Record Killer Lead Vocals

Tips for Producers and Engineers: Part 1 of 2

The lead vocal – it’s arguably the most important track in most songs.  It’s carrying the melody and message and overall tone of the song and it’s what most listeners lock onto over anything else.  Try asking someone why they like a particular song and chances are their comments will be about some aspect of the lead vocals.  So how do you record a great vocal part?  Here are some tips we have found over the years that help the vocalist perform at their best.

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Capture the best performance: First, it’s easy to forget (even for some vocalists) that a singer’s voice is their instrument.  Try to schedule your vocal takes when the singer is at their peak.  That means not scheduling a session right after a long weekend of gigs or even after a long day of work.  Most vocalists have a time of day that they perform best.  Have the vocalist warm up first.  Some vocalists have a set routine; others don’t even know what you’re talking about when you ask about warm-ups.  For the latter, a couple softer than usual warm up takes can help get them ready.  Have plenty of room temperature water on hand in the booth for the talent and remind them frequently to keep their pipes hydrated.

Set the mood: It’s important for the singer to be in the right mood when they are recording their tracks.  It can be hard to sing about a relationship gone bad in a bright, sunny room with posters of puppies on the wall.  What is the overall mood of the song that you are working on?  Try to prepare the booth to match that tone.  Here in the studio we use different colors and intensity of light to obtain the right feel for the track we are working on.

What’s the singer’s personality? If the singer thrives on attention, then having band members and friends in the control room as an audience can sometimes help bring the performance to another level.  But many singers get self conscious quickly when the focus turns to them, and so often we will turn down lights in the control room and position the singer in the room so that they feel less like they are in a fish tank being watched.  Encourage the talent to try different approaches if they are so inclined and remember that positive reinforcement after each take helps to keep a singer’s confidence up.

Backing vocals: Many performing artists don’t have the luxury of dedicated backup singers when they perform live and so when recording songs in the studio, often they overlook the importance of backing vocal tracks.  When we as listeners hear a song, we accept backing vocals without much thought, but interestingly we have witnessed that many artists get very self-conscious about recording backing vocals.  Maybe it’s because the lead singer or even “non-singer/instrumentalists” in the band now have to play a new role.  Frequently harmony parts aren’t even written until late in the recording process and often we find many artists who don’t even know how to go about writing them.  Our advice is to bring in someone who can help write these parts early in the rehearsal process.  This will save you much time and stress in the studio. 

Importance of a good headphone mix: Probably the single most important aspect to getting a good vocal performance is the headphone mix.  Singers usually like to hear a lot of themselves in their headphones, but counter-intuitively, that is not always best.  Most singers do better hearing themselves naturally, which means a combination of the vibrations through their bodies and reflections of their voices in the room.  There are two categories that most headphones fall into – closed and open.  Closed cup phones (like the Sennheiser HD 280 PRO) block out much of the ambient room and are a nice choice when other loud instruments are present; they also help keep the music from leaking into a hot mic.  Open cup (like the AKG K 240) have a more natural feel but allow more unintentional leakage.  If time allows, let the talent audition a couple different pairs to see which they prefer.  Headphones give singers a version of themselves that they may not be used to (even though this is how the rest of the world hears them).  So we often suggest they experiment a bit as they warm up, with moving one cup off their ear a bit until they find a sweet spot between the room and headphone mix.

Mic choices: While there is no right or wrong answer, you hardly ever can go wrong with a large (3/4″ – 1″) diaphragm condenser mic on vocals.  If your budget is limited, there are many low cost mics that do a great job – check out the MXL 990 or Audio Technica AT2020, great choices for under $100.  For a few hundred bucks the choices are virtually limitless and many vocal mics double as great instrument mics as well.

Zac Cataldo is a musician and owner/producer at Night Train Studios, a recording studio in Westford, MA.  He is also co-owner of Black Cloud Productions, a music publishing company. Reach him at [email protected].

Brent Godin is a bassist/guitarist and engineer/producer at Night Train Studios and talent scout at Black Cloud Productions.  Reach him at [email protected].

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