When should I record the vocals?
One of the things that really defines someone’s production style in commercial genres is how soon they choose to record lead vocals.
The most common approach is to deal with them after most of the other parts have been captured, so that the singer can respond to a backing track that’s pretty much in its final form. But that’s not the only school of thought. “During the preproduction period we do a lot of experimentation with rhythms, with textures, and especially with the vocals,” says Pierre March and, for instance. “Most of those early vocals are retained. We still try to get better vocals later on, but it seems that when there’s little on tape, the vocal is more focused. If you record a vocal to a finished backing track it often doesn’t work. Moreover, this way of working means that everybody in the band plays to the vocal, which helps to keep them focused.”
“The singing has to set the level for the energy of the track,” adds Steve Bush. “If it were practical, you’d almost rather do the vocals first, because the thing which will be heard and focused on is the singing. If you start with the drums, bass, and one guitar, and you’re obsessed with those parts sounding as good as they can, it’s easy to forget the fact that it’s not going to be very prominent in the end. The tone of the vocal makes every track sound a particular way, so [I] try to put a guide vocal down as soon as [I] start work, because you have to tailor the music to fit what the singer’s doing.” John Leckie and Tony Brown both also insist that singers perform guide vocals with maximum enthusiasm and emotional commitment. “If they give it their all, it’s like a kick in the ass for the band,” says Brown, “and the tracking session can turn into a lovefest.” (In addition to any psychological benefits, though, Clarke Schleicher considers it an invaluable opportunity to audition potential vocal mics within the context of a real performance: “When the singer is out there consciously doing a shootout, that’s not a real test.”)
Although most commercial lead vocals are the result of multiple takes and comping, you certainly shouldn’t assume that guide vocals won’t end up on the finished record. John Leckie, for instance, estimates that 50% of all his final mixed vocals have been guides; Darryl Swann says a similar proportion of Macy Gray’s performances on the Grammy-winning On How Life Is were from their original nocturnal song-writing sessions; and Taylor Swift’s original “demo” lead vocals for her album Speak Now made it all the way to the final mixes (according to Nathan Chapman), as did Adele’s vocals on her single “Rolling In The Deep” (according to Paul Epworth). Jimmy Jam also favors the earliest takes, even when there is no full-band ensemble session involved: “Nine times out of ten, the scratch vocals are better than the real thing, because the artist doesn’t have the pressure that ‘this is it!’ rolling around in his or her mind.… You can catch gold while an artist is in the process of learning a song and playing around with addictive new melodies.”
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.