Recording Studio 101: Preparing the Vocals

Last month we took a look at the do’s and don’ts of preparing your band for the recording studio. But before we press the record button let’s talk about preparing the vocals.

Recording vocals for me personally is always hit or miss. Some days you sing great and some days you feeling like a first day reject for American Idol. You want to try to be consistent and prepared so I’ve got my own routine for practicing my vocals so that when the day comes I’ll be ready to go!

#1 Assuming that you will be tracking all the basic tracks in one day and cutting the vocals at some other time, have the recording engineer make you a copy of the song without the scratch vocal. This is sort of like a karaoke version of your song. Now in Los Angeles we do a lot of driving so this is a perfect opportunity for me to get some practice in! I simply play the CD over and over again while I’m driving and practice singing over the track. You’d be surprised how many times you can sing a four minute song in the space of a daily drive! Now incase you don’t drive or don’t spend a lot of time in the car do the same routine but around the house. The point is you want to get comfortable singing to the track so when the day comes you are somewhat prepared. Additionally, I make notes of any good ideas of a particular way of singing the tracks as to remember. Heck, if it’s a great idea and I really don’t want to forget it I’ll sing it into the voice memo feature of my cell phone! (Furthermore, I do this routine while listening to mixes as well but more on that later!)

#2 Now, while you at it, try to memorize the lyrics! Okay – I know this might sound crazy but I’ve had more then one singer try to record their vocal track while reading the lyric sheet. I don’t recommend this – not only is it distracting but it takes away from the performance. If anything you should have the lyric sheet there as a guide and nothing else.

#3 Partying the night before is probably not advisable. You want your voice to be in the best shape it can be in – remember that the vocals are probably the most important part of making a good recording. Folks can sometimes overlook deficient guitars, bass and/or drums but it’s been my experience that if the vocal is sub par then folks will regard it as “demo” quality. Okay – so I know what you’re going to say next, “I know this guy who could gargle razor blades, drink whiskey all night and sing great the next day”. I know those guys too and like most anomalies they are very few and far between. Not only do you want to take care of your voice but you don’t want you nose to be stuffy. I know myself that when I have a beer the night before it tends to swell the passages in my nose which in turn makes it almost impossible to sing without the nasally sound.

Pushing the red button!

Different producers have different ways of recording vocals. There is no right or wrong way and sometimes you can use a combination of the two. My preferred way is to have the singer warm up by signing through the song a few times. This gives me the opportunity to dial in the pre-amp, compressor and overall mix. Then we start tracking “for keeps” and stack up four or five complete performances. I’ll pay attention to certain areas to make sure that I have the whole song covered. If all goes well then I’ll “comp” a complete track out of the five. Comping a track means basically going line through line picking out the best parts then copy and paste them to a new vocal track. This technique usually yields good results because the performance sounds natural.

The other method would be to be to sing the song all the way through. Then listen to the track and “punch” in and redo a word or phrase. The only problem I have with this technique is sometimes the punched vocal doesn’t match the original performance. Additionally I think that sometimes it can wear your voice out faster singing lines over and over again.

Auto Tune!

Okay so there’s an effect called Auto tune which can “tune” vocals as well as other instruments. I’m sure everyone’s heard some recording with auto tune applied. I look at auto tune like using a fire extinguisher – it should be only used in emergencies! I’m not saying that it’s bad to use but if you can nail the vocal without the auto tune then strive for the best vocal you can! Let’s face it you there to sing and perhaps do this for a living – if that recording doesn’t represent what you can perform live – then it might come back to haunt you!

Which mic to use?

What about if you’re recording at your home studio and you want to track vocals – what type of microphone should you use? Well microphones are like guitars in the sense that sometimes a less expensive mic can do the job. It’s not always true that an expensive mic will mix and sound well with your voice. I’ve recorded a bunch with the Shure SM7 and I’ve been pleased with the results. However there is a good selection of good mid level priced condenser mic’s that didn’t exist 5 years ago. Read as much as you can and ask what other producers/songwriters are using. Some mic manufactures offer a trial bases where you can try it and exchange it if you don’t like it. You might try renting a mic for the day or over the weekend. That way you can see what works and you can also rent mic’s that would be out of your price range to purchase.