Producing Vocals

As a producer, I produce vocals. I can tell you that no matter the vocalist or the vocalist’s degree of expertise, there is always room for improvement. It could be a tiny change in the melody or perhaps the phrasing of certain lyrics. It might be a change in the lyric itself, since some words sound more awkward and less musical.

I’m always on alert for a hard consonant sound in the wrong place or an over-emphasized plosive. Excessive emphasis on t or s can necessitate moving the mic, changing mic/preamp, or using a pop filter. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of turning the mic capsule off axis—troublesome sounds vanish. But that angled mic may sacrifice a little low and low-mid frequency content. The pop filter can take away sibilant richness. It’s kind of like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Fortunately, at certain points I can take care of things with a little EQ.

Most of my work involves vocalists themselves, not the signal chain. As a producer, I have to keep in mind that the vocal performance can move the listener. And while I can repair tuning, adjust time problems, and tweak the phrasing, I can’t add emotion. That has to come from the singer.

Even seasoned singers have problems. For example, sometimes if the singer has performed a song countless times before the recording, the spontaneity is lacking. The vocals become lifeless, lacking in energy, and automatic. The key here is for me to get the vocalist to revert back to the lyrics, to the message and emotion intended by the writer. The singer will pick up on this and will more emphatically address the crux of the song. If the new version, however, is more energetic, I may have other aspects to deal with. For example, the singer may need to control breath in a different manner to accommodate a more forceful and committed performance.

Griffin’s Anatomy, Harnessing those Horses, those Voices…

What I term the “head voice” embodies falsetto range, a nasal quality, or variations of these. The “chest voice” represents the deeper tone. The diaphragm is the engine that pushes the voice outwards and upwards from the stomach. My job is dealing with these aspects and combining them. For example, a smattering of head voice and nasality could mean the next big R&B voice. I have to watch for the singer who is married to a rigid combination of these physical/sonic attributes lest he or she becomes a one trick pony.

Fortunately, each of us has many useful singing voices. Most decent singers incorporate a half a dozen or more of these voices in a single performance. By quietly manipulating these voices, I can help bring a song to life.

Stand tall: posture is relevant. The standing singer represents the vertical alignment of lips, throat, chest cavity, stomach, diaphragm—think of a straight pipe that allows a clear a passage from which the voice emerges.

Press Record for Eternity

After vocal pre-production, the vocalist may take time out to become comfortable with any changes. Suitably prepared, they return to deliver a track. It’s always a good idea to have the mic set up for their first stab at it. Sometimes the magic lies in the first take.

Sometimes fear is the biggest barrier. But the sky won’t fall down due to a bad note. The internal questioning, such as what will others think of my performance? is ego-based. My advice to vocalists is this: If you’re doing your best job, accept the result. But fear can haunt even the most prepared, rehearsed vocalist. We all succumb to it to some degree because we recognize the importance of a good performance on a CD. The words phrase “record a performance on CD” is so permanent and final. In some respects, digital piracy and sharing recordings render our results more permanent, more universal, more widely evaluated. Long after we’re dead, our work will be discovered by new generations of listeners. Perhaps in the far distant future, long forgotten artists will reemerge and enjoy notoriety and fame that eluded them in life. I have to wonder if someone will have figured out how to track down and pay the artists’ descendants.

So let’s strap on our best ears, face the fear, and, above all, have fun.

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