Photo by Stegsie

Photo by Stegsie

I spent the last few days down in Tennessee, just outside of Nashville. Monday afternoon I recorded some vocals for an upcoming project my brother-in-law is working on.

It was in a cool studio. We used a Neumann U87 and ran it through a nice Amek mic pre. It sounded really nice.

It’s been a long time since I tracked vocals outside of my home studio. I’m used to being the only one there, wearing both the engineer hat and the musician hat. We’ve all done it a hundred times. You hit record, run over to the mic, record the take, run back to the computer, stop recording, listen, run back to the mic and do it again.

Nerves

Whenever I record vocals by myself, nerves never enter the picture. It’s just me, after all. If my voice sounds awful, big deal. That’s what delete buttons are for, right? No one ever has to know.

Adding a second person to the equation will inevitably affect you. Even someone you’re close to, like my brother-in-law, will still have an effect on your nerves. You instantly become very aware that someone else is listening to you.

I experienced this a bit. It wasn’t a full-on “I’m about to sing in front of hundreds of people at Carnegie Hall” feeling. I wasn’t nervous, but I was still aware that someone else would be hearing every note I sang.

The result? I held back for a while. The first few takes were very subdued. I was singing more softly than I normally would, and the performance just sounded flat and lifeless.

Contributing Factors

Aside from the fact that I wasn’t by myself, there were a few other factors that lead to my less-than-stellar performance at first:

  • Unfamiliar surroundings – I was singing in a studio I had never been to before, using headphones I’d never used before, and standing on some sort of foam mat that squeaked under my feet. None of these are big deals, but they were simply different from the environment I’m used to.
  • Different style of music – The song I was singing was in a very different style from what I normally sing. It sounds really cool, but I simply haven’t sung much in that genre (more electronic than rock). Again, this isn’t a huge issue, but it put me slightly out of my comfort zone.

Take it easy

Whenever you bring a singer into your studio, make every effort to make them comfortable. Make them laugh, keep things light. The less pressure they feel to nail a performance, the more likely they are to actually nail it.

Keep things fun. When’s the last time you heard an amazing vocal performance from someone who looked they were scared to death? If the singer is having fun, they are much more likely to give an emotional, captivating performance.

Joke around with the singer between takes. Make them laugh. Threaten to punch them in the spleen. Whatever it takes.

This is what happened with me. (Not the getting punched in the spleen, but the goofing around.) My brother-in-law and I started goofing around with each other more. We would make jokes between takes. I would make jokes between verses, etc. The last two takes ended up being really good. The first two? Not so much.

I’m not saying joking around is a necessity for a good recording. Some singers may not respond well to jokes. If the song is a more serious one, perhaps joking wouldn’t be appropriate. Maybe lighting a few candles would help, or dimming the lights.

The main point here is to keep in mind that as an engineer or producer, you are also the resident studio psychologist. You’re responsible for making the artist comfortable. Otherwise, you won’t be happy with the performance. It’s in everyone’s best interest to make the musicians comfortable. It’ll be well worth the effort.

  • Jonathan Smith

    Sounds like you need Tranzport, Joe!

    I do mine sitting right in front of my computer. I have a quiet rig and a SM7B which REALLY rejects off-axis noise.

    Joking is good, but I imagine some people paying for your time by the hour will want to keep their nose to the grindstone. Just be sure that it’s not a distraction from the primary job.

    • I honestly don’t mind walking back and forth. The Tranzport is a cool product, but I’m typically making all sorts of changes between takes. I’ll have things set up in Pro Tools one way for recording acoustic and another way for vocals, etc. being able to stay AT the mic just isn’t a big priority for me.

  • Hey Joe,

    Wow, music production has so many faces! This post is definitely describes something I’m sure not every studio is aware of. I also believe that anything we do in life needs to have a different approach than the one we or others expect. For example, we go to the studio to record, but that doesn’t mean you can joke around. Another example is that we go to work and that does not mean we just go and “work” and everything else needs to be excluded (well, like it is like that anyway!).

    Also, Mike has a great point even though it does not go 100% with the main idea of the post. Could you give us an example of an alternative to run to our computers to “stop”?

  • You should set up a footswitch or remote for recording yourself. I like to have everything set up so that there’s the minimum time between takes and so I don’t have to do a dash to start/stop recording. That way I can keep my head in the musician mindset the whole time I’m recording myself. I always allow plenty of recording headroom for the same reason. The only engineery thing I need to do is start and stop the recording.

    • Good point, Mike. However, you can’t arm and disarm different tracks using a footswitch, so I would still have to walk over to the computer and do that. I will say I use loop recording from time to time when I want to get several takes of a part recorded.

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  • It’s absolutely the most important skill after learning your own gear if you want to bring outside artists into your studio. Great post!

    • Thanks Sean! Oftentimes you’ll find that artists will work with an engineer they’re comfortable with, even if there’s another engineer who’s technically “better.”