First and foremost it is important to note that not every artist or frontman of a group is going to be good at singing, but yet there they are trying to make it happen. One way to avoid dealing with poor singers in the studio is to find out what they sound like ahead of time. When an artist comes to me looking to record their music, one of the first things I will ask for from them is a video of them performing their songs and/or previous recordings. Videos will tell you what their live performance is like and what you may be up against. Previous recordings will tell you what other engineers have been able to with their voices. Sometimes these recordings may actually sound good, which means there is a means of getting what you need from the vocalist. Based on what you hear, you should determine whether or not you think you have the means of making them sound good. If you believe it's possible, proceed with caution.
In addition to determining their skill level, you may also be able to help them improve before coming to the studio. While it is never recommended that vocalists change their daily routine right before coming into the studio (because this can actually worsen performance), if you can let them know well in advance what they should be doing, it can be beneficial. Two things that I find really help are short, intense, daily swims to open up the lungs and spicy food to clear up the nostrils. Additionally, make sure they get their lyrics memorized (I cannot stress this enough).
In the Studio
Though this is often a frustrating tactic for both the artist and engineer, if a vocalist shows up and doesn't seem to know his/her material well enough, it is worth it to tell them to go home and practice more before beginning a recording session. Assuming they're "on their game," here's what you can do to further improve their performance.
- Make sure they are comfortable. If a vocalist is not feeling relaxed, they will not perform well. Ask them if they'd like some water or if there's anything you can do to help them feel more at ease.
- Have a piano or keyboard on hand. This will allow you to coach the singer through matching pitches, either single notes or melodic phrases, which is greatly beneficial for getting them to perform where they need to for the next tip.
- Auto-Tune. Auto-Tune is your friend. If you can get the singer to perform well enough to sound good through Auto-Tune, it can definitely sound good with manual edits afterwards.
- More coaching. If there are certain things they are doing that just don't sound good or would sound better a different way, let them know. Pay attention to things like the way they connect words, how they pronounce consonants and vowels, and their sonic emotion. Note: If they have the lyrics memorized, the emotion will come a lot more naturally.
- Layering. Once you've done the previous steps, one thing you can do to smooth out rough spots is layer the vocals. When done correctly and aligned together, this not only makes the performance sound more powerful, but will also help to hide imperfections. The key here is making sure the singer performs each layer the same exact way.
- It is also important to note that not all singers will nail everything perfectly in a single take. Combining takes (comping) to form one solid take will often be necessary. Be sure this is done on every layer if it is needed.
While putting these tricks into action may not leave you with the most amazing vocal performance ever in the history of space and time, you will end up with something that's mixable, listenable, and in many cases actually enjoyable, and the artist will likely be thankful for your extra efforts and believe you're a magician, which is often what we as engineers need to be sometimes.
Thanks for reading! Questions or concerns? Contact me!