About 10 years ago I was in a club when the video for “Groove is in the Heart” by Deee-Lite came on the TV screens. For some inexplicable reason, I immediately fell in love with the Lady Miss Kier. Maybe it was the pseudo French accent (ooh, la la) or the skin-tight psychedelic body suit, but I was struck. After listening to the rest of the album, I felt that Miss Kier had brilliant vocal ideas but didn’t quite have the control to execute them yet. (Sorry Miss K.)
Later that year I was in Japan producing a funk record for a Japanese label, and we arranged to have the funk man himself, Bootsy Collins, play bass on a few tracks. He was on a world tour with Deee-Lite, and the last leg of the tour ended in Tokyo — right in the middle of our project. Perfect timing. Bootsy would stay in Tokyo for a couple of days to record with us.
The band and I left the studio early one night to see Deee-Lite’s last show of the tour. Besides seeing a wonderful show and watching Bootsy play the %$#@ out of that bass, I was struck by the quality and control that Miss Kier displayed vocally. She was right on pitch all night, nailing the high notes and singing with controlled sustains and smooth vibrato. I was amazed, considering that this was the last show of the tour, and often a singer’s voice is a little blown out by then from singing night after night for months. I was surprised not only by the quality of the singing, but also by the fact that Lady Miss Kier also completely nailed all of the vocals that I had a problem with on the record.
I was determined to meet Miss Kier, and my only opportunity would be before 10 a.m. that morning when the band was leaving Japan. So after a few hours of sleep, I dragged my hungover ass down to DeeeLite’s hotel in 100-degree weather. One of the band members introduced me to Miss Kier, and after acting like a little school kid, I sheepishly asked why she sounded so much better live than on tape. She told me that throughout the tour, she would practice for three hours a day in her hotel room, and then go out and sing all night. By the time she hit the last show of the tour, she had improved 1,000 percent! She didn’t rest on her laurels by saying, “Oh, we have a hit and I’m great”; she put her nose to the grindstone and worked her butt off. I learned a valuable lesson from her that day.
When I had my first No. 1 hit as a mix engineer, the first thing that I did was to go ask another engineer, Bruce Miller, whom I totally respect (and for whom I was an assistant engineer) what he thought I could do to improve my mixing. He gave me invaluable advice (too detailed to go into here, but I will share it in an upcoming column). I didn’t believe the hype just because I mixed a hit record, and I still don’t. I examined all aspects of my mixing and when the calls started coming in, I was ready!
So for all you vocalists and instrumentalists out there using technology to make your projects sound great, bravo! That’s what it’s there for. But don’t kid yourself into thinking you have great pitch if AutoTune is doing all the work. Be honest with yourself, practice, hone your skills, and when you get your shot you’ll be primed and ready to kick genuine butt! Can you say, “Ooh la la?”
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