Getting a great vocal take involves both technical and personal skills

“THAT’S A LITTLE OFF-PITCH.” “STAND up straight.” “Don’t cut the phrase here, try it there.” “Remember to breathe!” It actually takes a lot of coaching, encouragement and collaboration to make the most of one’s “natural” instrument. To better understand working with singers in the studio, we consulted Raz Kennedy, who has recorded backing vocals for artists such as Al Jarreau and Whitney Houston while also working as a vocal coach with acts ranging from Metallica to Hilary Duff; and Fantasy Studios recording engineer Jesse Nichols, who has worked with the likes of Sarah McLachlan and the White Stripes. They spoke with us about the psychology and technology involved in capturing a great vocal take.

How do you keep a singer from getting psyched out?

KENNEDY: That’s a good question, because singers are perhaps the most eccentric among all musicians. It’s all too easy to get a singer out of the zone. The main thing is to get the singer in touch with the emotional intent behind what they’re saying. Get them into the storytelling. Singing is really nothing more than ornate speech. The music itself offers a great deal that the singer can use as a reference to inform how to render the performance. When more technical things have to be addressed, I’ll move into that territory. I try to help singers see how the technique is in accordance with what’s going on with the emotion. The emotion is where you begin, and then the technique gives you a means to get that out more clearly.

NICHOLS: It’s hard for an engineer to concentrate on the emotion of a take at the same time you’re listening to the technical side. You need an extra set of ears—if not a producer, another musician they trust. I think it’s better with a producer, because the producer is usually someone who has been to the rehearsals and gets the vibe of the project. I’m there to make it sound good but a lot of times they don’t even know what they’re going for.

What do singers need to hear in the headphones?

KENNEDY: Singers have to be able to hear themselves very clearly. Sometimes it might mean taking one ear off. Sometimes it’s just a question of bringing up the vocal in the mix. For some, it’s very important to hear the drumbeat because it’s easier to arrive at the phrasing as a dialogue with the rhythm track. Others might want to hear piano to help them with the pitch. You give the singers what they need so that they can perform without working too hard.

Does reverb help or hurt a recording vocalist?

NICHOLS: Most like a little bit of reverb, and I usually give the vocalists their own channel on their own mixer so they can turn themselves up or down. At the beginning of the session it can be a bit confusing for people who aren’t used to working with mixers, but it quickly becomes a good thing. They like what they’re hearing, so they sing better. I wouldn’t recommend heavily effecting anything, because if you add a lot of echo and delay it has the potential to change the performance. But a little sounds cool. It won’t be dry when you’re mixing, so it gives you a better sense of what it’s going to sound like later.

KENNEDY: My preference is to just record without any processing whatsoever. If they want a little bit of reverb or a little bit of delay I’ll give them that. I like to hear it really simple, really clean, without a lot of processing. That way I’m more certain about the performance being right.

How do you approach doubling vocals?

KENNEDY: What’s got to happen first and foremost is the phrasing. You’re doing the double right on top, and the rhythm and phrasing has to be really accurate. When someone is singing that initial part, maybe they’re freestyle singing it but when you’re doing the double you analyze how it was phrased. You really break it down and figure out the subdivisions. Then you can go back in and double it with an understanding of the part, rhythmically speaking. I find that when you do that the intonation takes shape more easily.

NICHOLS: A lot of that falls on the experience of the singer. Some people are really good at doubling, to the point where you can hardly tell that they doubled it. Stevie Wonder is notoriously good—you really have to listen closely for a double because it’s so spot-on. Others just can’t do it; the S’s are in different places and some are longer than the others. Sometimes that sounds kind of cool. If it’s a pop record, it’s probably not going to fly but on a rock record it can be cool if it’s a little smeary.

Are artists using pitch correction as a crutch these days?

NICHOLS: I’ve heard of people actually tracking with Auto-Tune on. I don’t understand the point of it. I suppose if you’re going to tune the hell out of it later then it doesn’t even matter. Maybe it’s the producers or the record label execs but it’s become part of the game. I’ve worked on projects where people have been tuning vocals and it’s hush-hush, like, “Don’t tell the band.”

They’re tuning behind the singer’s back?

NICHOLS: That’s happened before. I’m not naming names but I have witnessed a lot of tinkering behind the scenes. At that point in the project it was supposed to stay behind the scenes. I’m sure at some point the truth made itself known.

KENNEDY: I use pitch correction as a kind of final veneer. The singer has got to come in and really perform the piece well, both emotionally and interpretively. If a part goes a little off intonation-wise, and you go in and use it for some slight discrepancy, then you still have a performance that’s alive and has real expression and energy. When you use pitch correction on a part that’s devoid of all of that then it’s in tune, but it has no excitement and intensity. If you pitch-correct something and the intention wasn’t there to get it in tune at the time of the recording, it has no soul, no vitality. It’s very important to me to have the singer come in and really nail the part.

Is pitch correction just a way of life now?

KENNEDY: It’s gotten to the point now where artists will indicate in the liner notes that, “There’s no pitch correction on this record.” It is so prevalent that most everything has it, and artists have to say, “We’re not using it. What you’re hearing is real.” (laughs) I know that on Lalah Hathaway’s last record she had that in the notes on the sleeve. I’ve seen that on a number of records. The “studio sound” has got a certain flavor now. I think people have gotten used to hearing a certain sound and our ears are tuned to hear things from a specific point of view. There was a time when the piano was invented and everyone said, “What about the harpsichord? What are we going to do now?” Technology keeps moving forward but it requires artists to take whatever it is and speak from the heart, making music that moves people emotionally. I’m not afraid of the technology. As long as it moves me, it’s cool. You can hear stuff out there that’s just mechanical and formulaic, and you can hear records made with the exact same technology and they’re gorgeous.

NICHOLS: I’d like to think bands like Wilco aren’t using pitch correction. I can’t really hear it if they are. But a lot of pop and rock is so tuned I don’t think they’re even trying to hide it anymore. I’m waiting for the backlash. I think everyone is sick of that sound, and hopefully we’ll start to hear some flat notes again. Because it sounds good, you know.

– Michael Gallant and Dave Jones

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