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Music

Getting The Best Out Of A Vocalist

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Here’s a preview from my upcoming book “The Music Producer’s Handbook”, that describes the many considerations that a producer and engineer have during recording a vocal performance. It’s not enough to capture just any performance though, it has to be the best that a vocalist can give since the vocal is almost always the focal point of the song.

Of all the different types of musicians, singers are easily the most difficult not only to record, but to get them to raise their performance level. A lot of it has to do with comfort, some of it has to do with health, a lot has to do with psychology, and some of it has to do with external coaxing, but it all adds up to treating the vocalist differently from other musicians. After all, in any song with a lead vocal, it’s the featured part.


Make Things Comfortable First

One of the hardest things in making a record is trying to record a vocalist who is uncomfortable. Even a seasoned pro sometimes can’t do her best unless the conditions are just right. Even though the singer is the center of attention in the band and can seem super-outgoing on stage, the studio has a way of eating into that confidence level, so anything that makes the vocalist even the slightest bit uncomfortable becomes an excuse for a less than great performance.

  • In order to make the singer as relaxed and at ease as possible, consider some of these suggestions before and during a vocal session.
  • Make sure the lighting is correct. Most vocalists prefer dim lighting in the studio when singing.
  • A touch of reverb or delay in the headphones can help the singer’s comfort level with the headphones mix. A delay of around 225 milliseconds seems to work most of the time for a quick setup that will give the vocalist the necessary ambience to perform well.
  • Keep talking with the artist between takes. Leave the talkback on if possible. Long periods of silence from the control room are a mood killer.
  • Try lowering the lights in the control room so the vocalist can’t see you. Some people think that you’re in there judging them when you might be talking about something completely different. You can avoid this but just following the previous point.
  • If the take wasn’t good for whatever reason, explain what was wrong in a kind and gentle way. Something like “That was really good, but I think you can do it even better. The pitch was a little sharp.” This goes for just about any overdub since players generally like to know what was wrong with the take rather than be given a “Do it again” blanket statement.
  • Make sure the singer has something to drink close by when singing (see the end of the post for liquid do’s and don’ts).
  • Keep smiling.

The Three P’s – Pitch, Pocket, Passion

When it comes to vocals in the studio, the three P’s are what a producer lives by. You’ve got to have all three to have a dynamite vocal. And while Pitch and Pocket problems can be fixed by studio trickery, if you don’t have Passion, you don’t have a vocal. Let’s take a look inside the three P’s.


Pitch

Staying in pitch means singing in tune. And not just some of the notes - every single note! They’re all equally important!! Singing in tune requires real concentration and awareness. If you know your singer has a constant problem of singing either sharp or flat, there are some really simple things to try that might help. Don’t rely on Autotune. Get it right the first time when it’s recorded!

  • Singing sharp is usually caused by the power of your voice blanking out any background pitch reference because you’re singing too hard to hear yourself! The fix is easy. Just turn up the lead vocal in the headphones.
  • Singing a touch flat is easily fixed by simply asking the singer to lift his eyebrows or to smile. Smiling is not only recommended, it’s required because it provides proper relaxation of the facial, cranial and neck muscles.
  • If your singer is singing flat, give him a little less of himself or more of everyone else in the mix since it’s not unusual for pitch to change with intensity. Less vocal makes you want to sing harder (and possibly raise your pitch slightly) and vice versa.
  • If you need to have the singer sing harder, louder or more aggressively, turn down the vocal track in the phones or turn the backing tracks up.
  • If you need to have the singer sing softer or more intimately, turn the singer’s track up in the phones or turn down the backing tracks.
  • Correct head position and correct position of the abdomen is needed to have enough air to stay on pitch. This is the best reason why any singer should consult a vocal coach for at least a few lessons.
  • The more relaxed a singer, the easier it is to hit the higher notes in her range. Yawning is a recommended warmup because it promotes relaxation.

Pitch also means following the melody reliably. There’s a trend these days to scat sing around a melody, and while that might be desirable in some genres, it doesn’t work in any genre if it happens all the time. Scatting might show off a singer’s technique and ability, but a song has a melody for a reason. That’s what draws the listener in, that’s what they can sing to themselves, and usually that’s what they want to hear.

The Singer Must Hear Herself

In order to stay in tune, a singer must hear herself. How much she hears herself will actually determine if she can stay in pitch or not.

As we stated previously, some singers sing sharp when they sing too hard. They push themselves over the the top of the correct pitch when they can’t hear themselves in the headphones. The secret is to either have more vocal or less of everything else in the phones, but be aware, pitch and timing problems also occur if you hear too much of yourself in the mix.

Sometimes the mix is too dense with instruments and thinning it out a little can help with pitch problems. First, add more bass (the root of all chords) and kick (the root of all rhythm) to help with pitch and pocket. Next, turn down anything that is heavily chorused and turn up anything that has a more “centered” tonal frequency (like a piano). Sometimes listening to only the rhythm guitar instead of two guitars (if there are two guitar parts) can be helpful since some singers can hear their pitch better from a simple tonally-centered instrument than from screaming guitars or airy synth patches.


Pocket

The Pocket means singing in time and in the “groove” (the rhythm) of the song. You can be in pitch, but if you’re wavering ahead or behind the beat it won’t feel right. All of the things that help instrumentalists apply to vocals as well, like the following:

  • Have the singer concentrate on the downbeat (on beat 1) to get the entrance to phrases right.
  • Have him concentrate on the snare drum (on 2 and 4) to stay in the pocket.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the vocal being in the pocket. Sometimes moving a word or phrase just a few milliseconds in the DAW can make a big difference in the whole feel of the song. A vocal that’s out of the pocket can make you think that the other instruments are flaming with each other, when it’s really the vocal that’s slightly out of time. As with pitch, it’s best to get it right during recording so you know for sure that it works rather than resorting to DAW trickery later.


Passion

Passion is not necessarily something that can be taught. To some degree, you either have it or you don’t. What is Passion? It’s the ability to sell the lyrical content of the song through performance. It’s the ability to make me (the listener) believe in what you’re singing, and that you’re singing directly to me and not anyone else.

Passion can sometimes trump pitch and pocket. A not-all-that-great singer who can convey emotion in his voice is way more interesting to listen to than a polished singer who hits every note perfectly but with little emotion. In fact, just about any vocalist you’d consider a “star” has Passion, and that’s why he or she is a star.

On-stage, Passion can sometimes take a back seat to stamina, since you have to save yourself for a whole show and you can’t blow it all out in one song. That’s why many singers have only one or two big “production numbers” where they totally whip it out. But in the studio, there’s never any cruising. You’ve got to give all the passion you can give for every song.

A few paragraphs ago I said that you either have passion or you don’t, but sometimes the singer really has it but doesn’t know it, and it’s the job of the producer to pull it out of her. That could mean getting the singer angry to stir some emotion, building her up by telling her how good she is, or making her laugh to loosen her up. Anything to sell the song! But once she know hows to summon it up from inside, she can usually do it again and again.


Background Vocals Need Attention Too

It’s too easy to take background vocals lightly and say “Just throw a background part on this” or “Hey, can you sing a little background here?”. Background vocal parts are so important that they can make the difference between the record sounding polished and exciting or sounding like it just came out of the garage (I mean that in a bad way, since sometimes you’re actually looking for a “garage” sound - not a performance - when you’re tracking).

Background parts are integral parts of the song that require the exact same attention as the drum, bass, guitar, keys or lead vocals. In fact, a bad background vocal part can easily sink a recording that otherwise sounds great. You can’t have someone sing background just for the sake of singing background because they’re used to doing it live. If it’s a part worth doing, then it’s a part that must stand on its own. It either sounds great or it doesn’t, in which case you can’t let it get by!


Harmony Vocals Take More Time

Unless you’re hiring in a vocal group that sings with each other all the time or the lead singer is doing them all himself, harmony vocals usually take more time to get a blend than you might think, especially if the group is composed of singers who haven’t sung together before. Regardless of their time together, here are the tricks to make those harmony vocals sound as tight as possible.

  • Phrasing Is Everything - Singing together really means that you have to sing together - exactly. Every vocalist has to sing exactly the same way with the same inflections, slurs, and the same attacks (starts) and releases (stops). Usually this means that one vocal part will be the reference part and all others will go to that. The way that I’ve seen great background singers work is for one to say, “Sing it to me. Show me what you’re doing,” then he’d try to match it exactly. That method of “How are you singing it?” works for them and it will work for you too.
  • Attacks and (Especially) releases - Whether you’re playing it or singing it, attacks and releases are the secret to tight music. While it’s usually easy to get the attack part (where everyone starts at exactly the same time), the release part (everyone ending at the same time) is usually overlooked. The releases are just as important as the attacks, and just tightening up this one area will make a vocal group sound so tight you won’t believe it. So remember, everyone starts and stops at the same time. Listen closely to any hit with harmony vocals for how they phrase the attacks and releases. That’s what you’re going for.

Gang Vocals

Gang vocals are when all the background vocalists sing the same thing in unison that the lead singer sings. This usually happens in the chorus. An old example (because I happen to be listening to it on Pandora at the moment) would be the chorus of a song like Kiss’s Rock And Roll All Night.

It’s not uncommon for a band to ask some of its members who aren’t used to singing to sing on a gang vocal. You might think it’s easy because you don’t have to worry about a having the discipline to hit a harmony note, but it can be a big mistake because you still have to be concerned about pitch and phrasing, just like with harmony vocals. Don’t make this mistake. Work on all of the vocals with the same importance. Every single part needs the same attention as the lead vocal. Remember, if it doesn’t sound great, work on it until it does, try something else, or eliminate it!


Helping The Singer Keep A Healthy Voice

Since the vocalist is the only musician who can’t put their instrument away in a protective case after the gig or rehearsal, it’s important that they take very good care of it, since it can be a fragile gift. Eventually every singer has some vocal trouble, and if they’re not careful, it can really lead to long term damage. That’s why it’s important for a singer to learn to be especially aware of the need to take care of himself.

Aside from being sick, the number one cause of vocal problems is not getting enough sleep. When you’re tired, all the parts of your body needed to support your vocal cords tend to weaken a bit, which leads to improper breathing and thus throat problems shortly after you begin to sing. Get as much sleep as you can (preferably seven or eight hours) the night before a session, or at least take a nap on the day of the gig so you can feel somewhat refreshed.

  • The next thing is to avoid milk (and any other dairy products for that matter) from three to six hours before you sing. Anything with milk in it will cause excess production of phlegm around your vocal chords, so that’s a definite no-no. The old remedy of milk and honey for a rough throat is very soothing after the gig, but not before!
  • If you are hungry before a gig, don’t be afraid to eat, but just eat until you’re satisfied and don’t stuff yourself with a seven course meal. Try not to eat in the last hour before your performance in order to avoid that excess phlegm again.
  • If you do feel phlegmy, you’ll have the strongest temptation to clear your throat immediately after eating, but be careful because that can be harmful. There are some that say that you should never forcefully clear your throat because it can cause irritation and even some long-term damage, but it’s usually necessary because excess mucous really inhibits your singing. The trick is to find a way to clear your throat without irritating it and the best way is to do a gentle “whispered cough” and then swallow and repeat. If this doesn’t work, you need to deal with the excess mucous production. Squeeze a 1/4 of a lemon into a tall glass of water and sip over a period of about twenty minutes. This should cut through a lot of the excess mucous.
  • Other things to avoid are alcohol, tea (despite popular belief), coffee, cola and anything else with caffeine, since these actually have a dehydrating effect, which is quite the opposite of what you really need.

  • One thing you should do is drink lots and lots of water (ideally two to three quarts a day - the more the better) because a dry throat leads to a sore throat. If you live in an arid climate like Arizona, sleep with a humidifier next to your bed and try to warm up your voice in the shower. The moisture can be an incredible help for your voice. Also, learn to breathe in through your nose as much as possible. This will help moisten the air before it reaches your vocal cords.

Finally, some singers swear by Entertainer’s Secret (see Figure 1), a spray mixture that lubricates the vocal cords and was developed by an ear, nose and throat specialist. You can get more information at www.entertainers-secret.com.

Figure 1 - Entertainer’s Secret


If you get a sore throat

Maybe you have a sore throat from a cold or you just sang too much last night, but if you have to go out and sing again you’re going to have to take some precautions to be able to get through the gig. Here are some things to try as soon as you feel yourself getting sore.

  • Drink warm drinks, which act as decongestants
  • Drink fruit drinks, as long as they’re not too acidic
  • Use your voice as little as possible, that includes speaking and singing

Also, you can try this little mixture to make your voice feel better. Squeeze one fresh lemon into a glass, and add a couple of teaspoons of clear honey and a little bit of water to mix. Gargle, then swallow. The honey coats the vocal chords and the lemon makes you salivate, thus stopping them from drying out.

Another remedy that you can use for a sore throat (and other cold symptoms as well) is to make hot water for tea but then add a mixture of honey and apple cider vinegar (don’t add tea). Alone, the vinegar would probably hurt the throat because of its acidic nature, but mixed with the honey it becomes a source of energy. The exact mixture depends on your taste and the size of the cup. First add the honey to the water until it tastes sweet enough and then add the vinegar until it tastes like a hot apple cider (more or less). Take it at few times a day, the more the better.

And again, avoid tea, coffee, cream and alcohol before singing as these can have a dehydrating effect.

And above all REST!!

Next post we’ll get into the mechanics of recording a vocal, and the DAW tricks you can use to save it if necessary.

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