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 this 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.
He 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.
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 “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
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.”
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:
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 iscomputer 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.
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 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.
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.
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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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
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:
Call and Response
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