Whilst word of mouth is a good source for vocalist recommendations, finding the best fit for a future hit requires a lot of forethought. Below is a breakdown of considerations to help you effectively select your next demo singer,
Talent is a fairly broad word when it comes to the quality of a vocalist. What makes a great performing artist is frequently not at all what makes a great demo singer.
Whilst an artist may have looks, moves, and connections, a demo singer requires none of these and conversely has no smokescreen to mask their abilities.
The ability to render a song true to the melody, add harmonies, phrase desirably, and enunciate clearly without sounding exaggerated, are the basic requirements for a hired studio singer in the talent department.
I have encountered demo singers who sounded fabulous on someone else's songs and really inadequate on mine. I used a folky female singer a while back with one of those small wispy voices that I find so appealing. The song she sang for me seemed comparable enough to the other songs I had heard her perform, and yet, the magic wasn't even close to there.
I wish I had taken the time to hear her on the songs of more than one writer. It can be an expensive proposition to re-vocal when a singer gets around $130 or more a pop, not to mention the additional studio time.
Generic Versus Stylized
A recording artist needs to be stylized and identifiable in order to make their mark on the world of music and stand out from the competition. A demo singer, on the other hand, should be much more generic.
Slanting a song toward a particular style, genre, or artist, can be very limiting and sometimes downright intimidating. A singer that sprinkles a demo with death defying vocal acrobatics can scare a less capable artist away from a song, making them feel inept and lacklustre.
An artist, by his or her own creative nature, wants to make a song their own. Try to hear many samples of a singer's work before hiring them.
Back in the day, inexperienced Nashville songwriters were using Garth Brooks soundalikes in hopes of garnering one of the coveted cuts on the superstar's albums. Not only were the vocals obviously and irritatingly aimed at Garth, but the songs became very uninteresting to other artists with highly different styles.
When a 'No!' from a chosen singer ends a song's pitch, you have made a costly mistake.
Obviously stay within the genre of your composition, but land right in the middle of that sweet spot where any artist can hear himself recording your tune without needing too much imagination.
Studio experience is probably the single most important factor in choosing a demo singer.
Maybe your cousin Tillie's shower vocals knock your socks off or perhaps the new kid you heard at a local writer's night made your jaw drop. Beware. This is nearly always a formula for disaster.
A recording studio is a fast paced environment with a lingo all its own. Knowing how to work a microphone or even when to leave one ear out of the headphones are tricks learned over time and shouldn't be trusted to an amateur.
I once used a singer with a wonderful soulful voice, just seemingly perfect for the style of song I was recording. He hung out with a lot of pros, so I just assumed he knew the ropes, even though I had never heard his name mentioned on the demo circuit.
The session was a nightmare. Though his voice sounded fabulous on tape, he could not capture the phrasings I had in mind. Repeatedly showing him how the vocal started after the downbeat, and watching him become more and more embarrassed was most unpleasant.
I felt like I had literally beat the man up before he was through and the studio bill ended up being much higher than normal for a vocal. Worse, the final result sounded forced and awkward.
Ensure the singer you choose has learned their chops on someone else's time.
More Than Leads
Most highly sought after demo singers have some extra skills in their bag of tricks. Unless I had a through-the-roof budget, I would never hire a demo singer who couldn't do their own harmonies.
Though you as the writer may have harmony parts in mind as well as which lines to use them on, a seasoned veteran is bound to have better instincts than you do. Let them have a bit of free rein and they will often wow you.
Ad libs provided between lines and at the end of a song are nice extras too. Knowing where to lay off an where to pile them on is a real skill. You have the final say, unless the publisher is playing producer, but I like to give my singers the freedom to change my mind now and then.
A professional demo singer respects your time and money and practices punctuality. Unfortunately the clock keeps running in a hired studio whether or not the vocalist has arrived. Time is money. Engineers are high dollar folks.
A professional demo singer has practiced and learned the song on his or her own time.
One of the best sounding demo singers I know used to really annoy me by looking at the song for the first time in the studio. He was a busy guy and, yes, he was a quick study, but again, time is money.
Another male singer I often used, was almost as great sounding but arrived with countless notations on his lyric sheet even though he had memorized and practiced the song big time.
He cared and it showed. His vocals had feeling because he did. Hire the people that prepare for your session and appreciate your business.
A professional demo singer does not take phone calls in the studio.
Professionalism segues directly into the subject of attitude. There is a lot of correcting going on in a recording session. It takes a pro to deal with it and recognize that it is par for the course.
"Let's retry that line with faster phrasing."
"Your were a little sharp on that last note."
"Enunciate more on the hook."
A singer with a big ego, and there are many—particularly if they have a record deal contract in the works—will often bristle when issued one of the above requests.
I've seen them argue, get huffy, and even walk out of a session. The very best demo singers have an attitude of wanting to please the songwriter. Some of them have a wonderful sense of knowing when to lead a bit and when to strictly do what they are told.
A singer making respectful suggestions is perfectly fine as long as they are not delivered in a pushy fashion. All in all, you are looking for a pleasant interchange.
In closing, recording your latest creation, should be a successful and joyous occasion.
Surround yourself with a circle of highly professional musicians, engineers, and vocalists and they will prove worthy of the expense they cost you. Just be sure the song is of the same quality ...but that's a whole other article.