Tips & Tricks

How to Record Vocals – Tips & Approaches to Recording Lead Vocals

The track sounds great, the singer has been rehearsing; everyone’s ready to go. So what now? There are as many different approaches to recording lead vocals as there are vocalists and producers, but we can summarise how to approach the task in one of two ways:

Do you want to record the whole song in one go?

Most songs require a certain ‘intimacy’, performance and consistency that is best achieved by singing the song in one take, as a complete whole. After all, this is how the song would be performed live on stage, so nothing could be more natural than singing the whole thing. It’s also a great way to help the vocalist stay interested in the song, as she can really get engage with the song as an complete entity. Singing the song in sections can become fatiguing and very boring too. To enable this technique to work for you, your vocalist must know the song well and have warmed up first.

Do you want to record the song in sections?

Sometimes a singer just isn’t strong enough to sing a song in one complete take. So, to get round this, you could concentrate on recording the choruses only and then return to do the verses only and record the middle 8 last. This is also a handy way to save time with a singer who is not 100% certain of the song.  But the best reason for recording the song like this is that it means that every part of the song has a ‘vibrancy’ and ‘energy’ that you can only achieve by attacking each verse and chorus with a fresh take.

It’s a good idea to take this decision early on in the session to avoid wasting time if the singer is unsure of how to approach the song. Try to make the decision mutually satisfactory though; there’s no point telling the singer to do something they specifically told you they didn’t want to do! Many producers like to take a combination of the two approaches once the singer knows the song well. Sometimes it can be useful to have a couple of takes of the whole song recorded in one go to get a different feel for the song, even when you’ve recorded the song in sections. If you have the time and a co-operative singer, experiment with both approaches.

How many takes?

Many producers these days record a number of takes of the vocal, maybe as many as six or eight, and then sort through them later to get the best version of each line. Then they will be able to compile the best of all of these versions, perhaps to the extent of swapping between takes on every line, or even the odd word where necessary. After this, there may still be the odd line or word that doesn’t sound quite right, so you’ll have to get the vocalist back in again to correct it.  If it were possible to record a perfect vocal in one take, everyone would do it that way. Unfortunately the singers who are capable of doing this are few and far between.

This is an approach that we often recommend to our students:

1. Aim to record 4 complete takes (whether you record in sections or a whole)

2. Then do a comp of those 4 takes.

3. Then if you feel that the vocalist can improve, or if you haven’t got everything you need, have another go.

Why four takes? Well it can be very difficult to keep a perspective when listening through four times or more, but obviously this does come down to personal preference. You should make sure that you print several copies of the lyrics for you and your vocalist of course. On the lyrics sheet, you could draw columns ( as many as the number of takes) so when you listen back, you can make notes of which lines are best for each take.

Recording sessions – other things to consider

Starting with the verse, whether you record in sections or the song as a whole, will depend very much on the producer and vocalist. Many producers will record the whole lead vocal first and then add double track, harmonies, ad libs, etc. Other producers will choose to record each section completely (lead, harmonies, double track) and then move on to the next.  Although it is common practice to start with the verses, bridge, chorus, when working in sections as it gives a sense of continuity to the process, some producers will choose to record the chorus first as this is the strongest section of a song, setting this way the dynamic for the song.  Another aspect that you need to consider is how demanding the song is for the vocalist, if there are some very demanding parts, you might want to tackle them early before the vocalist’s throat tires.

One of the roles of a producer during a recording session is to ensure that the session runs well and efficiently. When recording vocals, it is essential that you listen carefully to the performance so that you can feedback and guide the vocalist straight away. When you aim to keep 4 takes for example, you will probably record a lot more, but you aim to only keep 4 very good ones, which you will be able to comp later. It is important to give feedback between each take and discuss what you have so far.  An experience vocalist will often be involved in the decision making process, which take to keep, which part to re-record, etc.

Recording vocal harmonies

Harmony parts are often used to add a lift to a vocal part, highlight the meaning of a phrase, create a rich musical vocal part. In pop music vocal production is an essential ingredient in the arrangement of a song. We define a backing vocal as being anything from 1 harmony part to 100 singers all joining in the chorus, and anything in between.

Although there are no definite rules once again, there are some common practices that can be observed, or rather heard on many pop productions. We tend to use backing vocals sparingly in verses, to allow the lead to establish the story, often 1 or 2 tracks. Then typically in songs with a pre-chorus, backing vocals would be introduced, then more layers of vocals in the chorus.

Tracking the lead/double tracking vocals

Tracking a lead part is the name given to the process of recording exactly the same part with the aim of mixing them together. One of the most famous techniques is known as double tracking. Double-tracking can add a pleasing thickness to a vocal part. The result will largely depend on the singer’s ability to re-sing the same phrasing and pitching on each take: some singers nail it every time, but others seem to be unable to do the same thing twice, which can result in a messy effect. Although there are many techniques to fake double tracking, using various plug-ins and editing techniques, there is nothing like the real thing. But why double tracking?

Double tracking not only adds a pleasing thickness to the sound, it can also improve the performance of an average singer. It also adds a presence if you want to reinforce a certain vocal part. A straight double tracking would use the lead and the double track at the same level, this can be very effective for a chorus, where you would pan slightly each part left & right. for example. But there are many other techniques that you can use, depending on the effect you want to achieve.

Another common technique is to use the double track at a lower level than the lead, to add a subtle thickness and presence to the sound, this can work well in a verse for example.  How about adding 2 tracks to the lead, using this technique you would usually have the lead pan to the middle and each track pan left & right.

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Editor’s Note: This is an old article and things have moved on considerably since the original publication date 🙂

For more information head over to the Point Blank Music School website to learn the very latest about our school.

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About the author

Rob Cowan is CEO at Point Blank Music School