Transform Your Rough Recordings Into Released Records, Even If You Only Have a Home Studio

How To Get a Great Vocal Performance, Even With an Insecure Singer


Below you’ll find an in-depth excerpt from my upcoming course, Expert Home Vocals.

Many of you have shared your stories with me about how hard it is to get a good performance from your singer, especially if they are insecure or anxious about performing. So it’s my hope that this preview of Expert Home Vocals will help you get a better performance the next time you find yourself frustrated with producing vocals.

Check it out below, and make sure to keep an eye out this week for more great content on getting expert sounding vocals, even if you don’t have pro studio or fancy equipment.

How To Get a Great Vocal Performance, Even With an Insecure Singer

Getting a great take from a singer often takes more than just choosing the right microphone or preamp. In the end, it’s 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.

There is no need to struggle with recording vocals. Relax and take a deep breath. Then give your vocalist a thumbs up and hit record. Or hit record before you give the thumbs up….err…oh no…you just missed that perfect breath into the first verse. Now it’s ALL RUINED!

Just kidding.

Don’t worry about every little technicality when recording vocals. Making people comfortable is one of the most important things to keep in mind when you’re doing a vocal recording session.

If you make sure everybody is comfortable and loving what they are doing, it will shine through in the performance. Here’s how you coax that perfect performance from your vocalist, every time.

When Do You Record Vocals?

I usually talk about vocals being recorded separately after the music has been recorded. If the entire song has been recorded and maybe even roughly mixed, you’ll get a better performance from the singer because they feel like they’re recording onto a real record. However, you also want to make sure they’re comfortable singing even if you’re just recording scratch vocals with the band because you never know if that vocal take might be magic.

Make sure they can actually hit the notes

First and foremost, make sure the vocalist is up to the job. There’s nothing worse than trying to squeeze a super performance out of a subpar singer. That’ll end with take after take of out of tune, underperforming vocals. They will most likely stay in the vocal booth all day trying to squeeze out notes that aren’t right. That doesn’t just make you uncomfortable but will make the vocalist feel defeated. So make sure they can sing and feel comfortable singing before you hit record. It will save a lot of time.

If they just need the practice to get it right you can burn them an mp3 to go home to practice to in order to save yourself some time in the studio (unless you’re charging hourly and don’t care about spending a day recording a squealing cat).

Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right key for the singer. If you have the ability during pre-production, make sure the vocalist can sing all the songs in the key that they are written. If they can’t, consider changing the key to better suit their range.

If that doesn’t work because of the style of music you’re working with, you’re better off having them practice as much as they can ahead of time and then recording the absolute best performance they can muster with their abilities. You may find yourself needing to do a little nip and tuck in the tuning department later on.

Be Physically Healthy

It’s important to get a healthy sound level into your software when you’re recording, but if the source isn’t physically healthy to begin with, no amount of mixing will fix it. Make sure the singer doesn’t have a cold, isn’t hungover from the night before, or even worse, coming down from drugs. These factors will negatively affect the sound of your recording.

You’ll get the occasional singer that likes to drink or smoke to get into the mood and the vibe, and that’s something that you’ll simply have to deal with. It can often make for great tracks if you get the vibe just right and they’re in the exact right zone between comfy and too tipsy to pitch correctly. But if they come in already sounding like a disaster, it’s often a better bet to simply reschedule the session.

I’ve started telling bands that they should be careful about partying too hard the night before because it will most likely negatively impact their recording session.

I’ve had people coming down from drugs trying to figure out arrangements. I’ve had people smoke joints before recording their guitar parts. It’s unprofessional, and most of the time it doesn’t work out well for them, especially if they’re not great players to begin with. No amount of substance abuse will magically make you a better performer. You may think you are, but the finished recording will prove you wrong.

Also, make sure your singer is honest with you. Make them understand that it’s important to communicate their health to you. If they’re coming down with a cold, or don’t feel up to the task of recording a vocal take that will stay with them forever because of their subpar health, it might not be worth it to run the session.

Again, sometimes it’s simply easier to reschedule the session.

Make Sure Your Room is the Best (It Can Be)

When you are recording vocals, especially if that is the only thing that is going to be recorded, it’s important to eliminate as much outside noise as possible.

Dedicated voice over booths, found in TV stations, for instance, are treated to be completely dead. No reflections, outside noise, or room sound. That way the only sound is the vocal being picked up by the microphone, nothing else.

Of course, it’s harder to deaden a complete room if you are recording at home, but you can certainly set up a space that is deader than anywhere else in the room.

You can achieve this with dedicated acoustic absorption, or with blankets and duvets if you are on a budget. Additionally, a dedicated vocal recording solution such as the number of different reflection filters available can help reduce the room sound that tends to creep into home recordings.

You can record vocals anywhere. I know that some vocals on gigantic hit records have been recorded in hotel rooms while the artist was on tour, so you can breathe easy if you don’t have a perfectly treated vocal booth. However, you need to make the most of what you have, even if it’s not much. And the best way to do that is to kill as many of the reflections as possible.

Make sure your room is dead and quiet before you record, because there is nothing worse than hearing some unwanted noise in the middle of your greatest vocal take. Kill your room acoustically if it’s a horrible sounding room to begin with.

If you are recording vocals in a good sounding, acoustically treated room, make sure there aren’t any unwanted noises. This can be from your computer fan or background noise from the street. You can kill unwanted computer hum with a pillow or blanket, especially if it’s a laptop. If you have to deal with noise because of your room situation, you can resort to noise reduction and/or gating to take most of the background noise out during mixing. People have even resorted to putting up couches vertically around a mic to reduce the reflections so make sure you take advantage of everything you have at your disposal.

If you’re in a home studio, your best bet is to use a reflection filter to shield the back of the mic and absorptive treatment behind you to shield the reflections coming off the back wall and into the microphone. You want your microphone to pick up only the sound of the voice singing into it. Adding random voice reflections from the room will color the vocal sound and make it less clear.

Make the Room Vibe!

Making the vocalist comfortable in the room is a key ingredient to getting a great performance.

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 energy level. It is your job to shape this energy to fit the mood of the song for the perfect take.

Lights

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. I usually turn the light down really low, sometimes even turning them off completely, when I know I have a very self-conscious vocalist.

Headphone Mix

Creating a good mix for the singer to listen to while they record is crucial for a great performance. They need to hear themselves and the instruments providing the harmonic content so that they can pitch accurately to the track. So make sure you take the time to find a good headphone mix for your vocalist. They need be heard clearly over 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 as the lighting. Loud headphones will make them sing louder over the music, which can add a boost, but sometimes at the cost of a strained 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, your singer may not realize this or be able to communicate this to you. The only thing that matters is that they are comfortable, and it is your job to make the headphones just right for your singer.

Vocal Reverb in the Headphone Mix

It’s a good idea to add some tasteful reverb to the vocals while you’re recording. It not only helps the singer find pitch better, but it also adds confidence to the singer’s performance. If they feel like they’re listening to themselves like they would sound on a record, with some nice reverb and space around their vocal, their performance will be better for it.

Parallel Processing While Recording

A great way to make your vocalist more comfortable during the recording process is to give them a separately processed signal in parallel to their headphones. This will make their voice sound produced and can often give them a helpful confidence boost.

It gets great results because the vocalist feels like he’s singing on a record, not a demo.

And the best part is, you don’t have to compromise the quality of your recording. In my Apollo Twin, there’s a digital console that allows you to route the incoming signal to two aux tracks. One is for reverb to give the vocalist some nice space in the mix. The other is for either an LA2A or 1176 that’s heavily compressing the incoming signal. I then blend that underneath and feed it to the vocalist’s headphone mix.

I don’t record either signal into the DAW. It’s purely used for performance purposes. If you don’t have a UAD interface, you can do the same inside your DAW by creating two aux busses from the track you’re recording to. This results in a pretty in-your-face sound that gives the singer confidence and helps create a great performance.

Of course, be careful how much signal you feed the vocalist. And make sure you’re not crushing the signal with too much compression. Just experiment and try a nice blend of parallel compression into the singer’s headphones the next time you want to give your singer a sense of power.

The #1 Thing to Say to an Inexperienced Studio Musician

A long time ago, a friend of mine told me this simple technique he used to deal with a novice studio musician.

You know the kind – the studio musician who might be a great performer, but somehow gets real stressed out in the studio.

They feed off the audience when they’re playing live, rocking out and playing every note with so much soul. But when you sit them down in the studio they suddenly get the jitters.

  • Every note sounds a little flat.
  • Every solo sounds uninspired.
  • Every drum beat just a little shaky.

Have you ever had this problem?

Make the Studio Musician Confident

Well, my friend used to do this one thing. He’d be all optimism and smiles and just go:

“Yeah…that was good! ….let’s try another one just to be sure.”

He instilled confidence in the musicians. He let them know he thought they were doing fine while making them do another take. Sooner or later (it was usually sooner) they’d get back their confidence and start ripping through their songs, with all the soul they’d had before.

It’s a simple trick, but very effective. Because sometimes you run into an inexperienced studio musician and you need to stroke their ego and make them feel good about themselves.

It’s really all about simplicity. Simple setups, simple recordings, simple coaching tips. If you keep everything simple you won’t burden yourself with complex situations that result in you cowering in the corner, hyperventilating with a paper bag.

Make your recording session as simple as possible and you’ll make even the most insecure musician feel right at home.

Conclusion

At this point, you should be ready to rock your vocal recordings, whether you’re recording yourself or others in your studio.

In the entire pre-production chapter of Expert Home Vocals we’ve discussed the importance of the melody and how it rhythmically fits with the rest of the arrangement. We’ve touched upon important things to consider when making your studio comfortable for both the singer to perform and for your audio to be high quality.

You’ve found the right mic for your singer (or you’re effectively using the only one you have), and you’re aware of what constitutes good mic technique for a vocalist. Finally, you’ve got a good headphone mix going so it’s easy to get into the groove of recording that perfect vocal take.

In the next chapter, we’ll talk about the actual recording process, with a lot of helpful techniques for getting the best vocal sound from your recordings.

If you’d like to read the rest of the eBook and watch the complementary video training that’s included, you’ll want to keep an eye out for the announcement coming tomorrow.

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About Audio Issues and Björgvin Benediktsson

We help musicians transform their recordings into radio-ready and release-worthy records they’re proud to release.

We do this by offering simple and practical music production and success skills they can use immediately to level themselves up – while rejecting negativity and gear-shaming from the industry. A rising tide floats all boats and the ocean is big enough for all of us to surf the sound waves.

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