My head engineer at Tiki Town Studios, Tom Luekens, loves to rattle me during vocal-production sessions by saying, “Pitch is irrelevant.” Yeah, I know that software gizmos give us the power to make a frog sound like Pavarotti, but does that mean I should let a singer coast? Does it truly enhance my production chops to document phrasing and attitude, and then let Tom sit for a couple of days in front of a flickering computer monitor, moving pitches around until the performance is actually in tune?
Thirty years ago, there wouldn’t have been such a moral dilemma, as “pitch correction” wasn’t software, it was the act of brutalizing a vocalist until he or she sang the right notes. Call me a dictatorial brute, but I still think that getting a vocal performance precisely right when it leaves the singer’s throat is the hippest way to record an impassioned journey through a song. For one thing, the singer controls their own unique approach to pitch, phrasing, dynamics, and energy. The essential elements of delivering a transcendent vocal performance are not co-opted by mouse clicks and electrons, and, as a result, the artist is allowed to take the listener through a true musical adventure.
Of course, if you don’t dig the idiosyncratic nature of ’60s rock performances— preferring instead the cloned choruses and super-perfect audio constructions of modern recordings—then all I’m doing is blahblah- blah-ing. However, if you’re willing to trust your vocalist, and chalk up slight imperfections to “personality,” then you should employ some old-school methods to get the vocals happening as they go down.
Few people can sing with confidence and in pitch if they can’t comfortably hear the backing tracks and their own voice. For various reasons, some engineers stick to rigid methods when tracking vocalists, and those methods can sometimes make it difficult for certain performers. I, on the other hand, will do whatever it takes to make the singer happy. If the singer is more comfortable singing without headphones and listening to the backing tracks through studio monitors, then I’ll let the vocalist rip and not worry about the resulting signal bleed. If they want to sing in a cardboard box with a PZM mic taped to their chest, I’ll be gaffer’s taping the mic before they step into the box. The point is that you can have a content and comfortable singer who is ready and willing to cut a fabulous vocal, or you can throw up tons of impediments and record a brilliantly clean audio signal of a duff performance. The choice is yours.
Some engineers assume a singer wants a “CD-ready” mix of the backing tracks to sing over, and that’s certainly not a bad assumption. But a bass-heavy track with scant chordal references might make it difficult to pitch in. In which case, you may need to mix the piano and/or guitar far louder than the tracks would be in the final mix. Likewise, a slew of sweetening parts might distract the vocalist, and make it hard for him or her to focus on the melody at hand. A better move might be to delete everything from the mix except drums, guitar, and bass. Once again, the key is to listen to the vocalist and be sensitive to his or her needs. No one should care about something as silly as a “master quality” playback mix, if that mix doesn’t deliver the elements the vocalist needs to unleash a powerful performance.
I’ve occasionally come across vocalists who have good pitch, but tend to sing a tad sour because they aren’t entirely sure of which notes they want to sing. If the melody isn’t ziplocked into the performer’s memory, sit down at a keyboard (or with a guitar) and ask the singer precisely which notes they want to voice. Often, the pitch is only a semitone or so off, so the trick is to determine whether the desired “correct” note is a little sharper or a little flatter than the “wrong” note they are unleashing. Once the correct melody line is established, it can do wonders for everyone’s sanity if you record the melody on a separate track using a synth, a guitar, or a piano. (Of course, let the vocalist decide which sound would be the most conducive to helping them pitch in.) Then, whenever the singer wanders off the mark, you can play the correct melody. Some singers even prefer having the instrumental melody track running constantly in the headphones as they perform. The mantra to success here is, “Whatever it takes.”