Traditionally, a record producer is tasked with the big picture – the entire recording process. A vocal producer is a specialist who concentrates on getting the best vocal performance possible.
As music and recording technology continues to evolve, there have been great strides made in the tools and techniques used to create memorable recordings. Along with the advent of DAW’s and a dizzying array of recording software, plug-ins and tuning programs like Melodyne, vocalists have also begun to take advantage of working with a specialist to help them deliver the most compelling studio vocal possible: the vocal producer.
Unlike a track or music producer, a vocal producer specializes in helping a singer dig down into the soul of each song and tap into its emotional core. I called a friend and colleague, David Pramik, who is a vocal producer, track producer, and songwriter, to learn more about the role of a vocal producer and what benefits an artist receives when working with one.
David is based in Los Angeles and has a home production studio where you’ll find him most days, collaborating on a variety of projects. He’s worked with artists such as Blasterjaxx, Ryder, Richard Marx, Kenny Holland, Morgan Karr, Absofacto and many more. His productions have hit #38 on the Billboard Dance chart and #10 on the Spotify USA viral 50. You’ve also heard his work behind National ad campaigns for MasterCard and 5 Hour Energy, among others.
What is the role of a vocal producer?
He or she is a producer who is brought in during a recording project specifically to manage all aspects of the vocal. At a basic level, that may involve the vocal style that best fits the song and how it should be performed, as well as what the emotional content of the performance should be. I think that a lot of singers are unaware of what they do when they sing. When the time to record vocals comes up, they may simply think, “OK, I’m gonna to sing – just do what I do,” and that may be adequate.
But a vocal producer might come in and say, “Listen, when you sing this, you sound great, but the lyric is talking about how you just lost your lover or how your new relationship is the best thing in the world. So if your vocal performance, and the emotion behind your vocal, can convince us of that, then the whole song will be that much more powerful.”
So I would say the vocal producer is someone experienced, standing on the outside looking in, and saying “Here are some ideas to help make your performance even more effective.”
So it’s like being a mirror for the singer, giving them some of that feedback on the emotional intensity or detachment or whatever that the song calls for.
Yes. And while that is likely the prime directive, I would say there is a lot more going on. While a normal producer is in charge of the whole recording process – the big picture view – the vocal producer is the one who’s coming in as a specialist to concentrate on getting the best vocal performance possible and saying to the talent directly, “Listen. Let’s try this. Let’s do this.”
When I’m in the studio with a vocalist, let’s say we’re trying to do something up tempo and exciting, then I’ll be very active. I’ll talk a lot. I’ll kind of jump around the vocalist a bit and try to exude the feeling that we’re trying to get and I’ll try to control the atmosphere in a way that helps them to forget about the outside world: we’ll just find some way to evoke the emotion we’re going for in a real guttural way.
My job is to try to get away from the often clinical vibe of the studio, because most vocalists will feel as if they’re about to perform some kind of test. They’re about to do an exam in a sense, so they’re trying to be perfect and delicate and proper and it’s like . . . delicate and proper is rarely what’s called for in the music. So the vocal producer is there to break them out of that mindset.
You mentioned the regular music or track producer oversees the entire production of the finished single, EP, or album. So the vocal producer won’t likely be along for the entire recording project?
Exactly. Unless, of course, one person is acting in both roles, which is fairly common, but otherwise, the vocal producer will only show up for the vocal days.
So talk a little bit about the vocal producer’s involvement, because it could be just one session or it could be playing a part in the planning of the whole recording process meaning pre-production, rehearsal, recording sessions, putting the vocal edit together, etc.
Well, you know, this is a type of thing where the “job” is in no way standardized. What I can tell you from my own experience is likely to be a little different from two or three other vocal producers’ experiences. There’s no one size fits all. I would say the minimal approach would just be the person that comes in and coaches the singer, like what we just talked about. But I don’t know many of us who do just the minimal approach because there’s so much beyond that.
A huge part of the vocal production is the actual layering and arranging the vocals. For instance, I might say in this section, “Let’s double the lead here, and let’s add one harmony here. OK, for this next section, let’s do octaves and doubles and let’s get you doing a couple different styles of doubles. Then let’s get a group vocal for this section, etc.” Probably due to my background as both a track producer and a vocal producer, I tend to really see things as a sonic soundscape.
So when I vocal produce, I tend to be heavily involved in the comping, and I will decide – along with the singer – on the parts and arrangements as we go through. So it’s more than just the emotional substance in the lead vocal, it includes the whole arrangement.
And again, there may be variations in approach. Since I often wear both hats – track and vocal producer – I’m involved in everything, but I would assume that comping is maybe less common for many vocal producers to get involved with. They might not necessarily be there for that portion.
Can you clarify what comping is, in terms of how vocals get recorded and how they actually get compiled into the final mix?
When we record vocals, let’s say we’re doing a section, like a chorus or a verse. We’ll go through and get the entire song in one pass and do that six to ten times. Some vocalists prefer to instead go section by section and that’s fine, too – whatever works. In each of those takes, there’s going to be one or two lines that are golden, and comping is picking the best lines from a particular take. Let’s say we take the first line of the first verse from take number three, and then we take the second line from take number four and the third line from take number six, and so on and so forth. We puzzle piece all of these takes together to create a performance that feels unified and progresses smoothly.
What would be better about my demo if I were to work with a vocal producer?
No matter how good your track is, no matter how good your song, if your vocal isn’t convincing or isn’t, as I like to say, “telling the truth,” then it’s just not there, you know? A bad vocal could sink a great song and a great production, which is really interesting because you can have a bad song with poor production, but if the vocal is astonishing, then you’re much closer to a professional product.
I would also say, especially for DIY artists, who are looking to get picked up by a label or publisher, everyone cares about the vocalist. That is IT. If you’re not delivering the right truth, then it’s over. A bad vocal sinks it. A good vocal raises it.
I think hiring a vocal producer is worth it, of course, depending on your budget. I know one of your questions was about costs and that is not standardized in the slightest. I’m thinking of Makeba Riddick who is probably the most sought out vocal producer who has worked with Rihanna, Beyonce, Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey. She charges $10-15,000 per song. Riddick worked with Rihanna on many number ones including “Rude Boy” and “Love the Way You Lie.” So obviously someone who is DIY is just not going to do that.
Are fees hourly or by song?
It varies. I know people who do vocal production hourly. I know people who do it per song. I myself have worked on both bases. It really comes down to negotiating what will work for both parties, but I’m sure with a little digging, you can find someone for a reasonable price.
Could you talk about some of the things you’ve suggested specifically for a vocalist when working to produce their vocals?
I’m fortunate that I have been working with some pretty inspiring voices lately that really speak truth. One thing that I’ve come across lately is reminding these vocalists about the difference between a good vocalist and an artist. And I think that difference can be easily characterized by considering Bob Dylan. If you ask anybody, they’ll probably say that technically, Bob Dylan is a “bad” singer. It’s not like you’re going to call him to sing as a session vocalist.
But what he does do with his vocal is perfect for his songs and genre. If someone who could sing exceptionally well, like Michael Bolton, were trying to imitate Dylan, it wouldn’t work. It would be a bad experience for the listener, and the art would suffer for it. Despite having better technical abilities, the resulting music is worse.
So I will often speak with my vocalists and remind them that we’re not looking for you to impress us. We’re not looking for you to make your vocal teacher proud. We don’t really care about that. What I want to do is get to the heart of this song and feel something.
And a lot of it is, like I talked about before, getting the singer into their element, getting them to understand what we’re talking about and to feel it. Sometimes, I’ve had a couple of rare instances where, let’s say we’re doing a particularly sad song, I will purposefully talk about that song and dive into the meaning of it in kind of a sadistic way, try to get the singer to remember the pain that inspired the song. Let’s say it was a breakup or a death that prompted the artist to write it. I’ll try to get them back to that. And maybe for their mental well-being, it’s not the kindest thing. But for the product, if you can hear the pain as they sing a line, like “When you left me,” if you can feel that pain then that makes that song so important.
I think a phenomenal example of that is the song “Jealous” by Labrinth. Listen to that. That is one of the most incredible vocal performances I have ever heard in my life. And it’s exactly right. You feel what he’s talking about. And it’s a great vocal performance, but you can tell they focused more about how he feels than whether or not the vocal teacher from his past is going to feel proud about it.
Another example would be “Hello” by Adele, which nearly everyone in the world has heard by this point. (As of this writing the video has been viewed more than 310 million times.) I mean, Adele has always been so good. But I think what makes Adele so powerful is that she is really feeling as she sings and listeners instantly sense that and connect. Obviously, she’s got a great set of pipes, but she’s not just a technician, it’s the emotion in her vocal that really sells her music.
Let’s say you get the call and you’re going to be working with a new artist. They’re in the studio for the first or second time. What are one or two things that you offer them additionally to kind of help them get in the zone or relax to be able to connect with the material of the song?
There are a few things we might try. One of which I find myself repeating every single vocal session is, “We have Melodyne. We have vocal tuning.” So while I do want you to be on pitch, I want you to feel and be more emotional way more than I care about you being exactly on pitch. Because I can fix your tuning. As long as you’re within a reasonable range, I can make that expressive note sound good, but I don’t have any sort of button or any sort of program that can emphasize emotion. There’s no facility for that.
So I always remind them that, of course, be on pitch. I’m not asking you to just flail around. But go for feel more than tuning. That’s what I want, and I can fix the tuning and those little details. So that’s probably the first thing that we start out with. A lot of singers are afraid to lay it bare. It’s hard to sing and really let go. It’s really … it’s a genuine skill and it’s difficult and for some singers, it’s almost a therapy session sometimes.
I’ve come across a lot of times where we’ll stop in the middle of a vocal take and talk about it. And that conversation, which could easily be three minutes, can sometimes extend to two hours. And so we step outside and we sit around and we toss a football around or we go on a walk or we go get a lunch. There’s a lot to be said for being patient and I think part of my vocal production job, or my approach, is I’m really trying to take the stress off of the vocalist. I don’t want them to feel a time pressure. Of course, if we have only so many hours in the studio, that changes the dynamic.
In my studio, there’s usually not as much of a time pressure, so I try not to apply that at all. I try to let them know that it’s chill and I just try to carry this calm tone and in a sense, support and guide the singer. It is a difficult and demanding task to lay yourself bare on a vocal take. There’s a lot of stuff going on mentally between your ego and your insecurities. It can be anything – from what you had for breakfast that day that might be bothering you, or that conversation with your mom or your boyfriend – you know? Life very often gets in the way. So it’s my job to push life out and help the artist find the real truth in each song.
Image by ShutterStock.com.
David Pramik (links to some of David’s past projects)
How Much Does It Cost to Make a Hit Song?
An NPR article that breaks down the costs that go into the various efforts and steps of making a hit pop song, including a top vocal producer.
Pitched to Perfection: Pop Star’s Silent Partner
A NY Times profile of Kuk Harrell, another one of the most sought after vocal producers in the pop world.
Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He has also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry, which just came out in its third edition, and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.