Volume Is Not a Problem: an Interview with Van Canto’s Stefan Schmidt

At first when I was approached about doing a feature on Van Canto, everyone’s favorite (and only) German a capella (plus drums) metal band, I thought… how the hell am I going to talk gear with them? And then I thought, this is exactly why I need to talk gear with them. What are the challenges involved in only using the human voice to provide the riffs, the basslines? How do you mix the band to sound as powerful as a metal record should?

Well, the band’s vocalist (no the other vocalist, no not him either, the other one) and part-time recording engineer Stefan Schmidt was there to answer my burning questions, and talk about Van Canto’s new record Dawn of the Brave, which will be released February 7th on Napalm Records.

van-canto_dawn-of-the-brave

Has the band returned to the same recording studio for multiple albums?

The first album was completely self produced in my studio. For the albums 2-5 we went into different studios for drum recording but always produced vocals in my studio. The mix of album 1, 3 and 4 was done by myself, album 2 was mixed by Charlie Bauerfeind and the current one mixed by Ronald Prent. So the only constant is that we recorded the main part of the vocals in my studio.

Is there a learning curve for engineers that record Van Canto? For example, for voices covering the bass end of the spectrum they might want a different microphone, closer mic’ing, etc?

Yes, of course. For the current album we already knew which bandmember would use which microphone and so on. Of course we vary some things, especially when it comes to group compressions and reamping, but there definitely is a learning curve.

What’s everyone in the band’s microphone of choice, or do you like to mix it up?

Ross and me (doing the “guitar” imitations) are using Audio Technica 4033 and 4040 microphones. Sly, the male lead singer is using a custom built tube microphone from Dieter Schöpf. Inga the female lead singer uses a Audio Technica 5040, like the Bass singer Ike. For the Background Vocals we used a Rode NTK.

Do you approach recording your voices differently if you’re tracking a lead vocal versus the rest of the arrangement?

This time I tracked all singers through the same preamp, an Universal Audio LA-610 MKII. On the earlier albums we also varied in the preamps and used the LA610 MKii, an SPL Channel One and a Manley Voxbox. This time we wanted to work like we had a big console with the same preamp in every channel, that’s why we used the same preamp. The guitar and bass vocals are much more coloured by the preamps that we used compared to the lead vocals, we use more compression and eq-ing during recording here.

Have you ever gotten experimental to get the right sound in the studio, or do you mostly stick to traditional voice recording techniques?

There is not so much difference in recording a Van Canto singer compared to a regular rock or metal singer. The difference is definitely more in singing style than in the gear. That’s why we like to use the quite “neutral” AT microphones for the instrument singers, it’s easier to focus on the sound created by the voice chords then.

Do you like to record yourselves in a more live sounding room for natural reverb? Or do you prefer a dry room and then control the ambiance in mixdown?

We are all quite loud singers, so we do not have to put to much input gain on the recordings. So we are allowed to record in a dry but not “dead” room. Especially when it comes to tuning, it’s easier to take one side of the headphones of, and then it’s more comfortable if the room is not too dry.

Does everyone record together or one at a time?

One at a time, only when we are adding the backing vocals we have some parts that we do together.

Are there any other challenges involved with your non-traditional instrumentation?

Of course when it comes to the mix, because you have to play a lot with eq-ing and especially bus compression to get a steady background sound that’s normally done by a fat distorted guitar playing powerchords with a lot of sustain. Apart from that the main differences are in arrangement.

What about live shows? Typically metal is a genre that deals in volume. Without stacks of speaker cabinets, can it be an issue to match the decibels of other bands on the bill?

No, volume is not a problem. We have a very loud drummer so we need some PA to keep up with him. But as I said we are quite loud singers, so there has never been a live engineer complaining about us being too silent, haha.

Any good stories of live sound people or recording engineers being baffled when you tell them you have no instruments besides drums?

In the beginning of course, nowadays most of the people get our riders in advance or even already know Van Canto. Of course it was something like a running gag like “Ok, then you need no equipment, just 5 microphones, right?”, which is not really true, as we always bring our own in ear monitoring place with us.

Is it just vocals and drums live or do you have any samples or prerecorded ambiance, subtle keyboards, anything like that?

Just vocals and drums, but we play a lot with chorus and voice doubling effects and also with very short delays and long reverbs, to get the sound fuller and more sustained. The live sound is definitely different from the album sound, and that’s ok.

Without an instrument to establish key, do you go by pure memory? Have you ever accidentally sung a song in E flat when you meant to sing it in E natural? Do your in ear monitors sometimes play a note or whatnot for you to calibrate your ears?

Yes, as I said we have in Ear monitoring, and we hear a click and a piano playing the chords throughout the songs. There’s also a short “count-in” and a “start-chord” so we all know what to do. Without that it would definitely end on a D flat if start on E, haha.

Do you collaborate on the arrangements of your music, or does one person typically handle that?

We collaborate on the songwriting, but the a cappella arrangements are done by me.

How do you decide who will take the lead on which song?

When we are writing own songs we already know it before starting to write. Concerning the covers, sometimes it’s clear, sometimes (like with Fear of the Dark) we even do something unexpected to get our own touch on the versions.

How has the new album been received? What’s next for Van Canto?

I do more interviews than with the last album but I haven’t read many reviews yet. We are very happy with the new album, so we don’t necessarily have to read every review to have a good feeling about Dawn of the Brave. We are all looking forward to the European tour, starting in February.

Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Anything else you wanted to mention before we wrap up?

Thanks for the interest in Van Canto and keep up the good work. Really an interesting interview with a lot of questions I have never been asked before. Great!

van-canto-2

Written by

Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and mp3.com were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.