Production Central: The Other Side of the Glass

During the past 10 years, improvements in gear have made the art of vocal production much easier. Even so, vocal tracking and production can still be the most demanding aspect of producing a song. Getting that perfect vocal often requires a lot more than just a good mic processed through a quality chain of outboard gear.
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During the past 10 years, improvements in gear have made the art of vocal production much easier. Even so, vocal tracking and production can still be the most demanding aspect of producing a song. Getting that perfect vocal often requires a lot more than just a good mic processed through a quality chain of outboard gear.

Why is it so difficult? Singing in the studio is often daunting even for those who are experienced at it, and for singers not used to the intricacies of the studio, it can be a nightmare. It''s the producer''s job to bring the best qualities out of singers'' voices while hiding their weaknesses.

I''ve recorded a lot of vocalists, and here are some of the techniques that I''ve found to help make a vocal session more productive.

First and foremost, try to establish a good rapport with the talent. I try to create a comfortable setting that feels like a safe creative space to the singer. No matter whether the vocalist is a seasoned recording artist or a demo singer, you''ll get a better response to your direction if this person trusts your judgment as a producer. The more trust that''s there, the easier it is for the vocalist to focus more on emotion and less on technique.

One way to gain this trust is to speak in a musical language that the singer understands. The adjectives or slang the singer employs may be a lot different from yours. By establishing a set of terms that work for that vocalist, you can be sure you''re speaking the same language. For example, you may refer to a rushed vocal as “ahead of the beat” while the singer thinks of a rushed vocal as “uptight.” If I want the singer to sing the phrase a little behind the beat, I might use terminology like “lay back” or “loosen up.” And slang is an important part of understanding someone''s point of view. The slang terms in rock or metal may be different than the slang terms in hip-hop. Pay attention to these details or you may alienate your singer by sounding out of touch, which could lead to a loss of confidence in you.

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Before the singer steps into the booth, it''s important to make him or her feel comfortable and confident.

I often find out what singers the vocalist listens to or is inspired by so that I can refer to vocal takes from that artist as a reference. For example, if I was cutting an R&B vocal with Big Mike (of American Idol fame), I might say, “put some R-Kelly in this, but lay it back like Snoop.” He knows those references, so the meaning is much deeper than, “make this section staccato but swing the placement of the notes.”

Find out what kind of physical environment the singer enjoys—dark, bright, warm, cold, etc.—and try to recreate it. Studios can be really sterile; don''t expect a great vibe if the studio has none. Even just dimming the lights or lighting a candle may put the signer in a better headspace. Offer warm water with lemon or a bottle of water. This kind of hospitality puts the singer at ease and gives you time to have a conversation to get to know him or her better. Asking singers about themselves lets them know that you care about how they feel and you''re concerned with their success.

Time of day and session length can make a huge difference in a singer''s tone. Some sound better in the late afternoon or evening. This is most likely due to the vocal-chord warmup they receive from regular daily conversations. Find out in advance and schedule accordingly.

For TV-commercial vocal productions where time is pressing, I may not be able to shift the time of the session to the evening because the clients may want to work a standard 9-to-5 day and there may be multiple vocalists in one session. This limits my schedule a bit, but if I speak with the singers ahead of time and ask them when their voice seems to be the strongest, I may be able to schedule them in an order that''s nearest their best performance time.

I try to avoid marathon vocal sessions where the singers start to get physically tired and have to drink caffeine to keep their energy level up. Caffeine dries out the vocal chords, which can change the overall quality of a singer''s tone. Having two 4-hour sessions over a two-day period is often better than one 8-hour session. So it''s best to leave enough time to learn a singer''s stamina and then proceed accordingly.

In the vocal booth, I usually have a couple of different pairs of headphones from which to choose. I recommend that the singer keep one ear off to keep better pitch, and I try to keep the headphone volume at a comfortable level. If the headphone volume is too loud, the playback will fatigue the ears and make it hard to perform well during the course of the session. It can also ruin a take due to bleed-through, which most commonly occurs when the headphone volume is so loud that the microphone picks up the music or click track during a take. It''s often masked by the music itself, but if it occurs in a quiet section, or where a chord is ringing and there are no drums hitting, it can be a real problem. And to compound it, the normal compression that you''d use on that vocal track can accentuate the bleeding click.

You can help vocalists hear themselves better by EQing the monitor bus. Rolling off the low end of a track makes the vocals pop out more. Many vocalists like to have a little reverb on the monitor bus, but you can just as easily add a vocal compressor to the same bus, which evens out their performance and brings up the perceived volume of the vocals in the headphone mix.

The classic vocal chain goes from your favorite microphone to preamp to compressor to EQ, and then into your DAW, but it''s not necessary to compress and EQ the vocal on the way in.

I tend to set the sensitivity of my mic according to the performance''s dynamics. I figured it out the old-fashioned way: having the vocalist practice the take. The practice take lets me adjust the gain, mic placement, headphone mix, etc., while the vocalist gets comfortable with the track. We run the take a couple of times, and when I''ve got it sounding pretty good and the singer is loose, we can rock ''n'' roll. Even though settings will vary from singer to singer and song to song, it''s worth practicing getting these levels set on your own time without the pressure of having someone there waiting for you to get it together. Taking too much time getting levels will bore the singer, and you could lose the vibe.

Microphone placement differs with each vocalist, but I tend to align the mic slightly off axis so that vocalist is not singing directly into the mic. I hide the off-axis mic with the popscreen because the asymmetry can be visually disconcerting.

This next step is crucial if your vocal sessions will take place on multiple days. After finding a good position for the singer relative to the microphone, mark that spot on the floor with some tape in a way that allows for reorientation each time he or she returns to the booth. For example, use a line that shows distance from the mic and maybe a “+” mark that shows orientation. If you don''t do this, you may not be able to comp takes from different days into one seamless performance without EQing each take prior to comping.

Finally, try to keep it fun. You get much better takes if you''re encouraging your vocalist and offer only constructive criticism. Just remember what it''s like to be on the other side of the glass.

Ming is a New York City-based artist, producer, and DJ. He owns Hood Famous Music and co-owns Habitat Music.