Judy Rodman - All Things Vocal Blog: June 2016

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.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Lessons from The Remarkable Voice of Chris Stapleton

My copy of his record (bought it! love it!)

NOTE: The audio player should appear below, if not, please click on the title of this post and go online to hear. Available also on iTunes, Google Play and Android podcast apps
I recently wrote an article about Chris Stapleton for Voicecouncil Magazine. Since then, it became public that he had some vocal problems requiring him to reschedule a show. He is reportedly, thankfully, back on tour and in fact played Nashville's recent Bonnaroo Festival. I wanted to share some points from that article that I've revised here for you.

Here are some milestones from Chris Stapleton's career so far: He shot to the top with four awards at the last year's CMA Awards, six ACM awards this spring, two weeks at #1 on Billboard 200 all-genre chart, four Grammy nominations and a duet with Justin Timberlake that Entertainment Weekly labeled ‘an unapologetic display of abnormal levels of talent’. Originally known for writing hit songs, Stapleton had been singing, writing and performing for 15 years before his album 'Traveler' rocketed him into the solo spotlight.

Here are some lessons we can learn from his voice:

1. Tall, flexible posture should be an ingrained habit.

Any time you see Chris in performance, notice his tall, flexible posture and open stance. He 'wears' his guitar, instead of cradling and crunching over it. Why is this important? With tall and flexible posture, the ribcage remains open and the diaphragm stays flexibly stretched. This creates breath control that is the secret to vocal control.

2. Lighten your higher middle voice.

Back off breath pressure and add headier tone to influence and lighten your mix to create strain-free upper middle voice. You don't have to make it pure head voice... just learn to lighten your chest voice, also called full voice. Chris illustrates this at the beginning of ‘Honey load up your questions’. The sound easily morphs into his signature rich masky tone. Check out Fire Away

3.      PULL sustained notes for rich resonance and protection from vocal strain.

It feels and sounds like a magic trick when you do this right. Chris and his wife singing backgrounds can both be seen pulling their voices on this song. For instance, notice the slight backward tilt of Chris’s head at 1:51.

4.      Drop your technique from time to time for effect.

Sometimes it’s the slight swell of volume, a sudden drop, a little gravel and even a purposeful numb tone that creates deep emotional response. Listen to The Difference Between Whiskey and You, at 10:24 on NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert. If Chris’s voice doesn’t move you, check your pulse.

5.      Marry (or at least find) a background singer whose voice fits yours like a glove.

Chris’s wife Morgane is an incredible singer. With her vocal ability, it's no surprise to me that she was formerly signed with Arista Records as artist herself. As Chris's background singer she weaves her voice around her husband's with masterful precision, anticipating and tracing his moves, embellishments, tone and volume changes. His show and his sound would not be the same without her. 

6.     The voice wants access to movement!

The minute the jaw freezes and the 'neck veins' pop out on a performer, there will be some degree of vocal strain. Strain on the voice will limit the fine movements necessary to nail vocal licks, control pitch, create rich tone and so much more. Keep your neck, shoulders and jaw at least slightly loose for vocal freedom of movement. Check out Chris's much lauded CMA performance with Justin Timberlake and notice how loose Chris’s head and shoulders are when he sings the vocal runs at 1:00 and 2:44 on Tennessee Whiskey. Even in this high-stakes situation, his neck and jaw stay loose!

7.      Support the ends of lines to maintain control of pitch and tone.

Chris is a master at controlling the ends of his lines, and he way he does it is to create a stable balance of breath support and control. To him it probably seems effortless because he has internalized the action needed.  He pulls breath pressure back, but continues to support the very end of the lyric. Listen to the last syllable of 'brandy' at the end of his vocal run on every chorus of 'Tennessee Whiskey' during that same CMA performance. His perfect pitch just floats out. The same thing happens on Drink You Away" at the end of his run at 3:54 on the word ‘pain’.  If he tried to lean on the lick, his control and precision would have been at risk. I would add that you see Timberlake doing these things, too, but his voice is worthy of a whole other blogpost:)

8.      Use active facial language.

It may be a little hard to see, but if you watch for Chris’s eye language under his hat you’ll catch a lift of an eyebrow, a scrunch for grittier mask tone, a glint of conversation. Again, his jaw is not overactive but is loose, freeing his mouth, tongue and lips to vary his tone at will. If his face stayed frozen, his tone would be numb and not nearly as emotionally communicative.

9.      To increase performance power, self-compress and articulate more clearly! In other words - Back off breath pressure; add passion.

Chris's strong vocal delivery is powered by breath compression, which is the balance of breath support and control. I call it Pulling instead of Pushing. You literally power your ribcage and throat tract open instead of tight. Power is centered in the hips rather than the ribcage, and the even volume results are so much better for audience ears and the soundcrew! Then you are free to add passion that doesn't strain your voice or their ears by the way you articulate the lyrics! On an SNL performance of his song Nobody To Blame, watch him pull back on his pressure at 1:05 on the words 'changed out all the locks':

10.  The demands of a successful vocal career call for constant vigilance to protect the voice from damage.

Chris has joined the ranks of successful artists whose performance demands create perilous conditions for the voice. I found this live performance of Fire Away, where Chris's voice is showing some fatigue. At 1:30 notice that Chris is pushing a little, leaning on instead of lifting his voice. He sounds a bit tired and less controlled. The 'ceiling' of his soft palate and upper pharynx is flatter than usual. All singers are vulnerable to illness, lack of sleep, good food and adequate hydration. As I mentioned earlier, Chris had to cancel performances from vocal fatigue. Now, back on the road with the load of performances he's doing at this point in his career, I do hope he has a good vocal warmup routine, knows and applies vocal health principles for the road and has a good vocal coach he can check in with. 

11. Don't be afraid to do it your way.

In many ways, Chris Stapleton does not follow the pattern suggested for music career success. He looks at and engages with his wife on stage much more than he overtly engages the audience. He doesn't articulate clearly sometimes. He sometimes does push his voice into a thinner sound (and compromises his voice doing so). He is older than almost anyone else on stage. His staging has no smoke and mirrors (unless things have changed in the last few weeks). A paradox in many ways, he really is king of his genre right now!

12. Make music that makes the world a better place.

In the promotional video for his song Fire Away, Chris joins the movement to call attention to those with severe emotional pain. There is no telling how many lives that have been impacted positively by his voice:

In the case of Chris Stapleton, the exceptional quality of singer, song, sound and spirit have combined to create great commercial success. May he keep rocking stages and hearts for a very long time!  What about you... have you heard Chris sing? What did you think?

If you want to go farther with your voice, check out the vocal lessons, vocal production services and vocal training products I have available on my website. I would love to work with you to maximize your vocal performance ability and protect your instrument! 

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Monday, June 6, 2016

Top 30 Terrible Studio Singer Saboteurs

"Know thyself, know thy enemy" - Sun Tzu

NOTE: The audio player should appear below, if not, please click on the title of this post and go online to hear. 
Available also on iTunes, Google Play and Android podcast apps 
  
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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