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

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