Recording Vocals :&: Vocal Production

Recording Vocals :&: Vocal Production

I’m in the process of creating a YouTube series on my style of vocal production. Part 1 was shot with my iPhone from inside the Pie and Tart Shop vocal booth. Part 2 is in process, and it would be done if I had more video tutorial making skills, but alas. Luckily I’m pretty sure that I’m better at producing vocals than I am at making tutorials about it.

Here’s my take on the technical side:

1. Understanding the instrument :: Although I no longer consider myself a singer, I did study voice with Mark Baxter, Elizabeth Sabine, Rosemary Butler, and eccentric Boston legend Dante Pavone. I have a solid understanding of the mechanics of the voice. The human voice is a complex and mysterious ‘musical instrument’ and in the studio a vocalist needs someone who understands the care and nurturing of that instrument. Higher budget projects may employ a dedicated vocal therapist or specialist, but every lead singer needs informed feedback in the studio regardless of budget.

2. Having an ear :: A producer must have perfect pitch, or relative perfect pitch. With a talented vocalist, real time accurate feedback from an engaged producer can lessen the need for tuning in the mix.

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3. Flow :: There are times to push for that additional take, and there are times to stop. There are also times when the performance just isn’t going to happen, and the best plan is to come back tomorrow. When a project has a set budget, it’s important to have a plan B, just in case the vocal session is not going to happen. Physical issues, emotional issues all play into the vocal performance. Capturing a compelling performance is the elephant in the room. If we can’t capture a magical performance at today’s session, we will tomorrow.

4. Support :: I know that the worst thing a vocalist can hear on her headphones at the end of a challenging take is nothing! Feedback is key.

And there I go… I started out talking about the technical and quickly veered off into the more esoteric. Which reminds me of a job I once had.

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Quite a few years ago, I played Texas Hold Em poker for a living. It was long before the poker TV shows. Let me categorically state that it was not a very fulfilling job.

That said, I learned a lot about life at the poker table. I learned that thinking is the enemy. If I could get out of my head, and step back from the hand I was betting on, I could intuit exactly what my opponent had. Then, if I continued to stay in the flow, I could act accordingly: Raise, check, bet, fold. It was all pretty straight forward, because the goal was to get the chips (like the one above).

Recording and Producing Vocals is not quite as straight forward as a Texas HoldEm game, but the principal is the same. The goal is to shut off all internal conversations. Immerse yourself in the music, and let the river flow. Stand at the bank, close your eyes, and let the water take you away.

Songwriting

Writing Songs (the songwriter FAQ)

I started writing songs in 1996. It was more cathartic than anything else, as I’d had some life experiences that I needed to work through. My first batch of songs became my somewhat quirky release “Wrong Side of My Life”. The songs certainly weren’t destined for the mainstream, but definitely made me feel better.

At the time I was playing tons of roadhouse gigs around New England and New York. In ‘97 and ‘98 I played well over 400 shows. After the record was released (ie, sold off the bandstand and through my website), there were new people showing up at the gigs and I started noticing new faces who were singing along with the lyrics. The record was largely quite personal, and I considered anyone who connected with the songs to that extent to be a brother (or sister). They would have had to have walked in my shoes in some way, I felt. It was awesome and it energized me to write more. (more…)

Production

Music Production FAQ (wherin I attempt to describe the indescribable)

What does a music producer do?
This might be the toughest question to answer. The title “Producer” describes a wide range of functions in the recording process. Really, on one end of the spectrum, the producer may simply be the person who writes a check to pay for the recording. On the other end of the spectrum is the producer who auditions and assembles a band, writes the songs, oversees the recording process, and owns essentially everything. The artists are simply hired help.

My personal definition lies somewhere in the middle. Brilliant artists have a vision. They know what they want to say, and they know how they want to say it. But, artists are obsessive, and it is obsession that drives the artistic process. It is obsession that keeps you up all night practicing guitar and it’s obsession that pushes you to write and rewrite a powerful song. It’s also obsession that nags you to answer a text in the midst of a session, and obsession that fuels the popularity of countless episodes of vapid reality TV. (more…)

Mixing Services

Music Mixing FAQ (More descriptions of the indescribable, for your entertainment.)

I love to mix, and if what follows resonates, I’d be happy to consider mixing your project.

1. When I accept a project to mix, I take it seriously. There are no throw away projects, and I’ll treat your mix as seriously as I’d treat a remix of The Beatles, or being asked to mix Adele.

2. I will bring a fresh perspective to the mix. As I see it, there is no such thing as “one size fits all”. Your project is unique, and it should sound that way.

3. You are welcome to stay involved. While many mixers work alone, I welcome your involvement, presence, and/or input. My only request is that there be one unified voice to give me that input. Mixing by committee will never yield positive results.

4. I’ll work with artists from anywhere in the known universe (and beyond). In the past year I’ve mixed for clients from as far from L.A. as South India and Australia. On a space station? As long as you’ve got decent upload/download speed and have recorded some great music, let’s talk.

5. There is no limit to the revisions I will provide. I typically work and charge by the day. I find that this arrangement gives you optimal control of your mix, and your mix budget. The mixes can be broad strokes, or ultra detail oriented. I can also provide a per track quote. The quote is based on the complexity of the project and assumes that the project is mix engineer ready. If tuning or editing is needed, we can provide that, but there is an extra cost.

I’ve been learning my craft in the digital age. The tools I use continue to evolve, as technology advances and shifts. Currently, my default mix setup utilizes the following:

I mix using a combination of analog and digital gear. My default DAW is Pro Tools HD. I have an HD-3 Accel system, and use Apogee 16X D/A & A/D converters.

I sum my mixes outside of the computer, and use an Inward Connections summing box. I find that adding this analog link to the mix chain opens up the mix considerably. There may come a day when totally ‘in the box’ mixes sound as good as those that use an analog console, or summing box, but I don’t think we’re close yet.

While I have a rainbow selection of plug ins and virtual instruments that I use and deeply understand, I also rely on outboard compressors and EQ. I find that there is nothing like outboard processing to really make the vocal sit right in the mix. Many of my clients find their way to me because of the quality of the vocals and vocalists that I’ve recorded. I’m always refining, and experimenting with new techniques with the goal of always making the next mix my best mix ever.

Ultimately, though, all of this comes down to relationships. I need to be able to listen, not only to the music that’s coming through my monitors, but more importantly, to my clients. I take that communication very seriously, and promise to do my best to understand exactly what each artist is looking for. I am lucky and blessed today,  the majority of my work is for repeat clients.

My goal is not only that you leave happy, but I want you to love the mix we created today, next week, next year, and into the future.

Vocals

Many of the artists I work with contact me because of the vocal performances I’ve captured in various records. Let’s be frank, capturing a compelling and engaging lead vocal is the single most important ingredient of any recording.

For the artist, recording vocals is a rich gumbo of anxiety and joy simmered in the reality of physical demands placed on the tiny muscles known as vocal chords.

The producer has to embrace a prime directive. The imperative is to set aside ego, preconceptions, and judgement, and help the artist GET that PERFORMANCE. Yes, we may equally assume the roles of Mad Scientist, Therapist, and Best Friend in the process.

My perception is that there are two elements that must be carefully balanced: The Heart and The Head.

The Heart is the intangible. What will help facilitate a great performance? The lighting of the room, fresh water, thoughtful feedback, the right time of day, patience, or even silence, each of these can be the key.

The Head is the technical side. Choosing the right microphone(s), preamp, compressor to capture the recording. Editing, Comping, EQing, and also Tuning, are just the beginning elements that make the vocal sound great in the final mix.

As this FAQ evolves, I’ll discuss these two elements in detail. Stay tuned.