As producers, and recording engineers, we have all most likely experienced that precarious moment in a recording session where a vocalist is simply unable to perform the take you need for a record. We sit there, silently tearing our hair out trying to comprehend why the singer doesn’t realise they are out of time, under-performing their delivery, or suffering from a severe lack of pitch control.
More often than not, the engineer ends up doing dozens of takes, in the hope that something can be cobbled together in a comp, and ultimately the exercise is a waste of time. “But they were amazing in rehearsal… why can’t they do it in the studio?” I hear you cry.
In contrast to other physical instruments, the voice is arguably the most intimate and personal demonstrations of music that human beings can deliver. As those who concentrate on the technical craft of recording, it is easy to forget the fact that 90% of singers have little or no experience of the clinical environment of a studio, and placing them in front of a microphone is more often than not an incredibly alien experience.
What few simple things can we do to counter the unfounded anxiety of a novice singer in the studio? Here are 7 small social/technical tips that might make your sessions a bit easier:
- Think before you talk – Singers can be particularly vulnerable to lapses in confidence, which can be triggered by a variety of things. As a producer / engineer it is our job to be the definitive source of positivity and patience in the studio environment, no matter how emotionally charged the setting might get. Even if a singer is verging on a breakdown, remember that as a person of authority in studio, your words carry weight, and your knowledge of production and your awareness of the value of a strong recording gives you an advantage. Exhibiting patience and control now to placate a nervous or emotional singer will save you hours of editing bad takes at a later time. Remember that if you think you can word your constructive criticisms in a nicer way, always do.
- Where Did The Mic Go? – For many novice vocalists, a microphone is an intrusive and overbearing object and many dislike one being placed in front of them, preferring the natural process of singing outside of a studio setting. An easy way to get past this is to simply make the singer forget the microphone is even there. If you work with a singer who seems like they are out of their element in studio , keep topics of conversation as far away from recording as possible right up until the point where they begin singing. It could be useful to even research other interests a client has before working with them, outside of music, giving you ammunition for distractions in case they begin to corpse in the vocal booth. Knowing their favourite (non alcoholic!) drink is also a small but effective touch.
- The Environment – Many things affect a vocalist’s mood, including how comfortable they physically feel in the environment that they are recording in. A tidy studio with a homely vibe is key to breaking the ice, especially with a new client whom you may not have worked with before. If they feel at home, it will inevitably translate across to the recording. For example, some singers like to sing without their shoes on, so having a small mat handy is always good. Your posture is directly affected by the surfaces you stand on, and good posture directly affects breath control and vocal delivery.
- The Power of Compression and EQ – Singers always perform better when they can hear themselves clearly in their headphone mix. Don’t underestimate the power of compression in creating that visceral feel in the vocalists headphone mix while tracking. The same goes for EQ. Rolling of the bottom 60-80 hertz, cutting a few db at 400hz and boosting the highs a little bit is a great way to add that sparkle while tracking. Many vocalists love this ‘bright’ sound and by doing this post-record using plug ins, nothing but raw audio gets committed, leaving you free to reshape everthing during mixing while keeping your singer happy for the duration of the session.
- Panning! – I do a lot of work with vocal groups, and find myself doing a lot of vocal layering as a result. One trick which I have found works quite well for trying to capture rhythmically and harmonically accurate takes is to play around with panning options, especially when tracking harmonies and double tracking. Comp your main vocal, pan this vocal to the right (about 40), and swing all the vocals being tracked to the left (also 40). From experience, this allows the singer to hear themselves and what they are supposed to be syncing to more clearly and it provides a basis for easy alignment of takes in editing afterwards.
- Reviewing takes & the magic button – This is a tip that should be executed carefully, and preferably with clients you are used to working with and have an understanding with. Some singers genuinely listen and accept critical analysis of each take and fix it as they go, saving massive amounts of time, whereas others ignore advice and become deflated when they hear their own voice unmixed and untreated out of context. I personally avoid the latter by keeping a verb and delay send on bypass on my tracking channel, so that if a singer prone to turbulent motivational levels wants to hear themselves back, I can quickly switch it on to make everything sound more impressive, putting them at ease and continuing the good vibe through the session. Your technical knowledge can be a major asset in scenarios like this. And finally…
- Make Jokes – It might seem like a silly thing, but the reality is that a positive and relaxed singer is ten times more likely to perform in a better capacity. After you strip away all of the technology and musical know-how, ultimately it is about diplomacy and the art of social interaction. I recently found myself telling abysmal pirate jokes to a client in between takes (“How do you know you’re a pirate? Ya just Arrrrrrre!“ etc.) and I found that the laughter derived from the sheer stupidity of my jokes actually put the vocalist in a positive place mentally, and the difficult takes we were addressing were accomplished within minutes.
Always think outside the box. The real skill in recording vocalists is getting them to forget that they are recording. Discuss.
Denis Kilty is an Irish producer, songwriter and engineer based in Dublin and guest contributor for Pro Tools Expert.