Like an over done pie, a bad lead will ruin the party. Master chef Skye conducts cooking class for your vocal tracks.
New York pizza sucks! It’s hardly ever fresh, the dough is almost always overcooked, the sauce is too sweet and there’s usually too little, which results in a bad sauce to cheese ratio, and it lacks ingredients, like oregano, basil, olive oil, and parmesan cheese. Overall, what passes for pizza these days never would have been accepted when I was growing up.
Recording vocals is very much like cooking, and we can learn a lot from comparing the two disciplines. Here, we’ll go through some solid techniques that you can use to really spice up your vocal tracks and ensure that everyone asks for seconds.
GATHERING THE INGREDIENTS
Like pizza, a great vocal track usually consists of four main ingredients, the first of which is skill. Skill combines good pitch, control, timing, vibrato, and sustain. Not everyone was born to sing, but the desire is there, singing skills can be developed by just about anyone, with hard work and the proper training. It takes practice, just like any other skill (like making pizza dough).
The next ingredient is tone. Barbra Streisand, Macy Gray, and Tone Loc all have very distant tones. They open up their mouths and you know it’s them. A unique tone makes it easier to stand out in a crowd, but if you have a generic tone , you’ll need to concentrate more on the next ingredient-interpretation and attitude-to set yourself apart.
There’s no denying the attitude of Alanis Morissette. And Mick Jagger became a rock ‘n’ roll legend, not from his skill or tone, but from his balls-to-the-wall delivery. I low much do you mean what you sing, and docs it come across with the right emotion? Usually in the studio one needs to exaggerate the emotion because it gets diluted in the track (lost in the sauce).
The fourth ingredient is, of course, the lyrics, which can move listeners from laughter to tears and back again. Think John Lennon or Bob Dylan, if you’re old enough. Dylan was really all about the words (we know it wasn’t his golden throat)!
PREPARING THE MIX
Often, when I hear demos, I find the vocals to be uninteresting. Not necessarily because of the voice, but because they lack spice, or have too much of the wrong seasoning, or have been reheated too many times. The vocal production itself often needs a little polishing and caressing. Since it is the main focus of most songs, more attention needs to be paid to it. Its not good enough just to record one take of the lead vocal, punch in where you need to, add reverb, and mix. (Sound familiar?) We need a lot more if we want our demos to sound like records.
To get a clear, full-sounding vocal, you need to start with a good condenser mic, connected to a good mic preamp, run through a good compressor. A pop screen will help cut down some sibilance and popping. Don’t use a pop filter tat fits over the mic, because condensation gets trapped inside and you’ll lose some of the clarity. (plus, you can ruin your mic.)
A common problem I see with young engineers is that they crank the mic preamp and then over- compress to compensate for the screaming level. Try not to overload any stage of the signal chain unless that’s the sound you’re going for. Remember, “garbage in, garbage out.”
Many pros spend countless hours in the studio recording a lead vocal part, and with a home studio, you now have that luxury (without the meter running). Here’s a big tip for success: Take care of your singer. Make sure the song’s in the right key. Respect the way he or she needs to record. Depending on the song, so that when you get to the lead vocals, the singer can ad-lib through the chorus. The singer may prefer to record the ad libs after the lead vocal. Every singer is different, and some have completely radical approaches to doing vocals. With that in mind, let’s look at a typical lead vocal session.
STIRRING IT UP
Roxanne is the studio and ready to sing. After settling in, I’ll have her sing the song through a few times to warm up and get comfortable. I’ll always record the first take. Even when I’m just adjusting levels. Once in a while you get some magic that you just can’t recreate. Be careful that the singer doesn’t strain her voice trying to hit some high part at the end of the song. Save that until the rest of the vocals are done. Don’t assume that the singer like hearing reverb in the cans. Some love it, some hate it. Ask.
Next, we’ll try to find the proper voice for the tune. The right attitude, emotion, and character are vitally important. The individual personality has to come across the speakers or it’s just another generic voice.
We’ll concentrate now on the verses. After recording a number of tracks, and punching in where necessary, we’ll go back and listen to a few of the takes and compile, or “comp”, the best lines from each take. I like to line up all the vocal takes in the graphic-editing window of my digital recording software and add a new blank track to comp to. Then I just start cutting and pasting and checking the flow. I don’t worry about volume differences until after it’s all comped. Then I’ll automate the volume to make sure the vocals are all even. I can also shift the vocals so they line up in the track better than the original performance.
We then punch in the lines we didn’t get on any of the takes, or portions that we felt could have been stronger. On some singers or lines, I’ll use DSP software like Antares’ AutoTune. I correct pitches where necessary. Sometimes I’ll only need to shift a note here or there, which I can do with the pitch shift features of Pro Tools or Digital Performer. I keep working until I have a solid, on-pitch, in-time lead vocal. We now have a foundation on which to build.
You might want to have the singer double or triple his or her lead vocal for the entire song. You’ll have to listen closely to the original track, so the singer can match the phrasing. Then blend in the double track at half volume to thicken the original, or keep it at the same volume if you like that sound. This technique sometimes helps smooth out pitch inaccuracies.
At this point (or sometimes before the lead vocal), I like to record the chorus background vocals. If I want big, lush, wide background vocals, I’ll use about 15 to 20 tracks. We’ll spend a lot of time on the first track, making sure we have the right feel, and then we’ll do about five more of the same part. Then we’ll go onto the first harmony and do four to six of those. We’ll move onto the third harmony and do four to six of those. Sometimes we’ll add two whisper tracks, which is the singer whispering the part with no pitch, right up on the mic. Maybe we’ll add a high octave head voice track to blend in and add some color on top, or a fourth harmony on some lines.
When we’re satisfied, I’ll pan the tracks and balance out all the parts. That’s usually when everyone in the room goes “Ahhh sounds nice!” I’ll bounce the vocals down to a stereo pair (sometimes two pairs) and copy and paste them into all the choruses. Sometimes I’ll take a piece of the chorus and try it in the intro somewhere or shift it a few bars or beats. It only takes a few seconds, and you can get surprising results.
How can you do all of this if you only have 24 tracks or less on your recorder, and 20 tracks are already filled? Do a rough 2 track stereo mix of the music for a few bars before and after the chorus. Create a new song, or go to a blank portion of the tape or sequence and paste or record the music onto two tracks. You then have 22 tracks or so for the background vocals. When you’re done, mix the vocals onto two or four tracks and paste them into the original sequence. You’ll probably need to shift them until they feel right in the pocket.
THE SPICE RACK
Let’s add a little spice now. The ingredients you choose to use will depend on the song itself. Here are some ideas to try.
Put some vocals in the intro to set up the song. Sometimes an ad lib will fit just right; or a piece of the chorus or a line from a verse. Experiment. You might try putting a little radio effect on the vocal with a flanger across it.
In the verses you can select a few lines to double and/or harmonize. Since the second verse usually builds a little, you can add some background vocals to answer a line from the lead vocal, or reinforce it. Sometimes a “talking/answer/ad lib” works. You’re adding stuff to make the message clearer and more in your face. You’re making the listeners pay attention.
In classical music, you very often hear variations on a specific theme or melody. By taking this same approach, you can keep the song fresh and interesting. One easy way to do it is to take some of the words of the chorus and rearrange them into a new melody. Follow the same steps above to create a second background vocal part. You can try it after the bridge, make it the bridge, use it in the intro, use it when the chorus repeats, or cut it up; the choice is yours.
Now we have a solid lead vocal and the background vocals in the choruses. We have doubles and/or harmonies in the verses, something for the intro, and maybe a talking part or two. Let’s move on now to ad libs. I can’t tell you how to ad lib, but I can offer a few suggestions for getting some good pieces. If you’re working with a singer who can ad lib easily, just let him or her blow over a few takes. If it’s difficult for the singer to ad lib, try giving him or her a few tracks to play with, and turn the main lead vocals off altogether. Turn the lights off in the vocal booth and dim the lights in the control room. Let the singer get comfortable, and maybe you’ll get a few good lines per take. Select the best ones and paste them where you want them onto a fresh track. If they can’t ad lib but you know another singer who can, ask the singer if they can “feed” you some lines. I’ve seen it done this way many times, and on two occasions, the song went on to sell over a million copies. It’s a legitimate way of doing ad libs.
If you’ve gotten to this stage, congratulations! You’ve made a tasty sauce, stretched out the dough, grated the mozzarella, and you have the olive oil, basil, oregano, and Parmesan cheese standing by. Now you have to mix it and bake it, so that all the flavors melt together.
SHAKE AND BARK
I like to start with the background vocals. I’ll compress them quite a bit, add the appropriate reverb, usually boost the high end to hear more clarity, and add a nice wide stereo chorus (stereo in, stereo out), to which I’ll also add some reverb and sometimes a delay lightly mixed in.
If there are two background vocal parts happening in the same section, I’ll have the main part set as above, and go dryer, narrower, and closer for part two, to create a clear tonal and spatial distance between the two parts. I’ll add a smaller reverb with a short decay time, pan the stereo vocals to 10 and 2 o’clock, and put a little flanger on it. If I have it, I’ll use a RSS (Roland Sound Space), a 3-D simulator of sorts. It takes the source and makes it sound like it’s coming from somewhere other than the speakers. It’s cool for effects, too. You’re trying to create a separation between the two parts so they can occur simultaneously without masking each other.
I’ll usually compress the lead vocals with the best-sounding compressor I have. I’m not looking for compression so much as the coloration you get from good compressors. I’ll boost the high end around 12 – 18 kHz, which adds a nice air on top. I’ll slowly add a narrow, subtle chorus to the point where you can hear it, and then back it off slightly. This adds thickness and makes the vocal more up front. The rest depends on the song, but “appropriate” is the key word here for reverbs and delays. When automating the volume on the lead vocal, it is not imperative to hear every little syllable the singer utters. Words can trail off into the music, and there verbs can blend.
Take a commercially released CD in a style of music similar to yours and A/B your mix against it. Compare how your vocals sit in the track, as well as the high end, the stereo spread, the reverb, etc. You don’t need to match it, but you can hear easily if something is off with your mix and then change it. There’s nothing wrong with a reference point.
As far as other vocal parts go, try different reverbs, delays, effects, radical EQs –anything you can think of to make the vocals sound interesting. Don’t do it all in one song because it can be too distracting, put these things in your spice rack and pull them out when you need them.
A producer once told me that the mark of a great producer is how well they produce vocals. Vocals are the first thing people pay attention to, and can mean the difference between getting an artist or singer signed or not. So don’t skimp on this step of the process. You can’t make a good pizza in an Easy Bake Oven.