A lot of music producers, me included, have a very bad habit.
It’s our shameful, guilty secret, but it’s time we confessed to it and mended our ways. What is this dreadful habit we share?
If you’re like most music producers, we record every last piece of the music, including all of the overdubs, before we let the lead vocalist in, to put their vocal on our track. The vocal is the last thing recorded, usually in a great hurry, late at night, because everybody is sick of the song, already, having crafted it for hours or days, prior to the vocalist turning up to do their session.
What’s the result? Usually, you get a hurried, half-finished vocal performance, because the vocalist is hassled, tired and rushed. Usually they have very little sonic space left, in the arrangement, in which to do their thing. If they start embellishing, at this stage, it is bound to clash with one of the overdubbed frilly bits and the track will sound bad, or the vocal embellishments will sound smothered and misplaced. This is not fair to the vocalist and certainly doesn’t respect or honour their artistry. Why get a great singer to sing for you, if you aren’t prepared to give them a relatively blank canvas with which to work?
If you are your own vocalist, the situation is even worse, if not downright dire. You almost always leave the vocals until last and because you may not be the world’s most accomplished singer, you tend to give a very lack-lustre vocal performance. If you work from your own project studio, your vocal performance may be further hemmed-in by your small studio surroundings and the fact that you are afraid to disturb the neighbours. As a result, you hold back and sing too “politely”. That might not work so well for a track that demands a more strident and boisterous delivery.
Leaving them until last is not the right time to add the vocals and we all know it (we just never do anything about it).
Here’s an alternative suggestion, gleaned from the producer Robin Millar, who has produced hundreds of hits, including Sade’s “Smooth Operator”:
Make the “bed” of the track, including the basic rhythm section, but don’t add all the fills, thrills and spills. Leave those off. Have a barely adequate backing track for the vocalist to perform against. Just the basic accompaniment is all you need, so that you keep the rhythm and basic structure of the music, but hardly anything else. With the track in a barely constructed state, this is the time to record the lead vocal.
Why is this a good thing to do?
The reason is that you have left enough space in the arrangement so that the vocalist doesn’t have to dodge sonic bullets, or work around acoustic roadblocks. They are free to interpret the vocal line as they see fit, with whatever embellishments they want to add, according to their taste and style.
The other reason this is the right time to record the lead vocal is that it forces the vocalist to give a performance which brings the track to life. If there is nothing much going on in their headphones, they need to inject their emotions and spirit into the vocal performance, to lift the song. They have to do more of the heavy lifting to make the track interesting to listen to, in other words.
While this might not sound very kind, to vocalists, it’s what they do in live performance. When the arrangement is stark and plain, they have to deliver the song to the audience in an engaging way. There’s nothing to hide behind, in the arrangement. They’re exposed and naked, vocally and hence have to rise to the occasion and lift their performance game to get away with it. This is precisely what you want, on record, not some safe, self-contained, contractual-obligation delivery.
The human ear is acutely attuned to vocal frequencies. It has to be, so that we can understand each other. Our ears are tuned for maximum intelligibility of human speech and are therefore most sensitive to vocals in music. It follows, then, that when most people listen to a song, the vocalist is going to be the thing they tend to notice most, whether they want to or not. We’ve simply evolved that way. For this reason, getting an immaculate, exciting vocal performance is the way to get a great feel, on a track you’re recording. Making the vocalist do this, by not cluttering up the arrangement, is a very clever thing to do. You’ll both be very glad you did.
Of course, once you have the lead vocal finished and in the can, you can go back to the arrangement and add all the fireworks – those incidental musical moments you would have put on the track anyway, had you done what you usually do and fully finished the music before you recorded the lead vocal.
It’s a good idea to capture the backing vocals straight after finishing the lead vocals, so that there is space in the arrangement for these too, without smothering them beneath drum fills, synthesiser risers, sound effects, bass drops, instrumental embellishments and so on. Recording the backing vocals at this time makes sense for all the same reasons that recording the lead vocal early, in the completion of the final arrangement, makes sense.
Robin Millar has some other hints for vocalists:
- The end of each phrase you sing is worthy of your attention. The way you end words and lines is as noticeable, to a listener, as how you start them. Don’t let them peter out ineffectually. Instead, make them stand out. Holding your vocal form until the end of each phrase makes a vocalist sound great, instead of just good. Crisp articulation and controlled singing, to the very last syllable, is the way to make each lyric line punch its weight in the song.
- Learn your lyrics before you go for a vocal take, rather than reading them, while you sing. If you read them, you sound distracted and not quite on the case. If you know them, by heart, then you can sing them from the heart, too.
- Although you might have had a hand in writing the song, it’s a good idea to create some distance between yourself and the song. Pretend you have never heard it before or that somebody else wrote it for you and that your job, as a vocalist, is to be the carrier of that song to other people. You have to deliver it, presenting it to them like a gift, wrapped nicely and handed over in an appealing way. It is your responsibility, as the lead vocalist, to take the song by the hand and walk with it, across the room, to the audience, where they are standing. It’s a little like taking a small child back to their parents. Keep the attention of the audience and don’t let them turn way or ignore you for a second. You’re bringing them something precious and important, so maintain ear contact with them, via your voice. Don’t even “blink” in your vocal delivery, so to speak.
- Commit fully to vocals. Pretend this is the last song you will ever be able to sing and what the hell? You might as well make it a great performance, since it’s the very last time you will get to sing it, ever. Be unselfconscious and unashamed. Have no fear. Don’t worry about judgement or imperfections. Make the performance human and sincere. The problem with recorded music is that, to a listener, the vocal performance on the record is the last time you will ever be able to sing it to them, in all likelihood. You can’t go to every fan’s house and sing it again, to cover for any hesitancy or to make a better fist of what you wanted to sing. Just go for it. Your vocal performance may be around for a very long time and it cannot be changed, once it’s released.
As a music producer, once you have a sensational vocal to work with, you can polish the track. Add the solos, thicken the backing vocals, put in the little incidental noises, overdub the musical responses to any melodic calls, place rhythmic and melodic fills to create energy in the track, and so on. This is where you earn your money. Put the sparkle and finish on the track, preserving and enhancing the now wonderful lead vocal that you have recorded, in the process.
Because humans are attuned to listening sensitively to the vocal, making it good pays huge dividends. If the vocal is good, the track will probably be good too. It’s a rule of thumb, but it tends to work. An outstanding vocal can earn you a house and an entire career. Yes, really.
I know I am going to try to break my bad production habit. I hope you try to do so, too.