Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog

Training & insights for stage and studio singers, speakers, vocal coaches and producers from professional vocal coach and author of "Power, Path & Performance" vocal training method.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Top 30 Terrible Studio Singer Saboteurs

"Know thyself, know thy enemy" - Sun Tzu

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Studio singing is exhilarating, exacting and can be exhausting. There are many gremlins and wrenches that can sabotage the voice in the vocal booth!

I've been working in recording studios for over 5 decades now. I've seen almost everything except Elvis reappearing at the mic. Although I did get to re-sing some background vocals on several of his legendary hits. The oxide had degraded on the edges of the old 2-inch tape his masters were recorded on, and the edges happened to contain the background vocal tracks! I was called as replacement for one of the Holiday sisters who had done the original and wasn't in town. So much fun to sing on songs like 'Suspicious Minds', 'Caught In A Trap', 'In The Ghetto' while hearing Elvis' disembodied voice in my headphones!

I've recently worked as main producer, vocal producer, background singer and arranger and have been thrilled to work with some of the best pro audio teams in town. But in my rather long studio history I've witnessed umpteen gazillion traps that sabotage studio vocals. Here are thirty of these dirty devils. Drumroll please....

Producer Bads

1. Not doing enough pre-production preparation. Not determining a singer's strengths, weaknesses, artistic definition, best songs, keys and tempos, etc. Be prepared or be scared!
2. Over-challenging a singer's range! To sabotage a singer by making them record higher and/or lower notes than they will be able to consistently sing live on stage is a very dirty trick indeed. The kindest wish for the singer would be that this recording never becomes a hit!
3. Using intimidation to get a stronger vocal, instead of positive support from knowledge of what a singer needs.
4. Bullying the artist into unhappy decisions. There's nothing wrong with trying to move an artist past their comfort zone to determine artistic direction. But if the artist can't fully embrace what is being suggested, the suggestion should be dropped. If your artist leaves a production meeting crying, only the sabotage will be successful.
5. Covering up the artist with the band. If it is a recording with a vocal, the lead vocal is the main element. Too many instruments or too much background vocal layering can bury a vocal performance.

Vocal Producer Bads

6. Not actually knowing how to be one. Many awesome track producers don't know how to produce vocals, which is the act of coaching a singer into their best performance. In that case, they will have to coach themselves, or you need to introduce the idea of bringing a dedicated vocal producer in. It may or may not cost more to include a vocal producer, because of studio time saved.
7. Not inviting the team to approve the final take. The vocal producer (actively coaching the vocalist), main producer if different (who should know the vocal they are shooting for), engineer (who can say whether a particular note can be tuned or not) and artist (who should know if they can do better) all should be in on the final thumbs up for the lead vocal. 
8. Putting technique ahead of message. This is one reason engineers often hate seeing a vocal coach come into the studio. There is a difference between perfecting technique and creating vocal performance magic. The latter is the most important in the studio, and sometimes it's the 'mistake' that creates the 'magic moment'.
9. Not gauging the singer's stamina level to determine whether to do the next song or stop for the day. There is a difference between vocal fatigue, which shouldn't happen, and physical/mental fatigue, which will happen if one is supporting and controlling the voice well. A vocal producer should recognize the point of diminishing returns.
10. Neglecting to have session-formatted lyrics. If at all possible, this should be done before the session. It is so much easier and a faster process if both engineer and vocal producer have the same typed lyrics, formatted line-by-line with all choruses printed all the way out.  And it's a bonus if the words are tabbed over so production notes can be put on the left to make comping and editing the vocal tracks easier and faster.

Audio Engineer Bads

11. Not knowing how to set the singer up at the mic for best breath control (join the known universe, very few engineers actually do it right).
12. Not offering reverb in headphone mix. Some singers don't need reverb but most lead singers and many background singers do better with it.
13. Taking too much time between takes, sabotaging the singer's energy momentum.
14. Putting too many swimmy instruments in the singer's headphone cue.
15. Not getting rid of the crickets or other noisy creatures in the walls before the session. Yep, I've heard that, and some of you may remember that Nashville studio. OK so maybe it was the studio owner's bad, not the engineer:)

Background Singer Bads

16. Singing out of tune. This saboteur will get you never invited back.
17. Making the wrong vibrato and/or tone choices. This one will get you immediately fired.
18. Being too pushy or un-engaged in the session. Either attitude will sabotage the comfort and general friendly spirit in the room, which can undermine all working larynxes.
19. Not having enough vocal control to trace the lead singer or blend with other singers. This can get you a bad vocal reputation.
20. Not working the mic for low volume oohs or high strong notes. This can get you on the bad side of an engineer.

Lead Singer Bads

21. Not warming up vocally before the session. Duh.
22. Crunching in and singing from your tight ribcage. Your control will be lost.
23. Reading your lyrics while singing. Your performance will be, to some degree, numb.
24. Not singing into and out of punches. Your punched lines and breaths won't match.
25. Eating bagels for breakfast before an important vocal session. Fueled by sugary carbs and no protein, your vocal stamina for singing will soon be sorely missing.

Anybody Bads

26. Bringing a party into the control room. Loud or excessive talking can sabotage the work of the production team, and therefore, the vocalist.
27. Wearing strong scents, even burning too many smoky candles that can interfere with a singer's sinuses and lungs.
28. Asking the singer if they are nervous. It's like asking them not to look at the purple elephant with the diamond earring in the corner...
29. Opening studio doors while recording is going on. You could destroy a great vocal take.
30. Taking video without the consent of performers. Sometimes in-studio videos can be taken for promotional purposes, but if uninvited and unexpected, they can sabotage a critical instrumental or vocal performance. It's a good rule to ask before you shoot.

The Slayer of Singer Saboteurs is ...

... application of good information! There is a ton more information that can help you avoid what can hurt you, dear singers and production teams. I offer the following courses if you wish to dig into any of this further:
So what about you? Have you faced a studio singing saboteur yet? Did you conquer it?

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