Wisdom from a successful recording artist on placing the voice first and foremost
By Beto Hale
There are lots or articles on Recording’s site with lots of expertise on how to tweak your vocals to obtain the best possible sound using the gear you have. They’ve explained, with amazing detail, compression ratios, EQ settings, gain structure, and many other aspects. I would like to offer a perspective on a subject that is often overlooked in gear-oriented magazines like Recording: vocal performance.
In 1995, the three surviving Beatles released two singles, “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”. Both of these songs started out as demos that John Lennon had recorded using a cassette-tape recorder in his apartment. In the demos you can hear his vocal and a piano. The remaining lads, produced by Jeff Lynne, added their own parts and arrangements to the songs, and one of these final tracks, “Free As A Bird”, went on to win a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance for a Duo or Group the following year.
That’s right: John recorded his vocal on a simple tape recorder, playing piano at the same time. He went through no fancy gear. This same vocal, with the piano (!), was used on the final arrangement. Of course, the sound of John’s voice was processed to make it work with the final version, but he tracked it in the most rudimentary way possible. Yet even as a demo, he transmitted what he needed to: a message, a feeling.
I’d like to encourage all singers, producers and engineers out there to never forget to pay attention to the performance of the vocal you are recording, and that no Neumann U 87 going through an LA-2A or the fanciest Waves plug-in is going to transmit what a vocal should: emotion. Remember: you are tracking the human voice. It all starts with humans.
As a singer, how do you achieve the level of someone like John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, or Sinéad O’Connor? Well, most of us never do. This doesn’t mean, however, that you cannot push your vocal talent to its absolute maxi-mum potential, by performing live and practicing and exercising your instrument at home. Melodyne or Auto-Tune may fix intonation problems, but transmitting an emotion is something that, as of yet, no hardware or software product can emulate convincingly.
Where to begin? For starters, in this era of instant access, you can listen to and watch any singer, in any style, perform for you—in concert or in the studio, in the privacy of your own home. All you have to do is type in their name on YouTube’s search engine. Put on a pair of good headphones and learn from the masters. If you are into reggae, check out Bob Marley; if you love jazz, listen to Ella Fitzgerald. Let them teach you. Imitate them. What would Paul McCartney be without Little Richard? And Prince without James Brown? Both singers absorbed their respective models like a sponge; they became them, and then developed their own styles from there. You should do the same.
At Berklee College of Music, where I was lucky to spend four years, endless hours were spent at the library watching videos of whoever we wanted to become. YouTube did not exist. YouTube is the new college.
I recommend you focus on live performances. These singers will become your teachers, and you want to see and hear them doing what they did best: singing for an audience. Starting in the 1960s, vocal performances released on studio albums were more and more produced, which means you might be hearing take 27 of the vocal. But a live performance simply is what it is. Of course, listening to perfectly produced recording will teach you a lot as well, but at least in their original intent, recordings were supposed to be “records”—as in “documents”—of live performances.
“But I have my own style; I do my own thing,” I hear many singers tell me. Well, actually, no one has a pure style to begin with. Even if you were raised by wolves in the middle of a forest, I truly believe you can always learn from those who have come before you.
So what’s next? Experience. Sing live as much as you can and always record yourself. There’s no tool quite like the raw recording of a live show to learn from your mistakes and your successes. Make sure you get feedback from trusted people: you want to know if you are in tune, if your volume is consistent, if you are blending with the band and other singers. And remember that nuance is crucial. A subtle change in your delivery can go a long way… an elongated phrase, a burst of energy.
Hire a vocal coach. A good one can do miracles. I was lucky to study with some great coaches, and I still apply many of the tips I learned from them: how to warm up the voice, what drinks and foods to avoid, live and studio mic technique, and exercises for improving pitch.
And of course, sing in a studio as often as you can. To engineers and producers, I say: send them back home to study if they can’t sing yet. You’ll be doing the singer, and the listeners, a favor.
There will be plenty of time to worry about compression ratios later. First, focus on the voice.