In today’s internet age, it’s entirely possible to collaborate with someone on the other side of the planet. It’s wonderful as a producer to be able to hire someone in L.A. to track vocals for me on one of my songs when their sound is exactly what I want and no one that I know in Nashville will fit the part. I’ve learned in this process what I need from a singer in situations like this, and today I’m going to discuss several aspects of what a singer needs to keep in mind when they are tracking their own vocals on their own gear to send off to a producer.
As a service provider, you want to be great to work with, and you want to give the producer something that sounds fantastic and goes into their track easily and quickly. If you pay attention to the following points, you should be well on your way to that goal.
1. BE MINDFUL OF THEIR DEADLINE
The first question you should ask is “what’s your deadline?” or “when do you need this?” If you cannot absolutely get it to them before their deadline, do not take the gig. Do not flake out on a producer once you’ve given them a commitment because if they’re counting on you and you let them down, you could cause them a lot of stress and they’ll likely never hire you again. It’s also wise to allow enough time to give them a chance to ask for revisions, so don’t wait until the last minute if you can help it.
2. BE MINDFUL OF YOUR GEAR
Make sure your mic and the rest of your set up is high enough quality to give them the sound they need. If your mic plugs directly into your laptop via the USB port, you should probably do a little research and upgrade your set up. If you get an opportunity to sing on a project that you don't want to pass up, maybe see about borrowing or renting a better mic (and necessary other gear like a preamp) for the day.
Don't forget the pop filter! Make sure you use a pop filter to impede the plosives in the lyrics. Don’t pop your P’s.
Another thing to consider is the environment in which you will record. You don’t want too many reflective surfaces in your space, but you also don’t want it TOTALLY dead. If you don’t have proper sound treatment, people have made it work with a quilt hung over their shower curtain rod or inside of a walk in closet. Just be sure you’re singing from a good proximity to the mic so that you don’t get the sound of the room. Here’s a great short tutorial on how to record vocals in a bedroom.
3. BE MINDFUL OF YOUR LEVELS
It’s difficult for a producer to work with vocal tracks when the gain is either so hot that they’re distorted and clipped, or the waveform is so small they have to slap a compressor on each and every track before they can even hear your vocals in the mix. This is something that you can easily learn about from an online tutorial and through experimentation. I’ve had occasions where I’ve gotten 20+ vocal tracks from a singer and they were all so quiet, I had to spend a great deal of time making gain adjustments before I could even start comping. Minutes on the clock really matter when a producer is under a deadline. If the loudest parts of your waveform goes to about the 75% mark visually on width, that gives the producer enough range to work with dynamically. There are a lot of great tutorials here to help you get a better grasp on the gear.
Another level to be mindful of is your headphones. You obviously need to be able to hear yourself, but you don’t want the vocal so hot in the headphones that you don’t sing to your full potential, if that’s the kind of vocal performance they need. I’ve hired phenomenal singers who I know can completely wail, but when I’ve gotten the vocal tracks back, the singer is clearly holding back and I can imagine that the vocal levels were too hot in the headphones, and so in their mind, they needed to be very careful and not blow out the mic. That’s really disappointing to a producer when their ace singer didn’t sing like the ace they are. Also, if your headphones are too hot and you’re singing to a click, you don’t want the sound of the click bleeding through into your vocal tracks. Especially if you’re stacking a lot of tracks, that click or even the instrumental track itself in the headphone bleed can really add up over multiple passes.
4. BE MINDFUL OF THE LYRICS AND MELODY
It’s frustrating and time consuming when a singer for hire doesn’t sing the right lyrics or melody in what they record. I’ve had occasions where I’ve given them a demo vocal, I’ve bounced out one mix for each and every vocal part so they can hear exactly what to sing, I’ve given them lyric sheets… and they still get it wrong. They’ve even sung the hook with the wrong words. This is a total time waster for the producer. I’ve had to do melody manipulation with plugins and I’ve had to chop out extra words and do ninja editing maneuvers to cover up when a singer gets it wrong because I don’t have time to ask them to do it again and the error is 20 tracks deep. Again, that carelessness is minutes [or hours] on the clock, and if a producer doesn’t feel that you’re giving them something that is “fast and easy”, next time they might go to someone else. No es bueno.
5. BE MINDFUL OF YOUR PERFORMANCE
Before you record, it’s a good idea to ask the producer what they’re going for. How do they want you to sing the song? Light and breathy? Funky with a hard groove? Emotionally intense and powerful? Friendly? Angry? Sexy? Intimate? Belty? I’ve had singers give me tracks that were technically correct, but vocally very safe and bland when I needed it to sound intense and filled with emotion. Find out what the producer needs before you start. Also, it’s an excellent idea to sing the song down once and send that off to the producer before you continue so they can hear what you’re doing and give feedback. This could save a great deal of time with revisions in case you misinterpret what they want, and that’s better for everyone.
6. BE MINDFUL OF WHAT PARTS THEY WANT AND HOW MANY PASSES OF EACH
Do they want the lead vocal to be doubled? Tripled? How many passes of the harmony parts? Two of each harmony? Or four so they can pan two left and two right? Or six? Do they want more passes of the lead vocal in the chorus than the verse? Ask them for a list of exactly which parts you’re singing and how many passes they want of each. If they don’t provide you with this info up front, just say “I want to be sure you get exactly what you need, so could you please send me a list of exactly which parts I am to sing and how many passes of each?” If the producer has simply told you to make up your own harmonies, be sure to give them several stacks on the parts you come up with. Usually with back ground vocals you want an even number of passes for panning left and right.
7. BE MINDFUL OF PITCH AND TIMINGS
If you’re stacking a part or singing harmonies… basically, if there is more than ONE pass of any part, make sure your timings and pitch are tight. Start and end your words at exactly the same time. If you’ve got a run or any little vocal flips, make them all lock together nicely. Make sure the consonants happen at the same time. Hold the notes out for the same length of time. It shouldn’t be hard to spot the outliers if you’re looking at all the waveforms together. And if you've got words that end with a hard sound like a T or S, it's not always necessary to sing that S or T on each one of the stacks. Sometimes you can get away with only putting it on ONE pass and leaving it off the other passes and that way there's no discrepancy in the timing.
And always always always think about the POCKET. Pocket matters. It needs to feel good rhythmically. If you can take care of this on the front end, you’ll save the producer time later, and they won’t need to spend precious time pocketing what you did. Again, minutes on the clock really matter for a producer whether or not they’re under a deadline.
8. BE MINDFUL OF "EAR CANDY"
In many cases, producers really need vocal ad libs in a track to keep things interesting. Ask the producer if they want you to do ad libs, in case they forget to mention it. If they want ad libs, you can ask which sections of the song they’ll want them. If they know specifically where, then you can record ad libs in that section. If they just need ad libs in general, go ahead and run the track from the beginning with all the other vocals muted and just run ad libs throughout the whole song. Do this for two or three passes. Do several attempts at one idea and then move on to another idea and give several attempts of the next idea. If you only do one or two performances of a run, you might not have nailed it and tuning can be tricky occasionally, but if you do the same run six or seven times, the producer can choose their favorite version. You definitely want variety in your ad libs, and you DEFINITELY do not want all of your ad libs to be lyric based. Give at least 50% non lyrical ad libs like oohs and ahs and whoas. Do some adlibs that are big and showy if the song calls for it, but also do some shorter little two note ad libs that get in and get out fast. If all you do is long runs, that limits the options and if all you do is short little one note ad libs, that might not fill the need. The important thing is that you give a variety of ideas and multiple executions of each idea so that the producer can choose the “best of”. And if it’s appropriate, maybe consider doubling some of the ideas in a second pass. It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
9. BE MINDFUL OF HOW YOU EXPORT YOUR FILES
You want each track to start at the beginning of the song. Even if the vocal part doesn’t come until 2 minutes in, each file should start at the beginning of the song so that there’s no question of where they line up.
If you’re working in Logic, you’ll want to EXPORT your tracks, not BOUNCE. They’re both options on the same pull down menu. Exporting the tracks makes them a mono file.
You want to zero out your faders so they’re all at the same level [hit OPTION and then click on it to instantly set it at 0], and you want to bypass all effects plugins like reverb, delay, tuning, etc. Give the producer a dry vocal so they’re not married to your reverb. And if you zero out your fader level, they can modify the volume on their side.
And for the love of all that is good and right, make sure you CLEARLY LABEL each of the parts so the producer doesn’t need to wonder what they are. Chorus lead main, chorus lead double, chorus lead triple, chorus high harmony pass A, chorus high harmony pass B, bridge ad lib pass A, bridge ad lib pass B etc. As long as you have a logical system to how you label them, the producer should be able to sort through them and figure it out.
Put all the files in a folder and then create a zip file before you send it. Ask the producer how they want you to transfer the file. I prefer Box to Dropbox. My mix guy uses wetransfer. Don't make the producer create a new google drive account to access your files when they already have something else. You create the account to accommodate them.
10. BE MINDFUL OF YOUR ATTITUDE AND WILLINGNESS TO DO REVISIONS
When you send off the files, be sure to communicate to the producer that if there’s anything they need you to revise, you’re very happy to do so. If they come back to you with any type of feedback or request, stay upbeat and positive and assure them that you’re willing to do whatever they need to get the parts they want. If your first effort wasn’t what they needed, then the way to keep them from deciding not to hire you again is to be great to work with and cheerful about doing revisions. Then do them as quickly as possible. And again, maybe sing it once and pop a quick mix to them and have them tell you if you’re getting it how they want it. Think like a business person, you are a service provider and you want your client to be happy and hire you again.
So there you have it. Ten tips on keeping a producer happy when you’re recording your own vocals on their track. This is all off the top of my head, so if I’ve forgotten anything, please feel free to leave a comment!