There are lots of great vocalists out there. However, finding a vocalist that is comfortable recording behind a mic, and understands how to bring specific moods into their performance can be a lot harder to find than you might think. Regardless of the current level of competence of your current vocal muse, it’s your job as a producer to get that performance out of whoever stands in front of that mic. You guide the talent so that they can bring the sound, emotion and mood that the song, orchestration, play, or religious ceremony requires to really shine. In this tutorial, I’d like to go over some tricks for getting a better performance out of less experienced vocalists.
1. No, You Really Do Need to Warm Up...
There’s a very specific quality to a warmed-up voice—It has almost a sizzle to it. It’s a hint of clarity with a hint of sexy. You know how you can tell if someone has been yelling?
Nine out of ten times, a new vocalist will not be warmed up. And, while it’s tempting to want to get on the soap box, and recommend warming up... I have often found that it’s better to hang back and let the session, itself, handle this. I’ll usually just begin by asking for the vocal performance, as they hear it. We’ll run through the track, get a few different takes, and play back the performance.
Once the vocalist has heard their work, and acknowledges that something is missing, this is when your work comes in. As you probably already know.
It’s usually at this point that I’ll suggest a take that is more or lessing yelling, or maybe even screaming at a certain part. I don’t always do this because I actually think I’ll keep the take. I do it because it forces the singer to open up their voice, and to interact with their emotions. The next important step.
Tip: It’s a good idea to advise against sugary, cold drinks, prior to a vocal session. Not only do cold fluids move the temperature of your subjects vocal chords in the opposite direction of the desired effect, but also sugary drinks can create a very nasty film in the throat that can cause hacking whilst singing is taking place . Nobody wants phlegm dropping down into their lungs when they are putting on the performance of their lives, right?!
2. What Are You Really Trying to Record? Emotion!!!
Remember: The singing is supposed to sound good, proper, and in tune with the accompanying track. But, the emotion is what you’re really trying to capture. Without emotion, you’ll get just another bland, pop track without much soul.
One trick to get vocalists to tap more into their emotions is to relieve any worry they may have about pitch, and timing. I’ll usually say something like this at the opening, “Listen, don’t worry as much about timing, and pitch. I can fix a lot of that in the computer. But I can’t make your performance more emotional. You have to supply that.”
Everyone, at the core, wants to do a good job. If you can strike a deal, where you take care of the technical problems, and the talent just supplies the raw emotion, you might be shocked at what suddenly takes place right in front of your mic.
This is also a good time to check to see if water levels are good that the vocalist is comfortable with temperature, and so on. I know some producers that even go as far as lighting candles and adjusting the lighting to create a specific mood!
3. Keep it Still! Stop Moving Around!
Don’t forget that microphones pick up way more than the human ear does, during a recording. And, while it might seem normal to have someone dancing in front of the mic, you’re going to be really upset later when you’re hearing those cables clicking on the mic stand during that perfect performance you spent hours trying to get out of that vocalist. Especially where new vocalists are concerned, do not forget to remind your talent to stand as still as possible.
You may also do a cursory glance upon arrival and ensure that there are no clunky, loud articles of jewelry, clothing, or shoes.
4. A Little Love Goes A Long Way... Use Positive Reinforcement!
We all want positive reinforcement, especially when we are unaware of what the final sound, or vision is going to be. We want to know that we are helping, because it’s in our nature to be helpful. By pointing out particularly exciting, powerful, and emotional takes, you will probably find that your vocalist will begin to open up more, and possibly even experiment more. The only catch: Make sure it’s sincere.
Empty words can hurt worse than angry ones, if someone just feels that you’re blowing smoke up their ass to get them in and out the door faster. In fact, it’s a great way of saying, “I don’t care.” And that’s the last message you want to send as a producer, because it’s your job to care. Don’t compliment unless it’s sincere!
Also, it’s your job to deliver the bad new. After all, you are hearing the end result before anyone. But you can also control the way you deliver the news. If all of the takes aren’t working, you may need to take a step back, and recommend more practice, or more time with the song. Just make sure you’re being compassionate with your recommendation.
5. Don’t Forget Your Own Ideas... You Are Here to Direct!
As you spend minutes to hours recording a song, you’ll probably notice that you get more ideas for the song! As you record, don’t be afraid to direct your vocal talent to try things you hear. There have been many times, during vocal sessions, that ideas for hooks, choruses, and new verses have popped up for me. When I’m rested, and clear, I’m usually good at sneaking those little ideas in, with the vocalist. And, after several takes of singing the same thing, over and over, vocalists are pretty much eager to try anything to break up the monotony!
This is why it is so important that you, as the producer, be rested and on top of things, when you host a session. When you’re really paying attention to what’s being sung, and how it sounds with the end product, you open your own mind up to tons of new possibilities. And, by including your vocalists in on those new ideas, you open up your project to fresh, beautiful and innovative songs that raise the bar for all of us.