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

Vance Powell

Vance Powell

You’re as good as your EQ. Another factor that will promote or restrict a vocalist’s ease of singing is the EQ placed on the vocals. “It all comes down to the kind of bump that the EQ is producing," says Deva, who says EQ problems are frequency the issue. "Is it flat? Is it bumping at 10k? These are important questions for an engineer to ask because if the frequency isn’t matching the personality of the singer’s voice, the singer will be fighting against it. When a singer starts pushing or straining, the engineer shouldn’t automatically assume it's lack of vocal technique. Sometimes the singer’s technique does need help, but it’s important to make sure that the electronics are in line with the singer.”

Deva cites an example in which she was working with a very accomplished producer whose vocalist kept singing the chorus out of tune. “He was straining and sounded just miserable, and the producer kept saying, ‘Sing it again, you're off.’” After about five or six takes and his persistent pushing for the singer to try to stay on pitch, Deva suggested that he boost the treble EQ and then have him sing it again. “As soon as he did, the singer sang it and nailed it. The reason the simple adjustment made the difference was because there wasn't enough of the treble spectrum in what the singer was hearing back, so it made him feel like he was hitting a ceiling that he was pushing against. By boosting the EQ, it literally raised the roof and gave the singer more space to sing in.” In fact, adjusting the EQ can help a singer relax and find the pitch more easily, in general.

You thrive in the sweet spot. Believe it or not, another primary issue that conflicts with a successful session hinges on the simple positioning of the singer in the room. “Even if a room is built to be acoustically perfect, it will still have a ‘sweet spot,’ a place where everything comes together just right to make the singer sound his or her best,” explains Deva. “On the flipside, that same room will also have places that cause the voice to constrict.” According to Deva, to get the most out of the session and the singer, the angle of the singer’s position must line up with the sweet spot. 

This is a phenomenon she has experienced firsthand on more than one occasion. An example: Deva was hired to serve as a session vocal coach for two singers who were working on a major-label project at a studio in Hamburg, Germany. Her job was to make sure that the singers were ready to sing all of their songs, so she was present during the sessions. Unfortunately, when the first singer went into the booth and began to sing, he immediately started having difficulty, so Deva was asked to go in and sing a full-out vocal so that he could follow it. “As soon as I started to sing, my voice jammed up. I adjusted the headset and went for another take, and it jammed up again. There was no compression on my voice, but if felt like there was, and I couldn’t seem to get beyond it.”

She knew there was something strange going on with her position in the room so she stood in the middle of the room, began singing “ah” and slowly began turning 360 degrees. In certain directions her voice got squeezed, but, finally, she found the place where her voice opened and relaxed: the sweet spot of the room. 

“It’s important for engineers to understand the technology well, but they also must understand that the audio world is based on mathematics and physics,” adds Powell. 


Sweet spots and headphones aside, the most successful sessions are the ones in which the producer/engineer has taken the time to get to know and communicate with the singer. If Powell is working with a band for the first time on a multi-day project, for instance, he will always meet with them before recording. “I like to bring the band over, have them check out the space and get a feel for things, play some music and let them chill for a while, and give them a chance to get comfortable,” says Powell. “After that, we’ll talk about how many songs they want to do and what they want to accomplish.” Powell contends that one of the culprits that lead to unsuccessful sessions is unrealistic expectations. “I’ve had artists say they want to record 27 songs in a two-day session and make it sound like Pet Sounds meets Abbey Road,” he explains. “Those kinds of expectations are going to lead to a huge disappointment because it just isn’t realistic.” 

Realistic expectations aren’t limited to the singer. Producers also must have them, but for that to happen, they have to take the time to get to know the singer. “I think it’s essential that a producer or engineer learn how the singer works and sounds when she’s not in the studio,” says Deva. “A lot of times, if the singer is experiencing issues, the person sitting in the control room doesn’t understand why because he hasn’t taken the time to listen to what the singer sounds like off-mic and without all of the other stuff going on around them in the vocal booth.”

Most importantly, as an engineer you need to know what you’re doing. “Just because you have a Pro Tools box doesn’t mean you know how to use it,” cautions Powell. “The more you read and study the craft, and the more you learn about the business of making records, the better you’re going to be able to handle unexpected curves that vocal sessions tend to throw at you during sessions.” Powell says the best engineers are the ones that are able to think on their feet, maintain a sense of calm in pressure situations and never hint that there is an issue they don’t know how to resolve, even if it takes them a few minutes to figure out. “As an engineer, you always have to be in control. The minute you show any weakness or make it seem like you don’t know what you’re doing is the minute your client loses confidence in you and the session has no where to go but down. You’ve got to keep your cool.”

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