Crafting superior vocal tracks takes both technical and personal skills

“Vocal production can be one of two things,” says producer, mixer and engineer Fab Dupont. “One is the art of constructing a finished vocal track by getting the best performance and best sound possible. Two is the art of making a singer sound an awful lot better than he or she really is. They’re two different spirits and practices, and you know right away at the beginning of a session which one you’re dealing with.”

Regardless of whether you’re recording a seasoned veteran who can make warriors weep or an enthusiastic newcomer whose technique isn’t fully developed, the art of eliciting the vocal track you need can be tricky and nuanced. But it comes down to one thing, according to Dupont. “The purpose of a vocal session is simple,” he says. “You’re trying to get emotion out of somebody and ensure that emotion transfers through recorded media.”

Having worked with an array of artists like Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah, Brazilian Girls and Les Nubians, Dupont knows a thing or two about creating great vocal tracks, from working with artists to choosing the right mics and laying down the final mix.


How do you coax a great vocal take?

You cannot make somebody sing well on any given day. There are no magic words, tools or techniques. What you can do is make absolutely sure that there is nothing preventing the singer from recording at their best. And after you remove any roadblocks, the most important thing is to create a relationship of trust. To singers, recording is like jumping off a bridge with an elastic rope tied around their leg—and you’re the elastic. You can’t break. Even if you’re working in horrible conditions—say a bad studio with horrible mics—the most important thing between singer and producer is a strong trust.


How do you remove roadblocks?

A big thing is knowing what mics and preamps sound best on what types of voices. If you’re working with a bright female voice, don’t select a bright microphone. If you have a guy who stares at his shoes and mutters, you need a mic that’s going to open up his sound and catch everything he does. The right mic makes a world of difference. Also, know the person you’re recording. If the singer is shy, get everybody out of the control room. If the singer has a big ego, get 10 people in there who will all say how great the vocals sound. If the singer takes off his or her shoes right away to get connected to the earth, turn out the lights and bring in candles. Get in sync with the personality of the singer, make the singer feel comfortable and supported.


What about singers who need help?

For those who can’t sing well but can emote and communicate well and have something special to say, then removing roadblocks is even more important. You may end up with 100 takes of the same verse and have to comp them together word by word. Because of that, it’s important to have a very consistent sound across takes.


Best ways to get that sound?

Start by putting a mark on the floor so the singer knows where to stand in relation to the mic. Give them a rigid, metal pop filter and tell them to keep their nose on it. I also record vocal tracks in sections. If you do 150 takes of one verse and then go back to another, it’s not going to sound the same—their voice will be tired and have a different tone than at the beginning of the session. Organize your session so you get a consistent vocal sound across each verse or chorus.


How do you comp vocals?

I recommend comping as you go. I make a grid, almost like a spreadsheet on the lyric sheet for the song, and note the take that was good for a certain word or phrase. You have to be very present and listen hard to tell which takes work and which don’t. That document will make creating quick comp much easier. After that, it’s important to be very, very good at Melodyne or Auto-Tune, which are the two software options for pitch fixing.


What are some vocal tuning essentials to consider?

Tune only the parts that need it, the notes that are so off they make you shudder. It’s difficult to consign yourself to tuning a couple notes per song. It can be a very slippery slope where you fix one high note, then go back and hear that the pickup to the first phrase is a little under—and by the end of the day, you’ve tuned the life out of what was already a perfectly fine performance. Also, be careful about breaths. You can’t tune a breath, so if you select an entire track and tune it, the breathing will sound processed, and that’s a telltale sign you’ve been playing with the pitch.


What should a singer be hearing?

Make sure that the rough mix of the track he or she is singing to sounds as close to a finished record as possible—so make sure that you have the original multitrack session, and not just a two-track mixdown. That way if the singer wants to hear more bass and less drums, you can adjust.


Can you get good results recording multiple singers at once?

When I was working with Les Nubians, we tracked a lot of vocals with the two girls singing at the same time. I put a dividing wall between them with a mic on each side so I had full separation between the vocals—and they sang their verses and harmonies together. That sounds much more natural than recording a live take, and the other trying to overdub and match it. There’s something magical about two singers recording live at once. It was also great because they were able to write their parts and exchange ideas in real time.


What if both singers aren’t available?

I worked with Shakira and a great African band called Freshlyground on the song “Waka Waka.” It was a duet, and my role was to take Shakira’s recorded vocals and produce the vocal part sung by Zolani Mahola from Freshlyground. Originally, we went through several mics and preamps to find a tone that matched Shakira’s tracks. Later Sony requested a remix and we needed more vocals, but Zolani wasn’t in New York. I ended up doing a remote production session—I was in New York producing Zolani, who was in Johannesburg, over Skype.


Who have been some of your favorite singers to produce?

Cyrille Aimée, Sofia Rei and Will Knox are unbelievable and they deliver the best vocals. They’re on another level and they’re going to be superstars. Chester Gregory is a Broadway star who also has a career as an R&B singer. He’s a machine when it comes to recording. He’s in tune and in the pocket—three takes and we move on. I’m the luckiest human being alive to be able to work with singers like those.

–Michael Gallant

comment closed

Copyright © 2012 M Music & Musicians Magazine ·