In the Studio
• Set-up: The first thing your vocal producer will do together with the engineer is set up the session. Determining the correct match of mic for you can take about 20 minutes of trying out several to determine the one that brings out the best in your voice. When multiple songs are part of the project, the same mic will normally be used for continuity of sound throughout the album or EP. Once the mic has been matched and the headphone mix is comfortable for you to sing easily, the actual session starts.
• Coordinate with the Producer: It is important that everyone is on the same page. “You must all have the same vision for the song,” says Deanna DellaCioppa. “If you (producer, vocal producer and singer/rapper) do not share the same vision for the end result, this is a huge problem. The producer generally has final say over the final product, so it is the vocal producer’s job to be sure that is captured from the singer.”
• Go for Performance: The entire focus of the singer should be on the performance, not on technique. Any vocal “glitches” can always be fixed in one of three ways: 1. Digital editing such as using auto tuner software. 2. A compilation track for the lead vocal created later (selecting the best sections of different “takes”) 3. ”Punching” (to re-record that phrase or section).
• Full Takes or Sections?: As many of us do, Warren Huart decides on his session approach based on the singer and the song: “Some singers can perform songs best in single, full takes. Some songs and/or singers require recording the song in sections. You have to be open to trying different things to find the best approach for the situation and not just using one methodology.” As I mentioned earlier, when a song has big contrasts in volume, I prefer to record them separately. This allows the engineer to set the input volume correctly for each section so that the singer can use the appropriately contrasting vocal approaches
• The Final Track: Once the vocal producer is certain that several choices of great performances have been tracked for each part of the song, the singer’s job is done and the editing and compilation begins. The ears and objectivity of a good vocal producer are invaluable in searching through all the vocal takes just recorded, fixing notes as needed and piecing together sections to make up the final track.
• Last Steps: With the vocal compilation track completed, mixing and then mastering are the important final steps. As long as the tracking has been done right, you’ll have all the ingredients needed for your mixing engineer and producer to create the magic. But that’s a subject for another day.
Who Uses Vocal Producers?
Kuk Harrell is the vocal producer for artists such as Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez. Warren Huart has vocal produced artists such as: Isaac Slade (the Fray), James Blunt, Marc Broussard, Tori Kelly and Ace Frehley (formerly of Kiss). But you don’t have to be an artist signed to a record label to use a vocal producer. It depends upon whether you want to achieve a level of quality that a record label would consider good enough to represent, distribute and broadcast.
Aubrey Whitfield, a British producer, mix engineer and founder of London-based indie label 2ube Records, explains something I’ve heard echoed by other labels: “If you approach me and you have a release-ready record that doesn’t need re-recording, then that’s going to catch my attention. Why? …. We won’t have to re-record you. So think smartly and produce something that competes with current Top 40 releases and you’ll be halfway there.”
For lesser budget projects still striving to have the edge of radio-ready songs, you might consider tracking your instruments in your home or project studio. Then track your vocals with a vocal producer in a pro-studio and complete the recording with a mixing/mastering specialist.
The Business of Hiring
Vocal producers and session vocal coaches are hired in any number of different ways. They are hired by artists, labels, managers and even publishers to work by the hour, at a flat rate per song or for the entire project. “Every project is different; there is no [standard] cost,” Warren Huart shared with me. “Also, I generally receive points on album sales. Points fluctuate depending on whether you are working on just the vocal or the whole track plus the vocals.”
Producer points are a percentage of royalties received for working on a commercially sold album. A point would be equal to one percent of the retail or wholesale price of an album. One or two points would be typical, but superstar producers such as Kuk Harrell can demand higher percentages. Indeed, a 2012 New York Times article included: “Having the certainty of Mr. Harrell’s ear comes with a price: several thousand dollars per song and, more significant, a cut of the royalties.”
Since production can also get into co-writing, arranging, etc. and this goes beyond points and enters into publishing rights, anything can be negotiated into a contract. Just make sure you enlist a qualified entertainment attorney if contracts are involved.
JEANNIE DEVA is a Grammy member, the originator of The Deva Method®, Complete Voice Technique for Stage and Studio™, a published author, a graduate in composition and arranging from Berklee College of Music and a recording studio vocal producer/vocal coach endorsed by engineers and producers of, among others, Aerosmith, Elton John, Bette Midler, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones. Based in Los Angeles, she also coaches online worldwide and travels on location. For info: JeannieDeva.com, @JeannieDeva