Capturing the ultimate vocal performance can require push and pull between the producer and talent. The tact and technique of the producer plays a pivotal role in recording a great vocal take.
Jon Marc Weiss is an accomplished recording engineer, studio designer, and musician with 30 years’ experience. I sat with Jon to talk about being both an engineer and producer, some of the tricks of recording a good performance, and how to handle things when they start going off the rails.
I 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 of 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. The number of artists they’ve worked with in their career contributes to 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 — 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 artist. 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 a 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 vocalist 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 than other members of the session to make sure they get exactly what they want in the cans. When they’re happy with what they’re hearing, 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. Is that not a concern?
Well, it’s interesting. I’ve found that often a 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. And 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 unlikely to get a great vocal on the first take.
It’s not impossible. You get somebody who sings like Whitney Houston or Peabo Bryson in there 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 Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday 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 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 worked 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.
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 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.
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.
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’s perspective, what advice would you give a singer to get him/her 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.
Jon Marc Weiss is the Director of IT Operations for Disc Makers and also an accomplished recording engineer, studio designer, and musician with 30 years’ of industry experience. He owns and operates a private studio called Kiva Productions right outside of Philadelphia in Jenkintown, PA, where he records and produces his own music along with local and national acts. Check out Kiva Productions on Facebook.
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