By Ivan Valles

In modern day music, vocal production plays a critical role in the music we listen to. No matter what style of music is, vocals are an extremely important element in recordings. Since vocal performance is so important, it is very important for an artist and producer to work on perfecting it to its best.
To begin with, it’s always a good idea to check out an artist singing live with just a guitar or piano as support. This is particularly important if its the first time you’re working together. I like to use this session to jam together while I determine his/her vocal range. You can do many other exercises to help you determine the artist’s vocal range and timbre. I do several exercises, where I’ll start as low as the artist can possibly sing comfortably, and then I move up in the piano, until I hear his/her voice struggling (cracking) in his/her high register. This is usually enough for me to figure out if an artist is soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, etc, and most importantly, what notes they’re comfortable singing.

A producer must then start arranging the songs that will be recorded to match a comfortable key for the artist. This is very important, as you need to find the place where the artist best performs the song. There are two main sections to our voice. One is known as the chest voice, which is the range in which we normally speak and sing songs. The second is typically known as head voice. You’ll realize a vocalist is performing in their head voice when the quality of their voice becomes much thinner and much more “squeaky”. Most experienced and well-trained vocalists can perform comfortably in both, but most of the melody in songs should happen mostly within the chest voice.

Having recorded the first harmonic track (whether it be guitar, piano, etc), it’s time to lay the first rough vocal. A rough vocal is key  as it helps producers when making the rest of the song’s arrangement, as it is always a good idea to accentuate different parts of the melody throughout the song by making musical arrangements to support and enhance the vocals. Also, the reference vocal will significantly help the artist realize challenging parts on the melody of the songs, which will be parts that he/she needs to work to improve. The reference vocal will also help in helping the producer and artist find the right vibe for the vocal performance of each of the songs. From this point, each time that I get together with the artist, if we have the time, I’ll record a new rough vocal track, this way the artist has many chances to practice before we attempt the final vocal recording. I’ll also try different microphones if they’re available to me to find the best one for his/her voice. I will also give the artist suggestions on where I feel the vocals need to improve. When doing so, make sure that you don’t hurt the artist’s feelings, remember you want artists to be encouraged by the fact that they’re creating music and art, not discouraged by the fact that they’re having trouble with certain sections of the song. Artists must play on their own time with the song, to find the right phrasing for each section. I suggest attacking each phrase individually and trying it in various ways, to find the best, later on linking it to the rest of the section.

After recording reference vocals, when the music is ready, it’s time to focus on the final vocal tracking. For this purpose, it is important that the artist is in a relaxed mood. He/she should record at a time when they feel that their voice can perform at its best. They should also feel comfortable when recording at the studio, and they should have all the necessary elements they need to track vocals. Some artists prefer to record with low lights, others like to have no visual contact with the people in the control room, etc. No matter what their requests, try to make artists feel at home when recording, this will usually translate into a better vocal performance.

Besides the obvious intonation, several other aspects need to be addressed when producing vocals.  The overall vibe of the performance is very important to getting through to the listener. Artists in a sense become actors, as it is important to sing a song as if it was a story. It is great to have a good story, but it is just as important to express this story with the right emphasis and emotion. Also, make sure that words are pronounced clearly. Watch for too many “esses” or popping sounds in the vocal recording. A DeEsser Plug-in at mix down and a popper stopper during recording time will help you diminish these unwanted effects.

It is recommended to work on vocal tracking by sections, concentrating on each section individually, and later hearing each section in context with the rest. I prefer tracking with no Reverb or effects at all, unless the artist feels more comfortable with them. I’ll typically work on each section, punching in specific parts that need to be retouched. I also often record a couple of more takes to have as backup just in case the track requires editing between the takes. It is very important not to rely on technology to fix your performance problems, you should try to get the best performance out of the artist. If you are stuck on a particular section long, switch to a different section and revisit the problematic parts one by one later. After you’ve tracked, listen to the performance with fresh and rested ears, and see if you need to retouch any parts.

Once you’ve edited the vocals, you can use several software tools available in the market to tune and align vocals. I like to use Antares Autotune for the first, and VocAlign for the later. Backing vocals should be aligned with each other, and sometimes even with the lead. Now that you’re ready to start mixing, make sure vocals have the right volume and also the right amount of reverb and effects in the mix. This will depend on the style of music you’re working on. Ballads for instance require more reverb and effects than a mid tempo song.

Always be aware that vocal production makes a strong impression in the end result of music, so treat it accordingly.

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