Whether you’re about to jump into your first session as the engineer behind the DAW or you’re a seasoned vocal engineer that’s done hundreds or thousands of sessions, there are a handful of best practices to follow when you’re working with vocalists that can lead to infinitely better results.
If you’re in the first category – don’t worry. Nothing on this list requires any experience whatsoever. Seriously. In fact, we’re going to put most of the work on the vocalist for these tips (except for the last one). And the results? They speak for themselves.
Are you ready for some of the simplest dos and don’ts you can start putting into practice today?
DO Have Your Singer Warm Up Before Recording
Just like an athlete spends time warming up before the big game, your vocalist should be doing the same – especially if they’re recording an especially strenuous part.
Proper vocal technique can only go so far on its own. Your singer needs to stretch out their throat muscles and get into a warmed-up state to hit the notes they need to without going in cold. These can be anything from practicing scales to breathing exercises to humming – which happens to be great for breaking up any phlegm in a congested singer’s throat or nasal cavity.
DON’T Waste Their Best Performances on Warmups
While they’re busy warming up, it can also be helpful to take a few short stabs at the various parts of the song, but don’t let them waste their best performance on the warmup.
Some parts require a ton of power and commitment to nail and if your singer happens to go all in before you hit record, you’ll be spending the rest of that session chasing that same high. Let your singers know as they begin warming up that you don’t want them to push more than about 50% into a scream or note on the edge of their range until you’re ready to record. This should keep them feeling comfortable and willing to test the waters while still being conservative with their performance.
And when it’s time to shine, let them give it 110%. Assuming your levels are set correctly, you’ll always be recording when the perfect take comes through!
DO Have Water Available for Your Singer
Forgive the continued analogy, but would you expect a professional athlete to perform their best for a sustained period of time without water? Of course not… and you shouldn’t let it happen to your singer either.
Vocalists move a ton of air through their system as they perform – in some cases more than those athletes do. So naturally, the throat and vocal cords get dry as they’re put through the ringer.
Having plenty of water on hand in the studio is an absolute must for this exact reason. The minute a vocalist begins to feel dehydrated, things go downhill fast. The throat starts to tense up and their vocal cords become stiff, making it harder to hit the notes they know they can.
The struggle associated with that inability turns into anxiety, which results in a less confident singer, or worse – one that starts pushing themselves harder and injuring their vocal cords in the process.
DON’T Chill the Water
As important as water is to have on hand, it should also always be at room temperature – not chilled. Many studios prefer to keep fresh, sealed plastic water bottles around for this reason.
Chilled water actually has a similar effect on the vocal cords as no water at all – when the cold water hits them, they contract and tense up. While this can feel refreshing at first, your singer is going to find their range a bit limited after drinking cold water. Vocal cords are just like any other muscle in the body – as flexible as they can be, cold creates tension and tension reduces that flexibility.
By drinking room temperature water instead, it regulates the temperature of the throat – keeping it at a much more consistent level and providing lubrication at the same time.
TIP: Some singers prefer to have a hot beverage to loosen their throat muscles up before a performance. While tea with lemon or honey is fine, the dairy, sugar, and caffeine in coffee can actually have an adverse effect and dry a singer’s throat out and produce mucus. Stick to tea or water.
DO Test Various Microphones on New Vocalists
We’ve discussed microphone shootouts several other times on the blog, but it’s always worth trying with new singers (or even singers you’ve worked with before when you get a new piece of gear). Pairing a microphone to a vocalist is a very straightforward process that involves having them sing the same part into several microphones, listening to them one-by-one, then choosing the option that best suits the singer’s voice.
DON’T Pick the Best Mic Based on Price
In many cases, microphones that cost just a few hundred dollars beat out multi-thousand-dollar mics, proving that price just shouldn’t matter. Sure – as the studio owner, you’d love for that bigger investment to be the winner, but at the end of the day, it’s all about servicing the song.
You can’t do that by having a bias.
There are vocal staples that are always worth trying like the Shure SM7B and Neumann classics like the U87, U67 & U47 (or clones), if you’ve got access to them. But don’t be afraid to mix things up and try something new. I’ve heard singers use an AKG C414 and sound better than any other mic on the list and I’ve worked with singers where the Shure SM7B is the only choice that fits their voice.
There are no rules when it comes to vocal microphones – go with whatever catches your ear.
DO Create a Fun & Professional Environment
Last but not least – our role as vocal engineer is to provide a fun and professional environment for our vocalists. Creating a space like this opens the singer up and gets them comfortable being natural around you. That’s going to be an absolute must if you’re hoping to get a good performance.
For beginners, this tip just means keeping the session rolling smoothly. A singer doesn’t want to keep getting punched in and out without warning, and if they’re in a booth, they don’t want to feel isolated from what’s going on in the control room.
Communicate. Give them feedback and let them know what you’re doing if there’s a long pause between takes. If you’re going to be a few minutes, invite them to join you in the control room instead of leaving them to feel isolated in a closet.
If you’ve been working as a vocal engineer for a while, this tip should serve as a reminder to you as well to keep your talent comfortable. It’s easy for a singer to feel intimidated when working with a highly credentialed producer or engineer, so bringing yourself back down to earth and making yourself approachable is going to go a long way in getting the performance (I hope it goes without saying but chewing out your artist when they can’t get the take will not).
Getting a great vocal recording is just the start – from there you’ve got comping, tuning, and editing, not to mention the mix…
If the future state of your vocals looks a bit questionable, having some guidance and structure can often be the key in keeping the ball rolling toward a vocal-centric mix. If that’s something you could use some help with, make sure you check out the JST Vocal Mixing Bundle – containing over $1,000 worth of plugins, tutorials, guides, and even personal mix critiques from yours truly to help coach you along as you craft your song.