A great vocal performance can really transform a song or a tune into something special, so it really pays to prepare as best as you can before starting a recording session with a singer. Here are a few tips on how to go about it.
Practice before you record. You wouldn’t go for a run without warming up first right? Your muscles need to be prepared for the run itself so warming up gets them ready for the job ahead. It isn’t as commonly known as it should be that even a good singer needs a lengthy warm up session before he or she can sing at peak performance. It is normal for this warm up to take as long as an hour before the voice achieves real depth and fullness of sound – start recording too soon and you will have to use effects to strengthen the voice artificially. Another potential problem if recording too soon is that you may end up with a different vocal sound as the voice warms up throughout the recording.
Of course it is important not to overstretch the voice during the warm up and wear it out so watch out for any sign that the singer is straining. Experienced vocalists will have their own warm up routine, which they will probably want to carry out in private, so you should arrange a space where they can be on their own.
An inexperienced singer, or one who has not yet recognised the need for a warm up, will need a certain amount of coaxing. Get them to sing other songs in their repertoire to loosen up. Once the voice is fully fit, or perhaps a little earlier, you can start rehearsing the song. Once again, many singers don’t understand the need for rehearsal and would probably just dive straight into recording.
Rehearsing is not something a songwriter does very often, but it’s essential when you’re working with a vocalist. The purpose of a rehearsal is to familiarise yourself and the singer with the song and to iron out any difficulties that may be found in the song, two things you can only achieve by physically performing it. But be careful; only a thorough practice routine makes for a great performance, so here’s a checklist of things you need look out for:
- Check the phrasing of words carefully. Badly phrased vocals sound bad, so run through this with your vocalist. Make sure they are stressing the correct words, and that their timing is exactly how you, the writer and producer, want the song to sound.
- Do you need to change the key of the song? Is the song too high or too low in pitch for the vocalist?
- Do you need to change the speed of the song? Is the song too fast to sing? Is it so slow that it feels like it’s dragging? Trust your ears on this point.
- Does the lyric work? This is an issue for you as the songwriter more than the singer, but this may be the first time you’ve heard your work sung out loud. Does it actually make sense now you can hear it? Does the vocalist have a clear idea of what you are trying to convey? If not, it might be time to rewrite the lyric.
Tackling the performance – the Psychological Angle
If you are recording your own vocals you may be shy of stepping up to a microphone, particularly if there is someone else in the room or vicinity. All I can say is that the more you do it the less difficult it will become. When you see the end results that come after editing, effecting, compressing and EQing you’ll start to see that the raw vocal you put in gets a whole lot of help before becoming the end result.
When working with vocalists, how you will approach the recording will vary greatly depending on the level of experience of the vocalist, their abities & skills, their personality, their mood on the day, and also the nature of the track and what you aim to achieve.
Ten ways to make things nice for your session singer
Working with a session singer involves a certain amount of diplomacy. Here are a few basic principles to ensure your session runs smoothly:
- Make sure he/she has something to drink. Water at room temperature is ideal; avoid tea and coffee as they dehydrate the body. But ultimately, the professional singer knows best so give them what they want. More inexperienced singers can make simple mistakes. For example, it’s very important that your singer does not drink cold drinks while singing, so no ice or drinks from the fridge. These make the vocal chords stiffen and make it harder to do what the vocalist (and producer) wants. Warm drinks are best, but if they want a cold drink use room temperature water or soft drinks only. The best drink for singers is hot water, with lemon juice squeezed in, a teaspoon of honey plus a teaspoon of glycerin.
- Be friendly, but not creepy! It’s a nice idea to have a drink with the singer before you start working. A little bit of flattery goes a long way in these situations, but don’t over do it. This technique puts everyone at ease; the singer will relax knowing that he/she’s working with someone who’s already on her side.
- Try to avoid appearing nervous, even if you feel it. Nervousness is contagious, and a nervous producer can throw professional singer, even the most experienced. You can combat producer stage fright by being well prepared before you start the session and having a clear idea of what you need to achieve.
- Help your singer to be relaxed by being relaxed yourself! A mellow and active studio is a happy studio. It’s unlikely that you’re going to get a great vocal from a singer who is being produced by a neurotic, so keep calm, stop glancing at your watch and stop grimacing and make frustrated gestures even if you feel things aren’t going well. That’ll only make things far worse.
- Make sure your singer is comfortable. Most singers sing standing up, which is ideal, but some like to sit whilst singing. If that’s what your singer wants then make sure she can have a chair.
- Reassure your singer that they’re sounding good, but don’t lie if they clearly aren’t. Gentle compliments and guidance rules in the studio.
- Pay attention. If the singer offers a comment on the how to make the song easier to sing, then listen to her. Most of the time it could be just losing a small word such as ‘and’ or ‘but’ or ‘the’, and advice like this can improve a song no end.
- Stay focused. It’s easy to lose interest or get a little bored when recording vocals, but resist the temptation to break up the vocal session with long chats.
- Thank her/him. Simple politeness shows respect and makes people smile. Spread a little happiness.