July 14, 2021
It’s a common misconception that a singing voice is some sort of set-in-stone trait, like hair color or height. “You have a great voice” is the compliment you’ll hear, rather than “you have great vocal skill”. It’s true that certain genetic traits make voices unique, but using a voice is a skill just like any other instrument.
As with other instruments, how the voice is used on stage may be different than in the studio, and it pays to be able to adjust to each venue’s requirements. Here we’ll go over a few considerations to keep in mind when transitioning from the stage to the studio.
First off, volume control is a different animal in the studio. Especially if you’re trained for live theater where you may not be miked, you may have a tendency to project and push out louder than you need to in the studio. In some cases, you may want to capture this timbre, but in others, you may want to back down a bit to give yourself more flexibility.
Even if you’re used to being miked up on stage in a rock type setting, loud drums and guitars often cause singers to push more than they’ll need to in the studio. Especially during quiet intimate parts, you have more room to actually be quiet in the studio, as a super sensitive condenser will pick you up.
You may also need to back off simply because you’re overloading inputs. Of course, the engineer (even if that’s you) should be able to back off on the gain, but some singers are capable of overloading the mic itself. In that case you can take your volume down, back away from the mic, or engage a pad if the mic has one – or all of the above.
Also, some singers are really good at cutting through the noise on stage, and develop a piercing, belting sound that gets heard no matter what. Sometimes, this timbre can be difficult to mix, as these high-mid frequency resonances are so pronounced and almost painful. It’s helpful if a vocalist can tone down that piercing quality in the studio.
One of the big tricks to getting a great vocal recording is maintaining a dynamic performance. If you’re really trying to capture what you’re like on stage, you may not want to hold back, but sometimes sheer dynamic range can be a problem.
The easiest way to deal with this is to get more even – but that may do damage to the performance itself. And you’ve actually got more room in the studio to fix large dynamic differences in the mix. The real issue is sudden bursts and words that get buried, such as the end of sentences.
On both the stage and the studio, it pays to practice great diction (if you intend for the words to be understood), and practice evening out the sharp explosive notes and notes that go too far down for only one word.
This isn’t to say you should try to be louder during whole quiet passages and quieter during loud passages – that’s a technique for the stage. But short-term changes – one or two – notes may need some evening out.
A stage show – especially a rock show – is much more forgiving of pitch issues than a studio session. If you’re new to the studio, it would be wise to practice pitch drills and rehearse songs a lot before a session.
Some singers (even great ones) employ a melody guide during session. This is just a simple melody on a piano or other instrument with accurate pitch, piped into the headphones to help keep on. This can be handy when you need an extra pitch anchor – but it can hamper creativity for vocalists who improv a lot, so experiment and find what’s right for you.
The studio environment is a very different place than a stage environment. For some singers, it may be too mellow. For others, too cold and clinical. Some may need privacy, while others need someone to perform to.
The great thing about the studio is you can manipulate your environment. Turn off lights, get some tea, open up the blinds, put some people in the room, whatever makes the vocalist comfortable and able to tap their best performance is how the environment should be. Don’t assume that the environment in the studio should be just like it is on stage.
Pay special attention to your headphone mix. Vocalists often have trouble with pitch, timbre, and rhythm in the studio when they’re not used to hearing themselves in headphones. It helps to get some reverb in the mix, maybe even some compression. It can also help to remove one side of the headphones so you can hear yourself in the room. Make sure to communicate with the engineer until it feels really good and get feedback to make sure you’re sounding right.
Preparation is key for both stage and studio work. It’s good practice to be as well rehearsed and memorized for a studio session as you are for a stage show. That way things go smoother and you’re more able to give a great performance.
Warm-ups are important in a studio session, just as they are on stage. Don’t assume you’ll be singing the song once and leaving. Even if you do it perfectly the first time, you’ll probably want to record a couple more for back up – and sometimes you may be doing overdubs, doubling, and harmonizing all day. Studio sessions are often much longer than shows.
So warm up, and in addition, use drills and practice in the weeks or months ahead of studio time to really prepare for the long days.
As a final thought, while a studio session may be about capturing the energy a vocalist brings to the stage, it’s also its own art form. It may be that you want the studio vocal to be exactly what it is on stage, and even if you do, it may take a bit of a different approach to get there. Finally, don’t overthink it. Your technique may need a tweak for the studio, but it’s still you singing the song.
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