This two part article will cover these methods. I believe… and many others will agree, that in order to get great sounding vocals is to get it right, or at least the best you can, in the initial stages of the recording process before any mixing or fairy dust tricks have been applied.
In Part 1 my fiancée and song writing partner Georgie Gillis will cover the important performance techniques required when tracking vocals based on her 13 years experience as a vocal instructor, performer and recording artist. In Part 2 - I will cover the technical processes for recording great sounding vocals.
The Singer’s Guide - 12 Steps To Prepare For Your Best Vocal Take By Georgiana Gillis.
They say “Success is 90% preparation and only 10% perspiration”. Unlike the other instruments in your mix, your voice requires a very different kind of preparation. Whether you’re a professional singer or hobbyist, the following tips can help you get the very best from your voice.
Before You Arrive At The Studio - Sleep Before The Big Day
Singing requires energy - fact. Tired bodies create flat notes. I always tell my singing students to approach a performance as if they were entering a boxing ring - pumped. When it comes down to it, you will want to channel all of your energy into a great vocal take. If you are ill, have not slept well or have had a late night you will not be able to give it your best.
Water Is A Singer’s Best Friend
Water to your voice is like oil to an engine. Stick to still water as your drink of choice and always keep a bottle available for sipping. This can be done as frequently as you need during vocal takes. Beware of dehydration - your body will allocate water to other body parts before it reaches the mucous membranes aka your larynx. Room temperature is always best as it is absorbed more quickly than cold.
Don’t Eat A Heavy Meal Before Singing
Approach eating and singing in the same way you would swimming. Don’t eat a heavy meal right beforehand. A full stomach encroaches on your breathing space - not to mention diverting your energy to digestion. Ideally, eat little and often in the run up to keep energy levels high or if this isn’t possible, make sure you eat your meal a couple of hours before recording.
Plan To Sing When You Feel Fresh
Usually not first thing in the morning or last thing at night, but in the fresh part of your day according to your own body clock. Your concentration levels peak and fall during the course of any given day. A good time to record vocals would be when you are usually at your most energetic. For most of us for e.g. that is not near the afternoon ‘slump’ or late in the evening.
At The Studio - Use Gentle Vocal Warm Ups
Save yourself for the effort to come. Humming and speak singing are effective warm ups without requiring much effort. Humming creates nice reverberations that gently ease away any lingering mucous and can be done almost inaudibly (ideal if you are shy about warming up in front of others). Following that, ‘speak’ sing something simple to get your voice nice and warm without being too taxing.
Save Your Energy
Try to save your best performance for the actual take. Adrenaline + excitement = conviction in your voice. It’s hard to fake that if you end up having to endlessly repeat yourself. This goes for you too - try to make your journey to the studio the least physically tiring as is possible. If you must cycle, jog, walk miles to get there then make sure you’re feeling rested before your take (and drink water!).
Don’t Tire Your Voice
You’re keen and you want to give your best effort but you should never max out your voice. A performance should sound effortless to the listener and straining your voice to reach difficult notes will tire your voice faster than you can say ‘blow out’. This seems like a no-brainer but so many fall trap to this. Resist the urge to ‘show off’.
Keep Your Lyrics To Hand
No matter how well you know your lyrics, always have easy access to them. This is because you are shifting your focus 100% to your vocal performance and the critical listening that goes along with that. Your memory may not be as reliable when you are feeling pressurised to perform well. You will also be concentrating on visual and/or auditory cues/instructions from your producer.
It’s Time To Sing - Mark Your Breathing Points On Your Lyric Sheet
Using a pen or pencil, mark in capital B’s where you can take a full breath and lower case b’s where you can only get a quick breath. Even though you may have sung the song 100 times, recording is a different experience altogether and alters your focus as a singer. You may find yourself fixated for e.g. on your timing and your breathing may become an afterthought.
Are You Feeling Nervous?
Understand adrenaline and the affect on the human body. It is good for giving our performance that special ‘lift’ and thus can be harnessed for a good outcome. But if we’re too worried, we may become tense. Tension equals tight muscles - tight muscles equal sharp notes. When standing up at the mic, unlock one knee to relax your entire body. Alternate legs periodically as is comfortable.
The Correct Approach
Singing while standing doesn’t come naturally to all but sitting down obstructs your deep breathing space by as much as 30%. If you must sit and sing for e.g. at the piano, balance your weight on the front of the stool to tilt your pelvis down or in the case of a low chair, position one leg underneath you to open up your abdomen. Remember that breathing to a singer is paramount.
Performing To A Pop Shield
It will feel unnatural regardless of the type of singing you’ve done before. This is when you must combine your imagination with technical ability. Keep your distance and don’t touch the pop shield - your producer will have positioned it proportionately to the mic. Close your eyes to sing when you can (you can still glance at your lyrics when you need to). When your eyes are closed, your other senses become more focussed - in this case your hearing which in turn heightens your ability to pitch. In addition, you can visualise something more natural to perform to - like an audience - blocking out the static mic in front of you as well as the studio environment.
- Eat little and often beforehand to keep energy levels up or make sure you eat your meal a few hours before recording.
- Hydrate – especially if you’ve been doing a lot of sport, it’s hot or you’ve been drinking diuretics (for e.g. coffee, tea, alcohol, cola).
- Wear comfortable clothing and shoes – unless you’re filming there is no need to dress up for the studio. Anything tight around your waist will be difficult to breathe against and standing in high heels is tiring.
- Keep your arms and hands at waist height during your vocal take so they can remain expressive – don’t let them hang at your sides or put them in your pockets.
- Talk to your producer if you’re unsure of what to expect or are feeling nervous. Ask them to explain anything you do not understand.
- Absolutely no fizzy drinks before a vocal take - bubbles like to resurface at the worst moments.
- Avoid chocolate, milk and anything else which coats your throat as you will be left trying to clear your throat - ‘ahem’.
- It might be seen as rock’n’roll to have a heavy night the evening before you go into the studio but - alcohol + tiredness = bad performance.
- Salty snacks and baked goods will undo your hydration efforts as salt dehydrates and bread absorbs fluid. Choose fruit and protein instead.
- Your producer has tracked many types of singer from professional to amateur and will know how to get the best from your voice. Respect that fact and let them do their job.