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Sound Advice

Vocals in the Studio by Simon Pressey

Getting the best possible performance from your vocalist is paramount in popular music recording; here are a few tips that can help you capture them. Find out which time of day the artist feels most comfortable singing at and arrange the vocal recording part of the session around that. Try to schedule recording the vocals throughout the recording session, not on the last day(s) of it — even experienced vocalists can usually only be at their best for three hours a day. Arrange for somewhere private the vocalist can warm up or practice, with rough mixes of the tracks preferably.

Some vocalists like to perform with the band and friends around, others prefer a more intimate environment. Discuss this well beforehand so you can avoid offending or embarrassing the peanut gallery or your vocalist. Print up multiple copies of the lyrics, including all repeated lines, verses and choruses. Use a clear font that is legible in low light, and number the lines and sections. This makes for easier communication between all parties. Prepare the recording area ahead of time. Make sure the temperature is comfortable and the area free of air conditioning drafts. Try to create a mood, and a room that is buzz-free with adjustable lighting. Have some candles available, a comfortable stool, note paper, pens and pencils, a pitcher of warm water (not iced), a couple of glasses, Kleenex and a garbage bin. Almost all singers like to have something particular, be it a mascot or a bottle of scotch. Be prepared — finding Sambucca at 3 a.m. on a Sunday can be tough. I usually tape the lyrics to the boom of a fully-extended mic stand and back light them with a Littlelite; this has the advantage of readability without the vocalist moving their head and is less acoustically troublesome.

If you’re the engineer, set up and listen to the headphone mix ahead of time, with the same model headphones at the same volume. Monitor mixes can dramatically affect peoples’ pitch and timing. Try the singers’ headphones yourself, sing along to the track and get the assistant to adjust the mix so it sounds comfortable to you. Be prepared to use loudspeaker monitoring — a good vocal performance is worth the small sacrifice in fidelity. Attention to a combination of these details has rewarded me far in excess of the effort required to take care of them.

Simon Pressey, Engineer/Producer, Chief Engineer at Le Studio Morin Heights. Credits include Lawrence Gowan, Patricia Conroy, the Tea Party, the Headstones and Celine Dion.

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