Kiwi on the Radio: Recording Vocals at Sirius XM

If you ask his peers, Michael Taylor has every audio engineer’s dream job. As the house recording engineer for Sirius XM Radio, Taylor regularly records with industry luminaries like Paul McCartney, The Allman Brothers, Lenny Kravitz, John Legend, Ben Folds, Mary J. Blige, Seal, Ryan Adams, Cheap Trick, and the list goes on.

It’s not always a cakewalk though. Since vocals are recorded alongside loud instruments in the same room, microphone bleed is a major issue—making Taylor’s job significantly more challenging. Futhermore, the loud and enclosed environment can make it difficult for vocalists to accurately hear their performance. Fate intervened when he met up with the Blue team, who told him they might have answer to all of his noisy problems—the Kiwi multi-pattern FET studio condenser microphone, and Sadie headphones. We recently sat down with Taylor to discover how Kiwi and Sadie help him record pristine vocals in an extremely loud room. He shared insights on his mixing workflow, and explained what it’s like to work with legendary artists on the regular.

Kiwi was a total game changer, and now I use it everyday!

Artist | Matt The Electrician

Blue: How did you get your start at Sirius XM?

MT: In the 90s I started working in the audio departments of television networks like CNN to support my personal gear habit and fund my own studio projects. Eventually, I found my way into post production work for television shows. One day I learned that Sirius XM was building a new facility down the street here in Washington D.C., and I knew I wanted to work there. I took the job and started working in the engineering department while the studio was still being constructed. I read manuals for all of the equipment and studied the studio blueprints. When the studio was completed, I offered to record a few test performances. The powers that be liked what we were doing, and it’s evolved to what it is today. 

Blue: What are the challenges of recording everyone in the same room?

MT: Since we record performances in one large room, bleed is a constant challenge. We use a stackable gobo wall for drums to cut down some of the noise, but there’s always bleed. I try to make it work with the mix, but getting a clean vocal is challenging. When Blue asked me what I needed out of a microphone, I told them that I’d love to find a large diaphragm hypercardioid condenser that rejects background noise. At the time, I was using a basic dynamic microphone for vocals to manage the bleed, since large diaphragm vocal mics picked up too much noise. They told me about Kiwi, and gave me one to try out on a session.

Artist | Johnny Rzeznik

Blue: What were your initial impressions of Kiwi?

MT: The first time I used it was with the vocalist of a loud blues band. I figured it probably wouldn’t work and I would need to swap it out. But surprisingly, when I soloed it out there was hardly any bleed—just a big fat vocal that didn’t need much EQ at all. Kiwi was a total game changer, and now I use it everyday! I even use it on singer-songwriters who perform with a solo acoustic guitar. I angle the Kiwi towards the singer’s face, and there’s hardly any acoustic in the track.

Blue: How does the sound quality compare to the live dynamic you used previously?

MT: To make a regular dynamic mic cut through the mix, I needed to roll off a ton of low end to get rid of the bleed and acoustic garbage it picked up—I was basically doing damage control for every performance. With the Kiwi, I don’t have to do that and I can keep the bottom end. If the band cuts out during a song and it’s just a vocal, it sounds full. In the past I would drop in EQ for that section to keep it from sounding thin, and then drop it back out when the music kicked back in. 

Artist | Eric Gales

Blue: What are your thoughts about Sadie headphones?

MT: I recently tried the Sadie headphones on a session with Kendra Foster, who’s an amazing vocalist with lots of range. I knew right away that we needed a bunch of the headphones because they cut out so much ambient noise, which helps the vocalist focus on their performance. They sound great and are much louder then the headphones we currently use.

Artist | John Oates

Blue: Do you try to achieve a raw or more polished sound for the live performances?

MT: I want the sound to be more polished than raw, but no one listening to these sessions is going to be fooled it’s a song from an album. There’s a good chance it will be played next to a mastered studio record, so it has to be as loud and as full as the song that’s coming after. Nowadays everything is doubled on albums—guitars, vocals, harmonies, you name it—but I don’t have that luxury. Sometimes I’ll put two mics on a guitar amp to fatten up the sound, and there’s a few other tricks we’ve learned over the years to make the mix sound big.

Artist | Kendra Foster

Blue: Does your mixing approach change, based on the artist or band?

MT: It changes from artist to artist and from channel to channel. I’ll often listen to a band’s record before they come in to see what I’m working with. If their album sounds raw and bleedy, then I’m not as worried about a super clean mix. For example, when we work with a channel called “The Loft” that features a lot of independent artists, I can try more studio experimentation and use different plug-in effects. But if it’s an artist on the folk or jazz channel, I can’t experiment as much. It’s definitely a case-by-case basis.

Artist | Cory Branan

Blue: What’s the most memorable performance you’ve recorded?

MT: Cheap Trick played the entire “Cheap Trick at Budokan” live album in the studio, and their producer Jack Douglas came in to oversee the project. When they were finished at 9 or 10 p.m., he asked if I wanted to stay up all night and mix it with him. One of the interns got a bunch of junk food from the vending machine, and we went through track by track and recreated the entire “Cheap Trick at Budokan” album. At 5 a.m. he got on a train to go mix an Aerosmith album somewhere. That was a pretty mind-blowing experience.