vocal recording

10 ways to lay the groundwork for an amazing vocal recording session

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Nailing a transcendent vocal recording can seem like trying to capture lightning in a bottle — but the whole process need not be mysterious or intimidating. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Regardless of whether you’re recording your band’s own lead singer or a professional session vocalist, there are plenty of steps you can take, well ahead of time, to optimize your chances of capturing a transcendent vocal recording when it’s time to hit “record.” Here are a few tips to get you started.

Talk to the singer before you record

One of the best things you can do to prep for a vocal session is to chat with your singer, well in advance, about what’s going to happen. Let him or her know what material you want to track, what the studio setting will be like, who will be there, etc. The more your singer knows about what to expect, the better the chances he or she will be comfortable upon arrival and ready to deliver an amazing performance.

It also helps to ask your singer what he or she needs (within reason) in order to do a great job. Chances are you won’t have budget to hire a personal masseuse or cater the session with Kobe beef — but if the singer generally prefers a Neumann U87 mic to a Shure SM7B, or tends to deliver his best ballad vocals while lying on his back on a carpeted floor, or has a harder time hitting high notes if the room is too cold, this is all good and useful information to know ahead of time.

Provide printed music and a music stand

Having a sturdy music stand ready and having all of the music and lyrics printed can be a big help to a vocalist, says Onyie Nwachukwu, a New York-based artist and session singer who has contributed vocals to productions like Cirque Du Soleil and the national tour of Rent.

Among other things, you never know when the singer you’re working with is going to get red-light fever and forget one or several lyrics. Similarly, if you want to punch in, say, the last line of the fourth verse, having printed lyrics and/or sheet music will make it easy for you and your singer to quickly get on the same page.

Having all music printed and ready before the singer arrives also makes it easier for the vocalist to focus purely on delivering a great performance. “When I know that the producer is going to have music and a music stand ready in the studio, it gives me one less bag to bring and one less expense with printing,” says Nwachukwu. “This also usually guarantees that the version of the music or lyrics I’m given is the most updated version. That’s a lot better than me having to mark up my sheet until I can’t tell what’s actually correct and what isn’t.”

When you’re printing lyrics, layout is important. Make sure to use an easy-to-read typeface and a large enough font that the words are easy to read at a glance. Try to keep one phrase on each line so your singer can spend less time trying to figure out which word comes next and more time pouring emotion and meaning into the performance.

Think about drink

Any vocal coach will tell you that hydration is important when performing or recording, so make sure to have drinks of choice on hand. Does your singer prefer lukewarm water, cold tea, or something else? Ask ahead of time and do your best to have plenty of the beverage of choice on hand.

“Staying hydrated during the session is important,” says Nwachukwu. “Of course, I know I can bring my own, but having that provided gives me one less thing to buy and, more importantly, let’s me know I’m valuable to the producer.”

Set the stage

The right ambiance can help your singer get in the right headspace to deliver a stunning performance, so to whatever extent is reasonable, pay attention to the lighting, temperature, wall-hangings, and anything else that will be directly in the singer’s space during recording. If there are any tweaks you can make to help create an environment you think will be conducive to a great performance, go for it. Often, something as simple as dimming fluorescent lights and setting up something with a warmer glow can create an intimate, artistic atmosphere.

Know your gear

When you record vocals, microphones capture the sound of the voice and preamps process and boost the signal. Both devices can color the tone of the vocals and some microphones and preamps sound better with certain singers than others. If you have choices available when it comes to microphones and preamps, and adequate studio time, experiment to find which gear combination sounds the best with your singer. It may also be worth presenting the options to your vocalist ahead of time and asking if, historically, he or she has sounded better on one equipment pairing versus another.

Get your mic set up

Set up your microphone stand and microphone before the singer ever enters the room. Make sure the mic is placed to roughly fit the height of the singer (you can always fine-tune once the singer is in place) and set your pop filter so it’s a couple of inches away from the mic’s diaphragm. Make sure all cables are plugged in and out of the way, so the singer has nothing to trip on, and that you and your singer will be able to see each other. Finally, make sure that all joints of your mic stand are tightened to prevent the microphone from dropping slowly as the session progresses.

Test talkback

If your singer will be in an isolation booth, you’re going to need a way to communicate with him or her, so make sure your talkback functionality is locked and loaded. Have a friend, bandmate, or assistant wear the singer’s headset and communicate with you in the control room, just to make sure that volume levels are solid and communication will not be a stumbling block when it comes time to lay down tracks.

Prep your tracks

Are you planning on recording one lead vocal line, and then eight tracks of backing vocals, with half of them panned hard left and the other half panned hard right? Create your empty tracks ahead of time and make sure they are all properly set up and routed so you have one less thing to worry about once you’re in the creative flow with your singer. You can always adjust settings and make new tracks on the fly if you have to.

Be ready to adjust the mix

In general, it’s good policy to make your instrumental tracks sound as polished and professional as possible in order to inspire the best performance your singer can deliver. Also, try to keep things flexible. If your singer wants to hear more bass and less drums in her headphone mix, have your session set up to quickly and easily accommodate. Similarly, if your singer wants lots of reverb and some analog sizzle on his voice in the headset, get your effects and plug-ins dialed up ahead of time and ready to tweak, as needed, in the moment.

Do a dry run ahead of time

Once you have everything set up, have someone lay down some scratch vocals with roughly the same volume as you think your singer will use. This need not be perfect — it just needs to give you a rough baseline so you can make any necessary tweaks before the singer starts working and so you can be aware of (and fix) any technical issues well ahead of time.

Do you have any tips for prepping to record singers? 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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6 thoughts on “10 ways to lay the groundwork for an amazing vocal recording session

  1. When I first started employing professional singers years ago I was the one doing the learning. Fizzy drinks are OUT they mess up the vocal chords. Most are happy with water or lime juice. Coffee also might keep them awake but again affects the quality of the voice. Look after your singers, they are the most important part of your song. Provide nibbles for them and transport to and from the studio. That way you know where they are and are safe. Most singers will work hard to get what you want but don’t be afraid to tell the singer if they are not the right one for the song. Find someone else quickly or you are wasting time. Finally when the session is over and it’s all gone well PAY THEM PROMPTLY. People like to be appreciated.

  2. Find out if the vocalist has been singing the song live or at least practicing with headphones. If they don’t really know the song, they are in the studio too early. On the other hand, if this is a songwriter development session (they have just written the song or are writing in the studio), plan accordingly. Pay attention to vocal wear, keep multiple takes, and watch to see if their mind is wandering. A vocalist who has been doing the song live may not actually know how it sounds, particularly timbre and hard consonants. They may not be getting enough breath and that will interfere with phrasing and timbre. Unless you are very sure it is a good take, keep them going. Usually that is the producer’s job but in these DIY and indie production days it may be up to you. Don’t listen to every take. Take breaks and if possible, keep chatter to a minimum. It depends on the performer but too many visitors during vocal sessions are usually bad for concentration.

    Keep a light hand on the tiller and don’t make faces. Be sensitive to when the emotion is flagging. Other than budget, another session with fresh energy is never a terrible idea. Also, sometimes the vocal is good and the performer is aiming for perfection they can’t achieve. Be patient and keep the early takes.

    Lead vocals and harmony sessions are quite different. In the latter, lack of practice is bad. Melodyne is your friend but avoid it if you can. Good ears can spot it instantly.

    Give and let give.

  3. One thing I don’t see here that is sort of intangible, but effective: when a singer is smiling and happy (presuming what you intend to record isn’t intentionally dark) it comes through in the recording.
    Happiness is literally present in the vocal delivery so SMILE when you sing into the mic!

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