I asked a number of singers about the techniques that vocal producers have used with them to bring out their best performances. I also asked them to tell me about the factors that kept them from performing at their best. I spoke with session singers, recording artists and some who do both. From their comments, I put together this list.
Do have a positive attitude, always. Arif Mardin would say, “That was fabulous; let's try it again.” You may bring up something that bothers you, but say it in an affirming, positive way. “That was great, but there were a few notes that were a little sharp, let's try it again,” works better than, “Your pitch is terrible!”
Do be as specific as possible in your criticisms so that it will be easy for the singer to correct the problem. Tell him/her whether a note was flat or sharp, not just out of tune.
Do follow your intuition when making comments to the singer. If after one or two takes you have nothing to say, then say nothing.
Do have the mic(s) set up, turned on and plugged in. Have headphones plugged in and tested, and a music stand for lyrics in place before the session.
Do your homework. Listen to that singer's recordings (most singers have something up on the Web). Picture that singer's voice on the song, and make sure the song is right for him/her. Don't count on singers to change their sound for you.
Don't be heavy-handed. One singer put it this way, “I've had producers who use scare tactics and intimidation in the vocal booth, and perhaps they've managed to get some good vocals that way, but I think that way sucks and is the antithesis of what making music should be about.” Another singer, who does a lot of studio work, said, “I've walked into sessions where the tension was so high you could walk a tight rope on it. And no matter how ready I was to sing or how great the sound was, it was just no fun or I couldn't get the performance I wanted.”
Don't spend time fiddling with gear or the computer during the vocal session. This can break a singer's creative flow.
Don't expect singers to do well with a track that's in a bad key for them or that's in a style that they do not sing well. It's not hard to determine the best key for a singer. While listening to a previous recording of his/her voice, find the highest good note, the lowest good note and one or two really strong notes in the middle. Then determine the high, low and really important notes in the song. Match them up and you've got the right key. If you can't decide between two keys, have both of them ready for the singer.