A 10-year-old can tell the difference between a well recorded and produced vocal and a bust. They probably couldn’t describe what the difference is, but we are all so thoroughly doused in commercial music releases we instinctively know what a vocal should sound like and if something is off.
So next up when you’re working on recording a new track here are a few tips, things to avoid, and advice for getting a great vocal sound.
TIP #1 — CLIP GAIN YOUR VOCAL BEFORE PROCESSING IT
This tip is for once you’ve already tracked and comped your vocal performance.
Subtip #1.1 — Comp your vocals.
Clip gain — a function in Pro Tools that allows you to adjust the gain of an individual clip on an audio track. Similar functions exist in other DAWs.
Most singers cannot perfectly control the dynamics of a performance. This is a function necessary to even out the loudest and quietest parts of a track so they are closer relative to each other.
You may also clip gain down breaths, weird mouth noises, plosives, etc… The more a vocal track is compressed the more you will hear such noises. Also delete sections of clips that are gaps between the vocal performance — blank space. If you are recording mic level there will always be some amount of inherent noise in your track. All that noise adds up the more tracks you have. So be sure to edit it out before finalizing your mix.
CAN’T I JUST COMPRESS THE SH** OUT OF IT?
You could, but here’s what you’re missing if you do: Many pros use compression not only for the utility of controlling dynamics through gain reduction of peaks and makeup gain but also for tone shaping and saturation. If you control / even out the input of what you’re feeding your compressor you can ensure that the compressor is reacting is a consistent manor.
Perhaps you like the saturation / tone of a 1176 compressor driven just so… However, if your vocal track is incredibly dynamic and only the peaks are triggering the threshold of your compressor you won’t be able to get as even and consistent an effect. Your input affects your output. If your input is dynamically erratic, then you output even though you have applied some gain reduction may still be compromised.
TIP #2 — CHECK AND EXPERIMENT WITH YOUR DISTANCE FROM THE MIC WHILE TRACKING
If your singer gets too close to the mic you may run into an issue called the Proximity Effect. Lots of microphones have a proximity effect. A disproportionate amount of added low frequencies “boominess” the closer you sound source gets to the capsule. Sometimes this can be a nice added effect if your singer has a thin or wispy voice.
You might inadvertently increase the amount of sibilance or plosives in your track.
Sibilance is just a fancy word for the nasty “ssss” noises (upper mid-range frequencies) you hear that can sound harsh and unpleasant.
Plosives are pops you hear when singers sing some consonants such as p-words or b-words. Words that shoot out a quick pop of air at the mic. Microphones do not like pops of air. Use a pop-filter to avoid plosives and help with sibilance.
You may need to compromise. If your room is super small and dead (does not have a lot of reflections) you can track your singers further off from the mic. If your room is larger and has lots of reflections, then you may need your singer to sing much closer to the mic. It’s easier to EQ out unnecessary low end than it is to get rid of “room tone / reflections” from your vocal track.
I will sometimes purposely ask the singer to back away from the mic several feet because I want to hear that distance and the early reflections in my track to create depth of space in my mix. You can use the distance of your singer from the mic as an affect.
TIP #3 — BGVS CAN MAKE A GOOD SONG GREAT AND ARE OFTEN THE SECRET SAUCE OF POP SONGS
I’m not just talking harmonies. Ever wonder how the chorus of your favorite song sounds so huge and wide. It is a common technique to record “stacks” of the lead vocal. Have the singer sing the melody of the chorus three times. Have the lead vocal track panned dead center and then pan the two stacks (I call them “doubles’) hard left and right. Doing this as an effect in the chorus can really open up a mix and add width.
Duplicating a track and panning it is not the same as “doubling” a track. All this will do is double the loudness of that track and this will not add width to your mix as the two tracks will sum to mono if they are exactly the same. You actually have to track the part twice. The timing and pitch inconsistencies are what create the spread & width.
There are tools you can use to tighten up doubles and harmonies such as Vocalign. Vocalign is used a lot in pop music when you want your stacks and doubles to be near perfectly lined up.
Experiment with harmonies and experiment with layers. Instead of sending your vocal to a an aux with reverb, what if you sang the melody twice (doubled it) and then added an instance of a reverb plugin to the doubled vocal and made it 100% wet on the mix knob. Then you can use that doubled vocal reverb track as your lead vocal reverb and avoid the verb pulling your vocal too far back in the mix. Just a thought…
TIP #4 — HAVING A VOCAL WITH “SOUL” IS BETTER THAN HAVING ONE WITH PERFECT PITCH AND TIMING
I’ve told singers, “I don’t believe you”. I don’t deliver this in a mean way. What I mean in the moment is that when the singer sang that emotional lyric I didn’t believe them. I felt no soul.
Sometimes singers can get caught up on a performance being in perfect pitch, but by the time they hit the note the soul is gone. I’d rather have soul. I want to feel something. You can pick out what vocal performances were delivered with soul. I personally think a lot of modern music has been systematically de-souled, sometimes to a cool effect but still breaks my heart sometimes. After all, it is pretty easy to correct pitch these days. So go for soul!
TIP #5 — DON’T TUNE IT IF IT DOESN’T NEED IT (MOST POP MUSIC EXEMPT)
Unless you’re making straight down the pipe mainstream pop music, you may not need to hard tune your lead vocal. If it sounds good, then it sounds good. Don’t effff with it. Singing with perfect pitch is not natural. Don’t sacrifice soul for perfect pitch. Did it give you chills the first time you heard it? Good, keep that feeling and don’t ruin it by getting rid of all the life by over tuning.
What even is a music fan anymore?
Music is consumed like a public utility. Like turning on a faucet for water. Turn the faucet on and music comes out or off and the music stops.
Music is incredibly accessible. I am less than 30 seconds away from any song I want to listen to.
It is not hard to listen to the music you want when you want it. There is very little friction between a consumer and the music they want. Overall, this is a good thing. Especially for the consumer.
However, the amount of friction a consumer overcomes in order to purchase, stream, download a song is one of the best gauges for determining whether they are a fan. The less friction, the harder it is to determine. If somebody gets in their car, drives to the record store, and buys your album for $15, then it is probably safe to say they are a fan.
You don’t have to be a fan to listen to my music. It is there if you want it. On every online store, Youtube, Soundcloud, etc… You can take a sip then walk away and forget all about it. You can also engage with my entire catalogue for equal amounts of effort, though more time, and also walk away and forget about it.
It is more difficult than ever for artists to determine who their real fans are. Online music stores provide some data to artists about their listeners but not the most important actionable data for an artist to run a business. That is: contact information.
We see nameless and faceless statistics for people who are consuming our music every single day but we have no way to reach out and forge a real connection with those people because they are still strangers to us. Spotify knows who they are. Apple music knows for they are. Online music stores can send out as many promotional emails as they want plugging their own features and services. Meanwhile, artists are stiffed. You’re welcome online music stores that all artists everywhere have subsidized and helped you grow the largest music listener database on the planet.
This is why it is more important than ever for artists to take it into their own hands how to manage their own fan connections. Do not be passive about this. Artists need better systems to keep track of fans. Instagram does not count. You need some way of determining who your people are.
If you make stuff, then it is important to keep track of who buys the stuff you make. I shouldn’t have to argue that point. Can you name a single successful business that does not keep track of who their customers are?
Business - Customer
Service Provider - Client
Artist - Fan
Here are some examples of who we cannot guarantee are fans:
Monthly listeners do not equal fans. There is no way to qualify how you got that monthly listener. Your song may have been put on a very low engagement playlist or queued up on an artist radio station and listened to passively.
You cannot count every single follower as a fan. Again this comes down to friction. There's next to no friction when it comes to following someone. Anyone who has opted in and followed may be considered a warm lead or someone who might be interested in whatever you are offering.
Comes To A Show
You don’t know how this person came to be at your show. Friends may have dragged them. They may frequent the venue and you just happened to be playing.
Here are some example of people who can be considered fans:
Bought Your Product
There may not be a better way to determine if someone is a fan than if they have bought your music. They have put skin in the game. They have declared - I will give up something of mine in return for what you have made. This may include purchasing a CD, merch, concert tickets, etc…
Comes Back To A Show
If they come back to your show a second time that is a major indicator that they are a fan.
Engages With Your Art In A Meaningful Way
If someone comments, messages you, or speaks to you in person about how much your art has impacted them, then they are probably a fan. Remember the names of these people.
Cares Enough To Share
If someone is really a fan of your music they will share it with their friends.
Signs Up For Newsletter
If a person gives you permission to email them whenever you have a new offering (new release or show), then they are for sure a fan.
I would encourage you to use this post as a starting point for you to come up with your own definition for a fan. Once you have, then it is time to keep track of your fanbase. This is your business. As the artist and fan relationship continues to change with technology it is important that artists adapt and learn more about who their fans are.
Imake a living from producing music. I have done so for the past 1092 days.
Another show played to an empty room. Another track not blessed by the Spotify algorithm gods.
Does anyone actually care?
Yes. I care. I care that you make music.
A place like Nashville wouldn't exist if people somewhere along the way didn't care. But not everyone will care. Some will never care.
Your music is not for everyone.
Hypothetical scenario 1:
Person logs onto Instagram.
Person scrolls through stories.
Person sees dozens of songs that people have shared.
Person can’t possibly stop and listen to all of them and ends up listening to none of them.
Hypothetical scenario 2:
Person hears song they freakin LOVE.
Person finds the song on Spotify and clicks the share to Instagram button.
Person goes about their day.
Song goes to die in an endless sea of other like shared songs.
I do want to acknowledge that everyone’s social feeds are different and not everyone follows hundreds of artists who are constantly releasing music. But I do. I know my friends do. Lots of artists do. So I’m talking to the artists in the room.
Let’s all take a moment to consider how we can better share the music we love.
All the steps. Here’s the process:
Overachievers read on. Underachievers go back to your Instagram feed.
Do you want to make art or do you want to be a famous lifestyle brand?
Are the two mutually exclusive?
This is a question I have been considering within a larger conversation about collaboration. There is no right or wrong here, but I do think the distinction is important. I also think if you are an artist it would be worth considering your answer to this question.
Founder of @lostharbormusic