The Two Sides of Vocal Recording
There are two sides to vocal recording: the singer’s performance and the technical production. The choice of recording gear and technical set-up joins the two sides together. If you add musical arrangement, instrumentation and post-production that are all conceived to support the singer and the song message––voilà! You have a final result that can be truly exciting.
To help the singer capture the most outstanding vocal performance possible, each element of the vocal signal chain or pathway must be uniquely chosen and matched to the specific attributes of the singer. This signal path typically includes: type of mic and headphones, type of preamp and setting, make and model of compressor (some are smoother and less obtrusive than others), the EQ, the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, a type of recording software such as Logic or Pro Tools). Even the type of cables, such as those made by Blue or Monster, can make a difference in the sound.
Prior to entering the studio, singers have enough to deal with just practicing and developing their song performances without also having to get trained in the technology of vocal recording and studio gear. And once in the studio, the undistracted focus should be on their singular role and achievement of vocal performance. So, who ya gonna call?
Enter the Vocal Producer–The Recording Artist’s Secret Weapon
A good vocal producer knows the difference between a great vocal performance—one that truly sells the song—versus one that could be better and specifically how it could be better so as to help the singer make it great. Understanding rhythm, phrasing, harmony, note choice and music structure would be part of this skill. By the time the session is over, the vocal producer makes sure there is enough selection of performance takes to create the perfect vocal compilation in the editing and mixing. Toward the end, while the session is underway, every second of each vocal pass is accounted for by the vocal producer ensuring everything will add up to a stunning vocal performance.
To achieve trust and maintain teamwork with the singer, a vocal producer needs good communication skills and has to know how to give constructive criticism and positive reinforcement that is honest. As the multi-Grammy-winning vocal producer Kuk Harrell says, “It’s never, ‘Man you screwed up.’ I can tell Jennifer [Lopez] she’s not singing it the right way without telling her that she’s not singing it the right way.”
In speaking with my colleagues, I’ve found that the description of the vocal producer’s role has variations. Some vocal producers also wear the hat of engineer concurrent with giving directions and guidance to the singer. But a vocal producer does not need to be an engineer.
Some producers simultaneously wear three hats: producer, engineer and vocal producer. However, especially with less experienced engineers/producers who don’t have training as a singer or vocal coach, I’ve observed that trying to do those jobs at the same time can compromise the production of the final vocal. And there are many vocal producers who, like me, prefer to focus all of our attention on the singer and so work in tandem with an engineer and the producer of the overall recording project.
Regardless of our differences, on one thing we all agree: A vocal producer is there to elicit the emotion, style, believability and best performance from the singer during studio recording.