5 New Songs: Closer to Free!

finding freedom change

New Music Means Room to Grow

I am always so excited to be in the process of recording new music. Unrecorded songs seem small and shapeless in their infancy. When I handed these 5 new songs of mine, just tiny demo recordings on my phone, to my producer, I recalled ttall treehis process from years gone by.

Every record that Scott and I worked on together, whether as Out of the Grey or my solo projects, began in this way. Baby songs ready to be born and begin to grow up. What fun when players and producers and engineers join the mix. It was exciting to see what my babies would grow up to be. They just need some extra love and attention to make them grow.

Perils of Vulnerability and Creativity

Songwriting is fraught with the perils of vulnerability and creativity. The hardest part of the process is the initial sharing what I’ve done with others. Others who have their opinions and judgements and their own creative ideas. In song meetings with the record labels, I felt like I was lining up my children for scrutiny. Do you like this one? Isn’t this other one amazing? No, you want to move on to the next one already? The producer would then have his say on how best to dress the chosen ones before launching them into the world. It was exciting and exhausting too. I have a chapter in my book Lifelines all about the recording process.

New Music With a New Producer

This time the situation is a bit different. I do not have a record label. What I do have is a new producer with lots of new ideas.
I know him as Julian Dente.

julian dente YOUTHHe is my firstborn and he grew up in the studio, on the road, and at home making music. These days he’s a young man recording his own new songs and adding brilliant touches of creativity to the world.

I decided to hire him before he gets too busy to work with me. He co-wrote and produced 3 songs on the most recent Out of the Grey recording called A Little Light Left. I love his sonic style and I think you will too. The tracks are done and the music is exclusively digital. You can download them here or find all 5 on Spotify and Google music.

~Christine

 

P.S. Julian definitely has his opinions and judgements and suggestions for making my songs better. How can I stop being Mom and let him tell me what to do for once? This is getting a bit tricky!

 

 

“The Only Moment”: The Story Behind the Song

Out of the Grey CD cover

Muggy Mid-July State of Mind

Oh, my muggy mid-July state of mind!  Can’t seem to focus my thoughts on anything productive. The air is heavy on my shoulders and drapes itself in a shiny layer onto my skin. I feel stuck and can’t find the energy to make a move. My musings take a turn for the worse as my wondering and worrying settle in.  To be sure, I do like the moist warmth of summer with my bare feet on a mossy lawn, wearing shorts and t-shirts all day long. But this mid-summer ennui muddles my head. I am not bored exactly.  “Bored” is a four-letter word in our house. I am just at a still point in my experience of time and meaning. It reminds me of a another July from years gone by:

 

Was wishing my head was as clear as this midnight sky

Spread across my muggy mid-July state of mind

Was wanting my heart to be free like this summer breeze

Singing through your fingers on the guitar strings…

 

Under the Weather

In my family, we often blame bodily afflictions and bad moods on the weather patterns. Feeling head-achey today? Could be a low-pressure system coming in. Feeling lethargic or sad? Maybe all of this rain is getting to you, stirring up mildew and mold allergies. Honestlythe seasons affect the way I see the world. I would not be surprised if the sultry atmosphere literally clouds my vision and clogs up my body and soul.  Maybe mid-July is a natural time for looking back over my shoulder, wondering where spring has gone and for stretching my neck ahead, worrying about fall coming on:

 

But I’m looking back, wondering where the time we spent went

I’m looking ahead, worrying about time that hasn’t been yet

 

The Only Moment

I wrote this lyric many a mid-summer’s night ago. Like a dream, 27 years have passed since that moment in my life. Before kids and current concerns, I was young and wrestling with my experience of time and meaning. Some things never change.  Scott and I were sitting on that tiny slab of patio behind our one-bedroom apartment in Nashville. We were newlyweds and newly-moved, wondering what was to come as we worked on our music together. I remember that particular July night in which Scott was relaxed and playing his guitar while I was anxious and struggling to be in the moment.  We were about to record our first CD and make our way in the music world. As usual, my heart was off kilter, tilting backwards in wonder at the time gone by and also leaning forward in worry about what was to come.  However, I knew where I wanted my head and heart to be:

 

The only moment I can see is here as clear as your love for me

The only moment I should be living is this one we’re in, this one

 

Back-Patio Peace

In this moment in 2017, another summer swelters and Scott and I sit on the back patio of our home with so much to be grateful for. The kids and the music have come and gone in sweet succession.  I can look back and ahead with lots of evidence against speculation and fretting. Some things do change and I realize I am saturated in back-patio peace. In spite of the weather, my head and heart are clear. As I revel in the pleasure of where we are, I can treasure the time–this time– and let the music and the days take my heart where they will. I can’t live the moments all at once. The only moment in which I can live is this one we’re in, this one.

If you’d like to hear the song and the rest of the lyric, it’s on the Out of the Grey CD in iTunes. For more stories behind the songs, check out my book, Lifelines: Tracing My Journey in Story and song.

10 Tips for Better Songwriting

piano/ organ in amber glow

Whenever I hear the intro to Steely Dan’s song Ajajoy wells up in my chest.

Back when I was a student at Berklee College of Music, Steely Dan became one of my favorite bands with their perfect mix of pop and jazz.

In one songwriting class, my teacher Pat Pattison drew attention to the lyric from another song of theirs titled, “Deacon Blues”:

Learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel

To the young wanna-be songwriters in that classroom, that ambiguous line about dying behind the wheel was a puzzle and a revelation. Does the singer mean literally dying because he’s drinking and driving?

Or is it metaphorical for being in control all the way to the day he dies? Or both?

Steely Dan’s lyrical and harmonic complexities sparked my desire to write songs with depth. I wanted my audience to discover a new layer with every listen. For those like me who are still students of songwriting, I offer these ideas:

1) Listen before you write.

You can’t write a good song without hearing a great one first. Find some inspiring music. I like to set the bar high and get my creativity pumping with some Billy Joel or Joni Mitchell.

Maybe a song from my teenage days that connects on a hidden plane.

Joe Walsh’s “Indian Summer” gets me every time. I find myself back on our family boat, cruising the Susquehanna River near Pequea, Pennsylvania. It’s September and I’m 13 years old. The longing and loss of innocence and freedom wash over me like the wake of a waterskiing fall. I’m ready to write that song now.

2) Write every day.

Yes, schedule your muse and expect her to show up. She might be groggy. Feed her some coffee and get to work.

Let all of your jewels and your drivel out in the privacy of your writing room. You are practicing a habit. Later, you can pick and choose which ideas get to go outside and play. The rest of them will be your sad and sappy little secrets.

Consider it your job to produce Quantity.

Quality will emerge in spits and spurts. Sometimes pieces of one song actually belong to pieces of another song. Puzzle it together.

3) Spill your guts.

Pour your heart out and let emotions lead the way. If your heart and gut are connected to your song subject, you’ll be able to go with the flow for a long time. Stay slippery and don’t let the inspiration dry up before you’ve caught and landed all of your choicest ideas. I have a few exercises for doing just that in my Singer/Songwriter Handbook.

4) Start with a title.

Have you written some pithy lines and ideas in a notebook somewhere?

Do you have a few titles that make you want to sing?

Start with one of these and see where they lead.

“He is Not Silent” is one of my songs inspired by a book titled, He Is There and He Is Not Silent by Francis Schaeffer. I got all fired up while reading so I headed straight for my piano, pencil in hand. Borrowing ideas like “we are not quiet, we are not listening,” I came up with the chorus first. My creative burst followed closely on the heels of an inspiring title. Catch any thread you can and don’t let go!

5) Tell the truth.

Honesty is appealing, like the song with that title by Billy Joel. We’re all human and we love vulnerability in others (even though we hate to reveal it in ourselves). Show some brokenness, a chink in your armor. The Chainsmokers have a cool song called “Honest.” They sing the truth about life on the road and on the radio. Their candor draws me in to their artistry.

Read my short blog here about vulnerability in songwriting and recording new music.

6) Play with plagiarism.

What am I saying? Plagiarism is a dirty word. Don’t do it!                                                                                                             But, hey, we are all imitators. None of us comes up with a completely new song idea.

All creativity is derivative except the original Creator’s stuff. Everybody copies His work. So celebrate your influences.

Borrow–don’t steal– a few ideas from a good song you like. Then get to work making it your own and making sure there’s no direct copying.You know what happens when you infringe on a copyright, right? Write!

7) Be relatable and relevant.

No one gets a pass in this life. Hard is part of living. If you’re like me and you struggle with faith in God every day, then say so.

If you want to write a song about living with pain, go for it, but I might beat you to it.

If you want to sing about how staying in love is not easy then write that song. I did just that in “To Keep Love Alive.”

Teens love Taylor Swift because her music is relatable and relevant to their lives, like in the song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

8) Run with scissors.

Take some risks. But only if you’ve got a point.

Controversy for the sake of drawing attention and outrage is not legitimate artistic expression.

However, there will always be blurred lines. From Randy Newman’s “Short People” to Madonna’s “Papa, Don’t Preach,”artists often try to shine a light on an important topic. Certainly, we write at our own risk. Everyone in the crowd won’t be jumping up and down. But some may be getting the message for a change.

9) Make every word count.

Should I use “the” or “and” in this line? It is a solid question when writing a pop song. The nuance of such little words affects the song’s meaning.

Also, pop music doesn’t give you time to spread your ideas out. They’ve got to be short, sweet, and carry a lot of meaning. Like poetry, each word can have a well of eloquence beneath it if you take the time to dig in.

10) Hunt and Kill your throwaway lines.

Admit it, you’ve held on for dear life to some crappy lyrics.

You wrote them on the fly and they fit.

  • They came so easy.
  • They made a great rhyme.
  • They’re so clever you can’t bear to snuff them out.

But they’re so predictable, so done already. Get more creative!

Much of modern worship music, for example, has lots of cliche´and little imagination. Many mainstream pop songs, too. Boring.

They can be placeholders but eventually erase you must. Hire someone or cover your eyes and take a stab.

Kill those darlings because you know they’re just no good.

11) Bonus Tip: Be an Expanding HuMan.

Learn to work in a new way, try something you’ve never done in your songwriting.

  • Sit at the piano instead of with a guitar. 
  • Find a co-writer.
  • Learn a few new chords, would ya?

You are not gazing through the glass anymore.You’ve bought the dream.

Remember, songwriting is the privilege of sharing the things we know and love with those of our kind.

PS If you want more Tips and Tricks and Techniques and lots of exercises to improve your songwriting (and singing), check out my book: The Singer and the Songwriter Handbook and Workbook on Amazon or my store.

PPS If you want other posts like these, sign up for my newsletter on the right side of this page and I’ll let you know when my next blog posts. CHEERS!

Bubble Girl: The Story Behind the Song

painting of girl in a water drop blowing bubbles and hair swooping upward

Story Behind the Song

The “Bubble Girl” song is from the latest Out of the Grey album titled, A Little Light Left, by Christine and Scott Dente.

Click here to see the lyrics or view them at the bottom of this page.

Bubble Girl #1

This girl is an amalgam of sorts. Parts of our 2 daughters and our 6 nieces combine to form the lead character of this song. Chloe, our youngest, was the first inspiration for this idea. When our oldest daughter, Carina, was 16 years old and thinking about college, she, Chloe and I visited a few universities within driving distance of our home in Nashville, Tennessee. One of these was a small Christian college only 100 miles away.

The lovely campus impressed us as did the friendly professors and students. But something was bothering Chloe, then only 14. Something about the atmosphere of the place. “It feels like a bubble,” she said. She was referring to the monochromatic buildings and rooms which seemed a bit stuffy and a little too perfect. Also, the combination of the isolated campus and the compulsory chapel attendance added to the constricted atmosphere.

Later, while driving home, Chloe added that the student body did not look very diverse. She did not think this college would give Carina a chance to interact with a variety of people. I was surprised at how much she had absorbed in such a short visit. Yet Chloe did and does have an acute sensitivity to such things. Carina ended up at a different Christian college after graduation and Chloe, two years later, went to a medium-sized state university. Even there she felt the “bubble” at times and often left campus to meet her need for diversity by interacting with little kids and older people.

Bubble Girl #2

girl with purple hair blowing bubbles falling downward in a blue water drop as her hair swoops up
painting by Magdalena Youmans

My second inspiration to write this song came from a painting by my niece, Maggie. She is my sister’s youngest daughter and her painting, as you can see on the right, depicts a beautiful girl encased in a blue drop of water. Her hair is sweeping upward as she sinks downward, blowing bubbles as she goes.

When I first saw this watercolor, I tried to imagine how teenage girls must feel at times. The girl in the painting evoked isolation and loneliness, like someone cut off from the bigger world. To me, she was a young girl wondering what life held for her. Like a drop in the pond or a frog on a frond, this girl in the teardrop, blowing bubbles with her eyes closed, might be imagining a bigger world.

Maggie’s painting was a poignant image for me although I may have read more into it than she intended. In fact, “Bubble Girl” is my title, not hers.

Bubble Girl #3

Some of my other nieces seemed to be in a hurry to grow up, graduate and get out of the house. I remember myself as a teenager, always looking for what was next instead of enjoying the here and now of being a kid.

It seemed to me these young ladies wanted to leave home before knowing what was on the other side of the gate. I saw a rocky place ahead. Did they see a sweet escape instead?

I wanted to slow them down, tell them that growing up comes soon enough. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have ears to hear beyond the moment in which we are living. Especially teenagers. How can she know what she don’t know? She’s gonna find what she’s gonna find.

Bubble Girl #4

Another perspective for the song came from the fact that all of these girls were mostly educated at home. Homeschooling parents often operate from a protective and — dare I say — controlling nature. I will speak for myself: I didn’t want my kids to grow up too quickly and get stained by the world any sooner than necessary. Like most parents, homeschooler or otherwise, I wanted to keep them safe and delay the inevitable crashing on the rocks. (Also, I think education is about so much more than most schools are offering these days but that’s another story.)

On the other hand, the stigma of being different has affected my kids and my sister’s and brother’s kids in some negative ways. In writing Bubble Girl, I attempted to see the many dimensions of the bubble beyond my limited perspective. Those girls are mostly grown up now and are making their splashes in the world on many different shores. If I had to live it all again with them, I would definitely change a few things. If I could cure loneliness and alienation and help in the search for significance and connection, I would do it! I But at the end of the day, I would still be saying, “take your time, take your time.”

Bubble Girl by Christine and Scott Dente

Bubble girl doesn’t want to be here no more
Wants to make her splash on a distant shore
Like a drop in the pond
Just a frog on a frond
Bubble Girl wants a bigger world

 

And what she don’t know, she don’t know
What she’s gonna find, she’s gonna find
tell her for me to take her time, take her time

 

Such a girl can’t hear what we have to say
Got water in her ears, eyes a dreamy haze
like a tear on her cheek
Lonely stone in the creek
Bubble Girl wants to break away

 

What she don’t know, she don’t know
What she’s gonna find, she’s gonna find
tell her for me to take her time, take her time

 

we see a sweet cocoon
she sees herself marooned
we see a rocky place ahead
she sees a sweet escape instead

 

She don’t know what she don’t know
She’s gonna find what she’s gonna find
tell her for me

 

What she don’t know, cos she don’t know
What she’s gonna find, she’s gonna find
tell her for me, ask her for me
to take her time, take her time

The Voice: You Are Your Instrument!


graphic of singer music notes coming out of her mouth

I will never forget that ONE concert in college where I sang that ONE song with that ONE unforgettable note!

No, not the thrilling Whitney Houston/Carrie Underwood/Beyoncé kind of note:

as high as the heavens, long as the day and loud as a train.

 No, this note–my note–was quite the opposite.

The VOICE: the Instrument

It took me a long time to realize that as a singer, I really am my own instrument. It can be a help or a hindrance to contain in our bodies the means of the music. We singers possess a lot of intimate control and awareness of the subtleties of sound. A good singer knows no separation from the flow of breath, pitch, volume, rhythm and emotion coming through the throat and lifting from the lips. Unlike, say, a cello player, the vocalist has not even a synaptic nano-second between impulse and sound. No fingers on strings or hands on hardwood, the singer glides effortlessly on a melodic whim. From the shape of the voice box, throat, nasal cavities, facial bone structures, tongue, mouth and lips comes the uniqueness that is the voice, my voice, your voice, our instrument.

 

The VOICE: the Hindrance

Many conditions are a hindrance to singing. Fatigue and vocal cord weakness are the worst. Add phlegm and tension and dehydration to the mix and we are in trouble. Also, the hidden flaws of the vocal cords contribute to singing struggles and even failure. These days, voice specialists can see what is happening in the larynx using cameras that reveal cord inflammation and even scar tissue called nodulesNodules can resolve on their own if the voice can rest and heal from overuse. A disruption in the connective vibration of the vocal folds either from phlegm or inflammation or scarring can cause huge problems for those who regularly rely on their singing.

The VOICE: the Incident

I didn’t know about any of this that evening as the band began playing my favorite Linda Ronstadt ballad. I sang the first verse and felt the fatigue of the previous hour of singing setting in. My wobbly sound was not the worst of it, though. My biggest mistake was wanting to sound like the soulful belter that Linda was. At the climax of the chorus when the big payoff arrived, I held out that note. That note. It started out strong, but, to my horror, my clear tone suddenly distorted and split into an awful gargling kind of cacophony. My instrument had found a mind of its own. What was it thinking?

To this day, I do not know exactly what happened to make my voice get so out of control that night. It was probably a combination of fatigue, dehydration, nerves and perhaps even nodules. Also, I didn’t know the limits of my instrument. I was trying to sound like Linda Ronstadt instead of finding my own vocal style. I was not, and am not, a belter with the power to pull it off.

photo girl with guitar belting her song

The VOICE: the Help

My voice students hear me talk about vocal health a lot.

Our instruments need what our bodies need:

  • lots of rest
  • plenty of water
  • healthful food
  • exercise

Our voices do not need:

  • stress and tension
  • coughing
  • shouting
  • over-singing

Adhering to these helpful lifestyle choices, we can then build vocal strength and other vocal techniques on that solid foundation. Most of all, we need to know our limits and try to find the God-given voice that is ours alone. Then our strengths and singularities can find their way to the song and our very being becomes part of the performance.

 

If you want to know more about the voice, singing technique and lots of helpful exercises and applications to singing, check out my handbook/workbook, The Singer and the Songwriter, which has an entire section devoted to singing. If you’d like the piano cover, you’ll find it here.   See below a sample of what’s inside.     ~Christine

the singer and the songwriter handbook cafe cover christine dente      the singer and the songwriter handbook piano cover christine dentethe singer and the songwriter handbook sample voice technique christine dente

 

The Recording Process #1: Singing Lead Vocals

christine dente recording lead vocals

Recording Lead Vocals: Ordchristine dente recording lead vocalser of Appearance

I thoroughly enjoy the process of recording lead vocals. I usually know my song inside and out by the time it’s time to record my main vocal. It’s my opportunity to play with the words and melody, trying out and creating new features as I sing.

Sometimes I take the studio experience for granted. But I know not everyone knows how the recording process goes. Here’s a basic list of events:

  1. Tracking: this is usually the first step in the recording process. The instrumentalists/players come to the recording studio to record the basic parts to the songs. In pop music, this usually involves drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, and keyboards. Add the producer and engineer and hear the tracks come to life with the skills in the room blooming together.
  2. Scratch vocals: The singer usually sings during tracking to guide the players. These are not usually keeper vocals just markers to be discarded later.
  3. Overdubs: these are the parts of the song we record after tracking, often acoustic guitars, more keyboards and other instruments such as strings, woodwinds, percussion etc. These are musical parts that we layer on top of the tracks, adding sonic fullness and rhythmic intensity to the music.
  4. Lead vocals: these are the recorded vocals that end up on the final song recording. I usually sing these toward the end of the song-recording process.
  5. BGV’s: the background vocals or backing vocals make their appearance as the last recorded parts, the finishing touches that add so much to the song without drawing much attention to themselves.

Making My Appearance

I usually begin recording lead vocals after overdubs and before BGV’s. This is my favorite part of the recording process. Now is my chance to flesh out all of the vocal ideas that have been floating in my head with no bones on them, ideas about phrasing and melodic nuances.

There are aspects of the lyrics that take shape for me only in the solitude of the vocal booth. With headphones on and distractions gone, I begin to sing with the recorded tracks. My voice has just the right amount of reverb, delay and other effects (thanks to Richie Biggs, sound engineer extraordinaire) which allow my lips, my microphone and my ears to form a seamless and intimate loop.

Too much reverb and I slip and slide, unable to get a foothold on the tonal center. Too little reverb and I’m inhibited by the lack of depth and polish in my sound. The perfect mix of my vocal sound and the tracks makes all the difference in how well I perform in this lead vocal zone.

Things Are Not Always As They Appear

You may think I sing the song once and the vocal is a keeper, ready for radio. Ha, no, you know better than that!

I must go back and fix a flat note here, a rhythmic glitch there, a nasal noise somewhere. And yes, that is sort of how it works.

But first, I sing –and record– the entire song anywhere between 5 and 10 times. Usually, by then my voicchristine sings in the vocal booth, recording lead vocalse is fully warmed up and open, making these multiple takes keeper vocals which the producer and I will draw from later.

Now it’s time to move on and record more tracks of just the verses. Maybe 4 or 5 passes of these. Then I may record several passes of just the choruses and the bridge. Having all of these saved passes, we know whether or not we have what we need for a great keeper vocal.

If not, punching in is an option. Say there’s one phrase or word that I have yet to sing well. I just go sharp or flat each time I get to it.  The engineer can ‘punch me in’ at just that spot in the song. That’s how we fix some of the nitty gritty details by singing that spot over and over until I get it right.

Keeping up Appearances

Now that we know we have all of these recorded tracks of my lead vocal with good stuff in each, it’s time for the next process.  I will write about that process in my next blog. It’s called vocal comping and it accomplishes our mission to get the best-finished lead vocals we can. Til then, thanks for listening!

Christine

READ NEXT: Comping the Lead Vocals

 

The Recording Process #2: Comping the Lead Vocals

Christine Dente and Julian Dente in the recording studio

Comping Lead Vocals: The Studio Magic

Christine Dente with producer, Julian Dente, both wearing headphones during vocal comping recording lead vocals.
I take a quick photo with my producer, Julian Dente, during vocal recording.

Have you ever wondered how the finished vocals that you hear on a recording can sound so flawless?

Do you stand amazed at the perfect pitch most singers seem to have these days compared to, say, recordings from the ’60’s and ’70’s when the singer occasionally went sharp or flat?

Maybe you’ve already heard about tuning the vocals and other tricks toward perfection, thanks to the age of digital recording.

There’s another tool for optimal finished vocals that I have used when recording my songs. It’s called vocal comping and I want to describe how it works. But first, a few definitions:

The Dictionary

  • Lead vocals: the recording of the singer singing the song several times, usually toward the end of the recording process.
  • Takes: the individual recorded vocal tracks, saved digitally for later use
  • Tracks: separate recordings of instruments and voices saved digitally
  • Tape: the old medium for recording our first Out of the Grey records in which sound did actually ‘go to tape’ that could hold multiple and separate tracks of recorded information. Now recording is mostly digital/computer-based.
  • Tuning: auto-tune is computer software that can correct pitches digitally with minute precision. Sometimes this is used as an effect in itself, creating that robotic, digital vocal sound in pop music.

The Tracks

As I described in my previous blog about singing lead vocals, I usually sing the song from start to finish between 5 and 10 times, after my voice is warmed up. I will warm up somewhat before entering the vocal booth but mostly my voice hits its groove when I sing on the microphone as the engineer works on getting the best sound.

Recently, I recruited my son, Julian, to produce 5 new songs I’ve written. We started recording my lead vocals after he had created instrumental tracks for the songs. He did this by programming some parts using his computer and also by playing and recording keyboard and electric guitar parts. Putting this all together from the song demos I had given him, he made some beautiful music.

The Takes

sound waves show my vocal tracks on the computer screen comping recording lead vocals
sound waves show my vocal tracks on the computer screen

The photo above shows us after recording multiple takes of me singing the entire song along with his tracks. (Julian was both producer and recording engineer in this part of the process.)

In singing the leads, I usually perform the song in much the same way for the first several takes. After I feel I’ve gotten what I want from the song, I use the next takes for experimenting. I’ll try changing up the rhythm of a word or phrase, knowing I might want an alternative to the way I initially sing it. Maybe I’ll try a slight melodic change to add flavor and choices for the next phase of the process. Julian will suggest changes as well.

After this, we have a sense of whether or not we’ve recorded what we need for the lead. For example, I know I keep singing that word “things” flat and out of time. I’ll sing it again and he’ll punch me in on just that word, recording only that split second in the midst of the phrase.

As another example, he may tell me that a melody I’m singing doesn’t seem to work with the guitar part. We may go back and try a slightly different melody a few times, finding one that fits. Here’s a 24-second video of us listening in the Dente home studio.

The Tool

Vocal Comping means compiling all of the recorded vocal tracks to create the best lead vocal on one track. The final performance could come from mostly one track. It may have had a lot of good elements because the singer was in ‘the zone’ on that one particular take. Or the lead vocal could be created from bits and pieces of multiple takes, cut and pasted together with ease on the computer.

Listening through to 5 or more takes plus any extra verses and choruses can be tedious. However, there is usually gold buried in the layers and now it’s time to dig it out. Sometimes the singer is happy to leave and leave the comping up to the producer and engineer. Julian and I decided to do the comping together right after we recorded all of the lead vocals on my song, Butterflies Inside. Listening to the takes line by line, we made quick decisions about whether or not it was a good performance.

paper with markings showing check marks or x's on various lines Exhibit A

Usually, I use a printed lyric sheet to mark up and keep track of what words and lines sounded good on the track we are listening to. This time, however, Julian and I each started with a blank page and blocked out the verses and choruses using columns for 4 or 5 takes in a very loose grid.

As you can see in exhibit A to the left, it’s a shorthand way to listen and make quick decisions. I used X’s to say, “no way, that sounded terrible!” and I used a √  to say, “hey, maybe….”  I circled some words I thought were good in the midst of a phrase that was not a keeper.

Sometimes Julian and I agreed perfectly on which track had the best line in this or that part of the lyric. Other times he had an entirely different idea of what was good. He might choose a phrase that I thought less-than-perfect but he wanted to keep it for its tone or its texture.

Julian would cut and paste as we went through the song, comping our favorite performances together. For example, perhaps the first verse used most lines from track one with a few words pasted in from track 5. The chorus may be more pieced together because I sang it inconsistently. Verse 2 saw a good performance all the way through track 4 so that’s a keeper.

He put it all together as we went, using software magic and engineering skills like cut-and-paste and crossfades. The finished lead vocal track became (almost) the polished performance that we hear in our stereo speakers. Next, come the background vocals. More about that later.

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Thanks for listening,

Christine

READ NEXT: Singing Background Vocals, Part 1

The Recording Process #3: Singing Background Vocals, Part 1

recording vocals, little terrier, Josie, the family dog, wearing headphones

Singing Background Vocals: Starting It Up

Have you heard about background vocals or BGV’s for short?

Back Ground Vocals are often the final task and one of the hardest parts of the recording process. Once the artist, producer, and players have recorded all of the tracks, the overdubs, and the lead vocals (read my blog post here ), and after they have comped the lead vocals (read that blog post here), BGV’s become the finishing touches.

They answer the question, “What else does this song need?”

Because that answer is elusive, the decision on how many background parts to add and where in the song they should be added becomes all important.

Making It Up

a woman's beautiful red lipstick lips

I imagine adding BGV’s to a song is like a woman dressing for an evening out.

After choosing her clothing carefully, fixing her hair to perfection, she makes the final touches by putting on make-up to enhance her beauty without it drawing attention to itself. Too much color here and it draws our eyes to that particular instead of the whole face. Her make-up should complement and not compete with her beauty.

Accordingly, BGV’s should serve the beauty of the song without attracting too much attention to themselves.

Backing It Up

I’m a big fan of singing background vocals. It’s so much fun! In fact, I have sung background vocals on my own solo projects as well as our seven Out of the Grey recordings. Also, I’ve sung on commercials and other artists’ projects. Given my experience with BGV’s, I’ll explain the process with a few categories:

  1. Doubling
  2. Stacking
  3. Vocal Padsboy in profile belting into a studio microphone
  4. Harmonies
  5. Call and Response
  6. Counter Melodies
  7. Gang Vocals

1. Doubling the lead vocals is quite common and you’ve heard it without knowing it. What happens is this: the singer sings along with their lead vocal, matching their own melody and inflection as closely as possible.

This recorded double fattens the sound of the lead vocal track. Because this new track is almost identical (if the double is really good) but not perfect, it adds a great effect heard in lots of pop music. For example, in All We Need from the Out of the Grey Diamond Days record, the chorus lifts because of the doubled lead in addition to the harmonies.

2. Stacking the vocals means adding more than just a double to a certain vocal track. Some stacks are 3 or 4 or even more separate tracks of the same melody being sung. This creates a very big sound but can also detract from the lead vocal itself.

Stacks are most often used to form a layered sound that vibrates beneath and supports the lead vocals. Here’s an example of a stack-happy lead vocal: “The One I’ve Been Waiting For.”

3. Vocal Pads are often “ooh’s” and “ah’s” that the background vocalist sings and stacks with layered harmonies. These thick pads of sound often underpin the lead vocals. They fill out the sonic landscape and support the lead vocals. The chorus of “Not A Chance” has some nice ‘ahh’s’ for padding.   

4. Harmonies are those vocal parts that the singer adds beneath or above the melody. They are often just a single track and grab a line or two of a verse. We find a lot of single harmonies in pop song verses.

For the choruses, producers commonly add more harmony parts as the song builds. This creates dynamic growth and interest, especially in the out-choruses at the end of a pop song. In “All We Need” and “Steady Me,” I added high harmonies in the choruses.

In “Bubble Girl,” from the latest Out of the Grey CD A Little Light Left, I am singing low harmonies in the second verse which subtly enhance that part of the song. Notice how low the volume is on these harmonies so as to be an underpinning and not a distraction.

Summing It Up

For me, singing BGV’s is an exciting part of the recording process. I like the challenge of blending with my own vocals. Also, when I am invited to sing for other artists or commercials, I get the chance to test my skills in a different way, like matching another’s voice or singing the parts exactly as the producer directs. I especially enjoy the final result: a finished song that was nonexistent before the start of the recording process.

Thanks for listening! READ NEXT: categories 5, 6 & 7 from the list above, BGV’s Part 2

The Recording Process #4: BGV’s Part 2

singing boy in profile belting into a studio microphone

Singing: BGV’s By Definition

In Part 1 of this series about singing background vocals, I described the first 4 items on this list. I have tried to simplify how it all happens in the recording studio with some quick definitions and examples. Read the first part here. Now let’s talk about numbers 5, 6, and 7.

  1. Doubles
  2. Stacks
  3. Vocal Padsboy in profile belting into a studio microphone
  4. Harmonies
  5. Call and Response
  6. Counter Melodies
  7. Gang Vocals

Call and Response

You’ve heard lots of songs that use this cool technique for adding interest and adding other voices to the mix. Usually, the ‘call’ is the lead singer’s part which is answered or echoed by a less- prominent vocal in the background.

Out of the Grey‘s song, “Shine Like Crazy,” on the Rocketown album titled 6.1, is a good example.  Monroe Jones produced this project and in this song, he had Scott and me exchanging lines in the verses. In the choruses, you’ll notice there is also a call and response in which I sing “shine” and then a responsive pad of voices echoes with their own “shine.” Call and response singing sometimes comes close to being a duet. We use this technique a lot in our Out of the Grey music.

Counter Melodies

singing

I like to weave in countermelodies on some parts of my songs. Maybe my classical training plus that Counterpoint 101 class at Berklee College of Music inspired this in me. (By the way, Scott, who was not my husband at the time, and I were in that class together and he got a passing grade only by a hair, thanks to my help! But that’s another blog).

These types of melodies play off of the main melody, maybe going in opposite directions from the original. Or they may add new rhythmic twists.

An example of what I call a counter melody is at the end of the song, “Constant.” It’s on the See Inside record which Brown Bannister produced. You can hear the lyric, melodic, and rhythmic changes I made to the original part which add interest at the very end of the song.

Also, in “Eyes Wide Open,” you’ll notice that the second half of the second verse has an interesting counter-melodic BGV happening on the lyric: “I am trying to be wise, I’m watching You to keep me far from dulling lullabies.”

I urge you to keep your ears wide open to hear examples of this in other music!

Gang Vocals        singing group of people

On my solo project, Voyage, my producer, Scott Dente, had a great idea for the out-choruses of the song, It’s All About You. He brought in some friends to gather around the microphone and sing along with my lead in the last choruses of the song.

As a group, each singer sang the melody for a few recorded passes. On the next few passes, each person sang a harmony. Scott told them to not worry about precision, let it get a little sloppy.

Then on the final few tracks, he had some of the singers back up from the microphone and get a bit shouty on the next passes. This created the gang vocal effect, all the tracks adding up to quite a large crowd of voices. It brings a lot of energy and interest to the end of the song.

On our son Julian’s song, “Father,” you can hear the gang vocal in the final choruses where everyone is singing: “Father, won’t you listen to me, cos I want to believe, I want to believe you.” He had a bunch of his friends come to the studio to be part of the “gang.” And he invited me to be in there, too. How cool is that?

Producers use gang vocals a lot. See if you can find some examples of your own.

What Do You Know

Most of what I know about singing has come from my many years of experience on the road and in the studio. I am amazed at how much we learn from just living the lives in which we find ourselves!  What expert knowledge do you have to share, just because it’s a part of who you are?

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