What do you consider to be the most important element in a pop production? Surely, in most cases, it has to be the lead vocal. If we consider a song to be well written, supported by lyrics, which reach-out universally and are thought-provoking… oh, let’s not forget memorable melody lines… then a song will either sink or skyrocket to success based on how its vocal delivery was performed by the singer of the record.
In this article, we list a number of well-known pop productions from the past that have had each of its lead vocals stripped out and isolated. These examples enable us to fully appreciate each of the vocalists and their performances from behind the microphone without the context of the supporting productions. These tracks are very much time capsules from the past which let us hear stripped back lead studio vocal recording from some of the world’s best singers of all time.
Many of these vocals were recorded at a time when “the take was the take”, meaning the vocalists had few opportunities, if any, to redo a take or drop-in replacement lines. Such workflows we are accustom to these days in modern music production, but once upon a time vocalist carried a big responsibility in the studio as there were no “post-production” safety nets to save a less than average performance.
Listen closely for artefacts such as plosives and occasional pitching issues that possibly wouldn’t pass QC in today’s modern vocal production workflows. Some of the examples captured high levels of headphone bleed as well, but these “issues” we try to fix these days don’t matter one bit because each of these vocal performances is spot on making each of these examples a great source of inspiration for those into vocal production.
Queen Freddie Mercury - Somebody To Love
This is one of my personal all time favourite Queen songs. It’s a timeless production, beautifully written, arranged and raw in emotion. The delivery from both the band and Freddie’s lead vocal is second to none.
This isolated vocal track is an incredible example of a piece of advice we share regularly with those in our community new to recording vocals. In order to get the best sounding vocals in your mixes you need to strive to get the best sounding vocals, and indeed vocal performances, at source down the microphone… this isolated track is a flawless example of this lesson we rant on about.
The Beach Boys - God Only Knows
This isolated vocal track of The Beach Boys “God Only Knows” luckily features the lead vocal in all its doubled glory along with those signature interweaving backing vocals. There’s something quite mesmerising about this particular isolated vocal track, for me, I kind of don’t miss the instrumentation as the song is still very much present throughout. If you want to learn a thing or two about how to develop and arrange vocal harmonies then listening to this track by the masters of melody should be well up your priority list.
Listen closely and you’ll hear regular breath noise hitting the microphone diaphragm on the word “what”.
Amy Winehouse - Rehab
Amy’s vocal sound is instantly recognisable. There was always a slight laziness to her diction that made her vocals sound very stylistic, this became her signature sound. It’s nice to be able to clearly hear Amy’s backing vocals in this isolated track as these are quite buried in the full mix of the song.
Michael Jackson - Beat It
Fun fact: All of Micheal’s vocals on the iconic album Thriller, which included “Beat It”, was recorded using a Shure SM7 dynamic microphone.
Along with Micheal’s expressive delivery, this isolated track includes all of the sculpted backing vocals along with the gang chants which together helped make this song one of Micheal’s best know tracks.
Adele - Skyfall
In terms of isolation, this track is sadly not the best example in this list, however, this track does give us a good insight into how Adele delivers her vocal performances down a studio microphone. There’s no denying Adele has a strong set of pipes on her, listen to how her lead vocal takes centre stage without even breaking a sweat in amongst the gospel style backing vocals… if this isn’t a world class vocal delivery then I haven't a clue what is!
The Beatles - Hey Jude
I have always found something quite inviting within the quality of Paul McCartney’s vocals. He always manages to delivery a perfect blend of power, precision and passion in his vocal takes that the other members of The Beatles couldn’t quite achieve. “Hey Jude” is one of those types of songs that encourages a singalong throughout from the outset. I believe Paul’s vocal delivery in this record plays a big part in getting anyone who’s listening to instantly sing from the start - “Hey Jude….” It would be great to get an original recording of the track but here’s a very close version of it.
Marvin Gaye - I Heard It Through The Grapevine
The King of soul music, Marvin Gaye… “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” - need I say anymore? Just listen…
Bonnie Tyler - Total Eclipse Of The Heart
I never noticed how “on the edge” Bonnie’s vocals were in the full production but it’s clear from listening to this isolated track that she pushed herself hard to get these vocals down. From listening to this isolated vocal you get the impression that the bounds of her enormous range were being tested in her upper register, even in the backing vocals. The impression that her voice is about to break adds a real sense drama and heartbreak.
Queen Freddie Mercury - Show Must Go On
I’m including a second Freddie Mercury performance for good reason. The vocal for “Show Must Go On” was recorded by Freddie when he was in particularly poor health towards the end of his short life. This song was by far one of Queens most powerful ballads. You can hear how the tone of Freddie’s voice is slightly lighter compared to his voice in the early isolated track we featured in this list. Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor has stated that he felt as though Freddie’s voice was “thinning” towards the end of their recording career in the early 1990’s, if that was the case then clearly this slight loss in tone didn’t in any way prevent Freddie from delivering one of the most powerful vocal recordings of his career. Listen for the full chest voice note “On with the show” sung toward the end of the song… this climax always sends shivers down my spine.
If you know of any other vocal isolated tracks then please share the links in the comments below.