Great vocal performance on a record does not happen by accident. Many factors contribute to making a recording session successful or not so successful. After 30 years of coaching singers and 15 years of recording them, I’ve gathered some tips that should help your next recording session go smoothly, giving you the result you are looking for; a killer record!
BEFORE SCHEDULING THE SESSION
- Memorize the song
It’s true that you can hold lyrics in front of you while recording and no one would know. But after all these years of working with singers and being a professional vocalist myself, something magical can happen once you cross over from the “on-book” to “off-book” phase. You can focus more on the emotion, the subtle use of air and vibrato, scoops, straight tone, falls, attacks and releases, articulation, riffs, runs and so much more. If you have the time, get off-book so the song is really inside of you. Which leads us to #2…
Maybe this should be an obvious one but, I’ve definitely had vocal sessions where the singer was still figuring things out; timing, phrasing, notes, etc. Now, when I record YouTubers who literally try to produce, record, film and release a song in less than a week, there is no getting around this. I actually enjoy helping these recording artists work through the songs in this way because it is like a combined coaching AND recording session (which I LOVE!) If creating content quickly is your current strategy then that is the way it has to be. Just remember, it definitely doesn’t work for every recording session or with every recording engineer. If you have the time, putting in the same effort as if you were going to be performing the song live without lyrics in front of you will elevate your performance dramatically.
- Verify key and tempo
Before putting in the time to rehearse the song, make sure that you are singing in a good, healthy key for your voice and a tempo that feels right. If you are using a karaoke/instrumental track then obviously, you are tied to the key and tempo of the track. While a karaoke track can be altered, the quality of the karaoke track will diminish ever so slightly the farther away from the original recording you go. So, a half step up, not too noticeable. Four half steps…noticeable. If you are creating your own instrumental with a producer (like I do for artists all the time) then take the time to find the right key and tempo before the producer starts working on it, if possible. That being said, it’s really easy to change the key and tempo of programmed instruments before anything is recorded. Don’t just sing through it once and call it good. Sing through it a few times in a row to make sure your voice does not tire after a few run-throughs. Double check that you aren’t rushing or dragging as you sing along, which could be a sign that the tempo isn’t quite right OR that you need to work on your timing 😉 If you are rehearsing the song, prepping for the session while using the track your producer has created for you and feel like the tempo or key needs to change, let them know ASAP so they have enough time to make a new track and you have enough time to rehearse with it before the session.
- Record yourself even on your phone and listen critically
Equivalent to filming yourself perform a song prior to the actual performance, the benefits of listening to yourself are enormous. Simulate the actual recording session at home, even if you are just recording into your phone using an app. Going through the process of actually recording should highlight spots that need a bit more work or help you plan your session better. Do you need to record the low, soft verses first before the big, belty choruses? Or vice versa? Do you struggle with phlegm because you ate a cheese sandwich an hour before? Did you notice the overall emotional delivery falls a little flat and could use more thought? Invite a music buddy to listen back and provide feedback on this “scratch track” version.
- Work with a coach
Even if it’s just one session with a coach prior to the recording session, this is a much safer, efficient and cost-effective way to record a song. Getting feedback after the recording session can be very discouraging. Forking out more money to re-record vocals was most likely not figured into your budget. Be sure to include funds in your budget for at least one coaching session prior to and if possible, during the session. It can relieve so much pressure to have a team member with you that is listening only to your vocal delivery, who knows your voice and what your goal for the song is. Totally worth the extra dough to have someone in your corner at the session.
DAY BEFORE/DAY OF SESSION
The next four pointers are specifically for the 24 hour period before the session:
- Be well rested
Get a good night’s sleep the night before your session. Make sure the session isn’t scheduled for 10 am the day after a late-night gig or at the end of a long workday. Be as rested as you can.
- Hydrate yourself
Do your best to stay hydrated hours before the session in addition to drinking water during the session. Bring plenty of water so you can stay hydrated during the session. Adding a lemon wedge to your water can help break up phlegm if that is an issue for you. Warm or room temperature will keep your vocal folds and all other tissues involved in singing nice and pliable. See #9 for more specifics about this.
- Be mentally “right”
Arrange your schedule so you’re not running late or in a hurry to finish. If you got in the biggest fight of your life the night before with your SO, see if you can reschedule without a penalty (I never charge people for rescheduling because what’s the point of forcing a session to happen?) Take some time before the session to unwind, meditate, calm down, whatever you need to do to get your mind focused and clear.
- Know your body and your voice
There are hundreds of lists out there of what foods and beverages to avoid. For the majority of people, these lists are pretty accurate. But there are exceptions. Be sure to know your body and your voice and how it might react to certain foods, either positively or negatively. I always tell people my own story regarding typical “no-no” foods and my own voice. You will always see “caffeine”, “dairy” and “sugar” at the top of the lists of foods/beverages to avoid before singing, but I had one of my best vocal lessons ever when I was going through extreme stress in my life and was living off of Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha’s which are loaded with caffeine, dairy and sugar. I had had 2 that morning! But seriously, for me at that time, it worked. Keep a journal that connects what you eat, when you eat and when you sing with how your voice feels. You will start to see correlations between certain foods and how your voice performs.
I hope this has given you some tips that will help you rock your next record. Feel free to email or pm me on socials for specific questions!
Becky Willard is a Warm Audio featured artist, a music producer, recording engineer, songwriter, composer, vocalist and mentor. She began working with artists almost 30 years ago as a vocal and songwriting coach. It was a natural transition from coach to producer as she guided singers searching for their sound and began recording them in her home studio.
In 2010, Becky founded Vox Fox Studios and has become the go-to producer for many Utah artists as well as artists from all over the world. These artists go to Becky to produce their music because they know they will get their best vocal performances, modern production sounds and mixes that are “radio-ready”. As a songwriter herself and session vocalist, her songs and voice can be heard in dozens of TV shows and movies. As a woman in a male-dominated field, Becky is actively engaged in educating and inspiring young women in her community and worldwide to pursue music production and engineering.