In the studio, singers give their best performances when they're comfortable, confident and contented. As the producer, it's your job to make them feel that way. This article will delve into a number of key subjects related to vocal producing, and offer tips to help make your sessions go as smoothly as possible. I'll look at session preparation, choosing the right gear for your vocal chain, getting a great headphone mix, compressing on input, understanding when to press on with more takes and when not to, critiquing constructively, dealing with pitch problems and more.
The late Arif Mardin was an expert at making singers feel at ease and at recording great performances. When a singer arrived for a session, Mardin would go out in the hallway to greet this person at the elevator and show him/her back to the studio. He was always gracious, positive, relaxed and funny. He would make the artist feel like a star and a co-creator.
FIG 1: Vocal, comp and background vocal tracks set up in Digidesign Pro Tools before a session begins. Note the reverb sends are already in place and turned up.
When singers come to my suburban studio, I also greet them at the door. I make sure that the coffee is made or whatever tea they like is ready for them. I have water for them in the studio. I make sure the studio and bathrooms are clean. I try to make them feel welcome without fawning. I make lunch for them. Good sandwiches make good records.
It's important to set up as much as possible before the singer gets there. Create as many vocal tracks as you may need in your DAW, both leads and backups. Set up a good vocal reverb on an aux track and send a moderate amount of each vocal track to that reverb (see Fig. 1). Make sure the instruments are turned down lower than normal so that the vocal can be louder without overloading your master bus.
You can skimp in some areas gear-wise, but not when it comes to your vocal chain. Invest in at least one good mic and mic pre. Pick mics and pre's that barely color the sound. Added harmonics are technically distortion and cannot be removed later. The brightness of tubes can be exciting, but can also make a vocal sound small and pinched in a mix. I would recommend against using both a tube mic and a tube mic pre at the same time.
If you own more than one good vocal mic and you haven't worked with the singer before, set up all your mics and record the same song section on separate tracks with each mic. Listen to each track and — this may sound a little weird — let your heart, not your ears, decide which mic is better for that singer.
You can help keep levels under control by lightly compressing the signal on input. I wouldn't recommend more than a 3:1 ratio, with 3dB gain reduction at most (see Fig. 2). Keep your eye on the compressor as the session goes along; a singer can get louder as he/she warms up.
I also put a brickwall limiter in line that I've set to kick in just before digital distortion occurs in case I've failed to keep the level down otherwise.
Cue Me In
A good cue mix is critical. When I was a session player, I would sometimes get so distracted by a bad, distorted mix in the cans that I could barely play. As a producer, I always listen to the same mix the performers are hearing, and I try to put myself in their shoes in terms of what they need to hear. The vocal level, in particular, should be about 6 to 10 dB hotter than it would be in a final mix. I also use a good-quality, 100-watt amplifier just to drive the headphones. Most mixer or DAW headphone outputs don't have the power to drive even one set of headphones cleanly at recording levels.
Encourage the singer to move one ear of the headphones back off his/her ear. This helps everybody sing in tune. And once that's done, keep the vocals panned up the middle so your singer will hear everything.
There is a great temptation to turn up the mic pre to help the singer hear him/herself. Don't do this; it often results in distorted vocal tracks. Instead, lower all the instrumental tracks the same amount and turn up the headphone volume. (A good-quality amplifier will give you the headroom to do that.)
Use pro headphones: Consumer models can't handle the volume peaks of a vocal session. They also leak sound more than pro phones, causing bleed on your tracks.
Singers appreciate it when a producer is skilled at producing and arranging backup vocals. I keep a keyboard plugged in and turned on, routed through an aux channel, to help me find notes, and give reference notes to the singer, when necessary.
Takes and Tracks
I like to record five to 10 takes of a lead vocal all the way through. I find that most singers are best able to capture the emotional arc of a song when they sing it from beginning to end. Record each take on a separate track or playlist. Record everything and keep everything! When you say, “Let's run through it once first,” make sure you're actually recording. You never know what you'll get in unguarded moments.
FIG 2: The typical setting for vocal sessions on the author's Amek 9098 compressor/limiter features a 3:1 ratio and the soft-knee setting.
Most of the time, the first two or three takes will not sound great. At this point, it's best to just move on to the next take without much comment. By the third or fourth take, the singer usually hits his/her stride and starts sounding good.
This is a good time to make comments or perhaps listen back to the last take. I don't recommend listening to inferior takes while you're recording. The singer will just get discouraged. Generally, around the sixth or seventh take, you'll hear the singer's voice start to get tired. When the performance starts deteriorating with each successive take, it's time to stop.
There are exceptions to this arc of takes. Some singers will nail it on the first or second try, then over-think the takes after that. Others will need more than three or four takes to peak. And some will have to come back another day to really nail it. This is all okay, and it's important to let the singer know that.
Some singers, particularly session singers, prefer to concentrate on one section until it's right and then move on to the next. As long as the singer is warmed up, this method can work well as an alternative to going through the entire song on each take. This way, the singer can perfect the verse while his/her voice is still fresh, and then go to the chorus, where the higher notes are more of a strain.
Then it's time to assemble your takes into one composite performance, or comp. You can do this with the singer in the room or by yourself. I recommend using vocal pieces that are as long as possible in your comp to maximize the emotional flow. If there is a note you don't like, you can either get it from another track or digitally tune it. Don't ignore the earlier warm-up tracks. You might find some gems in there.
The Heart Of It
A vocal performance has to communicate the meaning and emotion of the lyrics. If, after a few takes, I'm not feeling that from the singer, I'll ask the him/her to think about the meaning of the lyrics as he/she is singing. Sometimes I will ask the singer to picture someone that they are singing the lyrics to. We will sometimes stop and talk about what the song means — what the writer intended and what it means to the singer.
If, on the other hand, the performance is over-emotional, I will ask the singer to try a take with absolutely no feeling or expression, just as an experiment. As very few people can actually sing with no feeling, this will sometimes yield a nicely understated performance. In any case, it provides a good baseline to start adding emotion back in.
If the singer is not locked into the beat, I will encourage him/her to concentrate more on the track than on the vocal itself. Focusing on the backbeat is particularly helpful. When a singer is having pitch problems, there are three basic options: You can try to get the best performance in terms of feel and emotion and then fix pitch problems later with Antares Auto-Tune (or the equivalent). You can work with the singer on his/her pitch and repeat problem spots until they are right. Or, if there are enough notes that are in tune, you can put together a comp track of in-tune notes. I find that a combination of these three techniques generally works best.
If I were to sum up vocal producing in a single phrase, it would be “know your stuff and be nice.”
Steve Skinner (steveskinnermusic.com) has worked as a record and demo producer for 25 years, recording and engineering thousands of vocal tracks. He is also an arranger/programmer.