Vocalists are unique creatures in the musical world. Most carry a collision of ego and sensitivity that is unparalleled by other musicians.
To do their job well they have to emote, often showing a part of themselves reserved only for the people closest to them. As spectators we take this challenge for granted, but it can make for very complex and challenging recording situations.
Full disclosure: I have been a singer for as long as I can remember. I am the erratic creature I mentioned above, but being a singer has given me a very valuable perspective on recording vocals. Most of the time, vocalists are the way they are because of the responsibility they have within a song. Vocalists carry the weight of a song on their shoulders because they are the ones that will largely define the emotion. They’re the ones up front selling it so, as the old saying goes, performance is everything. Everything. Because of this, we as producers and engineers have to respect a singer’s needs, whether they know what they need or not. Over the years of recording, these are the five most important things that I’ve learned about vocal sessions...
1. Set the mood – When it comes to recording vocals you might as well put your diploma of audio recording in the closet and take out your bellboy hat because you are officially in the hospitality business. Recording vocals is about making the singer comfortable and confident. If they want bear-skin rugs and scented candles, you have to try your best to deliver.
The needs of the singer will vary from session to session. Some want you recreate a to-scale version of the Sistine Chapel for them to sing in, others only feel comfortable in the control room, while others are easy-going about it all. Be skeptical of “easy-going” singers though, because it’s often just a façade. The reality is they just might not know what they want. This is a dangerous situation because you can end up spending hours, or even days, trying to chase a performance that just won’t happen. If this is the case, make sure to evaluate your own demeanor so that you’re presenting yourself in a way that’s open and flexible. A vocalist should understand that your priority is to get a great performance, so most of their requests won’t be unreasonable or outlandish. Or at least you won’t make them feel that way.
2. Hydrate – One of the biggest challenges of being a singer is the fickleness of the instrument. One day it might sound like the heavens are parting, the next day it could sound like a bagpipe being tuned. Some singers are resilient but most are heavily affected by sleep and hydration. Once in the studio, there’s only so much control you have over sleep, but you can still address hydration. Ideally, a singer will have been hydrating for a couple of days leading up to a session (because it takes some time for the body to really absorb the liquids), but even on the day there’s still actions that can be taken. First, try to minimise diuretics like caffeine and alcohol. A coffee to wake up in the morning is okay, as is a drink to unwind, but they’re really not ideal liquids.
3. Headphone mix – A good headphone mix plays a huge part in making a singer feel confident. The difficulty is that singers often don’t know what to ask for. A good starting point is giving them lots of themselves and a strong bass and kick. Hearing themselves helps a singer with their confidence and pitch, while the bass and kick give them good pitch and time references. Recognise that singers often think that they know what they want but can’t articulate it. The more sessions you work the more you will see patterns in the requests and you’ll be able to adjust your headphone mixes accordingly.
4. When a singer is ready, they’re ready – It’s unexplainable, it’s fickle and often irrational, but you have to accept that to get the best performance you are at the whim of a singer. Some singers like to sing early in the day, others will squander a day playing Halo and then bang out the greatest take in one shot at three in the morning. You can coax and encourage a singer all you want but ultimately they will be ready on their own time. It’s your job to be ready to hit record the second that happens.
5. Leave the easy singing to the end – Some singers have more endurance than others, but it’s a safe bet that a vocalist can only sing well for a few hours. Beyond that you’ll get a sub-par performance. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use the rest of your studio day-rate though. Structure your days so that you work on the easier material later in the day. This can be songs, or parts within a song, that are well within the vocalist’s range, or even material that the singer is more confident with. Harmonies are also a good choice. Some singers require long warm-up periods, so sometimes it’s not a bad idea to start with something easy. Try not to lose too much time on it though or else your singer won’t be able to perform when needed later in the day. Whichever you choose, stay mindful of the tonal consistency of the vocal. Vocal comping will be a painstaking process if the singer’s tone is all over the place.
One of my favourite parts of recording vocals is finding the moments. The spectacular, indescribable moments that convey an artist’s emotional intention with such preciseness that they are undeniable. They can come from anywhere – the length of vibrato, a breathy vowel, a slight crack in the pitch. These are the moments that break your heart, boil your blood, or leave you elated. Ultimately, it’s these moments that you’re working to capture.
Despite everything that I’ve mentioned here, don’t get too caught up in the details of how you get those moments. The vocal chain, scented candles and cups of South African rooibos tea don’t matter if they don’t help deliver a breathtaking moment. Every vocal session is different so pinpointing what’s necessary to capture those moments is difficult. In the end though, we must be open-minded, empathetic and understand that people skills go a lot further than anything else in getting an amazing vocal take.
Ryan McCambridge is an experienced producer, engineer, writer and audio educator from Toronto, Canada. He is the creator of the production blog Bit Crushing and the frontman of A Calmer Collision.
Ryan's websites: www.bitcrushing.com / www.acalmercollision.com
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