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By James Pew

Music Production Specifics – Pre-Production – Vocal Performance

After the artist and I feel like the writing is solid and we have some good ideas regarding vocal arrangement, the next step is to start preparing/rehearsing the vocal performance for recording. A key thing to consider with popular forms like rap, rock, folk, singer-songwriter, etc., the vocal is the primary focus of the song and of the overall sound. I often frame it as a figure and ground relationship. In popular music the vocal (sung verses, choruses and bridges) are the figure, and everything in the arrangement (rhythmic section, strings, horns, harmony vocals, etc) are the ground (back ground). Seems obvious but clarity on this is essential.

Its important to note that specifically with popular forms of vocal music, the vocal is of supreme importance. An artist dealing in these forms is hinging their entire career prospects on the sound of their voice and the quality of their vocal performance. It matters very little how well written, arranged, mixed/mastered the tune is. People have to love the sound of your voice. Only after they love the sound of your voice will they bother to check-out what you are actually saying and pay closer attention to the rest of the arrangement.

This is usually the time we get Nicole Faye (Euphonic Sound vocal coach) involved. The artist, myself and Nicole “workshop” the vocal performance for a few sessions until we feel like the artist is connecting with the performance on both a technical and stylistic level. When it comes to the technical aspects the emphasis is breath control, pitch, timing and timbre. When it comes to the stylistic what we are looking for is a natural and personal sounding performance (usually in the vocal workshops we try to identify and bring out unique qualities of the singers voice). The problem with a lot of singers who sound good and pretty much have it together technically, is that they often don’t sound unique or original. We attempt to provide a pathway to help a singer find their unique voice.

One key thing that a lot of singers don’t understand is how the use of hardware and software compression changes the sound of their voice. Its a little bit technical to explain fully, but in a nutshell compression, among other things, causes a distortion in the sound. Not an obvious over driven distortion like on a guitar amp, but a more subtle distortion. I’ve heard technical explanations about compression where it was said that compression equals distortion. Compression is the most used signal processing effect in modern music. It is the one effect that has shaped the sound of modern music more than any other. The discussion on compression should have its own series of posts to really dive into all of the intricacies.

Why do producers use compression on vocals?

The quick explanation is because a compressor reduces the difference between the loud and quiet passages of what is being recorded. This is called dynamic range (the range of dynamics that exist between the quietest and loudest moments across the whole tune). You can measure the dynamic range of an isolated vocal track, or you can measure the dynamic range of a multi-track mix, pretty much everything has a dynamic range. As you apply greater amounts of audio compression the dynamic range gets smaller and smaller. As the dynamic range decreases, the average loudness increases. In the context of most popular forms of vocal music it is necessary for us to decrease the dynamic range (thereby increasing the average loudness) of a vocal performance so that it blends better with the other instruments in the arrangement.

We want the vocal to stick out (its the figure, or focus). When a vocal (or any other musical instrument) has too great of a dynamic range, there can be moments that feel like drop outs (when it disappears for an instance somewhere in the mix). So to keep it clear and on top of the mix the compression process is employed. This practice is not always done artfully. Often compression becomes this automatic go to sort of crutch. So much so across our culture that it inspired Quincy Jones audio engineer, Bruce Swedien, to proclaim “compression is for kids.”

I bring up compression because I find that many singers spend so much time listening to and studying singers on recordings (where those singers already have been fully compressed). After years of doing this the tendency is to mimic the sound of vocals after they have been processed (including in most cases…with tons of compression). Most people growing up in this culture do the self compression thing. It can take a while to break a singer of the self-compressing habit. But once you do the singer gives a much better and clearer performance.

When a singer does the self compression thing and the engineer/producer does the usual hardware compression thing, in a weird way its like they are getting compressed twice. The result is a sound that approximates a mainstream professional pop vocal, but lacks in overall clarity and comparatively sounds muddy.

Ok this post is already too long. I’m going to stop this one here and in the next day or two I’ll post up the Two Keys Components Regarding The Pathway Out Of Self Compressing.

Again I include the track “Woes” I produced for Asher Jacob. Asher was a pretty serious self compressor when we first started working with him. We put him through the “pathway” and now I really love how his vocals came out. Checkout the clarity behind every word!

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