During vocal recording sessions even the most confident performers can find themselves in a mental place that undermines their ability to produce their best results. As a producer, recording engineer, vocalist, or—in the case of many of us—as all of the above, you need to have some techniques up your sleeve to help put the nervous singer at ease.
Nervousness can be due to a lack of experience or anxiety about meeting expectations. Some vocalists start to have second thoughts about putting themselves in the spotlight—since the vocal is, by design, the most obvious thing in a song, this “high visibility” factor can cause the vocalist to tighten up, anxious at how he or she will be judged. This anxiety can be amplified by the way recordings are usually made. Often the vocal is the last thing to be laid down. Everyone else has done their part, now they’re hanging around, relaxing in the control room, waiting for the vocal magic, inadvertently putting a lot of pressure on the vocalist. No wonder singers and their voices sometimes crack under pressure.
You need to learn how to set up conditions and create an atmosphere that make a great performance more likely. The operative word here is performance. It’s such a weighted word. A performance is an activity that requires skill and happens in a public arena. The performer knows that he or she can’t escape the outcome. They will be judged on how well they perform. If your singer starts to think ahead and judge him- or herself in a negative manner, you need to turn things around quickly and get the focus back on the moment.
In the zone
Performers of all stripes, from actors to sports figures, report that their best performances happen when they are barely aware that they’re performing at all. This “mindless” state happens when self-awareness drops away, where the performer becomes totally immersed in the doing, not the circumstances. You want to enable that state for your vocalist.
Begin by being prepared. If you sense that someone might tighten up in the recording studio, spend as much time as you can on pre-production. Make sure the vocalist knows the song and has worked out their approach before you hit the studio. Have them perform guide vocals during bed-track sessions—this lets them feel what it’s like to be in the studio and performing in a natural way, so they’re comfortable when the big day comes. (Oh, and get the best possible audio quality on those guide vocals. They may be the best takes you get.)
Hearing what you want—and only what you want
Get rid of as many distractions as you can from the studio. That includes banishing everyone who’s not essential to the vocal tracking session from the control room. You’ll have to decide who’s critical and who’s not—maybe the song’s author, or someone in the group to whom the singer is close, whose musical opinion they trust and respect, would be good to have around for moral and musical support. Everyone else should be sent to lunch.
When I’m producing, I’ve even been known to eject the recording engineer and man the console myself! This more direct relationship with the artist gives me better communications and helps me pace the session, and the artist feels cared about and connected, and therefore at ease.
I find it very important to monitor the same mix that the singer is hearing. Recording engineers usually create headphone mixes based solely on the comments of the performers, adding or subtracting various instruments and effects on request. This is fine if the performers can articulate exactly what it is they want, but the artist with a less sophisticated ear and technical vocabulary might settle for a less-than-perfect monitor mix. A great-sounding headphone mix can be very inspiring, boosting the confidence level and consequently the performance.
The human angle—words and setting
It’s very important to develop a positive and respectful attitude in the studio at all times, but it’s especially critical when working with someone whose confidence is shaken. In these situations I’m careful to phrase my comments and advice in terms of the song as a whole—I don’t say someone is rushing, instead I suggest that laying back on the beat will give the track more of a yearning quality, or if someone’s behind the beat I say the song needs more urgency. This gets the focus (and hopefully some of the pressure) off of the vocalist himself by putting him to work in the service of the song.
I use a lot of imagery in my comments. I might remark that the bridge puts me in mind of a place or a feeling rather than discuss it in musical terms. If the artist is having pitch problems I’ll remind them to see the note in their head before they sing it. Reminding singers to breathe sounds ridiculous, but a few deep breaths before a take are amazingly effective in calming agitated nerves.
The right physical environment helps as well—low or intimate lighting, or stage-like lighting for a natural performer, smaller spaces inside the tracking room (maybe a little vocal booth built from gobos). An extremely anxious singer can often be helped by having them face away from the control room to sing.
If things are still going badly I tend to end the session quickly, framing my decision in as neutral a manner as possible. A philosophical “It just isn’t meant to happen today” is all that’s necessary. Give the singer some positive comments and things to work on until you reconvene.
All of these strategies will help, but the truth is that confidence must ultimately come from the artists themselves. It’s critical to know the singer in advance, understanding motivations and sources of anxiety. A good producer is a combination of shrink, coach and friend. You have to find a mixture of all three that works with your artist.
In the end your technical skills can polish an okay performance. Pitch correction and editing have saved the day on many a session. For me, though, that’s the last resort—putting in time to get the best from your singer always pays off.