Sing, Sing a Song
Recording Inexperienced Singers
By Frank Gryner (as published in Recording Magazine)
Sesame Street Cred
Some of the best advice can come from the most unlikely places, but I think it’s ironic when the direction we need has been under our noses the whole time. Like a lot of people, when I was a kid, Sesame Street introduced me to the song “Sing” which was also a big hit for the Carpenters in 1973. These days the message of this song may seem naïve and simplistic, but when superimposed over our goal for nabbing better vocals, there is something to be said for off-loading most of what we think we know and revert to a more child-like, innocent approach. With the help of Joe Raposo’s very familiar lyrics, I will guide us through the often daunting task of recording singers who may be shy on studio experience and high on nothing more than enthusiasm.
Sing Out Loud, Sing Out Strong
Confidence is essential. For even the most veteran session singers, the human voice can be such an unpredictable instrument, so for those without the experience it’s not hard to image that the pressure brought on by that little red light will do anything but make them crumble. It’s your job to make sure that this does not happen. You’re responsible for creating an environment that is conducive to a singer’s best performance. This may require a field trip out of YOUR comfort zone. If a singer is going to be more comfortable somewhere else, then that’s a good place to set up and record there. My laptop, an M-Box, a decent condenser mic and my trusty SE Electronic Reflexion Filter have recorded in rehearsal halls, penthouse apartments and may other less-than-ideal recording spaces. In most cases the biggest challenge here is to control the ambient noise that typically surrounds a non-studio environment. The Reflexion Filter gets you most of the way there, but drawing curtains, positioning the microphone off axis from unavoidable traffic noise or electronic fan hum is essential in pulling off pro results. Remember that it’s more important to capture a great performance than it be sonically convenient for you.
Sing of Good Things Not Bad
Regardless of the song’s subject matter, the song YOU need to be singing should be one of encouragement. If you come off as a judgmental tyrant you will never get the vocal you’re looking for. Producers who work with session musicians are used to barking out orders and getting results. This approach with a studio newbie will most definitely end in disaster. Most singers can pretty much give you something one way—the way they rehearsed it. If you suspect that the vocal direction of a song needs a radical overhaul, then the recording session is not the place to work through it. It’s more than finding tactful ways to communicate to a singer; it’s all about building a rapport that will allow them to feel like you are on their side, even when things aren’t going so well.
Make it Simple…
Recording can get complicated, but it shouldn’t be for the singer. Their job is simple: sing the best they can. Your job is to insulate all of the technology from the performer. Monitoring may be one of the few places where the technology of recording and the singer’s performance collide. Singing properly while wearing headphones is an acquired skill, one that your singer may not have mastered. A lot of vocalists have trouble finding their pitch orientation with them on—even with pulling one earphone off. Again, your sonic convenience will have to take a back seat to the comfort of your singer …so can the cans. My friend and recording guru Greg Harvey reminded me of a cool trick that I think is one of the best alternatives to headgear. Have the artist sing in front of the speakers, then record a pass with them in the same position but not singing. Invert the phase on this track and bounce it with the recorded vocal track to eliminate virtually all the bleed.
Also, building an ideal monitor mix for a singer is much different than what would go into a final mix. Not only should the blend be inspiring to sing against, but the elements that provide the most accurate pitch and timing references must be highlighted. Panning these instruments may provide some added separation that may be helpful as well. Pay special attention to carving out a nice place where the vocal can sit and won’t compete against other sounds in the mix, otherwise you may be entertaining requests to turn up the vocal track to excessive levels.
…to Last a Whole Life Long
As if there wasn’t enough pressure, it’s probably not a good idea to highlight that the recording that you’re about to make will most likely out-live you and your singer…but you should keep that in mind. There is a responsibility to capture the definitive version of the song that you’re recording. If a singer’s inexperience threatens the potential life span of the song, you must find creative ways to work around the obstacles. This “magical take” may not happen on the day that you’ve scheduled for vocals, but if you prioritized singing with attitude over technical precision, you can edit and tune problematic sections into a compelling vocal track. I find that playing back your Frankensteined vocal to a beginning singer can act as a guide and inspire a re-singing session that will ultimately yield a better vocal track naturally. Also, you’ll find that after being left with the task of piecing a problematic vocal together, you’ll intimately know what you should be more focused on the next time you track his or her vocals.
Don’t Worry That It’s Not Good Enough…
Well, you should be…but that can’t be something the singer should be fixated on. In fact, singers should be encouraged to immerse themselves in the subject matter and the vibe of the song. Initially your judgment over what is good enough should probably be kept to yourself while you’re recording complete end to end vocal takes. You can focus on some troublesome areas after you’ve captured these genuinely performed passes. Your time is really limited with singers who are unaccustomed to recording. You may only get five or six usable passes to edit together to one “super” vocal after the session. Being cognizant of the rise and decline of a singer’s performance is important so that you don’t burn their voice out before being able to pick up a few punch ins on areas that may need some dedicated attention.
It’s easy to get caught up in making gear more important than the very music that you’re trying to improve by acquiring it in the first place. At its most basic level, most songs can be boiled down to a melody and its lyrics. Children don’t need a fully equipped recording studio to express themselves through song, and we can certainly learn something from this innocence. While you still may not feel entirely comfortable with taking in recording advice dispensed from puppets or 70’s-era easy listening lyrics, there is some merit to taking a few steps back and re-thinking the way we approach the most important element of the song. Maybe next time Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” can talk us through parallel compression or multiband dynamics.