Engineer’s Quickstart Guide: Vocalists
As with any instrument, getting the best out of a voice requires good preparation. As an engineer, you can do your bit by keeping the recording room at a reasonable temperature, because the throat tends to lock up when cold. Providing plenty of (room-temperature) water is also a good idea, because singers lose a good deal of water vapor when they sing, and dehydrated vocal cords work less efficiently and tire more quickly.
Avoid providing carbonated drinks, not only to avoid unwanted emissions (pardon me!), but also because they’re usually quite acidic, as are citrus fruit juices. Alcoholic/caffeinated beverages, smoking, and salty snacks tend to be counterproductive (physiologically, at least!) because they all dehydrate your throat, although it has to be said that it’s probably better for a singer to be drinking alcohol during the session than the night before, because its dehydrating effects only really kick in after about four hours. Dairy products coat your vocal cords in a way that can cause phlegm to become an unnecessary distraction, and trying to record within a couple of hours of a heavy meal is rarely a good idea either, because a full stomach restricts the breathing—plus the effort of singing may cause reflux, bathing the vocal cords in digestive acid. Eww…
If you have the opportunity to talk to the singer before the session, do your best to convince them to memorize their part, because it makes an enormous difference to the performance. “[Madonna] locks the melody into her head and memorizes the words immediately,” says Shep Pettibone. 25 “She doesn’t even have to read the words off the paper while she’s singing.” Young Guru 26 emphasizes the engineering advantages of this when working with Jay Z: “Jay doesn’t write his ideas down, he does everything in his head… Once he has the verse memorized, he’ll go into the booth to recite it. From a recording point of view, this works much better than someone reading from a piece of paper, and having his mouth tilted to one side.” Bruce Swedien 27 has similar memories of working with Michael Jackson: “I don’t think I ever saw Michael [Jackson] with the lyrics in front of him. He’d always been up the night before memorizing the lyrics and he sang the songs from memory.” But that’s not the only tip worth taking from the King Of Pop. “Every day that we recorded vocals,” continues Swedien, “he warmed up for an hour beforehand. That made a big difference.” While an hour is probably a bit OTT for most small-studio musicians, it’s certainly not unreasonable to expect any vocalist who’s recording to give 15 minutes of their time to limbering up. If you need a fairly foolproof warm-up routine, try gently humming simple hymn tunes within your most comfortable pitch range: By nature, hymns have a fairly restricted pitch range, so they don’t tire you out prematurely with excessively high/low notes.
Inexperienced singers may not understand how to get the best out of their voices on a session, so here are a few practical pointers:
■ Pay attention to the time of day you record, because it can make a big difference. “With some vocalists,” comments Stephen Street, 28 “they sound better later in the evening than they do first thing in the morning.” You also need to catch the singer when they’re in the right state of mind, as Johnny Dollar 29 did when recording Gabrielle’s hit song “Rise”: “We managed to record at quite an opportune moment: Gabrielle had split up with her boyfriend just before she came in to do the vocal, and that gave the vocal an immediate emotional content. She actually burst into tears in the middle of one take!” Here’s Alan Winstanley 30 too, recalling his work with Madness: “Occasionally, we might have to take [Suggs, the lead singer,] to the pub, get a few beers in him to loosen him up, and then go back to do another vocal.”
■ Taking a sip of water before each take is worthwhile, and swallowing causes less vocal fatigue than coughing if the vocalist needs to clear phlegm. Some professional session singers use a small $35 (£25) steam inhaler before/after sessions and during breaks to keep their vocal cords moist and sinuses clear. While that might seem like overkill for sporadic sessions, it isn’t a bad investment if you’ve got to get a lot of vocals down in a hurry. Just don’t use the steamer in the studio itself, because the water vapour can cause condenser mics to malfunction.
■ If the performer is raising their shoulders/ribcage and sucking in their stomach when they inhale, they’re probably not breathing very effectively. They’ll breathe more deeply and with better control if they keep their shoulders down and let their tummy move outwards as they breathe in. If they can’t get the hang of this, then a couple of sessions with a good singing teacher would be advisable, to get at least that technique sorted, no matter what style of singing they do. “You won’t come out a different person, with a different sound,” reassures John Leckie, 31 who is firm advocate of singing lessons, “but… at the end of the day you’ll sell more records.”
■ Standing up while singing will usually promote better breathing by allowing freer diaphragm movement. However, this may not be the overriding concern from a production point of view. “I prefer singers to sit down, to be relaxed, even though there may be certain problems that you get with breathing,” comments Neil Davidge, 32 for instance. “You get a presence and a conversational kind of thing… You listen to the record and you feel they’re talking to you, singing to you.”
Excerpt from Recording Secrets for the Small Studio by Mike Senior © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.
About the Author
Mike Senior is a professional engineer who has worked with Wet Wet Wet, The Charlatans, Reef, Therapy, and Nigel Kennedy. He specialises in adapting the techniques of top producers for those working on a budget, writing regularly for Sound On Sound magazine’s ‘Mix Rescue’, ‘Session Notes’, and ‘Mix Review’ columns. He is also the author of the best-selling Focal Press book Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio.