10 ways to get a better performance out of a singer in the recording studio

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I just had the honor of being on an expert panel at the Summer NAMM Conference here in Nashville, and the topic at hand was "How to Get the Best Vocal Performance from a Singer in the Recording Studio."  Before I showed up, I jotted down some notes, and as I promised the people in the audience that day, I'm putting it in a blog post. And since most people skip all this intro text, I'll get right to it...

 

1. MAKE THEM FEEL SAFE AND RELAXED


This is not only in the obvious "I promise I'm not a creep" sense, but also as in "I promise I won't judge you or laugh at you if you mess up." Even though YOU know you won't judge them, THEY need to be reassured of that. And you don't know their inner monologue or their propensity for anxiety, everyone is different. Keep in mind that the singer's BODY is their instrument, so their emotional state is hard-wired into their performance. And if you want them to give you a vulnerable, honest performance, they need to feel safe. Two ways to do this are, first of all, to ensure that there's no one simply observing who might make them feel self-conscious in any way. This includes live streaming. Even if THEY want to live stream, they still won't sing the same as if they're unobserved. Also, be aware that any human who is just hanging out and watching in the studio, unless they're someone that THEY brought with them [perhaps to make them feel more relaxed], might hinder their performance. Instead of calling attention to it or asking "does so and so make you feel uncomfortable" which will instantly make things awkward, find a discreet way to have that person vacate while you track vocals. Because few people will want to admit they're uncomfortable when they are uncomfortable. Secondly, be aware that your silence after a take can often leave a lot of room for potentially negative self-talk in the singer's mind. So, even if you're focused on setting compressor levels, a simple "you sound GREAT! Let me keep working on setting levels while you keep fine-tuning your approach, but I love where this is going," can alleviate whatever thoughts of "I suck" or "they hate my voice" might lurk in their mind. Frequent, brief verbal encouragements go a very very long way to make them willing to take risks and strive beyond their comfort zone.

Singing is...

2.  BREAKS. SNACKS. WATER. AIR QUALITY.


If you've ever stood in front of a studio mic for 8 hours straight, with nothing but you and 4 padded walls, you soon realize that one word which often applies to studio singing is "grueling". It's not only a test of vocal endurance, but physical stamina, and emotional resilience. Some singers are more exhausted by some types of singing than others. You might be surprised to know that breathy and light vocals are very labor and energy intensive. Those vocal performances can be much more taxing than belting for many singers because they're required to breathe so much more to achieve the sound. Between song sections, check in with the singer and ask "how are you holding up, do you need to take a break or have a snack?" Offer snacks like bananas, potato chips, or granola bars without nuts. [Things that are non-mucous producing and don't risk anaphylaxis.] Also, offer them room temperature filtered water. I keep a gallon jug of water in the studio for them to refill their bottle or glass as often as they like. Additionally, if you know you're going to take a few minutes to comp their lead vocal before you do doubles and triples, tell them beforehand so they can sit down. Standing at a studio mic for hours can take a toll on backs, legs, and feet, and it's necessary to move and stretch from time to time. And lastly, be mindful of the air quality where they will sing. You may love your glade plugins, but anything polluting the air can impede a good vocal performance. Simply asking "do you mind if I burn incense" isn't good enough because they may not feel comfortable saying no, so just don't do it. Pure essential oil diffusers might be the exception, but you still never know.

 

3. MAKE SURE THE VOICE AND THE SONG ARE RIGHT FOR EACH OTHER


An important part of vocal producing is to know how to cast the right voice in the right song. It may be obvious that if you've got a singer with a more delicate voice, you shouldn't expect them to belt out some epic anthemic chorus, but some people may be surprised that it can also be a challenge in the other direction. If you've got a singer with a monster big voice, you may think they can do anything, but I've learned from experience that the people with the amazing powerhouse voices can often struggle with intricate melodies that someone with a more delicate voice can navigate effortlessly. I've seen phenomenal singers struggle to stay within the confines of a Britney Spears song. Not every singer can sing every song. If you're producing an artist, make sure the songs you help them choose are a good match for their instrument, and if you're hiring singers for a job you're producing for a client, make sure you cast the role appropriately. I've had two occasions where a male producer hired me to sing on a song and they expected me to start the chorus by belting a top space E. "You want me to WHAT?"  Not my wheelhouse, friends. Even good belters might find that a little daunting right out of the gate at the beginning of the chorus.  And this brings me to the next point...

 

4. RANGE + RANGE


Know the singer's range. This applies to both vocal range and stylistic range. You can hire a great singer, but if the song doesn't allow them to show off their money notes, you're missing an opportunity.  Sometimes the track's already done and you can't modify it, but if you CAN, ask the singer how high they can belt, how low they can sing, and what part of their range they like the best.  Ask them where their BREAK is, that's the part where they're most likely to switch from chest voice to head voice. If possible, do not require them to keep going back and forth across their break. If they can't tell you the notes, listen to previous recordings of them and find the notes yourself.  I've seen occasions where a singer was really struggling until the song was moved up or down and then suddenly it was a whole different performance. Even a half step matters.  If it's an option, maybe record vocals while the track is just MIDI so you can transpose on the fly, and add audio elements later.

It's also important to know the singer's natural stylistic tendencies.  Some singers are way better at locking into a groove. Some have zero issue with sounding sexy while others might cringe at the thought. Some are great at sounding fresh and happy, some are great at sounding like they've lived a hard life. Know what style they do best and feel most comfortable with.

 

5. COMMUNICATE WHAT'S IMPORTANT & WHAT'S HAPPENING


Inexperienced singers can often be so caught up in trying to give a technically perfect execution of the song that there is no storytelling or passion in what they're doing. They're more focused on pitch than nuance. I've found it to be very helpful to say "I can tune and pocket you, but there's no plugin to add passion and conviction, so really go for it!" Simply knowing that you want them to take risks rather than sing it perfectly can help them be less inhibited. Or sometimes you just need to make sure they understand that they're still not quite getting the melody how you wrote it. If you're asking them to keep running passes, explain to them WHY they're doing it again or else they don't know what to modify about their performance. Be diplomatic in your wording. Saying "I think the pitch is a little on the bottom side of the note so be mindful of that next time, ok?" doesn't quite cut to the core as if you bluntly say "you're flat". Also, it's extremely helpful to a singer if you explain to them what's about to happen. Tell them how many bars of preroll you're giving them [or ask how many they want], tell them which phrase you're planning to record or word you're going to punch [making sure they're singing the words before and after that punch for a natural sounding edit], say "listening" if you're playing it back, or "I'm gonna solo this to see what kind of tone we're getting", or "now we're recording a double", or "this time it's the triple." This helps them feel more comfortable and relaxed.

 

Singing is acting.

6. ASK YOURSELF "DO I BELIEVE THIS?"


It's so easy for a producer to be busy making sure levels are good and they're covering all the parts, but if you at no point solo the vocal and close your eyes and listen without looking at the arrange window, you'll likely miss the opportunity to really truly HEAR what they're doing.  Always always always take a moment to ask the question "Do I believe this performance?"  If their performance lacks emotion or conviction, no amount of editing will make up for it. If the vocal isn't captivating to the listener, it's not functioning as well as it could.  If you have a less experienced studio singer who is struggling with coming out of their shell, say things like "singing is acting, let me hear you as if you're playing a character". Helping a less experienced singer detach their vocal performance from who they are as a person can be extremely freeing for them.  They may not even realize why they're holding back, but on some level, they're wondering "what will people think if I really go for it?" It's a risk and makes them vulnerable. They might feel silly. If you can help them understand that it's all acting, that helps encourage them to try new things. And once they give you something that is outside their comfort zone, be very encouraging "That was amazing! How did that feel for you? Let's do that again!" This shouldn't be too much of a problem if you're working with more seasoned professional singers.

 "Stand there and pretend you're singing."

"Stand there and pretend you're singing."

 

7. PLACEMENT + PLACEMENT


This refers to both mic placement and vocal placement.  In terms of mic placement, make sure they understand how to stay "on axis" so they're in the proper pickup pattern on the mic. Also, experiment with moving the mic up or down an inch, or having them step forward or back an inch or two. This definitely affects timbre.  Once you find the best mic placement, have them make a note of how many finger widths are between them and the pop filter and remind them to try to stay in that spot as much as possible. 

And regarding vocal placement, depending on the sound you want, have them get a more forward placement or let it sit lower down in their throat.  Forward placement should resonate somewhere in the area around bridge of their nose to their front teeth, sometimes called the "mask". It's mostly mental, but that influences physical execution.  Forward placement usually results in a brighter, more focused tone. I'll talk more about this in the next section...

 

8. THINGS TO SAY TO HELP MODIFY THEIR PERFORMANCE

First you want to straight up TELL them you want more energy or brighter tone or a breathier sound, but when that doesn't seem to be enough...

If you need more energy or aggressiveness:
-"Move your mouth a lot when you sing"
-"Give me harder consonants at the beginning and middle of words" [sometimes I even circle the specific consonants on their lyric page, but make sure they don't exaggerate the ends of the words]
-"Remember to breathe deeply from your diaphragm and take really big breaths"
-"Instead of singing it, yell it on pitch." [This is great when you're recording a rock song, because often they will psychologically approach producing the sound very differently if they yell vs. sing.]
-"Sing it like you're furious." [This can be interpreted as teeth gritting, seething anger or more overt aggressiveness. You might want one or the other at different times. Sometimes I'll say "give me the fire hose of rage" to communicate a fully expressed anger that is constantly moving straight forward from their mouth.]

If you need a brighter sound:
-"Visualize a ribbon constantly being pulled straight forward from your mouth without stopping. The higher notes are further out in front, not up above." [This is essentially forward placement]
-"Lift your cheeks and scrunch your nose" [not pinch down but crinkle up] on the higher notes.

If you need a friendlier sound:
-"Smile wide the entire time you sing" [close your eyes and you can totally hear the difference]

If you need a lighter breathier sound:
-"Remember to take huge breaths and exhale through your singing. Move more air through than you think you need."
-"Scrunch up your nose and lift your cheeks."
-"Spread the sound horizontally, smile"

If you need a darker sound:
-"Make your mouth shape pouty with no smile at all."

If you need a smokier sound:
-"Let it settle and relax into your throat."
-"Give me a smokey Amy Grant kind of sound."
-"Exhale through the phrase as you sing it."

 

9. RECORD SONG SECTIONS FROM LOW TO HIGH RANGE


Generally, most singers do best when you record the low parts first and save the higher parts for later. It's common that once someone sings high, their low range doesn't sound quite the same. Not that they lose the notes, but some of the "vibe" might go away. So, if the verses are lower, do all the verses first before you have them screlt out the chorus. In my experience, this is mostly true for singers who are singing in chest voice. Singing the lower sections first helps them to get more warmed up before they have to pull off the higher phrases.  If someone tends to sing in their mix, they can usually move up and down without much consequence. But conversely, if the singer is doing a lot of head voice singing, they very likely would want to do that before doing chest voice sections. Bottom line, ask the singer which section they want to record first, and at the end of each section [including all stacks], ask them which one they'd like to record next.

There’s always forgiveness in the triple.

10. COMP, STACK, TUNE, POCKET


Once you've got several lead vocal passes, you can give the singer a break while you do a comp. Vocal comping [compiling or creating a composite] is basically finding which word or phrase from which pass is the best and piecing them together to make one edited pass. [Either that or you make sure you've punched any words or phrases that need it.] You want to comp the SOLOED vocal [mute all instruments] before you have them "stack" it, which means to sing a double and triple of the lead. Depending on the genre, having three [or more] matching passes of the vocal can be quite necessary to get a full enough sound. These must be unique performances, you cannot simply copy/paste the same vocal performance to three different tracks. [Please just trust me on this, I'm a tired mom and don't want to have to explain.] I usually look to see if the singer is recording with one ear of the headphones off, and I tell them "I'm panning the first pass far left and what you're currently doing will be in the center" so they know what they're matching vs. what they're currently singing. They need to hear both. It does no good to pan it right if that ear is off.

Once they've sung a double, ALWAYS SOLO BOTH PASSES TOGETHER and listen to make sure they gel.  This is when it helps to pan one far left and one far right so you can hear which one might be off if you need to punch a word. If the ends of their words aren't lining up, sometimes you can get away with only having the ending "t" or "s" on the lead vocal and have them skip that consonant on the other passes. Voila... no more worries about the endings lining up.

After you've got a good double, run the triple and again SOLO ALL THREE PASSES TOGETHER and make sure they gel. You will find that this triple pass brings a great deal of forgiveness and makes the other two passes work together much better.  Usually, I put the original comped lead in the middle, the double slightly left, and the triple slightly right. Depending on the desired sound, all three can be kept at the same volume, or you can put the double and triple quieter so they're not even that noticeable other than simply fattening the sound of the lead.  Some engineers even take one and tune it up a few cents and the other and tune it down a few cents to increase that fattening effect.

Now that you've got a stack of your lead vocal [by the way, I usually do an even number of passes for background vocals to pan half left and half right], you want to make sure you take time to tune all of them. Sometimes you're lucky enough to be able to simply use a pitch correction plugin, or make specific spot fixes with flex tuning. Sometimes you might need to tune in graphic mode in Autotune where it's manually drawn in rather than automatic.

You also want to make sure your vocals are adequately "pocketed" which means to line the rhythms up so they feel good against whatever beat or groove the song has. There are multiple ways to do this. You can clip and nudge or you can use flex time. [With vocals, for me, it has rarely worked to simply quantize the vocal.]  Once you've got one pass that has been manually pocketed, you can employ a plugin to rhythmically line up the other passes to the edited one. I use Vocalign to tighten up the stacks to the original. It's great when it feels like working. It can be rather moody and some days it just refuses to be my friend. It takes some time, but it's faster than manually pocketing each pass, and I'd still rather have it than not.

So there you have it. Ten steps toward getting a better vocal PERFORMANCE.  Happy producing, friends!