This is a guest post by Kyle M. Bagley. If you want to submit a guest post, please see the guidelines in the author box below.
Getting a great take from a singer often takes more than just choosing the right microphone or preamp. In the end, it is the great vocal performance that will define the song and its impact.
Engineers use a series of simple techniques to get a great recording, making the singer most comfortable and using psychology on top of their engineering knowledge to craft the sound they’re looking for.
Who’s In The Room?
The first and most important consideration is who will be present for the recording. In general, singers are more comfortable with fewer people in the room, which can be a departure from their bandmates who may like to record in large groups.
Other factors, including what the singer hears in their headphones and the vibe of the room will greatly affect the performance’s energy level. It is your job to shape this energy to fit the mood of the song for the perfect take.
Lowering the lights in the room or booth will generally quiet a vocalist and bring the energy level down. Some musicians prefer this lighting, as it is easier on the eyes. However, be aware that for long sessions, a dark room might also make your singer tired.
Lamps give the singer ultimate control, especially if they can be pointed and/or moved to enable music and lyric reading without making anyone uncomfortable. They are also a solution for buzzing overhead fluorescent light fixtures. Singers do not usually know what is best, or how the light is affecting them, so have it set when they come in.
Creating a good mix for the singer to listen to while they track is crucial. Chordal rhythm instruments are the most important thing to hear. They should be panned center and be heard clearly of the rest of the rhythm. This keeps singers in tune and on pitch throughout a take.
Other rhythm instruments are only necessary to give your singer a sense of what they are used to hearing, for the balance of the band and to help them keep the form. Other melody instruments can either act as a crutch for your singer or be a source of confusion. Add them in selectively.
The overall headphone volume can have a similar effect on your singer to the lighting. Loud headphones will make them sing louder over the music, which can add a boost, but sometimes at the cost of a straining voice or reduced stamina. Always check to see if your headphones are bleeding too much into the microphone.
If the volume is not loud enough, many vocalists will end up singing flat, “under” what they hear. Again, these are not conscious changes to the singer, and it is your job to make the headphones just right for your singer.
Singers going into the studio for the first time often have a hard time adjusting from how they sing at live performances. The stage and the studio have a completely different approach, and your singer may need time to adjust when he arrives.
Microphone technique should be discussed before you begin. Give tips on how close they should be to the mic and where to aim their voice.
I have engineered few sessions where a singer complained of a “delay effect” in the headphones. This is often not a software issue, but a discomfort that the singer has with hearing himself live in the headphones. If he still has trouble after a few takes, try having him sing with only one earpiece. That way he’ll hear himself in the room with the open ear alongside his headphone mix.
Tips For A Smooth Vocal Performance
Just like every musician, singers usually need time to warm up before they are recording their strongest performances in the studio. Arranging a “set list” is usually a good idea. Start with the easiest tune, and once you know the singer is warm, go after the hardest ones. Songs with a wide range or complicated arrangement won’t get their full attention at the end of a long session.
Even if the singer knows all the words to a song, printing the lyrics for both the performer and the engineer can be beneficial. It helps them keep their place while tracking, and makes finding overdub spots go faster.
When starting on a new song, always always always track the first take! You can scrap it later if nothing comes out, but singers often exhibit raw energy and emotion that is lost as they go over the song multiple times.
Lastly, the most important thing you must do while engineering a session is to respond to the singer. Listen for problems and strengths, make changes if things aren’t working, and make sure they are comfortable throughout the session.
Kyle M. Bagley attended Berklee College of Music, and currently works as a musician and studio owner. See more of his work at http://www.kylembagley.com