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10 Steps to Get the Most Out of a Vocal Session

by
This post is part of a series called Recording Vocals.
The Producer's Guide to Putting Passion into Vocal Delivery
Creative Spot Processing for Vocals

We spend hours creating, arranging, tweaking and mixing the perfect song. We get so engrossed by all the components of a song that it's easy to forget one major point - the vast majority of music consumers only concentrate on the vocals. As a result, us "music creators" don't need to co-ordinate 'good' vocal sessions, but 'great' vocal sessions!

This tutorial will explain, step-by-step, processes to help you get the most out of your vocal session!


Step 1: Meet the Singer in Advance

If you're using a session singer, have you met the vocalist before? If you've got a good working relationship with a singer you're already familiar with then you're already halfway there. If not, then this is an area to really think about.

If you haven't met your singer then it's good practise to break the ice a few days before. This can help avoid any awkwardness on the day and it's a chance to bounce creative ideas off each other and answer each other's questions. Feeling comfortable is a vital part of singing and this is something you'll need to encourage to get the best out of the song!


Step 2: Check out the Melodic Range

Is your melody in the range of the vocalist you're using? If you don't know, find out in advance! It sounds silly but I've turned up to sessions where songwriters haven't checked the range of their session singer and if they had recorded the track up or down a semitone it would have majorly benefitted the recording. Most DAW's now make it easy to change the key of a piece via the use of a dedicated Tranpose function - this can be especially easy if you're using virtual instruments extensively.

An example of the Transpose function in Pro Tools 8.

A vocalist straining for higher or lower notes just out of their range can really degrade your recording. Of course, if you're recording yourself you'll hopefully have sorted any range issues out at the writing stage!


Step 3: Send the Song Before the Session

It's a great idea to send the song to the vocalist in advance. Even if there are no scratch vocals on the track yet, a rough mix of what you've got so far will give the vocalist an idea of the feel and mood of the track.

If you're going to be the one singing on the track, then do the same! Put the track on your MP3 player or burn a disc for your car. Get used to the track prior to the session and you'll feel much more comfortable when the red light is on, especially if there's an engineer in the room.


Step 4: Knowing the Song in Advance

If possible it's always best if the vocalist knows the song beforehand and ideally the vocalist should know the lyrics in advance too. Granted, this isn't always practical (I've stayed up to the early hours finishing lyrics for the next day!) but it can save a great deal of hassle.

Not only will teaching the song on the day be a waste of session time (and expensive if you've booked a studio) but also there's a more technical reason behind this. If your singer is constantly looking at their lyric sheet on a music stand whilst recording, you will capture an uneven and "dull" sound because your vocalist will be constantly moving their head to see the lyrics. It doesn't matter where the stand is; your singer will not be giving their full attention to the performance and won't be singing into the microphone's element.

To demonstrate, here is a passage spoken directly into the mic without looking at the stand:

Here is a passage read from the music stand. As you can hear, the result is much duller:


Step 5: Positioning the Microphone

Walk around the room you're recording in and clap loudly. Where is additional or unwanted resonance coming from? Can you do something to stop it? Or does it sound cool? Where are the acoustic holes in the room? Which area sounds boxy? Be investigative. Move your mic around the room and make some test recordings. See what sounds good and not so good. If you've got more than one microphone then test a couple out and record the results. Keep the test recordings as reference points for future sessions. Find the "sweet spot" and log it to save time in the future. If you're in a studio, speak to the in-house engineer - they'll have done this over and over in their studio.

Once you've found the spot, have a go at positioning your microphone slightly higher than you might usually try. Say one-inch. Then, angle the microphone downwards towards the mouth. This technique can help combat the common problem of vocalists singing "upwards" whilst recording. This also helps reduce sibilance issues (i.e., loud "S" or "Z" sounds), which will give your de-esser a much easier ride during the mix.

Left: Singing straight into the microphone element. Right: Singing into the element at a higher angle.

As mentioned in part 4, the use of a music stand isn't desirable when you've hit the record button. A way to get around this problem is positioning the music stand much lower than your microphone so it's impossible for the vocalist to read the lyrics whilst singing. This will create a lack of temptation to sneak a peek at the lyric sheet but it's also still there to look at when the vocalist has a break mid-recording, e.g. between sections when there's gaps or silences.


Step 6: Last Minute Checks

Even after all the above considerations, there may be some last minute checks whilst the singer is on the way.

Think of the obvious ones:

  • Are the headphones all working and tested? And are there enough pairs of headphones?
  • Is the room too hot or cold? (This can cause havoc for vocal chords!)
  • Have you printed out enough lyric sheets?
  • If you're at home, unhook the telephone! And yes, that counts for your mobile too!
  • Is the DAW loaded up with tracks ready to hit record?

And the not so obvious ones:

  • If you've got a valve microphone, have you warmed it up yet? Most valve microphones need time to warm-up so if you have one, turn it on!
  • Roll down your blinds! This can create a process known as sound diffusion which can enhance the room's sound provided you've got an acoustically treated recording space
  • If you're using a click track whilst recording, check out how much click is "bleeding" out of the headphones into the microphone - if in doubt, turn it down! (Listen to the openings of Tom Petty 'Free Fallin' or New Radicals 'Someday We'll Know' for some examples of hideous click bleed!)
  • Put a towel on the music stand to stop metallic resonance
  • The same applies to radiators - if a vocalist belts out a huge note you can bet that anything metallic in the room will resonate harshly!

Place a dampener - such as a towel - on radiators and music stands to stop unwanted metallic resonance.

It's also quite vital to set up some light compression and reverb in your DSP mixer or via an external unit ready for the session. A little compression and reverb on the vocalists voice will work wonders for their confidence. However don't overdo the levels. If you're piping in too much of their own vocal they will sing weaker to compensate.


Step 7: Make the Singer Feel Comfortable

When the vocalist arrives, make sure they're offered a drink. Tea and coffee is never a good idea - they contain caffeine and can cause dehydration which will dry their throat. Unless you want the sound of a half-dying mutant on your record, steer clear of the kettle! (Hot water is usually OK though!)

I guess I don't have to explain why alcohol might be a bad idea...


Step 8: Let the Singer Warm Up their Voice

If you play piano, try and run through some scales or warm-ups with the singer to get them comfortable in the studio and let their voice settle in. If you don't, the vocalist may have his or her own warm-up routine.

Don't overcook it though, the voice isn't an electronic instrument that can play at any time - most singers have a limit on how much they can sing in one session.


Step 9: Make a 'Comping Checklist'

If you've decided to go down the vocal comping route for recording then make a table on your lyric sheet with columns numbered 1-3. Imagine each lyrical line is a row. When you're recording, tick the corresponding box if you think a take is worth saving. This will save lots of time whilst comping and will enable you to take note of which takes were great.

It will also give you an opportunity to discretely mark down which takes weren't so great without destroying the flow of the session or marking bad takes in bright red on the screen!


Step 10: Leave It 'til Tomorrow...

After the vocal session, consider comping your takes another day. You can get a fresh perspective if left overnight. It's also wise not to let the vocalist come back for the comping stage, even if they're heavily involved in the project. It's never good for one's creative ego to keep hearing takes that are being rejected!

It's also useful to wait until another day to capture backing vocals. Setting up your microphone in a different position, capturing a different tone, or perhaps even recording in a different room can sometimes help the "wideness" of your mix when backing vocals come into play.


Conclusion

As you've probably gathered throughout reading this article, there are no quick fixes in making your vocal session go smoothly. However, taking the time to put lots of small things into practice can easily have a major effect on how successful your vocal session will go.

So you've read this article - now what are you waiting for? Get out there and make your vocal session stand out from everyone else's!

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