Help your singers perform at their peak
By Michael Schulze
Recording singers requires an attitude of love and understanding, a level of empathy to which one might not rise during the everyday death metal guitar overdub session with the boys. A singer who is nervous may tense up and sing out of tune, or develop an audible tremble in his or her voice. Just watch American Idol and you will see what I mean!
There are strategies one can adopt to help singers perform at the peak of their ability. Sometimes it is a good idea to encourage the rest of the band to leave once the instrumental tracks have been recorded. Perhaps one trusted member of the band, a friend, or even a significant other should stay for moral support. Dim the lights, especially in the control room, so your vocalist can’t see you peering back into the studio. If possible, I like to orient the singer so that he or she is not facing directly at the control room window. That way we don’t feel like a couple of baboons staring each other down over a stray piece of mango on the ground.
Before an overdub session, I will have prepared a tasty headphone mix. If the vocal is not loud enough in the cans you may hear your singer straining. If the vocal is too hot, you may sense that they are holding back. In either case you may notice that they are out of tune. To avoid this, I will pull the instrumental tracks down a bit lower than they were when the band was tracking. It is also important that the singer hear pitch and time references, so make sure the bass and drums are clearly audible. The rest of the instruments need to be in there too, of course, but perhaps not as hot as they will be in the final mix.
Vocal reverb in the headphones can also help to take your performer to their “happy place”, and help them forget that they are standing in a 5 x 6 room lined with fiberglass. This can actually make the vocals sound clearer in the headphones because there is some reverberation coming back after the end of each word or phrase. Choose a reverb that is appropriate to the song, but avoid the “grand canyon” preset. I’ll have all this taken care of before the singer even arrives.
After these details are in order, I’ll try to create a mood that will encourage a good performance. On occasion, when recording female vocals for sexy ballads, I have brought candles and scented oil diffusors into the studio to create an inviting atmosphere. Other vocalists prefer a straightforward setting with clear but not glaring lighting, and leave it at that. Know your singer!
Before we start the session, I might invite a singer to relax in the control room for fifteen or twenty minutes, assuring them that we are “off the clock”. We’ll sit and I’ll pretend to be doing something on the DAW while making idle chit-chat about matters unrelated to the upcoming session. This gives the singer time to relax physically after a stressful drive to the studio through busy streets.
I’ll have drinks available. Very hot or very cold drinks are bad. Anything with milk in it will coat the vocal cords and gum them up. The very worst thing a singer can drink is alcohol; it dehydrates the throat, and singing under these circumstances can do permanent damage. The best thing to have is fresh water at room temperature, and also something with a bit of sugar, like apple juice, but nothing too acidic like citrus. The sugar in the apple juice helps coat the vocal cords in a good way, and this is helpful especially if your singer is just getting over a cold, or sang for three hours in a smoky bar the night before. Of course nobody in the studio should be smoking, and if it is cold outside, don’t let your performer hang out on the sidewalk between takes.
Choose your favorite vocal mic and compress just a bit, and don’t go overboard with the EQ. You want the singer to hear clearly what they are doing—you can mangle it later if you want. During your session, listen to the mix that your singer is hearing, and tweak it to keep it sounding good. Be sensitive and suggest a 10–15 minute break every hour or so, perhaps off the clock. It is easy for a voice to wear out, even before the vocalist realizes it is happening. Above all, remain positive and supportive, and keep everything relaxed—do not rush your singers!
Patience, love and understanding can be the key to successful vocal tracks. If you have your act together, you can help any singer to give their best performance, once you remove some psychological stumbling blocks from their path.