Making a Vocalist Feel Comfortable in the Studio

As you progress through your recording career, you’re going to undoubtedly realize that vocalists are some of the most egotistical and critical musicians to work with. This frame of mind for them is actually justified when you realize what a vocalist has to go through. They are often the first thing people see during a live concert. They are often ridiculed and criticized for their lyrical content, with the popularity of the band “on the line” solely based on their vocal performance. With that being said capturing a good vocal sound in the studio can be daunting and intimidating if you do not know how to approach the artists. Below are a few things to keep in mind when recording vocalists.

Mood of the Room

Prior to recording your vocalist, you should try gaining insight into their personality and character before the recording process. Learn what motivates them musically and try to create an atmosphere or mood they can truly perform in without any restraint.

Ask them if they perform better in a low light setting or a room with more lighting. Be sure to create a room that is comfortable for them with proper seating. Have water or tea already laid out. Make them feel that the recording space is theirs. The room needs to be set to a healthy temperature but always ask the artist if they would like the temperature to be raised or lowered while they are tracking. Rearrange furniture, if need be, to make your space more cozy for the artist.

Always remember that making a good impression with your clients plays such an important role on your return rate. Taking the time to move furniture around, playing with lighting and having things like refreshments readily available will not only make your client feel more comfortable but lead to better performances in the end.

Privacy

Although often being the main face and identifier of a band, I have often found lead singers to be reserved and very critical of themselves. Introversion is a quality many vocalists exhibit. This gets amplified a million-fold particularly when they are in the studio and all eyes and ears are on them when recording. This can cause tension in the studio and lead to poor takes later when recording.

If you notice a vocalist who seems shy or unsure of their vocal ability, allow them the option to record alone with just you. Sometimes when the vocalist understands that it is only you and him working on a track they begin to feel at ease. Constructive criticism is now coming from a professional rather than a bandmate. This will lower their anxiety and lead to better performances. Simply ask the remaining members of the band to take a break, go out to eat, or simply hangout somewhere else while you record vocals. Then have everyone regroup when you’re ready to hear playback. It’s that simple!

If your singer has trouble with people looking at him while recording, be sure to provide privacy for them by removing him from everyone else’s sight line. If the vocalist is in another room, cover up the window looking into that room with some cloth or covers. If you are recording vocals in the same room, create a little nook that removes the artist from being seen. Be creative! I have used everything from blankets to microphone stands to beds or even couches that were turned upright to create recording nooks. Such an easy setup can lead to amazing performances in the studio.

Positive feedback constantly

This simple psychological technique is so effective when recording, not only for the vocalist but for the whole band. There will always be hurdles in the studio. Unrehearsed musicians, lack of communication between band members, hostile or inebriated band members. These are just a few of the hurdles you will encounter while owning a studio. Often times, frustration and anger set in when a particular musician can’t play their parts correctly in the studio. For the inexperienced sound recording engineer this can lead to a horrible time in the studio.

This is why creating and maintaining a positive environment in your studio is so important. You should constantly be using positive language like:

  • There you go!
  • Nailed it!
  • That was amazing but I know you can do better!
  • It keeps getting better every time, give me another!
  • Thank you for practicing and being prepared, most bands don’t!

Simple encouragement, although sounding cheesy in writing, go a long way when someone is trying their best to capture a performance, particularly with vocalist.

Vocalist often need the most encouragement because, in the end, they do have the most difficult job in the band. Using phrases like…

  • Awesome warm up, you are definitely ready to record!
  • Man, you are almost in perfect pitch, give me one more!
  • Wow you just blew me away with that take!
  • I love recording awesome singers!
  • Take your time, this is your time to shine!
  • No rush, the best performances take time!

…will lead to better performances and keep the energy of the session in a positive light. Remember, you are the captain of this ship while recording, you need to lead your clients to shore safely.

Recording in Sections

About 99% of all the music you hear on Spotify, Pandora, YouTube and the radio was recorded in multiple takes. Each individual musician was offered multiple attempts to capture their performance. This involved “chunking” or cutting up their entire performance into smaller pieces for better accuracy.

In my 12 years of studio production, I to this day still have never seen anyone nail their entire part in one take. I’ve seen some people come close but there were always areas we could go back and improve. Unless they are in a live situation, always cut, chunk, their parts into sections and focus on small segments one at a time

For a vocalist, have them show you the lyrics. Together identify significant phrases like the verses, pre-chorus and choruses. Let the vocalist know that you are going to focus on specific sections of the song while recording and to not worry about singing the whole song at once.

When I am tracking vocals, I even go as far as dividing up the verses, pre-choruses and choruses into even smaller segments to be sung. This allows your vocalist to take a deep breathes and focus on a few words rather than whole phrases. You can simply edit and arrange the vocal takes later to make up the whole phrases being sung.

Reverb on an AUX track

Most vocals when unprocessed or mixed sound pretty dull when compared to the final product that is found on an album. Finalized vocals usually go through an assortment of plugins and signal paths that allow them to shine and be heard by the world. When recording vocals, it is typically a good practice not to place any effects or plugins between the mic and DAW. Always use the rule below when recording music.

“Once it’s recorded, it cannot be changed later”

With that being said, if your studio setup allows for an “AUX” setup to be used while simultaneously tracking a vocalist, throw a reverb on an AUX track and mix it in with his live performance while recording. Since the reverb is on an AUX track it is not going to be recorded with the main performance. Your vocal take will remain dry with no effect on it.

Having reverb on the aux track will help the vocalist concentrate on creating a mood with their voice. It will allow them to interact with the song and give them an idea of what is to come when the track is finalized and, in the end, everyone loves reverb!

Conclusion:

Recording in the studio is hard for everyone. Precision and accuracy are difficult achievements even for professionals. Being understanding and compassionate towards your artists in the studio will not only make you look professional it will lead to better performances which will ultimately lead to great music. Keep the concepts discussed above in mind throughout the entire recording process and your production will be taken to the next level.