Authors note: Those familiar with my writing know how casually I normally toss aside touchy feely stuff and psychology when dealing with technical issues. In this case we are dealing with irrational people (the artists and musicians) and need a rational way to deal with their irrationalities
Vocals can often make or break you as an artist, you as a studio or you as an engineer. It is often certainly not your fault in any way, shape or form, but it will ALWAYS reflect upon you negatively if it goes bad. (Of course it won’t normally reflect on you positively if it goes good, but that’s another story).
Those with the recording philosophy of “just document the carnage, good or bad” can happily skip this article.
Now, on to the meat.
Vocals are often poor because the vocalist doesn’t know what to sing. This can easily trump knowing or not knowing how to sing every time. How just doesn’t seem to connect with the audience as much as what does. How, also very very often evolves from what, so let’s get the what hammered out first.
What’s the what? Technically, five main pieces in my book, though of course there can be disagreements on this
Tone is a subject of its own books, and much can be made about this. For our purposes though, (I know I know, I can hear the disgruntlement from the peanut gallery) I think we can leave this one out. A crap tone singer in my experience does not reflect poorly on the engineer if its obvious the other technicalities have been taken care of.
Dynamics: I prefer not to argue religion (yes I know that’s a first) in this article, and will leave the compressor and fader wars for another day.
This leaves us with the Big Three: Rhythm, pitch and the words.
So many times it is actually the rhythm causing pitch problems. It can cause all sorts of other problems as well, related to the emotional quality and dynamics of the song. Usually, you will find the the singer really doesn’t know as much about the timing of the vocals as he needs to. It really doesn’t matter if the same singer wrote the words, he still may have very little to no idea when to sing them.
You as the engineer need to be able to sing this crap. On time at least. If you can hit the pitches too, that would be awesome, but getting the rhythm right does amazing things to the bands’ collective psyche. If you do an even halfway decent job on this, you will inspire/shame (doesn’t matter much which) them into a passable performance, or better. As with working on guitar parts, the ability to wail on the band, on their own material, inspires a confidence/hatred (again, doesn’t matter which) in you which will force them to new heights or go home and practice (the hours are non-refundable right?).
Now, this may be a terrifying prospect for you. Maybe you think you can’t sing. Maybe you really can’t sing. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t take much to create a convincing vocal from which the band can build upon. Just like when you fight for comprehension of a drum part, in order to edit it into submission, as soon as you comprehend the vocal part, you can lay it down. Figure out when it happens, especially when a phrase starts. This is often problem number one. Late or rushed vocals often start with a lack of confidence on where to start a phrase and it causes a weak or inappropriate emotional performance. Get the starting point right. Give this paragraph a try and see if you can’t actually lay out a decent scratch track for the singer.
Now that you know what the vocal part is, its time for step one:
1. Have you or someone in the band play each vocal part on a sustaining instrument like a distorted guitar or keyboard.
Make sure the instrument is in tune! Figure out the key of the song and try to make those parts conform. Edit the living hell out of this part until it is rhythm and pitch perfect. Again, and I can’t stress this enough, make DAMN sure the instrument is in tune. This part will likely sound robotic and the peanut gallery will be up in arms screaming “but but but, you ruined the feel of the music”. Ignore them, the music will have no “feel” until it is actually music. This track is a guideline. Once the singer can actually do the part, the style will evolve.
2. Have the singer stammer through the rhythm, don’t worry about the pitch.
This is a GIANT confidence builder. The singer may feel stupid doing this, but it will pay HUGE dividends, not just to the recording, but to the bands’ live shows later on. All you need to do is get the singer to “blah blah” or “la la” or whatever nonsense syllabic noise to the actual basic rhythm of the vocals. Keep doing this until you are damn sure the singer knows at the very least where everything starts. This step alone probably thrown out 90% of the problems you will deal with when recording a singer.
It is THAT important. Keep hammering on this until everyone involved knows the vocal rhythm backwards and forwards.
3. Have the singer stammer through the rhythm, at the correct pitch.
This one is often an eye opener. Just “blah blahing” through the rhythm on pitch will often surprise everyone with the singer’s ability to hit pitches that everyone (especially the singer) previously thought impossible for him. This is a critical step, keep going until it is hammered into everybody’s heads.
At this point the singer’s ego is likely swelling in size. Don’t worry you will get to beat him back down to reality in the next step.
4. Add the words
This is often the hardest step. It is amazing just how difficult some words are to put on pitch. Prepare yourself for a long, frustrating day. Progress can be slow, voices can get blown quickly. If bands were smart (big if) they’d realize that this process is the best dollar per return on an investment that the band will ever spend. Time spent here will reflect better on EVERYONE involved. The band, the singer, the engineer. Keep at it till it works or until they want their money back, and then keep going from there.
When facing a really problem part where the singer starts crying and the band blows past their pot money, its a good idea to try substituting an easier word. Go back to the stammering if you have to. Keep hammering through different words until the singer makes a disconnect between the difficulty of hitting a note and the word itself.
This goes against my better nature but I have to mention: Be understanding of the singer! This isn’t the same as going to the store and buying new strings for your guitar, or as simple as just playing a hard guitar part slower. You can buy a perfectly crafted instrument. In the reality of vocals, there is no store where you can instantly pick up a new vocal chord. The closest you can get is the exercise you are undertaking right now.
It is of course, perfectly OK to berate the singer for not taking the time and effort of building his instrument BEFORE blowing so much of the bands’ money learning it in the studio. And don’t worry, even if the band explains this process perfectly to their fellow “musicians”, the next band will still be far too stupid to take care of it ahead of time. You’ll still get your hours.
Record the part and rejoice in a song that reflects well upon the singer, songwriter, band, studio, the singer’s mom, and everyone else involved
1: Have you or someone in the band play each vocal part on a sustaining instrument like a distorted guitar or keyboard
2. Bleat thru the rhythm
3: Bleat thru the notes
4: Add the words