Why Your First Vocal Take Might Be Your Best

2013 Jan 21, 2013

There’s something magical about the first vocal take in the studio. Not necessarily for everyone, but time and time again it seems that first pass of singing the vocals is the one that captures a freshness and energy that seems spontaneous and real. It’s not overly rehearsed or meticulously calculated. It’s also generally not perfect, but that’s part of the vibe.

Via eyeliam Flickr

You Just Can’t Replicate It

I bring this up only because it’s worth keeping in the back of your mind that even if you lay down 2 or 3 other vocal takes, that first pass might possess something you just won’t ever get again. In fact, I read in a recent interview that Christ Cornell of Soundgarden (one of my all time favorite bands) has had many first take “demos” make the final cut for his vocals on multiple albums.

There’s often a spark to a demo, to the first time I sing something, where I’m literally reading the lyrics off a piece of paper cause I just wrote it. I don’t know what the phrasing is or what the melody exactly is yet. It’s happening in the moment and I’m demoing it then I discover it.

I’ve beat my head against the wall many times where I did a demo at home, obviously not well recorded, but there’s something about it that I just can’t replicate no matter what I do or where I’m recording or who is engineering or what mic I am singing into. – Chris Cornell, Singer/Songwriter/Guitarist (Soundgarden, Audioslave)

Because of the great performances he was getting at home, Cornell got serious about recording so he could track his vocals in his home studio. In fact all of his vocals for their latest album King Animal were tracked entirely on his Logic rig at home.

More Than Just Singing On Pitch

A great vocal performance is so much more than being able to sing on pitch (and in time, mind you). It’s about capturing energy, emotion, and creating a connection with the audience.  This “magic” of recording is simply something that you can’t fix with a plugin later. It’s that critical. So, as Cornell has figured out, it’s imperative to you do whatever it takes to create an inspiring environment for your vocal tracking sessions.

When tracking vocals in my studio, I like to set up my mic, find an appropriate gain level on the preamp, grab a cup of coffee and maybe even turn down the lights to set the mood. (Yes, I just said “set the mood” on a recording blog.) I want to be comfortable and ready to go both technically and practically so that my first pass could actually be a keeper. What good is it to record an amazing first take but you’re clipping the preamp or you need a glass of water?

Promise Me You Won’t Delete That First Take

However you prefer to record vocals in your studio, promise me one thing: that you won’t ever delete that very first vocal take. You never know what moments on your first pass through a song will be gold. Keep it as a playlist or “take” and move on. Then when it comes time to comp together your masterpiece vocal, take your time to sift through that first take.

If you have two takes of a line and one is more on pitch but the other has more vibe, go with the vibey one. You can always pitch correct the vocal later, it’s not cheating. Listeners want to connect with a real person. They want an authentic performance. Typically your first take has that air of authenticity and slight imperfection. It might be worth keeping it around.

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