The DIY Guide To Singing In The Studio
Why Your Vocals Are Important
Your career as a recording artist hinges on many things from the songs you choose to the musicianship on your records. But the single most important thing for your artist identity is your voice. Your ultimate goal as a vocalist is to sound exactly like yourself. In other words, the more relaxed and confident you are as a singer, the more people will know who you are and what you’re about. In reality, it’s predominantly musicians who listen to CD’s for the musicianship, but the people who decide to buy your CD will connect with your voice first and everything else much later.
This article will serve as a do-it-yourself primer for how to approach singing in the recording studio. In today’s independent musical environment, it’s typically the case that you will play the part of, not only the artist, but the manager, record label and producer, too. The trick when it comes to getting great vocal performances is to make the most of each of these roles by knowing which role to play and when. I’ll be describing your responsibilities for each of these roles in the paragraphs below.
The Role of Manager/Record Label
In this role, your job will be to make sure you have a great place to record where you feel comfortable and can do great work. Otherwise put, you’ll need to go out and find a studio, talk to engineers, listen to examples of their work, get prices based on your budget and ultimately lay the groundwork for an organized, low-stress recording process. Acting as manager, you might also decide to invest in your own recording equipment (beware of the learning curve!) to give yourself the added flexibility of recording whenever you want with no concerns about the studio clock. Whether you record at home or in a commercial studio, taking care of the details (which have very little to do with actually singing) will make all the difference as to how smooth your vocal recording process will be.
Regarding artist development, an essential task in your role as manager and record label will be to consider a vocal coach. The more you sing your songs and work on them before you go into the studio, the better prepared you’ll be to give a great performance when the time comes. By studying your songs and working on the minute details ahead of time, you’ll end up with a baseline performance that you can deliver confidently. Then when the light goes red (which can be stressful enough), you won’t have to worry about how you’re going to approach your technique or interpretation.
The Role of Producer
Here your role will be to not only find the songs that work best for you as an artist but to help guide the singing process by keeping an eye/ear on a few very important elements. The first element would be the songs. It’s up to you to find the songs that you can sing with emotion and sincerity. If you’re a songwriter, it’s easy to assume that the best songs to sing will be your own, but it’s never a bad idea to look for outside material as well. Outside material will not only keep the level of songwriting consistently high but can also add the necessary diversity to a project. In either case, you have to know what your “artist’s” vocal instrument is capable of and make sure the songs fit. The key of the song is another major consideration. Just because you’ve always sung a song in a certain key does not mean it might not work better in a slightly higher or (even more surprising sometimes) lower key.
When it comes to the actual recording process, you will have to ultimately make decisions about when things are going well and improving and when enough is enough. This can be extremely difficult to do in the heat of battle but it is essential. Being both producer and artist is a very delicate balance. My recommendation would be to take a short (even 5 minute) break every hour or so and listen back to what you’ve sung. The temptation is to keep singing and singing because that perfect take is just one take away. In reality, your best take might have come five takes ago and you’ve been wearing yourself out needlessly.
I am a firm believer in the composite (comp) vocal because it allows the singer to sing the song from beginning to end multiple times going for the performance without worrying too much about the details. Getting bogged down in trying to fix a word or line can be draining and quickly take the life out of a vocal performance. Creating a comp vocal is as simple as recording multiple passes of your lead vocal without allowing your editor/critic into the equation. In other words, sing the song several times (as if you were doing it live) without stopping or redoing anything. Then when this is done, put on your producer hat and listen back to each pass while marking on a lyric sheet which pass is good on each line. It’s possible to have lines where several passes work. I hope this is your biggest problem. After listening to every pass and taking the appropriate notes, if there are still a few lines that need work, you can go after them then knowing exactly what you’re missing and how to fix it. The key to this process is to stay out of your own way while you’re singing. Try to prevent yourself from judging what your doing while you’re doing it. There will be time for that when you’re listening back. The more you keep the producer and artist separate during this part of the process, the more effective you’ll be in getting a great performance.
If you have the budget to actually hire a producer, you’ll be very glad you did.
The Role of the Artist
This role is strictly musical. All of the groundwork has been laid. When you step up to the microphone, your only task is to remember that these songs move you and to sing them that way. Stay away from any and all technical concerns such as whether you’re hitting the notes exactly on key or whether your timing is good. All of this can be addressed when you sit back down in the control room to listen to what you’ve done.
A piece of advice I give all my singers when they get bogged down worrying about hitting the note and sounding good is to think about the words to the song and what they mean. The best singers sound like they’re talking to you. You believe what they’re saying because they believe what they’re saying. Simply put, just tell the story and the pitch and the tone will follow.
Of course it can be nerve-racking the first few times you go in to record your vocals but the more you do it the easier it will become. Every bit of work you do in advance as your own management, label and production team, will make you that much more prepared to deliver a great vocal performance as the artist you are.
Cliff Goldmacher is a songwriter/engineer/producer/author and owner of recording studios in Nashville and Sonoma, California. Cliff’s articles have been published in EQ, Recording and ProSound News magazines and his eBook “The Songwriter’s Guide To Recording Professional Demos” is available as a free download from his site http://www.cliffgoldmacher.com/ebook.