As a veteran producer told me early in my career, it takes a real producer to produce a great vocal. Otherwise, you’ re just another guy doing tracks. (And no one wants to be just another guy.) So here are some rules to follow when you’re working with singers.
Know your cue points
It’s imperative that you mark your spots on the multitrack so you can easily navigate from section to section. Use a simple method of abbreviation to identify various sections. For example, verse 1 Is V1, chorus 2 is C2, pre-chorus 1 is p1, bridge is Brg, etc. Take time to mark your cue points so the singer isn’t waiting around while you search around for the second pre chorus.
Set the right “pre-roll” time.
On retakes or when overdubbing, give singers enough time to get ready, but not so much time that they feel like they’ re constantly waiting to sing. A one-bar run-up is often sufficient, but with some singers and faster tempos, two bars is more appropriate. On analog decks, about five seconds is sufficient. Mark the spot so the singer will always know at exactly what point the music is playing.
Allow the singer time to warm up.
The vocal chords are muscles, and need to be warmed up properly before getting a heavy workout. Have the vocalist sing the song a few times before getting into the heavy work. A proper warm-up will not only give the singer more control. But also reduces the strain on the vocal chords and helps increase stamina.
Leave high notes and taxing parts until he end.
The idea here is to pace the singer. Don’t let her continuously try to hit that high note at the end of the bridge until you have the bulk of the vocals recorded. The singer may finally hit that note, but be too strained to deliver the rest of the performance.
Have the singer drink warm tea or lukewarm water.
We all like a cool beverage, but the vocal booth is really not the place for it. The cold liquid has the effect of tightening the throat (thick “shrinkage”), making it harder for the singer to open up. Conversely, warm liquid relaxes the throat muscles, resulting in a smoother performance.
Get that first take.
Know your microphone, preamp, and compressor well enough to have a central starting point that will give you a decent level for recording. When the singer is warming up, record it, even if you’re still adjusting levels. It’s sometimes better not to tell the singer that you’re recording, because it can make artists more reserved or careful. Sometimes you’ll get a certain magic in the first take that gets lost as you start dissecting the performance. If you have the first take recorded, you can always refer back to it to try and recapture the same feeling.
Check the headphone mix before starting.
Check the headphones and set them to a comfortable monitoring level, with the vocal level and enough to be easily heard. Most (but not all) singers like to hear themselves loud. Checking the headphones beforehand can also help you fix any problems that you might encounter, like an intermittent short from only one side.
Find out what the vocalist likes to hear.
Every singer has her own way that she likes to work, so ask, does she like her vocals really loud above the music so that every nuance and whisper is heard? Or doe she like herself buried in the mix so that she can belt it out and still feel inside the music? What about reverb? Whatever works is right.
Control the mix.
Some elements of the production can sound distracting to singers. Thin the music out a bit by temporarily muting some of the tracks that aren’t essential to the main groove and that might compete with the vocal for sonic space. Also, with digital systems, keep the latency as low as possible so that the singer can hear himself “live,” without the delay introduced by converters.
Control the atmosphere and the environment.
Some singers feel exposed and nervous when they’re in the studio, and a room full of people doesn’t help. Other singers are used to performing live, and need an audience to perform their best. They feel the studio is stale and cold and prefer a party atmosphere. Setting the right mood for a singer will also induce a performance with more feeling. Whatever environment helps the performance is what you should try to create.