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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10 thoughts on “Tracking vocals: Making a phrase-by-phrase approach work

  1. I’ve found this process to be helpful for my own music when I’m having trouble finishing the lyrics. I’ve found some of what I consider my best lines when I was staring at the mic. It kind of forces me to break out of writer’s block.

  2. I personally think this process is very helpful and not “lame” lol. And these tips are exactly how I do it when I have to. Even with great singers this can be a very useful tool. My friend did a song with celine dion (great singer) about 15 years ago and they got her vocals tracks on a 24 track 2 inch tape and each one filled
    (with the execption of the reference song on two tracks). People have been comping like this for years. It’s just easier and faster to do it now in the digital domain. Sometimes you can pull a phenomenal performance out of a singer who has a unique sound to their voice but not the technical part and get something really special (I can always coach technique). I’ve also found that the better a singer is the more I can push them to get even better results using this approach. With great singers, I will usually have them sing the section through a few times then use this method to go for that extra amount of perfection (high emotion plus the technical excellence) . My two cents 🙂

  3. All opinions aside…
    This process is important for studios that work in high volume in terms of booked recording sessions, and can be very useful for sessions with limited recording time.
    Technology has surpassed the methods of old which didn’t have the modern day capacities of storage. Even the most trained and talented vocalists today still record multiple takes, even if they nail the first take with golden precision. In a related process, phrases are then “comped” as it is known, and this usually exposes a word or note that isn’t the best it could be – in any of the takes. A good engineer will require the artist to then use this Phrase by Phrase method to polish things up.

    From an artist/engineer perspective(opinion), this leaves more time to get creative with the mixdown and quickly turn a demo into a rich and full sound. Much preferable to working on a decreasingly good take only to rush the export so they can take it home…and practice…..and rebook the session over….and over….. Lol

  4. THANK YOU, Cole! Virtually EVERYTHING I read in this digi-pile of BULLSHIT is just flat-out, plain WRONG. For example: “…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.” The operative phrase here is “have what ‘you’ need”. What about what the singer needs? What about what THE SINGER WANTS? Whose song IS it, anyway? “….Phrase-by-phrase and out of order….” Say WHAAT? Sooo, let’s remove any and ALL emotion from the singer’s palette and just make it robo-perfect….Yeah! Otto-toon’ll fix it! This is just beyond insanely idiotic. What happened to music PERFORMANCE?? The dain-bramaged “author” of this piece (of shit article; I truly suspect this was ‘bot driven) doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that the performer might actually have to PERFORM the song live at some point; are they gonna sing it phrase-by-phrase, out of sequence on STAGE, too? Noo, they are just going to SUCK live because they never learned how to deliver a COMPLETE performance of the tune they butchered in the studio. The problem here is the very way the recording world (engineering/production end) and their studio weapons of choice
    have ruined true creativity forever. “Hey, we got 150 track capability, let’s USE ‘EM ALL!!!!” “Let’s try this new plug-in I just got! It makes ANYBODY sound just like (insert NWO puppet-on-a-string of choice HERE)!” You get my drift. THANK YOU for getting the Big Pic, Cole. Pro TOOLS For Pro FOOLES, YEAH!!!!!! My GOD, we’re so fucked.

  5. This tends to be my process, using a 4+2 track app:
    Lead vocal:
    1. EQ, Effects, etc on input must be exactly the same – I use none except for a far-high-end boost, which turns the mic’s Johnson noise into a natural warm dither. Now, by science, 16bit is just as good as 24.
    2. At least two dry runs without recording
    3. Four recorded runs, with no interruptions. Exception: when there are long instrumental breaks
    4. Pick best 2 overall, overwrite the others. Don’t take too long, voice mood needs to be close to an exact match for it to work.
    5. Repeat step 4 until you become afraid to overwrite, and hopefully you’ve got all night.
    6. Do the phrase-by-phrase merge, filter out jump cuts, filter microphone hiss if desired
    Second lead vocal (I do use a lot of counterpoint harmonies):
    Same process using the other three tracks, and I usually do only one iteration. Sometimes I like the second lead enough to swap it with the primary.
    After the two leads are merged, the other two tracks I usually only need one take, as these are going to be played at a lower level where nuance mistakes are not only acceptable but desirable.

  6. I find the process outlined here really works well for most singers, even though its met with skepticism by some. I find if i really have the luxury of time (and money) i like to use this process and then send the singer home with the final copy to listen to and soak it in. Then retrack start to finish.

    As to Cole’s comments above: keep in mind, many of those performances you long for were done in 50 takes! Not exactly the idealistic process you may like to believe. Why 50 takes? Because it’s nearly impossible to learn at new song and sing it confidently right off the bat.

  7. This process is so lame. I feel for kids today. Their music is so “Frankenstein.” The most timeless music was sung and performed by true talents that could sing the song front to back, with perhaps only a vocal overdub fix here and there. Not so called “singers” that have to record a line, stop, dissect, repeat…Everything is so mechanical and too computerized anymore. It shouldn’t be about perceived perfection as much as it should be about capturing true emotion and feel. That’s what music is suppose to be. That’s what lasts.

    1. So what about widening choruses with layered vocals, or backing vocal tracks? You despise those too? Not like any of the music that your speaking of had that‍♂️ Time moves on and things evolve. If you don’t think that these “kids” are talented for the things they can do just because they don’t record the same way they did 30+ years ago, you’re nuts. There is plenty of emotion, plenty of feeling, plenty of raw talent in modern songs today. Opinions are just that, opinions. But you shouldn’t discredit an entire era of music because they have more technology at their disposal and use it to the best of their capabilities.

    2. You hit the nail on the head my friend…. it’s souless and even if you can’t sing or play there are gadgets to make you sound great… ask Britney Spears…. sad it is

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