Recording a Great Vocal Track

theoBuilding an effective vocal track is essential to any recording whether it is a writing demo, a demo intended to showcase an artist, or a finished master. Re-reading the last sentence I realize I’ve stated the painfully obvious, but the truth is that the painfully obvious can become the painfully impossible to accomplish when putting theory into practice. One of the most useful tools in building a great vocal is the instrumental track itself and here are a few tips on how to use it effectively.

Singers can be the laziest of musicians. They have no buttons to push, no keys to depress, no strings to strum and no finger positions to learn. And, in the case of my protege Theo, pictured above, they sometimes learn their craft without the aid of opposing thumbs. They just open their mouths and “Thar she blows!” Singers can hit the ground running whereas instrumentalists have to master a modicum of physical tasks before they can make anything resembling music. Unfortunately, and as is usually the case, the easier it is to get started, the less one is likely to work out the details that result in masterful technique. A reasonably competent singer can hear a melody and recreate it immediately without ever having to learn the rudiments of musical notation. But it’s been my experience that any vocal performance can be improved upon by fine-tuning the grossly ignored apparatus protruding at opposite poles of the cranium known as the ears.

A vocal performance, unless performed a capella, must exist in relation to the instrumental track. In building an arrangement, we normally take great pains to build a track from the bottom up. We align the bass and kick drum parts rhythmically as well as sonically and all the subsequent instrumental parts have unique relationships with the bottom end. Consequently, it makes a lot of sense to make the bottom end the focal point when working on a vocal as well.

Pete Strobl with Nikolaus HarnoncoutWhen I was in school studying voice, I spent days, hours and years learning all the usual technical exercises, sat through hours of students wrestling Italian songs to the ground and reading every book on the “science of singing” that I could get my hands on. Soon I was giving lessons on my own and one day I made a great discovery that had not been addressed in my formal education. I had just moved house and my piano was too horribly out of tune to give a lesson. During my time in Vienna, Nikolaus Harnoncourt had used a small cello to teach us vocal lines. Well, if it was good enough for him, who was I to quibble? The nearest thing at hand was my old Jazz bass so I started to vocalize my student, a competent soprano, using my bass as accompaniment.

I was surprised to find that she had trouble matching pitch with notes played two octaves lower than those to which she was accustomed! Up to that point, I had always played exercises in the same octave they were to be sung but this was really interesting to me. Student after student, I found that singing in relation to the bass was completely out of the comfort zone. Applying this discovery to pop songs, I found a parallel in the songs of Franz Schubert. Schubert often shifted between major and minor keys and sometimes omitted the third of the chord from the accompaniment. This left the singer completely responsible for the quality of the chord. If singers aren’t focused on the bottom end the intonation will suffer.

Many pop vocal tracks are recorded with the aide of guide tracks which lay out the melody. When the guide track is not used, the singer usually relates to piano, strings or perhaps guitar lines that lie in the range of the vocal line. Although reasonably effective on the surface, I don’t think that guide tracks or instrumental cues go far enough in giving the singer a focused image of where to lay the vocal. After all, if you really want to play guitar like Jimi or Eric, listen to them, but study and play close attention to the music and players that influenced them. Applying that same logic, rather than just listening to parts built upon and influenced by the bottom end, why not go to the source and build the vocal on the same foundation.

So, here are some helpful household hints. When I record basic tracks, I always like to have the singer lay a guide track for reference and to give the band some inspiration. And who knows? Sometimes you catch a break and get a performance that turns out to be a keeper. Then, when it’s time to start working on the vocal, I might warm up the singer at the piano just to make some sounds and get comfortable. I might move over to guitar and play either exercises or song fragments to get one foot out of the comfort zone and acclimate the vocalist to something a little different. And finally, without lecture or purpose, I’ll just casually pick up the bass and continue to work in a very relaxed way. Without having to think, the singer has become comfortable singing to a completely new set of references.

When I set up the vocal session, I will start by letting the singer decide what should be in the headphones. I try hard to remove any time constraints or pressure from the session as these always end up costing more time than they are worth. I’ll run the song, always recording, as many times as it takes to get the singer comfortable. And then, when it’s time to go for keepers, I’ll start to thin out the upper instruments. I’ll put the bass up a bit more than what a final mix might be and also get the kick drum in there big and fat.

Getting the bottom end dominant in the cue mix is not a matter of sheer volume. I want the singer to be influenced by the bottom end without having to think. I’ll play with equalizers so the kick is warm and comfortable and not loud and snappy as it might be in a live floor monitor. The idea is to replace the upper register comfort zone with something rhythmically solid yet warm and comfortable. If the upper parts are too prominent, the vocal can get lost in the mix. The usual tactic is to turn up the vocal, then crank up some keyboards for pitch reference, then try to fight through the frequencies and turn up the vocal some more. With the bottom end as the focal point of the cue mix, there is less for the singer to fight through. When the pulse is felt more than heard, the singer will tend to sing more in tune with the foundation of the track.

A welcome side effect is that the vocal will find a more comfortable relationship with the rhythm of the track. When a singer struggles to cop a feel, the result can be close but often uncomfortable. Over-thinking tends to be constrictive to feel. By creating an audio environment in which the vocalist can perform instinctively on a more primal wavelength you may find that the finished vocal performance will even inspire you to revisit some of the upper parts.

To summarize, singers should practice and become accustomed to listening to the bottom end. Singing teachers should address the ears of their students as well as the singing apparatus and spend some time accompanying exercises in lower octaves. And if you are working with a singer at any level of recording, try building the vocal from the bottom up. The results might surprise you.

5 Responses to “Recording a Great Vocal Track”

  • Pieps

    Hey Pete ,

    another cool blog !!! … yeah bass and female vocals is a combination made in heaven ; remember Joni Mitchell with Jaco Pastorius . My trick with recording singers is ; a big table filled with fruit , white wine , salades , tapas , etc. etc. Always works !!! :-)

    HAVE FUN !!! yours Pieps

  • Hey Peatnik

    Loved your Sellaband frontpage article about the human voice as an instrument in its own right that deserves attention to technique.

    Too often vocalists’ status is relegated because we don’t plug in or require batteries 😉

    I agree that the Voice is the most sophisticated instrument around!

  • Hi there,

    This is a very cool and informative post.
    Thanks for sharing

  • great post. You really know what you are talking about, and you write in a way that makes it easy to read.
    You make a strong point here, but i think that most of the professional singer you meet in today’s pop industry couldn’t care less. Their only objective is to sell as many records as they can, and that is usually due to heavy marketing, not the voice of the singer.

  • I have had lots of singin training in the last few months working on diaphramatics and refining my vibrato speed and where im finishing on the wave.. .. I enjoyed this read too . :)

    So having awareness of the bottom end in the instrumentation, keeping that in your minds eye, actually help to perfect the intonation .. cool .. Ya learn something everyday .. :)

    I look forward to trying that in practice.