Raise The Spirits: 10 Things to do when you are recording vocals
by Devlin Miles
- The mic – the microphone to the singer is as important as a 9-Iron is to a golfer, if you don’t have a good one you are trapped, you might as well be singing in the shower because no one will hear you in the details. I repeat NO ONE will really hear YOU. The studio mic must capture your vocals with a crisp sound, you should be able to hear every syllable as it leaves your lips, better yet the sound your throat makes as your vocal chords first touch– this is not captured by every microphone, so don’t be afraid to ask if you can try out a few mics and have a listen back. I am a stickler for crisp vocals because once you have heard the difference you can’t go back. I often say I want it to sound like I am singing in someone’s ear. Now if you are a metal singer, you might want a little more distortion in your voice, so the mic could help that, however I would still lean towards crispness and then add effects after. It will save on the singers voice dramatically
- Hit and Miss – You are here recording because you “just know you have a hit song on your hands”, ok, well sing the song three times and then listen and see how you are approaching it, you are probably going to over sing into the microphone the first few takes. It takes a little time to get used to the distance and levels with a studio mic versus a live microphone. The nuances of the voice are there in the subtleties so be sure to take a second to listen and find your true uniqueness. Now go get some tea and start again.
- Review your lyrics – Now is the time to put your voice down for history, so make it count, but remember you are delivering a message. Review your lyrics and remember what you are trying to say and find the right way to phrase it. This is where you break grammatical rules and deliver things with attitude and sincerity, so the listener will believe your intentions with every line.
- Coaching – consider having a vocal coach in the studio that can help you get the best sound out of you, from phrasing to delivery to breath control on the higher and lower notes. This is not the time for a voice lesson, so you must have some understanding of how to use your own voice, but having another singer present while you are doing lead vocals can be very helpful. As long as you let this person know you are looking for them to listen for texture and pitch issues. Believe me this person will save you money in tuning if they can help you deliver the product more unaffected. If you can’t think of anyone, ask another indie artist, they would probably enjoy being a part of your project and maybe even lend some background vocals too.
- Timing – sometimes knowing what time of day you sing best can be key to a great performance or if you need a whiskey voice for a tune you might want to attack that first thing in the morning or later in the evening.
- Order your songs – if you are going to record many lead vocal tracks in one day be sure that you have the songs in an order that is best for delivery. If you have a lot of tougher/higher tunes you might want to put them as your second or third song when you are warmed up, but don’t wait until the end of the day when your voice is tired and breathy.
- Take breaks– recording lead vocals can be very mentally exhausting as you listen back and hear that you might be pitchy in spots or if you don’t like the way you are phrasing this or that, be sure to walk away and get some water/tea, go for a walk, get out of the vocal booth and play guitar/piano for a minute. I was recently told by a friend, who also records that eating chips can help give clarity to the voice when singing. This IS true, the saltiness in the chips helps cut through the mucus and can offer clarity.
- Breathe– Be sure to have a good stance and full breath support when singing, especially when you are singing very high and very low and also when you are belting out a chorus. This will really help you stay on pitch and save time. Consider swimming, running , or cross-training 3 months before you get to the studio. This will really help you with breath control for the long notes and quick pentameter or raps.
- Rest – be sure to stop when you are vocally fatigued. You don’t want to sing yourself into an injury.
- Hydrate – A day or 2 before recording vocals increase your water intake to be well hydrated and always have water with you in the studio. I also take 1 or 2 aspirins before going into the studio to sing, to help with inflammation and to have smooth blood flow through the throat, it could be superstitious, but it works for me. (Get It Together: 10 Things Indie Artists should bring to the studio)
10 Things- Raise The Spirits PDF
Be Laser Focused: 10 Things that can add to the overall cost of your studio project
By Devlin Miles
- Inflating the bill-
- Extra tuning hours when you can’t hear a difference from the original,
- Taking several takes of something that isn’t working, be mindful of when something is not working as the clock is ticking. Consider attacking it with a new approach the next session.
- Working with a musician that doesn’t have the right skill set. If after many different directorial notes, the musician isn’t able to give you what you want on a song, move on to the next one and find someone who can. People can misrepresent their skill sets often because they need the money. Don’t sacrifice the integrity of your song because of a bad drummer, who drops the beat or a pianist who can’t play the organ too.
- Listen backs – listen backs are important, so be sure you know what you are listening for – you might need to focus on the bass line at this moment or hear how the vocals are EQ’d In this moment, make a note if a drum track is too loud or the guitarist hit a wrong chord, but stay on point with what you are listening for and then when it is addressed add your other correction. This is very important for bands, all band members are going to innately listen for their parts, so make a note if your part needs to be fixed, but know when it is productive to bring it up. Many different inputs about different items that the producer/engineer is not focusing on at the moment can waste time. It’s like someone interrupting your train of thought, stay focused with your listening!
- Kitchen sink – this is not the time to try out every instrument on your tune. Of course it would be cool to hear your song on an obo or perhaps add a piccolo solo, but if it is not a main instrument in your tunes and you don’t know a piccolo or obo player, don’t go out of your way to bring one in, keep the budget in mind, if you really hear a specific instrument on only one tune, then see if you can send it out electronically to get it recorded and fly it in to the track. Remember everything you add will add to the overall mixing time in the editing.
- Quality – when you receive your reference mixes, if you are concerned about the quality, speak right up to the engineer/producer. It shows you are really listening and that you expect higher quality right from the beginning (See Also 10 Things Producers/Engineers should know in working with Indie Artists) They should take pride in their work at every step of the way and know that their reference mixes are their calling card too.
- Organized – I tend to harp on organization, but when you are dealing with electronic files nowadays, you need someone that knows how to organize their folders, so they can easily find things and access them. Note if you are working with analogue recording because you like the warmth and are crossing with the digital world too, know that it can be time consuming to “fly” in tracks from other studios or to find previous takes to pull snippets, so be sure that you know up front how well this producer/engineer can move from analogue to digital. Yes, recording analogue is warm and lovely, but if the producer/engineer is working with analogue because they themselves haven’t tried the digital age, that can be very telling about how pliable they will be with ideas and flexibility. (Note this is not something, someone will readily admit to being disorganized, so look for red flags)
- How organized is their studio or home if they have a studio in their home?
- Is their equipment organized?
- How has your communication been with this person? Prompt?
- Work ethic? – This is hard to tell until you deal with someone, but you can find out some information about a producer/engineer by contacting other people the person has recorded with. I would contact 3 other bands/artists if possible and have this be one of your questions. Also ask the referral – “Did you feel working with John (producer/engineer) that he is fair and honest?
- Convenience – how convenient is it going to be to get people to the studio. Yes, I too loved the idea of recording in the woods somewhere where we could focus only on music for days, well, it was all great being 3 hours away from NYC until I wanted to incorporate working with some of my local musicians for overdubbing piano or background vocals and got very complicated and costly to get them their, so I had to compromise. I also personally found it taxing to have to travel 3+ hours every weekend for 6-8 weeks.
- Gear – when you are working with a producer/engineer chances are they are going to have tons of gear and it is all going to look very impressive when you walk in, but don’t forget to ask the questions that matter to your band. “My voice needs a dynamic microphone with a pear shape, so that my high voice doesn’t get too tinny”. Also if you see a Hammond B3, Rhodes, Grand Piano make sure to ask if it is in operation and if it will be tuned and ready for use? If they are using their gear to sell their studio to you, it should be in working condition. Yes, this happens a lot! Beware!~
- Vocals – it is a good idea to have 1 other person there besides the engineer/producer in the studio when you are recording vocals. Unfortunately, it can be an intimate thing when you do vocals, however if the producer/engineer is having technical problems and are addressing/adjusting levels they may not be as focused on the actual vocal performance. Yes, I made this mistake and had to re-record leads to half an album because I wasn’t happy with my overall performance. It happens and it gets costly. Preferably have another singer there, one who knows how to coach a singer- not necessarily even someone from the band, but someone who understands vocal phrasing, another indie artist would also be great and might be able to lend some background vocals as well. Note: if you pick someone who doesn’t know how to coach you, for example if they critique you more than coach you, then you will probably get pissed off, which will in turn show up in your voice, so choose wisely and maybe have a rehearsal with them. There are also vocal arrangers for hire too. See also Raise The Spirits: 10 Things to do when you are recording vocals
- Crispness – when listening back in studio on recording day, solo out every instrument
- bass – can you hear the quality of the bass or amp?
- drums- check that every instrument in the kit is being heard for each song and is mic’d appropriately (overdubbing nightmare, if not and costly)
- acoustic guitar- sounding crisp, good muted sound and open strumming?
NOTE: It is wise to address concerns here if you are not hearing things as they should be. Yes EQ-ing comes later when the musicians aren’t in the studio, but if you have a heavy tom song and they are only mic’d with one overhead it will sound muddy and might have to be recorded again. If you have a lot of toms or cymbal work on a tune, pay close attention that all instruments are mic’d individually. You are paying for crispness. Anyone can record with room mics – this is the producers/engineers time to shine. It also gives them a chance to make sure nothing is recorded too hot. (can’t really be fixed later in EQing, if something is recorded at too high a level it is like trying to save an overexposed picture- you will lose a lot of instrument detail and the sound will be distorted)
10 Things- Be Laser Focused PDF
Directing Your Project: 10 Things to ask when interviewing producers or engineers for your project
by Devlin Miles
- Are you a producer or engineer? – This can be a murky line in the professional world, so be clear what you are looking for – do you want someone to capture your sound as a band or do you want someone to help you define your sound with instrument choices and arrangements and possibly save you money by playing some of the instrumentation for you.
A producer will help you with the overall sound and help with the choices for the song. The producer also might help arrange a tune, or some are multi-instrumentalists and can play on tracks, which might save you money, but ask the questions up front.
An engineer is someone who is going to help record your sound and have very little to do with the overall sound of the album other than the sonic flavor, they might have an opinion here and there, but they are not going to take accountability for your overall sound, would rather record the band’s sound. This is great for bands or for multi-instrumental artists or a control freak who really wants to control every aspect of the song.
Note: Neither may have any theory knowledge to help you when needed with harmonies, etc., so ask them if they play an instrument and if they can hear when someone is pitchy.
- Can we back up every session? – Is file management included in your fees, which means backing up every session or bouncing down files and exporting all the final files and mixes, this takes time and should be dealt with in the beginning?
- Tuning– Do you tune vocals, what program do you use? Are you a singer? This is very important when recording vocals, if the producer/engineer is a singer they will have a better understanding of the voice and performing for pitch perfection- if not, you might want to consider having someone there to coach the vocal parts. A vocal arranger can help with phrasing and tonality. This will overall save you money, if people can sing on pitch and get the right effect, this person will pay for himself or herself, otherwise you will be spending that money and more on tuning. You have to sound radio ready if you want to compete, so tuning is pretty much expected, so prepare and budget for it. Good or bad vocals can make or break a project.
- We all make mistakes – if you make a mistake that involves us re-recording any portion of the project.
- Will you take accountability for it?
- Will you credit me for the time?
- How does editing work?
- Can you work unsupervised? Will you communicate editing hours to me, so I can budget accordingly?
- Do you charge hourly?
- Do you guarantee your mixes, if we need to tweak something- will you without additional costs?
- Are you ok if I chose to mix my album elsewhere?
- Are you familiar with…? (insert names of similar sounding artists to you) and can you help me get that sound?
- Do you have a team of musicians with whom you work and recommend as I am looking for (cello, keyboard, etc) for this project?
- Are you equipped to send files electronically and possibly incorporate other studio WAV files? Sometimes you might find that you need someone to record background vocals in another city, so you need to work with a studio that is able to share files easily.
- Based on what I have described can you give me a written estimate or proposal? – This is really key to holding people accountable for their actions. Most people on the production side are also musicians, which means they may not be great at the business, so be sure to get an estimate in writing, so that you have proof how much you need to budget. (See Know Your End Game: 10 Things to budget for when recording your indie album)
- Have you listened to my music? – This may seem basic, but if you don’t ask the question- you won’t know and people have busy lives, it will indicate how available this person will be to you. Express what you did like about that recording and what you learned from it and are looking for in this project. If you expect the vocals to be a similar quality or the overall sound to have the same genre feel, make sure they have listened to your music at least 3 tunes. If not listen together and get a feel for his/her reaction. Some people just need the money and they may not be passionate about your project and frankly it will be like pulling teeth to get what you want from them, so just as artists are a dime a dozen, so are producers keep looking!!! You want to work with someone who likes your stuff; it will show in their work and follow through.
10 Things-Directing Your Project PDF