uses her vocal flaws to her advantage. Magic!”
Streisand herself summed up her technique simply: “I believe in everything being natural. Singing is an extension of speaking.”
Ms. Pohly, in The Barbra Streisand Companion, summarized Streisand's voice succinctly:
Barbra has experienced some of the natural vocal changes that can be expected with age. Her range has lowered slightly, and the bottom end has gotten stronger and more rich in tone. Streisand's early nasal sound has mellowed, but her consistent production of sound in the facial mask still influences her tone. Despite this forward focus, significant nasality can creep back into her voice on certain vowel sounds, for characterization purposes, or during belt moments. Streisand's ability to move smoothly, without an audible break, between vocal tessituras, timbral sounds, and styles sets her apart from many pop vocalists who have a pronounced shift point. Her fast, narrow vibrato is distinctive; in later years it has become more noticeable in all registers but remains most prominent during high-pitched and loud phrases. Streisand's understanding of the importance of breath support to fine singing and her refined control of her breath supply enhance her efforts with interpretive phrasing, dynamic gradations, and timbral coloring ...
In the Studio
Streisand, who has recorded over 60 albums in her career, has many hours of experience in the studio, mastering the art of record-making.
Before Streisand and her various album producers book musicians and studio time for recording, there is a period of rehearsal first.
Producer Phil Ramone explained: “When Barbra Streisand runs through songs for a new album, she'll usually ask an arranger/pianist such as Dave Grusin or Mike Melvoin to come to her house, where they'll work together at the piano. Songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman will often attend too. Barbra has a hundred suggestions for melodic counter lines, tempo, and instrumentation, so I record every second of her rehearsals whenever we collaborate.”
Jay Landers has been Barbra Streisand’s A&R [Artists and Repertoire] exec since the early 1990's. As an A&R man, Landers serves Streisand as a creative advisor, assists in selecting songs for albums, and Executive produces the albums. He also liaisons between Streisand and the Sony/Columbia label.
Landers' liner notes for Barbra's 1997 album, Higher Ground, provided an insider's look at what it's like to work with Streisand when she's recording an album:
As Barbra's A&R man, I've been privileged to have a front-row seat at the recording sessions for this new album ... Orchestrators have worked overtime preparing the charts ... the first recording session is set ... The men and women of the seventy-piece orchestra have assembled in the cavernous soundstage on Sony Pictures backlot. The phone rings ... Barbra's calling ... “I'm five minutes away ... but I've got this idea for a French horn line and I think this will work.” ...(she sings the part) ... Kim, where's the Walkman? ... tape the phone conversation ... through the static on Pacific Coast Highway ... capture the idea as it's being born. More changes ... they won't be the last...
The moment of truth. The conductor's at the podium, our engineer Dave [Reitzas], manning the 48-track control board has his sound levels set. Sue, the tape-operator, slates the track ...“You'll Never Walk Alone — Take 1” ... and Barbra, isolated in her glass-enclosed vocal booth, oversized headphones on, stands at the mike, lyrics precariously spread across the music stand ...“in BIG TYPE-FACE Pleeease” ... a mug of tea and vase of flowers on a little side-table ... impatiently waiting for the downbeat ...“Ready, get set, go” ... Now everyone in the control booth inhales with her ... the first strains of the score unfurl through the gigantic speakers .... Dave makes another level adjustment ... and then ... and then ... and then ... we hear that voice .... “When you walk through a storm...”. For a moment Barbra seems oblivious to everything around her ... she is one with the orchestra. With her eyes closed and hands punctuating each syllable, she reaches for the “truth”in the song.
... During a break, Barbra sits at the control board examining the playback ... Meanwhile, orchestra members are talking shop in the lounge. Many have worked on her records for twenty years or more. They're neither star-struck nor easily impressed ... they've seen it all. Yet much of the conversation centers around her musicianship. “... she was right about the bridge ... it sped up too soon...” or “...I played on “The Way We Were” and it was the same thing ... she nailed it on the first take and then did three more for insurance” ... Trying to get the right “feel”, everything in service of the words, music and integrity of her performance.
On most of Streisand's albums, she sings live in the studio with a combo, band, or orchestra. This is more expensive—hiring live players, renting the studio, and using expensive recording services. Streisand is sequestered in a glass booth so that her vocals are recorded separate from the orchestra, which allows her to edit the vocals without disrupting the music track.
Motown's Berry Gordy, for example, most always had his performers (like Diana Ross and the Supremes) sing to pre-recorded tracks, which saved costs. (When Streisand recorded Guilty and Guilty Pleasures with Barry Gibb, however, he brought her the pre-recorded tracks and she laid her vocals on top of them.)
Streisand can be demanding of herself while recording in the studio. The studio musicians, therefore, are along for the ride, sometimes recording many takes of one song, all the while perfecting things like tempo and phrasing.
Listening to some of Streisand's studio work is fascinating. For instance, in April 1988, Streisand was recording the song “A Funny Thing Happened On My Way To Love” with Rupert Holmes. First, they did six takes.
- On the first take, Streisand was surprised that the key was too low.
- Holmes and the orchestra took a minute, then “ran it down” for Streisand in the new, higher key, doing a transposition on the spot.
- Streisand asked Rupert Holmes for an extra two bars before she began singing “So hasta la vista”, to give her time to get into the phrase.
- Holmes and orchestra then played the section with the additional two bars. “Better, Rupert. That's fine,” Streisand said.
- Take two was abbreviated after the orchestra came in late at the very beginning of the song.
- Take three was complete, but Streisand was concerned that she did not hold the last note long enough, as the orchestra kept playing for a few seconds after she had stopped singing. Holmes confirms the ending notes with Streisand and she says, “Let's do it again, huh?”
- While waiting for the orchestra to prepare for the next take, Streisand ad libs some new notes in an attempt to make some of the vocal sections more interesting.
- Take four: Holmes has a problem with the orchestra and the song stops after the first few bars. Streisand, disappointed because she provided some good vocals, asks for a “pickup”.
- Take five/pickup: They start recording from the exact point they stopped. Streisand tries incorporating the vocal ad libs, but they still feel exploratory.
- Streisand raises concern about the “rumba” section of the song, which she feels she does not sing in time with. Rupert Holmes counts out the rhythm for her. “Can we try that part?” Streisand asks. Holmes cues the orchestra to play that section, and Streisand rehearses it.
- On Take six, all the elements seem to come together. Streisand and the orchestra perform wonderfully together. “That was very fast! Did you like that?” Streisand exclaims. They move on to another song.
Then, at a later date, Streisand and Holmes do pickups on the song —perfecting it even more — with a new ending which incorporates new lyrics and a key modulation. Streisand misses the last note twice. “Where is that note?” she asks. The pianist plays it for her and Streisand nails it on the last take.
Headphones are a very important component of studio recording. Streisand gets a specialized headphone mix that enables her to vocalize into the microphone. There are several bootlegs of Streisand becoming angry when her headphone sound mix is faint or not present. “I can't sing when I don't hear me,” Streisand complained. “I can't sing. I have no control of my voice if I don't hear the sound that I have to hear...” On another song she said, “I'm swimming in echo. I don't hear a presence on my voice, it's like I'm floating in space”, meaning that the headphone mix of her voice had too much reverberation, and she was probably not able to stay on pitch or sing correctly.
In the early years of Barbra Streisand's recording career, she spent most of her time at Columbia Records' New York studios.
Frank Laico was the recording engineer who recorded Streisand's first few albums with Columbia. “On balance, Studio A [ 799 7th Avenue] was a pretty nice place. The first Barbra Streisand album was done there; we'd have a 36-piece orchestra for dates like that, and they'd fit just fine.
Columbia's Studio C, at 207 East 30th Street in New York, was “a cavernous converted Armenian church that boasted 100-foot ceilings and floor space.[1a]” It was the large space which gave the room its ambience and the recordings made there a full sound. Mike Berniker, who produced early Streisand recordings, told author Ashley Kahn, “It had something you don't find in today's studios—it had an identifying sound. There was a grandeur to the sound—a size and scope you that you don't find from very close micing.”
Engineer Frank Laico, agreed with Berniker about Studio C. His microphone technique for the large space was “putting those mics, especially the Telefunken/Neumann 49s, way up there in the air. That was the only way to get that sound.[1b]”
At the enormous Studio C, Streisand recorded The Third Album, her Funny Girl singles, some of Je m'appelle Barbra, and What About Today?
Nowadays, if Streisand is working with an orchestra she will record at Sony Pictures Studios in Los Angeles (in 2004 Sony renamed the stage The Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage). She also records at Grandma's House, a studio she's set up on her Malibu property. One interviewer who visited Streisand there in 2004 wrote: “There are real roses growing around the door of the single-story building, its slats painted red and green and decorated with faux-naïf flowers...” The house was built in the 1950's, is next door to Streisand's main home, has open beam ceilings, is surrounded by gardens, and has a view of the Pacific Ocean. Rosie O'Donnell and Barbara Walters interviewed Streisand at Grandma's House. And that's Barbra leaning against the fence on the bluff outside the house on the back of Higher Ground.
The Neumann M49 was designed for the German broadcasting system and debuted in 1949. The microphone has a reputation as the “Cadillac of studio mics” because it produces an incredibly rich and round tone, and warms harsher sounds.
Many studio singers of the 1950s and 1960s were recorded with a Neumann M49.
Engineer Al Schmitt “Barbra Streisand has been using this particular Neumann M49 since we did The Way We Were. It matches her voice so well that she will not use anything else. This particular mic is a rental, but she knows the specific serial number, so that better be the right mic sitting up there when she's ready to record.”
On tour in 2006, Streisand used a Sennheiser SKM 5200 wireless handheld outfitted with Neumann's KK 105 S capsule.
Comping is a recording industry standard. In the old days — and in Streisand's early recording career in the 1960s — a track was a recording of an artist and a band or orchestra singing and playing live: including all the imperfections.
Comping allows recording artists to perfect their vocal track.
The downside is that many of the newer recording artists would be hard-pressed to deliver a song straight-through if they had to perform it live for an audience. Streisand, of course, can do both. She comps her vocals in the studio, but she can also sing a song from beginning to end and deliver an excellent performance.
Comping is when several vocal takes of a song are done. Afterward, the artist or producer listens to the takes and chooses the best words, phrases or lines from each take and puts them together as a whole, composite track that sounds seamless.
For example—after recording for several hours—the best version of the first verse might be take three; the best version of the second verse was take seven; and the best chorus was the first take. And maybe the chorus was best in the first take, but on the last note the singer went sharp. All these disparate takes would be edited together into a single vocal track, including a retake of that last note from take one.
Humberto Gatica: “I used an SSL 9000 to mix five songs on the new Barbra Streisand album. In a few places she said to me, ‘I can hear the compilations of performance, and that bothers me sometimes.’ I can totally respect that in an artist; she can see the different emotional stages when we come in and comp the vocal ... so she says, ‘Well, I was a little soft here, I was a bit angry there, and it bothers me...’ To the average ear, no one would hear it, but I can really relate to her, so it was easy for me.”
Engineer Al Schmitt said, “Barbra Streisand was one of those artists who didn't seem to have any idea of time. One night I was heading out the door at 11 o'clock at night after a long day. I had called my wife and told her I was on my way home. And Streisand says, ‘Al, can we do a good rough mix?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I took my jacket off and sat down and then I didn't walk out of there until 4 o'clock in the morning[3b].”
Arif Mardin: “Barbra Streisand loved [EdNet]. We did five mixes in seven days with her, approved, because she had an EdNet system in her living room in Los Angeles that was compatible with what we had in the studio. She would call and say, could I have a little more violins here or can you do such-and-such to my voice, and we'd have the mix recalled in ten minutes, make the changes, and she'd listen to it as we do it, and approve it in real time.” Mardin stressed that the remote tool also saved money. For instance, Mardin and crew were in New York and did not have to travel or send mixes to Streisand. “She'd say, ‘I'd like to sing the third line in yesterday's mix again.’ We had instant recall on a digital board and — boom — we did it. It was fantastic,” Mardin said.
1. Linda Pohly, The Barbra Streisand Companion: A Guide to Her Vocal Style and Repertoire (Greenwood Press, 2000).
2. Phil Ramone, Charles Granata, Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music (Hyperion, 2007).
1a. Dave Simons, Studio Stories (Backbeat Books, 2004), p. 13.
1b. William Clark, Jim Coga, Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios (Chronicle Books, 2003)
2. Bobby Owsinski, The Recording Engineer's Handbook (Artistpro, 2004), p. 349-350.
3. Massey Howard, Behind the Glass — Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft the Hits (Backbeat Books, 2000) by Massey Howard, p. 67
3b. Blair Jackson, Words From the Wise, Four Veteran Engineers Offer Tales and Tips About Studio Survival (www.mixonline.com, May 1, 2007).
4. Massey Howard, Behind the Glass — Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft the Hits (Backbeat Books, 2000) by Massey Howard, p. 38
5. Maureen Droney, TEC Hall of Fame Honoree Arif Mardin (mixonline.com, 2005).
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