Professional Sound - Indepth

Recording Vocals by Tim Crich

The Singer
Different singers will be best prepared at different times of day. While one may be raring to go at 9 a.m., another may not really open up until the late afternoon. A tired singer sings a tired vocal. Schedule the vocal session for the singer’s best time.
Better singers will want to warm up. No one can be expected to jump in on any creative endeavour without warming up first. Give her the needed time and privacy. Once she is ready, doublecheck that her cue mix is just right. Encourage her to memorize the lyrics. Something is lost when the singer is reading lyrics from a page. Better that she focus on the feel and interpretation of the vocal, not hunting around for the next line.

The Mood
Commonly, only essential people are allowed in the control room during vocals. Even the best of singers can find concentrating on vocal parts difficult with a room full of people staring at them.
Dim the lights and light the candles, burn the incense, take all your clothes off, create a mood to help the singer feel comfortable, relaxed and confident. The more at ease the situation is, the better the outcome of the tracks. A strong vocal track makes the singer and you look good.

In Record/Red Lights
Wear headphones during vocals. As the engineer, when you wear headphones and monitor the cue mix, you hear exactly what the singer is hearing, allowing you to fine-tune the cue mix as the vocal progresses. Of course, lower the control room monitor levels to avoid influence. A good cue mix is paramount.
Get into it. Get the singer into it. It’s much easier to record an inspired singer. Keep the vibe up, be positive, and be generous. Tell her what you want, not what you don’t want.
Don’t stop the singer unless you must. Wait for the end of the piece. Stopping and starting can be distracting. Let her run through the song to totally get into the flow of it. Be as specific as possible as to what you want her to do. All singers need guidance from the control room. Simply having her redo a track with no indication of what is needed helps no one. Granted this is not usually the engineer’s job, but the producer’s. Commonly, the more you engineer, the more you will learn about production.
When overdubbing, tell the singer to sing along as soon as she hears the music. This ensures she will have the same groove as the original, rather than starting cold on the downbeat of the intended punch in. Once she knows where she is in the song, switch the track to input, so she hears herself singing. Punch in at the appropriate time. Invite her to listen back in the control room and play the results and discuss them. Singers know how they should sound. If you can take her view of what she wants and bring it up a notch or two beyond her expectations, she will sing better.

Louder volume levels can mask slight pitch problems. Turning down the studio monitors will help you hear pitch and tuning issues. Similarly, when a singer is having a hard time hitting notes, turn the cue mix level down. If the singer must have loud headphones, pull the lower frequencies. Loud lows can mess with a singer’s pitch.
Suggest she remove one side of the headphones to hear herself in one ear,
and the cue mix in the other. Maybe record a simple piano or acoustic guitar track playing the vocal melody – no chords, just single notes of the melody of the vocal track. (Of course, not to be used in the final mix.) Add this track in to the cue mix, and maybe remove any other instruments that may be throwing off her pitch.
Try the old out-of-phase speaker setup. In the studio, place two speakers at eye level in a triangle with the microphone, aimed at the singer. Switch the L/R wires on the back of one speaker, then send a mono cue mix through them. The music reaches the singer, but the two signals are cancelled at the microphone.
Consider bringing the singer into the control room. Leave the studio monitors on and do a vocal in the control room with the music blasting directly at her. This might be the best way to get a solid vocal. Set the microphone monitor signal just short of feedback with a non omni-directional pattern. Or she may want to wear headphones in the control room. If so, you would wear headphones as well.

Singers, like everyone else in the world (including you) will have bad days. Sometimes they sound absolutely magnificent and sometimes they sound like a train wreck. If you lose patience with a player, it may not be long until she loses patience with you. The door swings both ways. Not everyone is a virtuoso.
On those rare occasions when the emotions just aren’t flowing, maybe tell the singer to picture one person in his mind. Forget the studio and the microphones, just picture that person, maybe an old love, or a movie star, or even a certain recording engineer and sing to that person.
When a great lead vocal is completed early in the project, the rest of the instruments will build around it. The players need to hear that vocal track so they can weave in and out of the way. A great vocal track inspires the rest of the players to do their best. Ultimately, the best vocals come from well-written songs.

Tim Crich wrote the bestseller Assistant Engineers Handbook. He has over 20 years of experience in the recording studio, and has worked on records by Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, KISS, Billy Joel, Bryan Adams, Cher, Bon Jovi and many more. This article is excerpted with permission from his new book Recording Tips For Engineers, available through For more information, see

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About Andrew King
Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief at Professional Sound. He is also a co-host of Canadian Musician Radio and NWC Webinars’ series of free music and entertainment industry webinars.
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