Singing and producing at the same time creates a unique set of challenges. It can also offer freedom and a workflow that’s all yours.
I’m producing a track right now inspired by David Bowie, Lady Gaga, and Rage Against the Machine. Once I got to the point where the arrangement felt solid, it was time to lay down lead and backing vocals. The singer I wanted for this song? Me.
I’ve produced myself singing before, but not for years, and never on a project that was quite as gutsy and ambitious. Here’s how I approached combining the roles of singer and engineer, and ultimately produced vocal tracks I was really proud of.
Create a comfortable setting
From other sessions where I’ve produced or sung (not both at the same time), I know how important setting can be when it comes to creating and capturing great performances. So I worked ahead to make my recording setting as peaceful and welcoming as possible.
I chose a time and location where I knew I’d have privacy, made sure the temperature and lighting were comfortable, dressed in clothing that made me feel both professional and unrestricted, and made sure my microphone, audio interface, headphones, and computer were all in easy reaching distance. The result? When I walked into the room for the session itself, all I felt was excitement at the thought of recording — with no barriers or distractions to get in the way.
When you’re getting ready to produce a vocal session — whether or not you’re the talent on both sides of the glass — work to create an environment that gives you maximum comfort and minimal headaches. For some people, that space will be a bedroom or basement, or even a quiet field in the middle of nowhere. Whatever the case, the more comfortable the environment, the more you can focus on doing your best when it comes to both singing and production.
Do your musical homework
Before I began tracking, I knew I would have to divide my time between singing, producing, and engineering throughout the session. Given that, I also knew that having my musical goals and vision dialed in ahead of time would make things much easier. I spent days before the session listening to earlier versions of my song and going over lyrics in my head; I also sang through different ideas for lead and harmony parts, so I had a foundation on which to build as soon as I started my session.
Spend as much time as reasonable before your vocal session reflecting on your song, coming up with ideas (even if they’re rough), and thinking about what you want to walk away with at the end of the day. The more focused you are going in to your session, the more likely you’ll end up with vocal tracks that fit your song, elevate your music, and make you proud.
Be creative with your tech
Just like I wanted to be prepared musically before tracking my vocals, I wanted my entire gear set-up to be ready to go so I could walk in, hit record, and start singing, with no technical issues to worry about.
The day before, I opened my session in Apple Logic and organized tracks for lead and backing vocals. I made sure my cables were in order and my monitor mix was dialed in, so I could hear myself in appropriate balance with the instrumental tracks. Finally, just for fun and to add a little vibe, I added some distortion to my vocal monitor mix; since the song has a real edge, I figured that hearing myself back with some extra grit could help me lock into the mood and let loose.
When you’re preparing to produce your vocal session, get every detail of your tech set-up before you record. Nothing can throw off a vocal session like unexpected gear issues — and few things can better ensure success than having a recording set-up that’s smooth and effective in the moment. And as far as your monitor mix — since you’re both the singer and producer, add as many or as few effects as you see fit.
If just hearing your own vocals, dry and immediate, will get you in the best place to record great tracks, do it; if you prefer to add layers of rich reverb so you feel like you’re in a huge stadium, give it a try and see what happens. The only right answer is the one that inspires you to sing and record your best.
Customize the session
When I produce vocals, sometimes I get the best results by having the singer go straight through, start to finish, and then punch in as needed. Other times, I find it works best to isolate certain verses or even phrases, get multiple takes of each, and then stitch things together after the fact. For this project, I decided to jump around and try to nail whichever section I next felt inspired to sing.
I started on the verses, which sit lower in my register and called for a warm and expressive vocal tone. After giving myself a few takes of two different verses, I tried the choruses, which are much higher pitched and meant to be soaring and anthemic; I’m glad I structured things this way, as I felt loose, warmed up, and well in the spirit of the song by the time I hit these more challenging parts.
Record, re-record, and repeat
Interestingly, after recording the choruses and really letting loose on one of them, I went back and re-recorded the opening verses with a new level of freedom. These new takes were much more effective than the earlier ones.
With each section I recorded, I looped the instrumental track and recorded vocals between three and ten times in a row, until I started to feel myself getting tired, or felt like I nailed it. Then I immediately listened back and comped together the best performance I could, while the vibe and energy of that particular section were still fresh in my head.
As you prepare to produce your vocal session, structure things in whatever way you think will best set you up for success. If you need cohesive performances from start to finish, give yourself the space to record as many full takes as you want. If you think a divide-and-conquer strategy will work better, jump around (like I did) to whatever sections you’re most inspired to tackle.
Sometimes, the producer needs to tell the singer to take a break and regroup, or the singer needs to tell the producer that a quick breather is needed — even when they’re the same person.
In between takes, I made a point of checking in with myself to see if any muscles were starting to feel fatigued or overused, or if I was losing focus when it came to either singing or producing. After an initial forty minutes or so of tracking, I forced myself to take a break and have a drink and snack. After another thirty minutes of tracking, I called the session for good.
When you’re in the flow, it can be easy to want to power through and try to do everything, all at once. If you have the stamina and focus for it, great, but make sure to keep your producer hat on and listen for the point at which you start getting diminishing returns as a singer.
Find your sweet spot as the singer and producer
Thankfully, I’ve produced enough vocal sessions with other singers — and sung in enough vocal sessions myself — that I was able to tell when I was exiting the sweet spot for my best vocal performances.
One of the great things about producing yourself as a singer is that you have complete control over what happens, and when. Unless you’re on an ultra-tight deadline, as soon as you feel that your best vocal performances are behind you, wrap the session. Then you can take time to listen back, evaluate, and schedule your next vocal session — if needed.
How do you approach self-producing your own vocal sessions? Tell us in the comments below.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
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