Few studio gigs are as torturous as cutting transcendent vocals. So
much is as stake, and everything from phrasing to timbre to pitch and
emotional delivery has to be absolutely compelling in order to seduce a
listener’s ears. It’s bad enough when you’re trying to coax a
magnificent performance out of an artist, but the stress levels can
really slam into the red when you’re tasked with recording your own
vocals, and must simultaneously juggle the responsibilities of artist,
engineer, and producer. To help you succeed in such tricky endeavors,
here are six “golden rules” for cutting your own vocal tracks.
This is not the time to drive yourself batty with logistical issues. You need to focus on the vocal performance, not how difficult it is to reach your mouse from the mic position. Make sure all necessary gear is within reach. Then, devise a self-recording scheme that is conducive to a hasslefree performance—no mic or headphone cables twisting annoyingly around your feet or head, nothing closing in around you (boxes, furniture, or walls) that might invite claustrophobia, and so on. If you hate singing into a mic on a straight stand, make sure you have a boom stand available. In short, viciously terminate any elements that will prevent you from having a good time singing.
DON’T SWEAT YOUR ENVIRONMENT
There are no rules that require you to be in a soundproof vocal booth to get a great vocal sound. Some of my best-sounding vocals were recorded sitting backwards in a chair in the control room. There are some general considerations such as making sure the space you’re recording in isn’t too noisy or too reverberant (unless you’re prepared to have those sounds in the mix, of course). You can minimize a lot of these concerns by tracking in a quiet, carpeted room, or by placing some blankets or towels on a hardwood floor (positioned to minimize unwanted reflections). Outside noise can be diminished by shoving towels under door jams, and muffling windows by positioning foam or thick blankets around them. You should also set your mic to its cardioid pattern, and sing close to it (perhaps an inch or two away), using a pop guard or turning your mouth slightly off-axis to the mic in order to avoid major plosives and sibilance.
REMEMBER THAT YOU’RE AN ARTIST
Singing is a musical endeavor, and, too often, this concept gets lost in technical concerns. So, as soon as you set up your vocal chain and test levels, forget about all the gadgets and lights and just sing. When you approach the microphone, your only task should be to let the song move you, and to communicate that emotion to the listener. Stay away from any and all production concerns, such as whether you’re hitting the notes exactly on key, or whether your timing is good.
Of course, it’s easier to forget about production concerns when you know you can deal with any imperfections later. For this reason—and many others— I am a firm believer in composite (comp) vocal tracks, because they allow a vocalist to sing a song from beginning to end multiple times. You can simply feel your way through the material as many times as you want, freely allowing the music to guide your performance without your having to worry about details. After all, getting bogged down in trying to fix a word or a line by punching-in immediately after a take can be draining, and you shouldn’t do anything that might take the life out of a vocal performance. So just sing multiple passes without allowing your editor/critic/producer into the equation. Just remember to label and save each take as you go. When you feel you’ve given it your all, and you are done singing, then you can put on your producer hat, listen back to each vocal take, and mark on a lyric sheet where the current take includes some good lines. After you’ve listened to every pass, and have taken the appropriate notes, there may still be a few lines that need work. Now, you can go after them knowing exactly what you’re missing and how to fix it. The more you keep the producer and artist separate during the comp vocal process, the more effective you’ll be in getting a great performance.
KNOW WHEN TO STOP
Even when freeing your mind by taking the comp track approach, there’s always a danger your “producer head” will still creep into your “artist head,” and drive you to keep singing and singing. Your brain will torment you by causing you to think, “I know the perfect vocal is just one take away,” and you’ll lose the perspective to determine when things are going well and improving, or when enough is enough. My recommendation is to take a short break every hour or so, and listen back to what you’ve sung. You may discover your best performance was five takes ago, and you’ve been wearing yourself out needlessly.
THE LYRICS RULE
The best singers sound as if they’re talking directly to you. You believe what they’re saying, because they believe what they’re saying. Simply put—just tell the story. When you truly understand the lyrical content of a song, the emotions, phrasing, pitch, vibe, and performance should follow.