August PopMark Media/Studio Unknown’s “Confessions of a Small Working Studio”—Beyond Burning Candles: The True Art to Help Singers Get the Most Out of Vocal Sessions

Aug 8, 2011 8:38 PM, By Lisa Horan

If you’ve been a producer or engineer for long enough, you’ve doubtlessly experienced your share of hellacious recording session: the ones in which the vocalist just can’t seem to get comfortable or perform to his/her capacity. Dimming the lights and lighting some candles to create a more relaxed mood just isn’t helping. Is he/she just having an “off” day or are there some adjustments that you can make to salvage the session? This month’s column features advice from two professionals whose techniques have effectively solved problems that otherwise would have derailed a session and left everyone involved unsatisfied.


It happens all the time. A singer comes into a recording session seemingly ready to go, but things head south fast. He/she can’t hit the pitch. Can’t hear himself, even though you’ve got his/her vocals turned up in the headphones. Can’t deliver without straining. What’s wrong? It’s got to be something he/she is or isn’t doing that’s screwing everything up, right? Not necessarily. While there are definitely times in which singers step into a recording session either unprepared or simply lacking the goods to deliver a solid performance, there are also times when the reason a recording session isn’t successful doesn’t fall on the singer’s shoulders (or vocal cords) at all. 

In fact, you might be surprised to learn that there are a number of factors associated with the vocal booth that can make or break a recording session, beyond just microphone. 

Headphones: You are what you hear. This is one adage that rings true for singers. And what they are able to hear depends greatly on both the type of headset available to them and the mix in that headset. Yes. You read that right: the type of headphones can make a difference.

Jeannie Deva working in the vocal booth with an artist

Jeannie Deva working in the vocal booth with an artist

“All engineers and producers are familiar with the change in the audio spectrum and change in tonality when listening back and monitoring through various speaker types, which is why they tend to listen to a mix on small Audix speakers, as well Genelec near-field monitors,” explains Jeannie Deva, a celebrity voice and performance and vocal session coach who has worked with multiple artists, including Grammy Award–winners Aimee Mann and Patty Griffin, Number One Billboard Dance Chart artist Samantha James and leads in a number of Broadway shows, such as Wicked, Rent and Grease. “The mix in a headset is no different. Some models boost the treble, some boost the mids and some are more transparent so the sound spectrum can be represented by the make and model of the headset, and this can impact the singer’s experience significantly.” 

It’s also important to remember, says Grammy Award–winning engineer Vance Powell, that even if you feel you’ve created a headphone mix that the singer “should be able to sing well with,” it doesn’t mean that the singer can. “Sometimes an artist’s vocals simply don’t sound or feel right to them," says Nashville-based Powell, who has worked with such bands and artists as Jars of Clay, Jack White and Red Fang, to name just a few. "Maybe there’s too much reverb or they want a greater degree of compression in their headphones than I’d like to include in the mix. But I know that giving the singer what he needs to perform well is crucial, so oftentimes I’ll just use a plug-in or patch the compressor so that what he’s hearing when he sings more-closely resembles the finished product that he’s hearing in his head, and it feels like the record to him. It’s usually a really good and easy way to get past hang-ups and get the most out of the singer and the session.” 

You feel what you wear. In addition to the tonal qualities represented with a headset, there’s a comfort level and because all preferences are different, it is a good idea to have more than one headset available. Some headsets are heavy, uncomfortable and are simply not conducive to being creative and free. “If a headset is weighing on a singer’s head like a vice and they have to take one ear off just to get comfortable, they are competing with creating the correct mood and passion of a song,” says Powell. Unfortunately, if the type of headset a singer is using isn’t matching up with what he/she is producing, what will often happen is the singer will start muscularly fighting what he or she is getting back in the headset, and that never leads to anything good. 

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