Vocals: The Feel Factor

Have you ever experienced a live show where the vocalist blew your socks off and right into the dryer? The energy, the purity, the commitment— it was all there. Then, you hear the studio version of the same song by the same artist, and it’s a huge letdown because the vocals lacked all that you loved from the show?
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You are not alone, my friend. I think most of us who see live music often have the same experience. But why is this so common? Can’t people sing the same in the studio as they do on stage?

Well, it is true that singing in the studio and performing live are horses of a very different color. The live experience is primarily about energy, vibe, and becoming one with the audience. The recording world tends to be more about expertise, pitch, and control. And yet, a great studio vocal should encompass both worlds.

Don’t Fight the Feeling

The most important aspect of any lead vocal—irrespective of studio or stage—is feeling. I’ve had the extreme pleasure of working with some of my favorite vocalists of alltime, and there is a commonality to the way we work in the studio: We go for the feeling first, and know that the rest will follow. Without the feeling, there is no reason to book the session.

The singer is a storyteller, and the vocal approach has to breathe life into the lyrics and the music. The song also has to be believable, and to cut a believable vocal, the singer has to be the first believer. He or she must know the meaning of the song—and even the subtext of the lyrics—to really get inside it and deliver an ultimate performance. So we will run the song down, talk about what we are going for, get to know the arrangement, and when it all feels right, we go for it. As a result, the “keeper” vocal tends to be the first, second, or third take, or a combination of them all. If the singer isn’t feeling it after some coaching and trial-anderror, we will likely come back to it another time, and make it fresh again. I am not a fan of beating up vocals in the studio, as they always tend to sound beaten up when you hear them back.

Case Studies

While some artists may still wish to wrangle a vocal performance to death, I can say without hesitation that the projects I’ve done that have achieved gold or platinum success and/or a Grammy win, were practically all done live with minimal takes. For example, Bonnie Raitt and John Lee Hooker’s “I’m in the Mood for Love” was cut live with just the three of us, and we only did it once! We wanted the feeling that multiple takes sometimes just won’t provide— spontaneity.

I also did two projects with Todd Rundgren this way. The object was to create the pressure and adrenalin rush of getting it right live, so we heard the song for the first time the day we recorded it. The band was cut live, as well, and many of the songs had complex vocal arrangements. It was an intense experience to perform this way, but the music had an urgency that normal studio recordings often lack.

Van Morrison will only use first takes. When he feels the spirit of the song has been captured, he can’t be bothered if something falls slightly out-of-tune or out-of-time. Frank Sinatra worked the same way. Nobody told The Chairman he had to do another take.

Elvis Costello is another big believer in the “one and done” approach. For Painted By Memory, his album with Burt Bacharach, I sat at the board at Oceanway with Elvis on my right, and Burt on my left, and reviewed the “guide” vocals for the songs they had cut live. Everything I was hearing was brilliant. Elvis’ vocals were sometimes raw and almost out-of-control, and, other times, they were sweet and soft, but they were always exactly what the song wanted. Occasionally, as EC was not holding back at all, his voice would just give out. When that would happen, he would stop, catch his breath, and dive right in again. So when I was asked which vocals to fix and which to leave, I recommended only fixing the bits where his voice gave up the ghost. That is how it worked—the only overdubs were the vocals that were missing when his voice crapped out. So this acclaimed and masterful album is composed almost entirely of live guide vocals.

The final study here is about someone you would probably never regard as a “live feel” singer: Barbra Streisand. People consider Streisand a perfectionist—and she is—but when I worked with her, she cut her vocals quickly and (seemingly) effortlessly. She couldn’t have been more cool. In fact, she asked me to go into the vocal booth with her to show her the way I sang the demo. That was pretty weird! I’m supposed to show this legendary vocalist how to sing a song? Yup. It turned out she liked the feeling on the imperfect demo I did for her, and she wanted some phrasing and note tips. After showing her a couple of things with my squeaky voice, she was on her own. We did two takes, and we ended up using most of the first one. You see, even Streisand goes on feel. (Of course, you don’t exactly have to worry about things being out of tune with her—I have a feeling she probably yawns in tune.)

Fix the Note, Keep the Excitement

I have no problem tuning, timing, or manipulating vocals any which way after they are sung. Truth be told, I love that stuff! Often, I’ll get the feeling that’s needed for a vocal track, but, inevitably, there will be a few notes here and there that have to be dealt with. But while I am no stranger to judicious use of anything under the sun to make a vocal work better for a song, I also know that not every “bad” note needs fixing. You have to be cautious, and keep those slight imperfections that are, well, perfect. After all, you can fix pitchy vocals with any number of tools, but as of this writing, I’m not aware of any plug-in that can create passion.