Anna Engberg’s best tips on good-looking song production

By | April 5, 2021


With several educations in her luggage, she has written a C-thesis on Vocal Pitch Correction and now works as the leader of the producer program Who can become a producer and as the main lecturer in the Audio Production Program at the SAE Institute in Stockholm.

Would you like to tell us step by step how you work with voice – from recording to mixing?
– First and foremost, I think it is important to understand what the song wants, what is to come, that’s what it’s all about. Then in some projects it is about choosing the right vocalist, in others it is about working with the vocalist to get the right feeling and tone in the performance. Microphone selection may matter, but in the end you will always get a better result with good sound from the source.

– I think the room is also important for the end product, almost more important than the microphone. A sensitive microphone will pick up a lot of room. If the room has a lot of strange sounds in it, it will disturb the end result. Then I would rather take a “worse” microphone in a better room. I also do not like to record song in too large rooms, I often feel that it becomes difficult to get intimacy then.

– How I work with coaching varies a lot from vocalist to vocalist; some just want to go into the studio and tear off a couple of shots and then be ready, others want more practical coaching on singing technique, some sing best when you sit for a while and talk about what the song means to them. I feel after from session to session, but it is always important that the vocalist feels comfortable.

– When recording, I think the most important thing to achieve is the feeling and the sound. If it is a little sour, it can be fixed afterwards, but feeling can not be added with a plug. I try to get it as good as possible already from the recording, then it is easier to get a feel for what works and what does not. It can be about arrangements, parts, dubbers being or non-being, what kind of sound I am looking for. If, for example, there is a lot of reverb on, I would like to record with it in the listening, it makes it easier for the vocalist to correct his technique himself according to how it should sound in the end.

– Processing distinguishes between songs. For a more natural sound, I work a lot in Melodyne, mainly with timing and gain adjustments, but it depends on the vocalist. After that, it is usually Pro-Q3 that I use to cut off the bottom and make adjustments if there is something in the sound that stands out too much, but I also usually use the dynamic eq to take care of sibilants. I have not found any de-esses that I think make the job as transparent and controllable. Otherwise, I usually cut out the sibilants and lower the regions. I use compressors mostly for the sake of the sound, I usually try to make sure that the volume of the signal is okay through the song during the pitch chorus, maybe even before with the help of clip gain. Also loves working with parallel processing, such as compression and distortion.

– In songs with a bit more produced sound, I like to put an Antares Autotune on, it does so much more than just adjusting the pitch. It’s really different how I process vocals, but I usually try to imagine how I want it to sound in the mix and then use the tools that I know take the sound in that direction, instead of using a preset channel strip.

How do you usually think when choosing a microphone for a particular voice?
– As my colleague Katharina Grubmuller usually says – a good microphone is a microphone that sounds. But if there are choices, I usually try to take a microphone that highlights what may be missing in the voice for the sound I want to achieve, and not one that enhances features that I will still lower with the eq afterwards. Same thing with dynamics. If the song is to be compressed a lot in the mix, there is no point in a microphone that is super good at picking up transients. Which microphone I choose will color the sound source, so I always try to choose one that does as much of the mix job for me as possible so I do not have to do so much afterwards.

What do you think is most important in a song recording?
– Feeling and timbre! Much of the other can be solved afterwards, although of course it always gets better if it is good from the beginning.

Can you tell us more about the plugs you return to when you mix vocals?
– Celemony Melodyne for transparent pitch corrosion, timing and gain-riding, Antares Autotune for more produced sound. Fabfilter Pro-Q3 I can not live without. I change compressors depending on the day feeling and what I am looking for. For distortion, I usually run Fabfilter Saturn. Should it be really dirty, I like to rehearse the song through a guitar amplifier, some fun pedal or similar plugin and run it in parallel. A guilty-pleasure plug on vocals is the Waves Infected Mushroom Pusher (currently 40% off). It has a pot called “Magic” that really grinds to the middle in a nice way.

– When it comes to reverb, I often end up on either Soundtoys Little Plate or Native Instruments RC48, with eq before and after, and after that often WavesFactory TrackSpacer with the lead song track as key input to make the live sound end up a little further in the sound. I also usually make sure that not too many sibilants go into reverb or delay because it can quickly get messy.

Is it different to mix your own voice compared to someone else’s?
– Practically speaking, no. Psychologically, absolutely! It’s hard to listen to one’s own voice, we ourselves only hear it with all the resonances we get in the skull and sinuses, so it sounds completely different from the outside than we think it should do. It’s something we all get to practice and get used to. In my C-thesis I wrote about Vocal Pitch Correction, and then corrected the pitch of my own voice fifteen times with different software. Then I listened to it together with several producers and technicians I interviewed. It was awful, but quite useful in retrospect. I think the most important thing is to try to distance yourself from the soundtrack and not overwork it. Otherwise, it is so easy to edit the track until it becomes flat and dull.

What are you up to date with in the future?
– I produced an album for Johanna Bakke which was released in May, and an EP with Alyza will be coming soon. Then there are some songs I have mastered that come out a little now and then. Otherwise, many projects have been disturbed by the corona situation, unfortunately. But I look forward to being able to roll with them when the situation has eased a bit.

Read more:
> Anna Engber’s website
> Who can become a producer
> SAE Institute

The Monday interview is a series where @Lotta Fahlen interviews interesting people about various topics in music creation, and is published every other Monday.