What is it about the studio that makes vocalists and singers get all weird? You can have a perfectly good singer in “real life”, but when put under the light of the record button, headphones on and all, he or she delivers a forced performance lacking any real character.
There is a way, though, to help record natural sounding vocals (whether an artist’s or your own) in the not so natural studio environment.
Via Eduardo Santos Flickr
Let Them Actually Sing The Song
Just last week, Joe Gilder and I were discussing this very issue on the Simply Recording Podcast. We were sharing our favorite vocal recording techniques and I mentioned that the best way I’ve found to get a natural and dynamic vocal performance is to let the vocalist actually sing through the entire song without stopping. No punching in, no pre-roll. Just hitting the record button and letting them rip.
What happens is the singer feels more comfortable because he or she knows the song as an actual song, not in small chunks, and they get an opportunity to relax without being interrupted every few bars for a punch in. They settle in, close their eyes, and start to sing. If you’re smart you let them do a warm up run of the song (again, start to finish) so you can get levels and tighten up their headphone mix. (You’re recording that warm up right?!). At that point they are ready to go and you can simply grab 2 or 3 actual takes of the entire song.
You Get The Intangibles This Way
The other huge benefit of recording this way is that you enable the vocalist to deliver his or her natural dynamics and emotions of the song as each verse leads into each chorus, or the bridge, etc. The energy and slight variance in inflection and and tone is so subtle but comes only from a singer leading into another section.
You can always tune, tighten, or paste over a vocal line later, but there is absolutely no plugin on the market that can infuse vibe and passion into a vocal track after the fact. Sure the best of the best vocalists can do a good job of maintaining that magical quality when asked to punch in and out, but let’s be honest, most of us can’t. So why not let a singer do what is natural, and sing it through till the end. You’ll be capturing an actual performance. What a a concept!
“Punching In” After The Singer Is Gone
If you record this way (whole takes at a time) and keep each take, then you still have the luxury of comping together a perfect take later in the editing stages. I think of this as punching in after the singer has already left the studio. You don’t have to settle for one of the whole takes, you can pick and choose the best of each performance.
I do this all the time, track a warm up take, and then 2 to 3 actual takes. From there I’ll identify the most solid overall take (vibe, timing, tuning, clarity, etc) and then fill in the gaps where needed from the other takes. Sometimes a singer simply does something mind blowing in the middle of one OK take. Find it, and paste it over on the better take. You just found gold my friend!
Creating A Natural Environment
In the end, I think the more natural and comfortable the environment is for the singer, the better the recording you’re going to get. This includes everything from the actual look and feel of the room, to the headphone mix, to the workflow you implment as an engineer.
You have the ability to either ignite the singer’s best performance or snuff it out with clumsy production workflow. Try to create a natural environment (for the artist, not just you) and you’ll be pleased with the results you get.