Man Vs. Gear - Getting the Thom Yorke Vocal Sound | Microphone & Compressor Battle

Welcome to part one of my Man vs. Gear series, where I'll cover some of the techniques and equipment I used while trying to replicate the sound of legendary Radiohead frontman, Thom Yorke. I'd first like to say that I relied solely on information that I had read in articles and videos, so some of what I say may not be exactly what is used in an everyday Radiohead recording session, but pretty close i'm sure. There are many speculative forums all saying different things, and that's hard to follow if you aren't a complete gear head. In saying that, I've tried my best to put together something that gets close to the heart of a question I've wanted the answer to for some time. How do I get the Thom Yorke vocal sound?

Microphones

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Recording a good vocal can make or break you  in many studio sessions, for example, none of these techniques or equipment will be useful unless the takes are great. Not good, great!. I like to start with the microphone as the first point of contact for that air leaving your body, it's important to take care at this point, because all decisions stem from here. In this session I decided to use the Electro-Voice RE-20 because of the internal shock mount and pop filter that works by capturing the up-close and intimate vocal sounds Thom Yorke is famous for. The way in which the microphone is used is as unique as the microphone itself. Yorke captures some pretty dynamic sounds through the movement of his head, but the most interesting part is the brightness that reflects from the roof of his mouth. As the head leans back to sing, the microphone captures the brightness in tone replacing the sibilance lost from the internal pop-filter of the RE-20. 

 

Reason For Choosing This Mic for Main Vocals

  1. I had seen Thom Yorke use this microphone in the live recording of 'In Rainbows' at the basement (Video Above)

  2. I needed a mic that the singer could get close too without capturing too many plosives

  3. It has an inner shock mount 

  4. Built in bass roll off switch

  5. Humbucking coil for greater colour in the vocal 

RE-20.jpg

ElectroVoice RE-20

 

As a way to add some extra substance to the vocals I recorded with my singer, I used an AKG414 to add to the vocal dynamic and lift the song. The creative decision was made to add colour and texture to the underlying vocal harmonies, but is an excellent choice for vocals at any stage.

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Frequency Response - Electro Voice RE-20

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Reason I chose this mic for backing vocals

  1. They are a very versatile mic

  2. Even polar pattern, which would be good for additive EQ

  3. Capture some sibilance in the vocal to create an effect later in them mix

  4. One of my favorites for guitars and drum overheads

  5. Ability to roll off low frequencies when needed

 Frequency response of the clean microphone   

Frequency response of the clean microphone

 

 Frequency Response of the Distressor

Frequency Response of the Distressor

 Frequency Response of the dbx160a

Frequency Response of the dbx160a

I found that using the Distressor with the RE-20 game me a slight drop in bass frequencies, but a more punchy mid-range. This could be due to the 10:1 ratio with slow release and super fast attack I selected on the unit. Often called the Opto Mode, which uses a seperate circuit to emulate older more colourful devices like the LA-2A. This gave the signal a subtle boost in high-mid and weirdly dropped my signal in the low end. The frequency analysis of the dbx compressor gives a slight boost around 300Hz then has an even larger drop of those bass frequencies. After analysing these frequencies it was easy to see that because compression effects low-end the most, it was attenuating those parts of the spectrum more and making them quieter. 

Frequency Response - AKG414

 Clean Sound - Large Boosts between 470Hz and 1.5K

Clean Sound - Large Boosts between 470Hz and 1.5K

 More Dynamic Boosts from the Distressor

More Dynamic Boosts from the Distressor

 A more rounded frequency response within 470Hz to 1.5K but a mid range boost at 220Hz not found in the other examples.    

A more rounded frequency response within 470Hz to 1.5K but a mid range boost at 220Hz not found in the other examples. 

 

dbx160a Compressor (Bottom on rack)

 Clean Vocal vs dbx160a Compressor

Clean Vocal vs dbx160a Compressor

 Clean Vocal (top) vs EL-8x Distressor Compressor

Clean Vocal (top) vs EL-8x Distressor Compressor

Verdict

After an in depth shoot out between microphones and compressors, i'd have to say that the dbx160a outshone the EL-8X Distressor by just a hair. I was really impressed at just how much the dbx160a changed the transients in the recording and made them just that little bit more dynamic. I'm guessing the Distressor would be great on things like percussion and drums, but for the vocal example the dbx160a beat all my expectations down to a pulp. Using the RE-20 alongside the dbx gave the vocal a way more dynamic transient response and definitely gave the singer more presence in the track. In part two of this blog series, i'm going to open the room up to some effects processing.