tracking vocals

Tracking vocals: Making a phrase-by-phrase approach work

If you are planning a phrase-by-phrase approach to tracking vocals in a studio, here are some tips to help make your experience a success.

In “Tracking vocals one phrase at a time,” we talked about an approach to vocal recording where rather than record a single, golden take, you break things up, recording the entire song phrase by phrase (and possibly completely out of order) until you have what you need.

If you are planning to approach your next vocal recording session phrase by phrase, here are some tips to help make your recording experience a success.

Start with a plan

Before entering the studio with your singer, listen to the song multiple times and identify where phrases will be best broken up. Also, it’s helpful to go in with an idea of what phrases you want to hit first and what you want to save for later.

Be ready to improvise

You may go in to the session wanting to track the big choruses at the top and then fill in verses after that, but something about your singer’s energy and vibe that day is telling you to flip your plan. Follow your instincts and remember that you are there to capture the great vocal takes that you need, regardless of what of what road gets you there.

Know when to stop

If you’ve recorded eight takes of a single phrase and your singer doesn’t seem any closer to getting a take that you’re happy with, consider shifting to a different section or just taking a break. Similarly, always keep your eye on the prize — and the clock. When you’re tracking phrase by phrase, it can be easy to get lost in the minutiae of the way a certain note is sung, for example, and drain your studio time. Your goal is to get solid vocal takes for an entire song, so budget your time and attention accordingly.

Keep your singer’s stamina in mind

Tracking vocals phrase by phrase can be more of a marathon than a sprint, so pay close attention to how your singer is feeling and sounding and don’t ask for more takes than you need. The last thing you want is to burn your singer out with two verses left to record.

Consider tracking similar phrases back to back

As mentioned in the part one of this series, if you have multiple phrases in a song that have similar melodies, energy levels, and/or lyrics, consider tracking them one after another. That way, your singer can stay in the same groove, without having to shift gears.

Give your singer context

Especially if you’re jumping around from middle to beginning to end of the song and back again, telling your singer something like “this is the pre-chorus after the first verse where you’re really revving up to the super-angry chorus” or “this is the last, despairing phrase at the very end of the song” can help him home convey the proper mood and deliver the performance you’re looking for.

Take notes

Writing down which takes speak to you in the moment can make sorting through your options easier when it’s time to compile the track. If you’re tracking out of order, it can also be very helpful to create markers within your session — or just take handwritten notes on a piece of paper — indicating which phrases are recorded where. This can save you time and prevent headaches on the back end.

Do a rough comp on the spot

If you’re good about your pacing, note taking, and tracking, it shouldn’t be too difficult to comp together a rough take of the entire song on the spot. Why is this helpful? First off, it’s work that’s often best done when you’re still steeped in the immediacy of the song. Second, it’s gratifying to hear how everything pieces together, after spending so much time on tiny, individual elements. Finally, it gives you the chance to hear if anything is glaringly not right or completely non-cohesive with the rest of the song — so your singer can try it again.

Keep everything

Even if you’re sure that take six of ten is the winner for a certain phrase, keep the others handy, just in case. You never know when, listening back several days later, your chosen take of the moment might lack a certain sparkle that an earlier or later take happens to possess — or, if your take of choice doesn’t end up locking into the instrumental tracks as well as you’d like it to, or some ambient noise or unwanted distortion snuck in. Similarly, if you make a production choice where you want to, say, double the lead vocal track in certain spots, having multiple version to choose from can be a great resource.

Do you have any other tips for singers and producers planning on tracking vocals phrase by phrase? Tell us in the comments below.


Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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