Recording vocals can be a challenge— even if you’re experienced. For the singer, preparation, technique, and energy are critical. On the production side, understanding how singers work—as well as what you can do to help them deliver brilliant performances— are essential skills. But whichever side of the glass you’re on, these 12 tips should guide you to fruitful, dynamic, and inspired sessions.
See the Coach
Working with a vocal coach prior to recording is always a good idea. Go through the material you’re going to record, and listen to the coach’s feedback on pitch, phrasing, stamina, breathing, and so on. The goal is to remedy any potential vocal problems before you stand in front of those sexy studio mics.
Work out the song so that the lyrics, timing, phrasing, and breathingare rock solid before you start recording. This sounds so obvious, but many singers and producers blow this step, and the result is often a performance that’s less than what it could (or should) be.
Choose the Right Key
A half-step up or down can make a huge difference in whether a singer can deliver a great performance. Try the song in at least three keys: the key you think it will work in, a half step higher, and a half step lower.
Most singers typically need 45 minutes to an hour to warm up their voices enough to cut a good vocal. Matt Forger— who engineered Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous albums—advises, “Do vocal exercises so that your voice will sound up to par right from the beginning of the session.” I like to sing scales in an octave sequence up to my high end, and then sing the chorus of the song I’m about to record to see if my voice feels completely comfortable and free. Remember, unlike guitarists or keyboard players, the singer’s body is their instrument, so make sure the vocalist is in his or her “peak-performance zone.”
Do a “Flight Check”
Before you press the Record button at the session, make sure the singer is prepared mentally, physically, technically, and emotionally to give a great performance. “Recording is a psychological, as well as a technical process,” notes Buddy Halligan, chief audio engineer for USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “The producer/engineer needs to understand that they need to make the singer feel comfortable and confident, so that they can deliver the best vocal possible.”
Don’t make the vocalist wait for other instruments to be tracked before you start on the vocals. The singer may get tired or distracted, and lose the energy required to cut a great vocal track. Always schedule a separate date that focuses solely on the vocal tracks.
Watch Your Mouth
Take caution and only drink water or tea. Recently, I had a bite of chocolate before I sang a track (I couldn’t resist), and the engineer “heard” the change in my vocal tone. Ouch! Happily, the antidote was taking a bite of a green apple.
Microphones bring out different textures, timbres, and overtones. Try a least three mics for reference, and choose which one sounds best. Don’t make the selection based on the price or model. (Don’t laugh—some musicians go for the most expensive mics whether those mics enhance their voice or not.)
First, you need a good headphone mix to ensure the singer can feel the music. A vocalist shouldn’t start singing until he or she is 100 percent happy with their mix. If the headphones kick in a feeling of claustrophobia, go for the one earpiece on/one earpiece off method. This approach lets you hear both the track and the sound of your voice in the recording space. Additionally, you can cover the “free” ear to tap into bone resonance if you need to hear your voice clearer.
Have a Road Map
Put a lyric sheet on a music stand and use it to make notes—including breath marks. The engineer and producer should have copies, as well, so that they can notate pitchy parts, lyric goofs, technical misfires, and any other problems. When everyone is on the same page, so to speak, the chore of fixing less-than-stellar moments in the vocal performance is much easier.
Make sure that all vocal instructions are clear and specific. This is where constructive criticism comes in. Negativity only makes things worse.
The recording process will always take longer than you think. You may want to cut three lead vocals and all the harmonies in one four-hour session, but the goal is to cut an amazing vocal, not check off objectives on a to-do list. In short, don’t choose quantity over quality.