Creative thinking can save a vocal session that doesn’t proceed according to plan. Something as simple as an overdub, with the singer in an iso booth, can turn into “a situation” if the singer has an unforeseen problem. It’s nobody’s fault, but somebody better do something—and that somebody is you.
The problem: Your singer is used to performing live but has little studio experience. What if he or she has never tried to record a vocal overdub?
I ran into this situation while recording David Borough and Jackie Piercy Loken of Radio Rail several years ago. David and Jackie had always performed live, and Jackie wasn’t accustomed to singing an overdub. I forget why we decided we needed the overdub, but shortly after we began, it became apparent that Jackie was having considerable trouble working with the prerecorded track in the headphones. After several failed attempts to stay in time with the music, she was ready to throw in the towel.
Fortunately, David and I came up with a quick solution. David donned a pair of headphones and stood outside the booth where Jackie could see him. I put up a mic for him and brought up his voice in both sets of phones. Then I killed the playback in Jackie’s phones, so all she heard was her own voice and David’s. A few moments later, we rolled a take. David followed the tape, Jackie only followed David—like during a live performance—and we had success.
Playing the air
A common problem: The singer listens to the track during an overdub, keeps taking a split-second to react and ends up behind on his timing. This is what happened when Los Angeles-based musician Tony Pappas was trying to overdub his lead vocal to replace the rough vocal track on a tune. Tony had no trouble singing with headphones or performing an overdub, but he was having trouble staying in time with the track.
I suggested to Tony that he play air-guitar while singing the overdub. Everyone thought I was crazy, but Tony was willing to give it a try. He strummed his air-guitar just like he had done with the real guitar while recording the original track. It worked—but when Tony saw us watching, he felt self-conscious and began losing his concentration. I turned his mic stand around so that he couldn’t see his colleagues in the studio, we rolled another take, and he had no trouble staying in time. In fact, he did so well that we went ahead and had him double the vocal on the choruses.