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I’ve been recording bands, some of them quite well known, for the better part of three decades. The one shining truth that has proven itself over and over again, no matter the band or genre, is that the vocal track is the single most crucial factor in determining the success of a song.
It may seem obvious, but you might be surprised at how long bands want to spend getting guitar tones and then just assume that the singer will show up at the end of the session and put the icing on the cake—NOPE!
Taking a vocal-centric approach to every recording is the best way to maximize every song’s potential to connect to a listener. In this blog, I’ll explain why you should be making your vocal the most important track in a song.
The first thing I tell every band that shows up to my studio is that their singer needs special treatment. Sure, instruments are emotive and the musical performances have to be great, but there is NOTHING like an amazing vocal. The singer tells the story and carries the melody.
I usually base an album’s recording schedule around the lead vocals. It’s not until I have the singer’s vocal recorded that I can hear if a song is working or not. Of course, a great drummer is fun to listen to, and anyone who lived through the 80’s has a soft spot for shredding guitar, but the vocal track pulls the listener in, conveys the message and ultimately sells the song.
It’s important to track the vocals as early as possible. What if the tempo isn’t feeling right? What if there is a problem with the groove or key? You’ll catch most of these issues in pre-production, but occasionally a problem slips through. Sometimes you stumble upon a great idea in your vocal sessions that requires re-tracking of foundation tracks.
My typical rock band recording session looks something like this:
First, we load in and run pre-production for four to seven days, followed by a few days of drum recording. Obviously, you need to record enough instrumental tracks to inspire your singer, and if the chorus begs for huge, wide guitars, a single rhythm guitar track probably isn’t going to cut it.
During pre-production and initial tracking, I always ask the singer to sing lightly. I don’t want them to blow their voice out, but rather, I want them to stay warm. After all, your vocal cords are muscles.
Once overdubs start, the schedule changes. We record bass in the morning, basic guitar tracks mid-day, and at 7:00 pm we shift to vocals. When vocal hour hits, I kick the rest of the band out of the studio. If a singer is tense, their vocal cords tighten up. They sound small and have trouble performing, starting a bad cycle of self-questioning and further tensing. I slow down the pace to keep my artist relaxed. We take a moment and just hang out—maybe discuss the meaning of the song we are about to track. Once it feels right, it’s time for the magic.
Part of keeping the vocalist relaxed and in top condition is adapting to their preferred performance style. Recording in a well-dampened room with a great mic, a pop filter and a proper signal chain is by far the best way to get the job done. But, some vocalists need to grip the mic in order to sing with passion. Others need to lie down on the floor and sing straight up at the ceiling (someday I’ll tell you guys that story).
Get it done right, but be adaptable so the singer can be in the right frame of mind to nail the vibe. A solid understanding of gain staging, compression, EQ and proximity effect is key, but don’t worry, I’ll get to that stuff in upcoming blog posts.
I’ve never understood why some producers spend three weeks on their band with the singer sitting on the sidelines, and once everything is recorded, they put the singer in the hot seat. Although some artists thrive under pressure, more often than not, working under a time crunch can lead to wasted time and halted productivity. Every project has its own set of unique reasons for why I need to hear that vocal.
Always keep the vocal as the center of gravity for your recording workflow and schedule your sessions accordingly to ensure you’re on the right path. One thing is certain; the vocals are the most important track in a song.
In the coming weeks, I’ll continue posting blogs on various topics such as vocal production strategies, picking the right microphone and how to enhance your vocals once you’ve got them recorded. I’ll cover all of the elements needed to make that iconic song you’ve been meaning to build. We just have to hit record.
Brian Virtue is a Grammy-nominated music producer, engineer and mixer with more than 30 years of studio experience. During his prolific career, Virtue has worked with artists including Jane's Addiction, Thirty Seconds to Mars, Audioslave, Deftones, Puddle of Mudd, Taylor Swift, Chevelle, Hawthorne Heights, Crazy Town and more.