Preparing for the Recording Studio

Recently, I was fortunate enough to spend a few weeks in the recording studio with my duo partner, Todd Urban (see: www.toddurban.com), laying down vocals for an upcoming C.D. Although I have spent a good deal of time in studios before, I had forgotten how exciting and fun the whole process can be. There were days when my voice was better than others and there were times when I wanted to throw in the towel, but ultimately the music, the vocals, and the magic came together for an album of music we can be proud of.

As I reflect upon my time in the studio, I have decided to share with you some ideas from my own recording experience that I believe will help readers create successful recording projects.

Finding the Right Studio 

Finding the right studio in which to record is one of the first challenges you will face as you begin your recording project. Since I live close to New York City, I usually use a couple of studios in the heart of midtown for most of my projects (the C.D. I recorded with Todd was made at his home studio). The best way to find a studio is to go online and Google “recording studios” in the area where you wish to record. Once you have selected a studio, you will need to check out their rates, listen to sample recordings posted their website, and speak to an engineer. The engineer will be able to answer your questions regarding fees, hours, and whether the rate includes an engineer. If you get a good vibe with him or her, set up a visit to the studio before making any commitments.

All studios are different and you will want to find one that best suits your needs. Some studios specialize in Rock music, while others are more classically based, offering beautiful concert grand pianos in the center of the studio. Others may be set up specifically for “voice over” demos, which will not help you if you are looking to do a cover of a Daughtry song.

One last consideration to take up in your search for a studio is the amount of time you will need to complete your project.  Surely, you have heard the saying, “Time is money.” This is never more true than in a recording studio. Fortunately, due to the challenging economy, studios are offering discounted, competitive rates. If you are looking to record two or three songs, you should be prepared to book 10 to 15 hours of studio time. That may sound like a lot of time, but if you want good product, you should allow for 5 hours per song. If you finish your project ahead of schedule, some--not all--studios will refund the unused time paid, especially if they want your return business. Ask about the studio’s policy before you book if this is a concern for you.

Preparing to Record

Once you have chosen a recording studio, and have set up a date for recording, there are several steps you should take as you prepare for recording.

The time before the actual recording day is crucial to having a successful session. The most important step is to prepare the songs, so that they are in the best shape possible. Having a few extra sessions with your voice teacher would be the smartest way to achieve this. Students in my studio often set up a series of extra lessons with me to fine tune their voices before a recording session. These lessons consist of a warm up, a series of scales and arpeggios as well as breathing-exercises.

Once the voice is free and sounding amazing, then we go over the “project songs.” I will ask the student to sing through the songs lightly, either with me accompanying them or to the prerecorded track that will be used in the actual recording session. Hearing each song gives me an idea of how we can best approach the vocal line to make it sound amazing. If the song is very high, we vocalize the upper register to strengthen it. The rule of thumb is to vocalize at least a third above the highest note in the song and a third below the lowest. I never ask the student to hang up on high notes until I feel that they are solid in the breath and support. Most of the scales I use will touch a high note and then come right back down. As the student feels more comfortable with the scale, I will ask them to have the “intention” of sustaining the high note, without yet holding it. The “intention” trains the mind to be prepared to do something without actually doing it. After a few runs up and down the scale, I will ask the student to hold the high note for a moment, or as long as he or she can comfortably sustain it without strain. This type vocalizing builds confidence and strength without undue effort.

When the singer feels completely warmed up, I will ask him or her to sing the song in full voice. If it goes well, we will take a short break and then the student will sing it once or twice more. When I feel the singer is completely at ease with the song, then we discuss the interpretation and meaning of the song. The microphone records not only sound, but emotional energy as well. If the singer is really connected to the song, the emotions connected to it will be transferred to the recording.

It is important to take a moment to talk about memorization here. I highly recommend that recording artists have their songs completely memorized before recording them. Often, singers will bring in lyrics to keep in front of them inside the vocal booth. The lyrics should be used only as a reference. If you read the lyrics as you sing because you have not memorized them before the recording session, the quality of your recording will suffer.  Reading lyrics will distract you from your task and will keep you from building an emotional connection to the song.

Optimizing Vocal Health

When you come to the recording studio, you may want to bring a few products to keep your voice lubricated throughout the session. I will share with you some products (my arsenal of remedies, as I like to call it) that I cannot live without:

  1. 1.Water is essential for vocal health and should be part of every singer’s routine. I try to avoid coffee before a recording session, as it is a diuretic and can dry the chords out.

  2. 2.Apples are wonderful, especially during lengthy recording sessions, not only because they provide a boost of energy, but because the pectin in them helps to reduce phlegm and to keep the throat moisturized. I like Red Delicious Apples (you can find beautiful, juicy, organic, apples Whole Foods markets). Apple juice is also a good compliment to an actual apple.

  3. 3.I also keep a bottle of saline nasal spray handy to spray into my nasal passages between takes. I am always amazed at how just a little saline spray can keep the voice vibrating freely.

  4. 4.Throat Coat Tea (Traditional Medicinals) is a spectacular product for the voice, and an absolute must in my “arsenal of remedies.” Slippery elm (a proven demulcent) and licorice root (an anti-inflammatory agent) are the active ingredients in the tea. I add honey to the tea to give it a little boost of flavor and lubricating power. (Note: There are several HEALTH WARNINGS posted on Throat Coat Tea boxes. Be sure to read these carefully, and to consult your doctor before using this product if any of these health warnings apply to you).

As you work to optimize your vocal health in preparation for studio recording, there are also a few things to avoid:

  1. 1.Smoking will dry out and burn your throat and vocal cords, quickly causing irreversible damage.  Just don’t do it.

  2. 2.Alcohol should be avoided all together if you want to get the most out of your voice. Refrain from drinking in the weeks preceding your recording session.

  3. 3.Exhaustion or tiredness will certainly keep you from achieving optimal vocal health, and will hinder your performance in the recording studio. Rest before a session is crucial. At least a week or two before a session put your self in “competition mode.” When friends want you to go out to a nightclub or a loud restaurant the nights before a session, tell them you are in training. This always works and your friends will respect you for it!

Recording

When Todd and I first stepped into the studio, our initial task was to choose the song with which we would begin our session. Of course, we chose the song that the most solid and comfortable in my voice. Now I was ready to record.

Every time I stepped in front of that highly sensitive, unbelievably fragile, and ridiculously expensive microphone in the vocal booth, I was reminded of my own fragility and insecurity, as a singer, and of my fear of singing badly. Even with my arsenal of remedies to keep the voice lubricated, and intense workouts in the gym to keep me strong and centered, I experienced a bit of nervousness that is unique to the recording studio.  In a television studio this kind of anxiety is referred to as “monitor lock.” This is when a person being recorded looks at himself in the television monitors, rather than being immersed in the action at hand. Monitor Lock causes a break in the suspension of disbelief. Whenever this happens the scene will usually be to be reshot. The same is true in the recording studio. If the vocalist focuses on listening to his own voice while recording, often he will fall out of the “pocket” of the track. It took me a while to  shift my focus from listening to my voice to simply singing the songs.

A note to all here: in a recording, we are trying to sell the song not the voice. Although we all want to sound amazing on the recording, the voice is but the instrument used to convey the words and music. In any case, once you begin to feel the meaning of the song, the voice will flow freely.

Stepping in front of a studio microphone can be a little intimidating at first. Most knowledgeable engineers will ask the vocalist to stand as close to the microphone as possible, almost touching the windscreen. Today’s high quality mics work best when the recording artist sings directly into the center of the mic. You may notice a little round, gold colored piece of metal inside the casing of the mic. That is the diaphragm that picks up the vibrations of the voice. You will want to sing right into that part of the microphone.

One thing worth noting here is about how full you need to sing to get the sound you want. In my experience, singing as if you are performing in a small concert venue gets the best results for a recording. If the singer holds back too much because of the amount of sound coming through the cans (headphones) the results will often be grainy and off pitch. You can always ask the engineer to turn your headphones down a bit. It takes a little while to get used to singing full out in a recording studio, but this will give you the best results. Also, if the sound coming to you through the “cans” is flat or dry, ask the engineer to add a little reverb. I am not talking about the amount of reverb you get in the shower but, rather, just enough to make the voice feel as if it is bouncing off the wall in that small venue mentioned previously.  

There are several different styles of recording and all of them work well depending on the singer. My personal preference is to sing the song completely on the first take. Then, the engineer and I will listen back and decide if it is a keeper or not. More than likely, there will be sections I like and sections that do not work. Nevertheless, there may be phrases that can be used for patching in later on. Other singers prefer to sing one phrase at a time, building the entire song from each successful take. In today’s Hip/Hop influenced music, it seems that this approach has become the norm. Still, other singers will record take after take of the entire song and use the best parts of each take, until they get the song perfected. The only problem with this particular approach is that every complete take is going to sound different. You may sound less than warmed up on the first take, then by the forth or fifth take the voice may sound a bit frayed. Everyone has a different approach. I once read that Donna Summer recorded no more than two or three takes of every song she ever recorded, and that she always got it right in those few takes. God bless her!

Mixing and Finalizing

After you have recorded the vocals for your songs, make sure that you are part of the mixing process. Let the recording engineer know how you want your recording to sound. If you feel that the vocals are too far back and the track is overpowering them, let him/her know that. If you feel the vocals are “thin,” the engineer has a plethora of tools to make the vocals sound thicker. Whenever you need to adjust the tuning of a note after you have finish recording, Auto-tune is a quick fix available in most studios today. However, this tool should only be used as a last resort! If it is used on the entire song, even the average untrained ear will be able to identify that very robotic sound we hear so much in today’s popular music.

Finally, enjoy the process. Studio recording is exciting and fun and extremely rewarding. You may find yourself booking a future recording session on the last day of your project. I can guarantee that you will grow as a vocalist and as an artist by spending some time in a professional recording studio. 

Keep shooting for the stars and let your voice soar!

Jeff Alani Stanfill