Vocal Chords: Fixing The Disconnect

The purpose of a vocal is to connect with your audience, but clearly, not all singers do. The reason for that lack of connection is often a reflection of a lack of connection within the singer—if the singer doesn’t bond with the vocal, there’s no way the audience is going to bond with the singer. This can be a particular problem in the studio, where there’s no audience to prompt you to remain connected to the vocal; so here are ways to prompt yourself. In the process, you’ll connect better with your listeners.


As obvious as it may sound, reflect on the fact that music and lyrics are a single package: One of a vocalist’s main tasks is to integrate the two into a single experience. To put it in tech terms, music and lyrics are each separate data streams, and the singer multiplexes them into a single, cohesive statement. Or, think of the melody as the carrier, and words as the modulator. In any event, the point is never to emphasize one element at the expense of the other.

Aretha Franklin is an outstanding example of someone who fuses lyrics and melody into a single entity. Bob Dylan is another one, whose quirky lyrics match his quirky voice; or consider Bob Marley, whose vocals were sometimes closer to a percussive instrument.

For some examples of people who don’t fuse music and lyrics, just tune in to any American Idol show where they’re auditioning singers. Some of them are so into screaming and overemoting with their voice they forget that they’re also supposed to be telling a story. Sometimes I almost feel you could go up to these people, say “What were you singing about?,” and they wouldn’t be able to tell you.


When you’re singing, you’re a salesperson— because you need to sell the listener that you believe in what you’re singing, that you know how to sing, and that you’re worth listening to.

They say the best salespeople are those who believe in the product they’re selling, and that includes singing. But this doesn’t just mean confidence; plenty of lousy singers truly believe they’re great. Of course, believing in yourself never hurts, but believing in the song is key. There’s no point in singing lyrics you don’t believe in, whether it’s a cover song or something you wrote. If you ever find yourself “going through the motions” when singing a song, strike it from your repertoire or album.


When singing live, eye contact is crucial for establishing a connection with the audience. When I go on stage, the most amazing thing is all those eyes looking at me—which immediately makes me want to look into the eyes of everyone there. We’re human; we long for contact and communication, and singing to people means you not only have to believe in the song, you have to believe that someone else does, too.

But how can you possibly simulate that in the studio? Although you can’t make eye contact with your listener, you can increase intimacy in two ways: Use the proximity effect to add bass and warmth, and/or use compression or limiting (Figure 1) to make you sound “closer” to the listener.

Generally, intimacy implies a natural, close-up sound—something almost conversational in nature (although possibly a loud conversation!). But intimacy has other facets. Getting back to the “fusion-of-twodata- streams” concept, sometimes the way the voice connects is by being distant and ethereal—sounding more like a voice from inside the listener, rather than being outside the listener (for a prominent example of this style, think Enya). It’s even possible to combine both; this is something Dido does well, with a voice that’s both evocative, but conversational.


When you cut a vocal, you must turn off the internal critic that apparently lives in just about every artist’s head. Don’t attempt to judge yourself when you sing. Don’t think “On my next take, I need to do that phrase better.” It’s harder to turn this off than you might think, because selfjudgment is something that happens almost sub-consciously—you’ll probably find that once you become conscious of that internal critic, first you’ll curse me for making you aware of something you now can’t ignore, and second, that it’s hard to turn off. But you must turn it off. Remember, you’re selling that vocal to the listener, not just yourself. Put everything you have into projecting that vocal outward. Listen to yourself only enough to make sure you’re on pitch; put all your energies into your voice. It’s like baseball: You don’t look at the bat, you look at the ball and you naturally move the bat to hit it. Always keep the end listener in mind, and your vocal will flow naturally toward that goal.