By Cliff Goldmacher
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 identity as an artist is your voice. The more relaxed and confident you are as a singer, the more people will know who you are and what you’re about. Musicians may critique your music for its musicianship, but fans and followers want to connect with your voice.
This post on how to approach vocals in the recording studio comes from my experience as a musician, session player, producer and owner of recording studios in Nashville and northern California. If you’re just getting started in today’s independent music environment, you’ll probably play many of the same roles that I do – artist, manager, producer and A&R pro. Sometimes getting your own great vocal performances involves knowing which role to play and when.
Let’s look at them one by one.
Acting as manager, your job is to make sure that you have a comfortable place to record where you can do great work. You’ll need to 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. You might invest in your own recording equipment (beware of the learning curve!) or use a friend’s project studio to give yourself the added flexibility of recording whenever you want without concerns about the ticking of the studio clock.
Wherever you record, taking care of the details (things like silencing mobile phones, having snacks and beverages are on hand, confirming that the garbage trucks will not be rolling down the alley when you’re laying down tracks) will make all the difference in how smooth the recording process will be.
Regarding artist development, consider the services of a vocal coach. The more you work on your songs before you enter the studio, the more likely you’ll be to deliver a great performance when the time comes. By studying your songs and working on the smallest details ahead of time, you’ll end up with a baseline performance that you can deliver with confidence. Then – when the RECORD light is on, you won’t have to worry about your technique or interpretation.
Here your role will be to not only find the songs that work best for you as an artist but to focus on a few very important elements:
Find songs that you can sing with emotion and sincerity. If you’re a songwriter, you may think that the best songs to sing are your own. But outside material can keep the level of songwriting consistently high and add the necessary diversity to a project.
Know the range of your vocal instrument and make sure the songs fit.
Consider the song’s key. Just because you’ve always performed a song in a certain key doesn’t 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 make decisions about when to keep going and when you’ve reached the final take. This can be extremely difficult to do in the heat of battle but it’s essential. Take a five-minute break every hour or so to review what you’ve sung. The temptation is to keep singing and singing because that perfect take is just one take away. Sometimes, though, the best one might have come five takes ago and you’ve just been wearing yourself out needlessly.
Record a comp vocal. A composite (comp) vocal allows you 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 quickly take the life out of a vocal performance.
Here’s how to do it: Creating a comp vocal is as simple as recording multiple passes of your lead vocal without allowing your producer persona into the studio. When you’re done, put on your producer hat and listen back to each pass, marking a lyric sheet with which pass is good on each line. If there are still a few lines that need work, you can go after them knowing exactly what you’re missing and how to fix it. The key to this process is to prevent yourself from judging what your doing while you’re doing it. The more you keep your producer and artist selves separate during this part, the more effective you’ll be in getting a great performance.
This role is strictly musical and the one that’s probably most familiar to you. 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. Sing them that way. The best singers sound like they’re talking to you. You believe what they’re saying because they believe what they’re saying.
Avoid any and all technical concerns since playback will tell you whether you’re hitting the notes exactly on key or if your timing is good. Just tell the story and the tone and pitch 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 that will showcase the artist you are.
CLIFF GOLDMACHER is a songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist session musician, engineer, author and owner of recording studios in Nashville, TN and Sonoma, CA.
Cliff’s site has loads of resources for the aspiring songwriter including a downloadable sample of his eBook “The Songwriter’s Guide to Recording Professional Demos” a blog, newsletter and online webinars. Click here for more information.