Vocal Cords: 8 Ways to Help A Singer Nail It!

One of the most tenuous and frightening “strategic opps” in the studio is coaxing a show-stopping, ear-bending performance from a vocalist. So much is at stake, and so much can go wrong. You can’t depend on the other elements of the production to save your ass, either, because a brilliant guitar solo—or a fabulous snare sound, or a mammoth kick drum—won’t lift a track into the charts (or blast it on the radio, or seduce downloads) if the vocal sucks. As Bill Murray bellowed in Stripes, “That’s a fact, Jack!”
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Of course, DAWs let you cut, paste, re-pitch, and otherwise wrangle a vocal recording, so you’re never truly down for the count. But we’re not exploring technological leapfrogging, here. We’re talking about capturing all the spine-tingling emotion, phrasing, articulation, power, and timbre right from the source. And, trust me, you’re definitely summersaulting on a pin without a net when you face the intricacies of extracting glory from the human voice. Here are a few survival tips.


A common challenge is when a singer swoops in-between pitches. It can get more confusing if you ask the artist, “Did you mean to sing this note, or that note?” Creative whimsy may cause them to rethink the melody and juggle options—which means you may be chasing that line for a while. Consider establishing the final melody line in pre-production, and then laying down a guide track by playing the notes on a piano. When there’s a clear reference, there’s no room for uncertainty or debate (unless the artist hits a surprise note that’s absolutely transcendent—in which case, don’t be a slave to the guide), and the singer should be more relaxed and confident. Some producers record guide tracks with another singer, but I prefer using a simple piano track, because I don’t want the real vocalist to be influenced by the guide singer’s approach.


Many singers are so seduced by the sound of their voice that they don’t consider the meaning or inherent musicality of the lyrics. I somewhat unfairly call this the “American Idol Syndrome,” because the hit reality show sometimes prompts less-experienced singers to regard a killer vocal as all ornamentation and bombast. Even singers who should know better can fall victim to the “lyric ignorant” approach. Direct your vocalist to read the lyrics several times, because the words offer excellent clues to phrasing, appropriate intensity levels, dynamics, and the critically important art of acting out and conveying a story line (or an emotional landscape) to the listener.


Reverb is very sexy, but if there’s too much of it in the headphone mix, it can mess with a singer’s intonation and phrasing. I never put reverb or delay in the cans.


. . . the headphone mix is thrilling and exciting. The closer it sounds to a final mix, the more inspired the singer will be. They might not even notice you’ve terminated the vocal reverb.


Extremely distorted or heavily effected guitars (or keyboards) can make it difficult to find a comfy pitch reference. Turn them down, and/or add a precisely tuned, unaffected guitar to the mix that exists solely for the vocal sessions.


If a singer hates wearing headphones, and is delivering a lackluster vocal—toss ’em. Let them sing in front of the monitors. Very slick engineers put the monitors out of phase so the tracks don’t sneak into the vocal mic, but I just position the singer where the signal leakage is minimal. A great performance is way more important than a bit of bleed.


Rather than track separate parts, have the singer uncork complete “live” takes so he or she can really lean into the performance with intensity. A great vocal tells a story, and it’s tough to nail the narrative if you’re focusing only on singing choruses or specific verses. You can comp parts and fix boo-boos later on. It works for Bono.


Don’t beat the life out of the vocal and the vocalist. Many singers get no better after three or four takes. If it’s not happening—stop. Discuss the rough spots, have the singer go off and refine his or her approach, and schedule another vocal session. Take full advantage of the fact there’s no “clock” in the home studio. Perceived deadlines will kill you if you’re just concerned with getting something done. The only goal that matters is capturing a transcendent performance.