How to record a great vocal take

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Capturing the ultimate vocal performance can require push and pull between the producer and talent, and the tact and technique of the producer plays a pivotal role in recording a great vocal take.

Echoes’ Andre Calilhanna sat with producer/engineer/studio owner Jon Marc Weiss to discuss production techniques and gather insight into recording a great vocal tape.

recording a great vocal takeI read an article in which Adele commented on how Paul Epworth – or it might have been Rick Rubin – got her to sing notes on 21 she didn’t know she could sing. I found that really interesting, that someone who had already achieved success and notoriety as star vocalist was able to discover new facets to her voice because of a producer she obviously trusted. As a producer, how do you know how far you can push an artist?
I think the producer’s experience plays a big part in this. How many artists they’ve worked with in their career has a lot to do with their ability to get the most out of people. I usually go in, put the mic up, and let the vocalist run through the track a few times. I’ll let them roll for a little bit, and I’ll tell them I’m not even listening, I’ve got the monitors down, but once in a while I’ll listen in to see where they are. And just from that you almost can identify where the peak is – you can hear an artist and determine, “I know where their strengths and shortcomings are and it’s going to get to this level.” Or sometimes you’ll know that last record or demo didn’t really showcase the best of this singer and you can get something better and you push for more.

I’ve worked with artists where we start at 6 PM, and it’s not until 10 PM that, their voice might be a little sore, but they like the tone that’s coming out. I’ve had them go back at midnight – six hours later – and have them retake something they did earlier in the day and it comes out better.

There’s a standard that every producer is looking for from a vocal take. The type of song has a lot to do with how much emotion you want to pull out of the artists. A lot of times the artist is a bit hesitant to show emotion or really give themselves to the take. You’ve got to feel the artist out. Listen to the words, if they have a lot of meaning to the artist, you can use that psychology and say, “Hey, you’re talking about how this guy broke your heart, try drawing on that anger and emotion.” It’s really a situational thing.

The transition from a comfort zone in a rehearsal or performance environment and translating that to recording can be especially difficult for a vocalist. We’ve used the word clinical before, but if nothing else, you’re often wearing headphones, standing in a room all by yourself – which is just strange. How do you help ease that transition?
Well, a couple of things. First, not too many artists work with both phones over their ears, they want to hear their voice in the room as well. So one mistake artists make is putting both ears on. And a mistake an engineer often makes is not cutting the feed to one of the ears when the artists has it off and then you’ve got the playback noise coming into the microphone.

You want to have a really good mix for the vocalist. They need to be able to imagine their voice in that track. It needs to be sitting in that track in a place that’s comfortable for them. A lot of engineers won’t put delay or reverb on a track until they mix, but with vocals, you really want it to sound good, you might even want to pick out the reverb you’re going to use when you mix, and give the vocalist what they want. Make sure they’re happy with what they’re hearing in their ears. You’ll probably work longer with the vocalist to make sure they get exactly what they want. When they’re hearing what they want in the cans, then you’re ready to start the recording process.

Also, with most singers, try to get as many people out of the control room as possible. If it’s just the engineer and producer, that’s probably the best case scenario. Occasionally someone from the band wants to be in there to critique and hear what’s going down, but a lot of times I think the artist is more comfortable if it’s just the engineer getting the sounds to tape and the producer getting the best performance out of the person.

The producer probably already knows the group a little bit, I mean, how can a producer jump in and put his ideas on top of something without really knowing their history, hearing some rehearsals, looking for some of the idiosyncrasies of the band, and knowing the interrelations of the players? You want to know the singer a little bit, before you go in there. If you just go in cold, and it’s the singer’s first time with the producer, there’s going to be this period of acclimation. It’s going to take a while to get comfortable.

I’ve seen it happen when you go in that first day and nothing gets kept – and that’s OK. I really recommend a scratch track. Once you get the majority of the instruments down, get a scratch vocal on there and have everyone take the mix home and listen to it and determine, “Here’s where we really need to bring the vocals up. Or here’s a chance to try a different approach.” Stuff like that.

I remember reading about a producer who was working with, I think it was Reba McEntire, and he mentioned that he was recording the rhythm tracks with the band, and they were playing it very adeptly. But then he introduced Reba into the mix, and all of a sudden the level of intensity was elevated as the players fed off of her performance.
Absolutely. Even if you’re just recording bass and drums, with the guitar going straight into the board as a guide, I always ask the singer to be there because it’s important that the band hears the vocal. I mean, they’re used to hearing it, so without it, they might not play the same. It can work the other way, where with the vocal you realize the instrumental parts might need a boost, they’re being outdone emotionally by the vocal, so you might need to add to the arrangement to match it.

You mentioned that you’ll work with a vocalist for hours at a time. Unlike a guitarist, or most any other instrument, there’s a fatigue factor that’s going to affect vocals differently than other instruments, right? Is that not a concern?
What’s interesting, I’ve found that often, the singer does best at the end of the night when they almost don’t have a throat left. It’s so strange, but the best takes come out of those last, “I want to do it one more time!” takes right before we leave for the night. You’ve already heard yourself quite a few times coming through the cans and the mains in the control room, you know where it’s lacking, and the singer starts taking mental notes of where they’re having problems.

And, to get the great vocal track means you have to record multiple tracks, and keep multiple tracks. What sounds good at the end of the night might not sound as good the next day. Whenever possible, I’d say the vocalist should have three full tracks recorded, and from there you can build a comp track.

With smaller budgets, it’s going to be hard to sit down and have enough time, and maybe even enough tracks, to handle tracking three vocal performances. But with DAWs and all these non-destructive tracks, you can go back 20 takes prior and take the best pieces of those takes and create one really good vocal. It’s really common, when you’re working with a vocalist, to work one line at a time. You’re not rolling through the entire song.

So what I’m hearing is it’s really unlikely to get a great vocal on the first take.
It’s not impossible. You get somebody like a Whitney Houston in there, or Peabo Bryson, and you might get lucky. There are just too many factors. It’s not like you can go in and tune up a guitar and sound a little better, or put new strings on it. It’s your voice.

One thing you can do to prep the vocalist ahead of time is have them come in warmed up. Tell them, “You’re in the studio on Thursday, Tuesday and Wednesday, I don’t want you to do any strenuous physical activity, I want you to keep a scarf around your neck for the next two to three days, stay away from spicy food…” There are so many little things. When you start getting some experience, you know these things, but not when you’re starting out.

Some scenarios, you’re going to have an artist who’ll come in, you do three takes, and that’s that. Then there’s the other extreme. I remember working with a producer in Philly who brought in this Paula Abdul reel, after her heyday in ’95 or ’96, and we soloed the vocal, and literally every word was punched in. Every single word. It’s pretty crazy, but it’s not uncommon. Some vocalists are perfectionists, and they want something that’s almost unachievable.

Back to the notion of a comfort level in the studio, you told a story once about recreating this one young woman’s bedroom in the studio, getting her actual full-length mirror and end table, because that’s where she always rehearsed and you were trying to recreate that comfortable space. And there are tricks for bassists and guitarists, moving them out of the big room and bringing them into the control room so they don’t feel so isolated or in a box. That seems less like a possibility for a vocalist.
It’s a possibility, and it happens. As a matter of fact, I think James Hetfield (Metallica) often works with a 58 in the control room – something like that. It happens. Have I had to keep takes in the control room with the music blaring? Yeah, and it sucks. It’s terrible, from an engineering standpoint. You’re going to be dealing with a lot of artifacts you wouldn’t be if you were in a separate room.

That seems kind of extreme – it certainly is compromising the integrity of the audio track for the emotional delivery you want. What other things can you do where you’re not making so much of a compromise?
Maybe there are multiple rooms you can choose from, either in a pro studio or home environment. If you have the ability to try different spaces, that’s worth doing.

I know stories of where producers have had the vocalist lie on his/her back when recording – not just to get an intimate take, but to help calm them down because they were anxious in the studio. And I’ve had singers turn their back on the control room. Physically turning the mic around so their back is to the glass. That helps alleviate the distractions of seeing people react to what you are doing in the room. Lighting is another big one. Dimming the lights for specific moods.

Throw out another tip for capturing a great vocal performance.
Sometimes you have to push to get the best take out of a singer. The artist and the band might be satisfied with a take, but you as the producer or the engineer might feel like there’s something better you can get. So you say, “OK. We’ve got a great take down, let’s roll down the track one more time, and let’s get one more on tape.” Sometimes that’s when something really special happens. You always have to be an encouraging presence.

There’s a confidence that gets built once the pressure’s off. You’ve got a good take down, so now you can lose some of that inhibition and you have room to take chances and go for something you might have been hesitant to try before. Like anything, confidence plays a big part in success.
Yeah, no doubt. And something else, it’s sorta simple, but a lot of times the vocalist is not breathing right. They’re under pressure and feeling the pressure and it affects their breathing. It’s crazy, but sometimes you need to tell the artist, “Hey, after this line, you need to take a breath.” Sometimes they can’t hit or hold a note because they just don’t have enough air.

Breathe, damnit!
Exactly. Another thing that’s really important is getting the right mic for the right voice.

I thought you might bring that up. But folks in a home studio environment probably don’t have a mic locker to choose from.
True. Renting a pro mic is an option. Of course, you need to know which mic you want to rent. Like, I’m at a point now that I’ve been doing this long enough where I can hear a voice coming through a U87 for example, and I can tell from listening to the amount of sibilance, the body of the vocal, and some other characteristics, what other mics might do them better. Like, a Neumann U87 tends to work better on male vocalists than female, unless you’re talking about Roger Taylor (Queen) or Geddy Lee (Rush). I’d bet he’s got a specific go-to mic, he’s got a very unique voice. It’s important for a vocalist, if they go into a studio and they love the vocal sound they’re getting, to take note of the mic being used. And there are companies all over the US that rent professional studio mics. If that’s really not an option, and you’ve got a decent Audio Technica in your studio or something, it’s all about using your ear, and EQ, and getting the best tone you can with the vocalist and that mic.

Anything else?
As a producer, or engineer, you need to relax. You need to take a deep breath and relax, because you have to help keep your nervous singer feeling calm and relaxed. Whether they’ve done it a billion times or not, there are going to be nerves that come into play when it comes to being on the spot when that red light comes on. Let them know that you have time, that you’re going to get this right. And it might take a lot of takes, but you’re going to get there. I’ve seen people get frustrated, they’re trying over and over to get that one note… go back to it later. If a track is not flowing, go to another song and revisit it later.

From the vocalist perspective, what advice would you give to a singer to get him in the right frame of mind for a recording session?
Well, first thing, you need to be rehearsed. Practice, but practice the right way. You don’t want to over exert yourself going into the studio. If you don’t have an instructor, you can go to YouTube and find videos for proper warm ups and techniques to sing correctly.

And make sure, when you’re choosing the songs you’re going to record that day, not to choose the screaming track first. Most vocalists know that when they start off the day with a screaming song, their voice is not going to be the same the rest of the day. Start off with the easiest track and work your way up to the most challenging.

And work with the engineer until you are totally happy with the mix in your cans. You have to be completely satisfied and as comfortable as possible if you want to perform at your best.

Vocalist image courtesy of

Jon Marc Weiss is the Senior IT Systems Engineer for Disc Makers and also an accomplished recording engineer, studio designer, and musician with over 20 years’ experience. He owns and operates Kiva Productions right outside of Philadelphia in Hollywood, PA to develop local and national acts. Check out Kiva Productions on Facebook.

Andre Calilhanna is a writer, editor, and musician who contributes regularly to Disc Makers’ blog. His band Hijack has just recorded and released a new EP using many of the techniques found in our DIY posts.

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41 thoughts on “How to record a great vocal take

  1. A good shot of whisky always does it for me:).Takes the edge off and also helps my vocal chords. Ok so I’ve only done this a couple times but my sweet husband had me do a very small part on his indie album Northen Abbey. For any lovers of NW indie melodic music you should check it out. Happy Holidays.

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  5. Thanks for sharing many of the techniques that have been found to be helpful in getting optimal results from vocalists in recording sessions. Working with professionals in Nashville works for me. Every recording session is a learning experience and the most successful producers learn well how to get the results they envision.

  6. “It makes one wonder, if as you say, a singer needs to go to so much trouble to end up with just one good take of a song, how a Diva like Beyonce can go on stage and put on a lengthy vocal performance without all these concerns, Not only that to do it nightly for weeks on a tour.”

    Well, if we take out the obvious “lip-synching” answer, I would say that performing live is not the same as recording in the studio. I would be willing to be that if you took just the vocals from that live performance, that not everything about it would be as perfect as you think it is listening to it with the music and all that energy you get from being in the live setting. I use to do FOH for a small local theater, and I often would record the shows of the performers(The shows consisted of several members of the group singing covers of popular songs). There where times, when during the show I was like, Oh yeah, she did a really great job! But when I listened to the recording and I was like, Ehhh, that wasn’t really as good as I thought it was.

  7. It makes one wonder, if as you say, a singer needs to go to so much trouble to end up with just one good take of a song, how a Diva like Beyonce can go on stage and put on a lengthy vocal performance without all these concerns, Not only that to do it nightly for weeks on a tour.
    I think the fact is that there are more of us who like me whose vocal abilities are not consistently strong or broad-range because we are not physically gifted in the same way as those of that ilk. Much like some of us are more well muscled. Not to cry about it I say, just to accept the fact.
    I can hear things in my head I would love to be able to sing but there is no way I can vocalize them.I have written songs I cannot sing in a way to really do them the justice they deserve.
    I used to be able to falsetto incredibly when I was in my twenties…..only forcibly if at all now at 68.
    Like heart surgery, some things are just best left to those with that better ability than I.

  8. You need to be able to read the singers personality temperature. A “cold” personality often needs to be stimulated, challenged, or whatever it takes to heat them up. The “star” personality may need to be cooled off, flattered, or other to avoid extremes (excessive shouting, tempo gyrations.)

  9. Paul Rogers, singer for Bad Company, used to always sing in the control room into a Shure SM57. And Frank Sinatra, I’ve read, used to come into the studio, do one take, then leave. As a producer, I totally agree that having a great mix in the headphones helps a singer a lot. If they can hear themselves really well, with some FX, and the music really well…..well.

  10. As a singer, i like to sing hard, rock n roll, loud, presence of a crazy spirit in the room! I like when the recordings capture that. One thing i’d say it helps with that is to be comfortable with your producer as i was with mine. He pretended he wasn’t listening, he said he wasn’t but obviously he was! I felt like i was in my own living room, singing my heart out, with no one to judge me!:) . Vocals came out brilliantly! 

  11. Being really warmed up is essential. Tracking after a gig is a consideration! Most of us do one song at a time and the majority of the recording singing We do is in the first hour of singing.  I bet when the Beatles recorded an album in a day, the later tracks were easier to capture than the early ones.  

  12. It’s great to read how someone else is doing it and maybe pick up some good techniques from them. This is my third project as a producer and it was nice to think that someone thinks you are ready to be a producer. I am a bit comprehensive since it is something that I want to be successful at. Thank you for the tips and I will put them to good use.

  13. I spent a decade as chief engineer for Brian and Eddie Holland, and I totally concur with this article.  Really well written!  I’d just add that it’s important to make sure that the singer is feeling the lyrics, not just focusing on melody/pitch/phrasing.  That’s often the difference between sounding like a demo and sounding like a star.

    1. How did the price of tickets go so high, while the “vocal performance” go so low ? Most acts play the record in the background – no in the foreground, while they “perform” in the background. Who lays out 50-200+ bucks for that ?? I watched that tape of xxxextencion getting tackled onstage, song never missed a beat, vocals and all WTF????????????

  14. I like my vocals a little dirty but warm, u87 is the gold standard mic, but sure & akg have tonal qualities I like in a mix

  15. Singing lessons. Singing lessons. Singing lessons. A vocalist who doesn’t know how not to rip their throat out in four hours is a novice – and I include Adele in that.

  16. I’ve been recording my voice for several years now and while working on my album, I’ve discovered I could sing higher notes in the studio and using amplification than I ever could when I used to sing without anything on an un-mic-ed stage in small theatres. I actually had to kinda learn to sing all over again when I started using PA systems.

    1.  I have found that mics make a big difference on stage, in the studio, anywhere. I love the freedom of a wireless headset, (I play guitar as well) but I have to struggle to get my vocalization and breathing right when using a headset mic in a live performance. Unless it’s crazy show where my vocals aren’t that important I use a ball mic. I think it is just that I have been so used to coming in and out of the mic to accent the vocals that I have a hard time with the head set.
      In a set up when it’s just me and my guitar the type of mic is very important to me. I can imagine the change when you come out of a theater setting where no mics are used.

      1. I have never used a headset mic.  I’d always be afraid I’d burp, cough or something…lol.  I use a wireless mic when I’m singing out so I can move around without tugging a cord around.  Holding the mic also gives me something to do with my hands….lol. I tend to have wild hand while I’m singing.I am an older singer who has been singing 45 years. Thirty of those years were singing without any amplification. 
        I was once in a production of Sondheim’s “Company” and I exhausted my voice to the point I had to quit singing for two months for it to recover. Plus during the production of that show I caught a bad flu and had no voice until the final dress rehearsal. I’m sure doing that hard show shortly after an illness didn’t help matters much. I have since had the opinion that Sondheim creates such vocally challenging shows because he doesn’t have to sing them.
        Back in the early 2000’s I started learning to track virtual instruments with a Cakewalk Music Creator program I bought at Best Buy for about 40 bucks. Since then I’ve moved up to the producer series and pieced together a great instrument bank with commercial licenses and set up a home recording studio. I even have a small portable PA system that I can play to about 200 people with.  I have actually used that PA system to play outside at one my city’s small ampitheatres and it was quite loud. Now that I’ve adjusted to microphones, I find it’s easier on my voice thus saving on the wear and tear since I’m now getting in my my fifties. I’m never going back to singing without amplification again. I’m also enjoying singing more since I don’t have to work so hard spitting out the notes. Since I’ve pretty much remolded my singing for sound systems. people who have heard some of my sample tracks tell me it sounds like someone a lot younger singing. I love that…lol.I still sing pretty loud since my voice really carries so all my live singing goes through a compressor in order to tamp down the loud parts and bring up the soft parts. I use my own mic chain even if the place I’m singing in has it’s own sound system and in that chain is a small Yamaha board with compression that I can plug into any system. That’s also a good way to keep inexperienced sound people’s fingers off the faders.

  17. You seem to be implying that Audio Technica mics are not of professional caliber, but their top line mics perform quite well.  I use a 4051/53 in a variety of ways.

  18. Great, great article. Pro-Am Artists & engineers should print this out and re-read everytime they get ready to prep for recording. 

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