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The Producer's Guide to Putting Passion into Vocal Delivery

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This post is part of a series called Recording Vocals.
Layering Vocals With Logic Pro
10 Steps to Get the Most Out of a Vocal Session

“It’s in the can,” “On tape” and “It’s a wrap!” You all gather in the plush leather, shag-pile comfort of the engineering room and wait as the final touches are put to the mix. Anticipation is running high, everything is technically perfect, the rhythm tracks tock to the clock of the heart with precision and feel, perfectly locking in and connecting the bottom end to the mids and linking them to the highs with emphatic punctuation into an harmonious arrangement that captures the feel and energy of live.

The last vocals were wrapped in the wee hours and now expectation is bubbling and competing with anticipation that’s a greater high than the caffeine that’s bubbled in the veins and coursed through the mind to maintain the gritty edge that’s kept everybody going over the last several days of finishing the track. You hit play and the groove pulls everybody in, and as you look around the room, you see the critical ears cutting in. As the notes that were labored over and resolved come through, slow smiles of accomplishment stretch the lips of the musicians in acknowledgment of a job well done. “It’s tight,” “it snaps,” the music is good.

As the final part of the aural tapestry locks in and the first lines of the vocals get ready to introduce the message and crown the arrangement to make the song, a song the atmosphere begins to fail, something is wrong. The vocals lack conviction. Technically it’s all there, the timing is right. There are no missing words or lines, but somehow the vocal track doesn’t capture the lyric. Everything else is right and now you’ve got a problem and it needs to be identified, resolved and the vocal take re-done. “It’s just not working.”

The band is perplexed. They don’t know what’s gone wrong: in every rehearsal session the lyrical delivery has always seemed to be right on, but the audio track doesn’t lie. The passion of the lyric is just missing despite the technical perfection of the performance, the vocal feel and the facial contortions that appeared to carry the conviction of meaning as each word was sung, are not on tape. “What happened?”

The singer can sing. Got a great voice, but the lyric is not in their heart and soul, because it doesn’t actually mean something to them. They didn’t write it. The songwriter, ensconced in his studio 60 miles away, strung those words together and he did a great job. The hooks are there, the meaning is there when you read it, but the passion of the vocal delivery—despite technical perfection—just isn’t cutting it.

The problem is simple. The singer doesn’t really know what the song means. They didn’t write it. It does not draw upon their experience, and the only way to resolve this is to have them sit down with a dictionary and define every word in every line of the song. Then, and only then, will the song’s real meaning come alive in their delivery.

This is how you resolve a vocal performance that, in the final mix, just doesn’t cut it because it does not deliver the passion of experience. Give the vocalist the opportunity to study each and every line of the lyric, and then discuss the meaning of the words and also the shades of meaning and hints of symbology, simile and metaphor so these take on the deeper meaning of the words in the soul of the singer, as envisioned by the lyricist. Let them understand the full meaning of the lyric and then sing it again and you will be surprised at the way this taps the emotional heart of the song, and injects the conviction that inspires passion and makes the song truly a part of the living expression of the singer. The song will now be owned by them. It will be a real part of them and not a superficial intellectual exercise. The song will now rock.

This technique is a little piece of magic. It helps create an experience that goes beyond technical perfection to tap passion and introduce the emotive heart. That is what makes a good song sound great.

Why does this work?

It works because language has shades of meaning, and those shades of meaning add subtle tones and frequencies of emotional content that are just as important as the tuning of a piano and guitar, or the right amount of tension applied to skins where they stretch across the chamber of a drum.

When the singer has the meaning spot on, when they understand the depth of expression in every word, and the precision of meaning in every line, then their personality has intellectually and emotionally connected to the lyric and the deeper meaning embodied within it. It is not enough to have an intellectual understanding. A song’s lyric is not simply an intellectual exercise, it’s an emotional expression connected to the heart and soul of life experience common to humanity. People instinctively make these connections of meaning to their own life, but it’s vital for the singer to connect those words to that experience and tap it in the heart of every listener when the final recording makes its way to public broadcast.

This technique of defining the words works, so long as the singers ensure that they identify the correct meaning according to the context and background of the song’s lyric. A song in the end is words and melody perfectly married together to communicate a message. A hit song is words and melody perfectly married together to communicate a memorable message. To make sure the delivery works, ensure the meaning is part of the singer’s expression. Keep a dictionary in the studio.

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