Vocal recording is an art unto itself. Singing in a studio––surrounded by sound equipment, with no audience hearing you––is quite different from stage performance. The following expert tips are a distillation of over 20 years of the author’s experience as a recording studio vocal specialist.
1. Get Hold of a Rough Mix. Most musicians can’t afford to waste recording studio time. If you want your recording to turn some heads and get you noticed, don’t rush into the studio before you’re ready. If the instrumental tracks are recorded days before the vocal recording begins, get a rough mix to practice with during preproduction.
2. Have a Grip on General Vocal Technique. Your vocal technique should be good enough for you to expressively sing your songs on-pitch with good tone and stamina without straining or blowing out. If you can’t do that, you’ll waste time in the studio with endless takes and lots of auto-tuning. Before going in the studio, establish the right key, know the melody and lyrics, smooth out pitch and range difficulties and lock in the rhythm.
3. Focus on the Message and Emotion. Once the technical details are covered, focus on the message and emotion(s) of the song. Your phrasing decisions relate to emotion and message and should be believable within the feel and style of the music. Your own unique style comes from making the lyrics your communication. Mean what you say when you sing.
4. Imagine an Audience. Your voice must reach through this electronic recording to emotionally affect the eventual listener. Sing in the studio with the same energy and believability of a live performance. Even though you may be in a small vocal booth, don’t sing to yourself or to mental pictures of past audiences. Imagine someone or an audience out in front of your microphone in the here and now and sing to them with vitality and feeling.
5. Be Well Rested. If your vocal session is scheduled when you’re tired and you’re pushing past fatigue, you risk strain, blow-out and a general poor result. Some studios offer reduced rates for recording late at night. If you’re trying to save money that way, take a nap and arrive once the rhythm section is recorded. You need to be at your physical best for your voice to respond well.
6. Get The Right Mic. Your voice is unique and so is each microphone. Match the personality of the mic to your voice. If possible, test the vocal mics prior to booking the studio. If they don’t have one you’re happy with go elsewhere or bring your own mic. You may unwittingly alter the way you sing if a microphone mismatch distorts the basic qualities of your voice. The complications are too numerous to list.
7. Adjust the Headset Mix: Headset mix makes a big difference in how you sing and perform. You can change volume levels of instruments, other voices, effects—like reverb—or eliminate them altogether. Adjust it at the beginning of the session until you can perform undistracted. It doesn’t matter if you sound good to the engineer and what you hear in the headset is not what is being recorded. If needed, sing with “one ear off.” You’ll get similar complications to a mic mismatch when not comfortable with your headset mix.
8. Be Careful When “Punching-in.” When re-recording a single line or word (called “punching-in”), sing along with the earlier line or section and then continue singing past it. This maintains smoothness of phrasing and helps the engineer pick the best punch-in point. Part of recording studio technique is maintaining a constant distance between your mouth and the mic even if you move your body and especially during punch-ins.
9. Focus on Vowels vs. Consonants. Pops and hisses on a track created by overemphasis of consonants can spoil the recording. Think of the consonant as using the same amount of air as its neighboring vowel. Focus your energy on vowel sounds and let the consonants take a secondary role. Vowels are the sounds of your voice, not consonants.
10. Evaluate Your Tracks. Knowing what to look for in evaluating your tracks and how to fix errors makes the difference between a good or great recording.
Rhythm and Phrasing: Are there any places where the phrases go off rhythmically from the music or sound rushed? Consistent phrasing that is appropriate for the style “sells” the song and helps you touch your audience.
Pitch: Are any words sung off-pitch? If you were able to sing on-pitch outside the studio possible reasons for pitch problems during recording can be incorrect headset mix or the wrong mic or its placement. The relative volume of your voice to the other instruments can hinder your pitch awareness. A wrong type of reverb or having too much of it, can confuse you by pulling your attention to the reflection of your voice rather than your primary sound.
Vocal Tone: In the context of this song and style, does the voice sound too choked, strained, or weak for pro standards? Sometimes too much compression on the vocal during recording can make a singer push and strain. If you’ve recorded the song in sections or line by line, ensure your vocal tone matches throughout the song. Variance of mic to mouth distance can result in unwanted tonal changes.
Overall Performance: Does the song sound alive? Do you believe the singer? Does it move you or leave you feeling untouched? There is a balance between achieving a great performance versus having technical details to correct. Once you have a great performance, fix anything that would distract the listener. Your objective: Recording a performance that keeps the listener immersed in the song.
© Copyrighted and reprinted by permission of Music Connection Magazine.