Just because you're a good singer doesn't mean you're a great vocalist. And some of the most distinctive vocalists in pop history gasp! can't really sing. (Bob Dylan, Thom Yorke, David Byrne, and Exene Cervenka spring to mind.) The truth is, a really good vocalist, regardless of natural ability, has an attitude and a point of view that merely "pretty" singers sometimes lack.
illustration by Elise Malmberg
Vocal coaches often recommend pre-singing rituals like drinking honey and lemon, avoiding dairy products, and doing deep-breathing exercises. But none of these will actually save you from sucking unless you have a few basic principles covered beforehand.
The best way to become a good vocalist is to know your voice both its strengths and its weaknesses. Develop your own style, and be confident and consistent. Maintain a realistic sense of what you can get away with; stretch yourself and experiment vocally, but do it on your own time, not in front of a paying audience. Don't try to make your voice do things it wasn't designed to do. Nothing is as painful as listening to a singer reach for a note he or she might not actually make.
When it comes to recording, there are even more potential vocal pitfalls. The most magical song can be completely wrecked by flawed technique or ham-handed production decisions. To help keep your vocal tracks alive and well in the studio, here are a few things to guard against.
Vocal Killer #1: Trying Too Hard
Too much attention can smother an otherwise healthy vocal track. This type of fussiness takes many forms. Over-rehearsal can make a vocal sound tired and uninspired. Focusing too much on technique details of pitch, enunciation, and vibrato can lead to the same end (and worse, make you sound like you're auditioning for a dinner-theater production of Cats). Over-emoting, or pushing too hard, often makes for ugly, strident tones. But a mannered, detached tone that lacks emotion and conviction can fall just as flat.
Simple anxiety can make some performers overextend or sound self-conscious. Staring down the barrel of a microphone can be a daunting experience; some singers get more nervous in the studio than they do onstage. If this is an issue for you, try singing with the lights off, or face away from the engineer. Record several takes back-to-back without stopping to listen or fix mistakes. Don't think too much just sing. A bit of reverb in your headphones can also help make you feel more confident, but don't go overboard with the effect or it may cause pitch problems.
Singing too close to
the mic gives vocals a
boomy, muffled quality.
Speaking of trying too hard: Please, please, please don't attempt to imitate another singer's mannerisms, no matter how much you love them it usually produces dire results. Sadly, it's the singers who almost manage to sound like their idols that become particular targets of ridicule.
How to fix it: Warm up properly before singing, but don't wear out your voice before you begin tracking. If you're not getting what you want, take a break and try again later. Blowing out your voice and continuing to sing will get you nowhere, and could lead to permanent vocal damage. Get past any initial jitters by recording several takes in a row without playing them back. If your performance feels stale, it may be because you're used to singing the song the same way each time. Try a few different approaches. Pretend you're singing to a specific person. Throw down a few "wild" tracks at the end go crazy and do whatever pops into your head. Once you stop concentrating on doing things right, you might hit upon something amazing.
Vocal Killer #2: Faulty Mic Technique
Choosing the right mic [see sidebar] is just the beginning. You also have to learn how to use it properly. Proper mic technique can make a good vocal spectacular, while bad technique can make it unlistenable, or at the very least, add hours of work to your mix.
Singing too close to the mic may produce a phenomenon known as "proximity effect," which gives vocals a boomy, muffled quality. Proximity effect can sometimes be corrected in the mix by using EQ to crop off the unwanted vocal frequencies but this cuts everything in that frequency range, not just the boominess, and can sound unnatural. Singing too far away from the mic is also problematic: The vocal becomes more diffuse, and is colored by the sound of the room in which it's being recorded, giving you fewer options for later processing. But worse than either of these, at least from an engineering viewpoint, is a vocal that fluctuates between too close and too far from the mic.
Dynamic variation in a vocal can be exciting. But without a bit of preparation and technical know-how, vocals meant to move from a whisper to a scream can end up more like an incomprehensible mutter to an intolerably distorted howl. Before recording, make sure the engineer knows the entire dynamic range of your performance. Test out the quietest and the loudest bits before tracking. The engineer may need to adjust input levels and compression in order to make sure the entire dynamic range can be captured without problems. As a vocalist, you can help in this process by moving slightly closer to the mic for quieter passages and moving back a bit for louder parts.
Excessive breathiness that wispy, whispery, model-turned-singer tone we've all heard can also cause real technical challenges for engineers. Massive amounts of compression may be used in an attempt to give breathy vocals some body, but this often makes the vocal sound more artificial. Wispy vocal styles are best suited to music where the vocal is not the primary focus. If you're going for emotional intensity, learn how to project your voice in a more concentrated, less air-intensive manner.
Speaking of breath, overloud breaths between phrases can distract from a vocal and make it sound overwrought, or even comical. If you tend to breathe really loudly, get into the habit of moving slightly off-mic for deep breaths.
There's also the twin menace of sibilance a nasty, high-endy "sss" sound that overwhelms the rest of the track whenever an "s" sound occurs and out-of-control plosives (those microphone-popping "p" sounds). Both problems distract from the meaning and emotion of the vocal, and can make an otherwise well-recorded track sound amateurish.
Sibilance can be hard to control through mic technique alone, as some people are more naturally sibilant than others. But there are a few tricks that may help. Try softening your "s" sounds, and aim them slightly away from the mic. Instead of projecting "sh" sounds straight forward through your teeth, let them develop farther back, against the roof of your mouth. If excessive sibilance is still a problem on the final track, use a de-esser basically a specialized form of EQ to reduce the "sss" sound. Don't go overboard with this effect, or you'll end up with an annoying lisp!
To tame plosives, try using less air to propel "p," "b," "d," and "t" sounds out of your mouth, and move your lips slightly off-mic for these sounds. Another extremely effective tool for reducing plosive problems is a pop shield or pop screen, basically a circle of pantyhose-like mesh placed in front of the mic. (Actual pantyhose stretched over a bent coat hanger is a time-honored budget alternative.)
How to fix it: Maintain the proper distance from the microphone not too close, not too far. Aim problem consonants and deep breaths slightly above, below, or to the side of the mic. Learn to project and focus your voice so at least as much tone comes out as air. Correct unwanted low end with EQ, and tame sibilance with de-essing during the mix. Use a pop screen. Above all, be aware of your particular vocal tics, and adapt your mic technique to work with them.
Vocal Killer #3: Criminal Comps
Thanks to digital audio, you no longer need a professional engineer to destroy your tracks now anyone can do it! One surefire way to mangle a vocal is through overenthusiastic or inattentive digital editing.
Cutting and pasting together different pieces of different vocal takes, or "comping," is standard practice in the digital audio universe. A properly done vocal comp merges the best qualities of the various takes into one seamless, emotionally convincing performance. The components that make up a comp may range in length from several verses to a single syllable. Say you've sung an incredible chorus, except on the final "the" you slipped and said "thwuh" instead. The fix is simple: just find the same word in the same place on another take, and paste it over the incorrect one.
Attention to detail is essential with this kind of work. It's all too easy to insert clicks, pops, and phrasing inconsistencies when cutting and pasting audio. Other hazards include cutting off the ends of phrases before they've completely finished, cutting in the middle of breaths, deleting breaths entirely (this sounds incredibly disturbing), and failing to compensate for volume changes between takes in the final comped track.
Paying attention to the overall emotion and tone of the vocal is equally important. Paradoxically, correcting every tiny mistake can make your vocal sound worse. Sometimes it's not just words that convey meaning it's the little accidental wobbles and glurps between syllables that make a vocal sound heartfelt.
When creating a comp, don't use the exact same audio bits too many times through the course of the song. For example, pasting out the "best" chorus again and again pretty much guarantees that your listeners will tune out. Even if it's unconscious, people know when they're hearing the same thing over and over. Keep it fresh by using slightly different takes of sections that repeat.
Also be aware of the differences in vocal tone and room sound between different vocal takes. If a singer is warmed up, accustomed to singing for some length of time, and uses good mic technique, this problem can be minimized. If you must use vocal takes recorded on different days, try to make sure every other variable mic placement, technique, room remains the same. If the vocal tone changes dramatically as a recording session progresses, it makes for significantly fewer options in the editing and mixing stage. In the final comp, tonal inconsistencies distract listeners away from the meaning and emotion of the song by forcing them to pay attention to these artificial-sounding transitions.
How to fix it: Try to work only with vocal takes that are consistent in tone and room sound; too much tonal variation becomes a distraction. Learn to use fades (in, out, and crossfades), and know how to shift tiny slivers of audio in increments of a few milliseconds backwards and forwards in time. Listen to the overall track, both soloed and in context, with and without headphones. Don't just zero in on pops and inconsistencies listen for emotional persuasiveness and fluidity of expression in the track as a whole.
Vocal Killer #4: Effects Abuse
Too much (or too little) processing can ruin a potentially great vocal. Who hasn't heard a beautiful soprano voice caked with so much reverb it turns to mush? Or an excessively distorted, incomprehensible Trent Reznor wannabe? Or the nasal, mosquito-like whine of an over-compressed, over-EQed pop diva?
Effects like reverb are subject to changing musical fashion and the conventions of various musical genres. A naturalistic, dry vocal might work great in a simple acoustic guitar ballad, but try the same approach on a fuzzed-out neo-psych tune and it just sounds weak. Be aware of the conventions of your genre, even if you choose to bend them.
A common mistake among vocalists who lack confidence in their abilities is to mask their vocals by over-processing and burying them in the track. If you're not confident enough to let your voice take the spotlight, your audience might not be convinced you're worth listening to.
Try to reserve the most dramatic effects for the moments of greatest impact in a song. Say you want your voice to soar off into space at the end of the second chorus: Instead of cranking your reverb's "God's Bathroom" setting to 100% for the entire phrase, start off with a modest level and boost it just at the very end and don't forget to reduce the level again before the third verse. Overblown, unvarying vocal effects throughout an entire song make for really boring music.
There's a special circle of production hell reserved for people who misuse pitch correction software like the Auto-Tune plug-in from Antares Audio Technologies. It doesn't have to be as dramatic as the "Cher effect" the warbling, pitch-jumping effect used in "Believe" to become a problem. One key element that makes good vocals sound human and, um, believable is the tiny fluctuations in pitch that naturally occur in an expressive performance. A track that's tuned to total perfection can sound more dead than alive.
Unless your vocal
actually is a cat turd,
don't bury it!
Besides the issue of expressiveness, there's another reason not to over-rely on pitch correction: It changes the actual sound of the voice, and usually not for the better. Simply put, too much pitch correction makes vocals sound fake. Musicians and engineers who work frequently with these tools instantly recognize the sound of overenthusiastic Auto-Tuning. And even when less technically oriented listeners aren't consciously aware that a vocal sounds artificial, they may instinctively fail to respond emotionally.
Pitch correction is a great tool, and one that most audio engineers use in moderation. But if every single note in a vocal needs work, you might be better off starting over with a fresh performance.
How to fix it: Use effects to enhance what's already there, not hide it. Unless your vocal actually is a cat turd, don't bury it! Be aware of the conventions of the type of music you're trying to do, and choose effects that work with that style. Use pitch correction as sparingly as possible, and start with the least aggressive settings. If just one note in a phrase is really off, isolate and retune only that note, not the entire section.
Vocal Killer #5: Misguided Arrangements and Production
Apologies to all you guitarists, but in most popular music the vocal is the most important element. Every other aspect of the song should work to support the emotion, intelligibility, and character of the voice. Arrangements or mixes that fail to showcase the vocal may also fail to pack the desired emotional punch.
Think of the vocal as a narrative. If parts of the story you're trying to tell are missing or indecipherable, you've failed to get your point across to your listeners. Your vocal needs to be loud enough to command attention, but not annoyingly loud. Choose effects and arrangement techniques that enhance positive vocal characteristics and deemphasize less desirable qualities. If the voice is breathy, try using extra compression to give it focus. If it's nasal or brassy, try softening the edges slightly with reverb or delay. If the voice is on the thin side, it may need support from vocal harmonies and/or other instruments but make sure vocal frequencies aren't masked by instruments like keyboards or guitars.
Using dynamics louder and quieter sections to shape song structure can also emphasize the vocal's expressive qualities. Make sure the vocals are highlighted proportionally in both the quiet and the noisy bits. It sounds silly to blast the vocals in an understated verse, then drown them out with a clangorous chorus.
How to fix it: Make sure the vocal is loud enough. Support and highlight lead vocals with harmonies, appropriate instrumentation, and overall dynamics. If a vocal sounds muddy or indistinct, dial back effects like reverb, delay, and distortion. Alternately, try removing some instrumental parts, and/or use EQ to prune out a space in the instrument tracks for the vocal to sit in.
The Vocal Point
The primary purpose of a song's vocal track is to communicate emotions and words as directly and immediately as possible. Vocalists are largely responsible for the mood and meaning of songs; ideally, the moment the singer opens his or her mouth, we're transfixed by the sound that comes out.
If that's not happening, try to find out why. Chances are it's something that can be fixed through practice, technical help, or just plain self-assurance. As with any instrument, the more you know about your voice, the better you'll be able to express yourself.
Got vocal recording tips of your own? Share them here!
Posted April 2007
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