Does the chord progression take away from the vocal melody?

I ran into an issue this week that I feel is a great topic to talk about. Does the chord progression in the song take away from the vocal melody? I was working on this project for a singer and the bass guitar was playing the main chord progression. The progression was not wrong or out of key, but it was just as prominent as the lead vocal and was becoming distracting. It’s important to make sure the chords are the best progression and often times the simplest progression possible. I offered to change the bass guitar for the artist so I recorded new bass parts. It turned out way better and the vocal really became the focal point again while the bass took the backseat. This won’t just happen with bass. It may be guitar, or a really busy piano part that really distracts the listener from enjoying the vocal. I understand this is definitely just my opinion, some people love some busy and advanced instrumental elements. These people are often musicians. While that is totally okay, most of your listeners are not musicians and really like to connect with the vocal more than the instruments. One tip is to stick with intervals of 1, 4, 5, and 6 for your chord progression intervals. If you do a combination of those intervals you are bound to make a great chord progression that embraces the melody and doesn’t distract.

Writing vocal melodies that compliment the singer’s range….

One thing I have run into lately is songwriters writing songs for other people without keeping the vocal range in mind. My wife does a lot of singer-for-hire jobs remotely online and we have run into this a lot. A man will write a vocal melody intending a girl to sing the song and he’s singing it in the key that fits his voice. When my wife hears the demo she struggles to sing powerfully in that vocal range. We end up having to change the key of the instrumental to accommodate her voice and it definitely does a disservice to the instrumental.

If you are a songwriter that writes for other singers, you must have in mind who is going to sing the song when you write the song. I know this may not be something that you want to do, but you definitely should do it. Listen to some of the work that the singer has done before you write the song. Write something that’s tailored to their voice. This same thing use to happen when my wife and I would write songs for our pop duo project. She would write verse 1 to fit her vocal range, then say “okay John you have verse 2!” Needless to say I struggled every time. We all know that melodies have to stay very similar from verse to verse or it just doesn’t sound right.

Two different approaches for pitching layered vocals…

We always have to know what style of music we are working on and what makes sense for that style. It may be surprising, but how you pitch correct vocal layers varies depending on what type of music you are working on.

I’ll start with pop music. Pop music is a perfection type of music. All the vocal layers should be 100 percent on pitch. The vocal layers and harmonies all together should sound like a keyboard playing a chord. To achieve this, make sure that when you are drawing your vocals, the pitch lines are very straight. In Autotune graphic mode you do this by turning up the retune speed for each word you draw in. For Melodyne you can do this by using the pitch modulation tool. This also straightens the pitch line so it is not shaky. One way to effectively pitch layers of vocals that I do is hard pan each vocal to opposite sides and compare them. If there are more than 2 vocal layers just mute the others and just edit 2 at a time.

The other approach is for music like indie pop, indie rock, or just rock in general. This approach involves less pitch correction to give that “wall of sound” choir sounding vocal stack. What exactly makes a choir sound so huge? That’s pretty simple, it’s the fact that everyone is slightly off pitch and time with one another. When different singers are blending together and slightly off, it creates a deep, chorus-effect type of sound. However you don’t need a choir to achieve this. If you record all of your vocal layers, each layer is bound to be a little off pitch. This is good for this approach. When you go to pitch correct these vocals, use slower retune speeds using Autotune graphic and do less pitch modulation in Melodyne. Allow the pitch to be off but just slightly from layer to layer.

I will be doing upcoming tutorials so be sure to subscribe to the Perfect Vocals Academy YouTube channel!

Sometimes singers sing with strain…what should you do?

One thing you really can’t fix in the mix too easily is strain. Even if you pitch the vocal well, there is a characteristic in the voice that comes through as strain. Singing flat does sound like strain so if it’s pitched correctly it will sound slightly better, but strain can damage the tone of the vocal.

First you need to identify what is causing the singer to strain. Strain can come from not warming the voice up with exercises, being dehydrated, not hearing the voice loud enough in the headphones, being tired physically, having a hoarse voice from a recent performance, or singing notes that are above or below the vocal range that the singer is accustomed to singing. Even though it can seem overwhelming, as a producer, we must start experimenting with trying different methods.

I would first bring up a good vocal warm up on YouTube and have the singer exercise their voice. Then I would check the headphone mix and make sure their voice is loud and clear. If there was a recent performance that damaged the voice, then they need rest. Reschedule the vocal session. Lastly I would try pulling the mic out of the vocal booth and have the singer sing in a bigger room. Sometimes the sound of a room around the singer can bring an environment that they are used to. Comfort level is a big factor when recording vocals. No matter what, stay patient and help the singer eliminate the strain!

How to handle criticism on your mix…

Let’s talk mix criticism! If you have ever mixed anything for anybody, even a friend, you know all about mix critiques! Mixing is very subjective and everyone hears things differently! It’s artwork and there’s not necessarily a right or wrong way to do it.

Feedback on your mixes can actually be a really good thing. If you are humble, you can really start to learn what people want. For the longest time I would really try to get the vocal to sit inside the mix but time after time the client would want the vocal louder and more on top of the mix. So this taught me to be extra careful and to really make sure that the vocal is cutting through the mix. Sometimes it can help if you pretend you are the artist listening to it, sounds silly but it has worked for me! Critiques should always be expected. All the times I have really thought that I nailed it and there was no way they would come back with changes, sure enough….a whole list of them! Other times I thought I didn’t do the greatest in a mix…zero changes. It’s impossible to tell what you will get, just always be open to feedback.

Lastly, I want to talk about how feedback from the client can sometimes ruin your mix. In some cases, the client wants something way different than you gave them. This can take you out of your comfort zone which can sometimes be good, but other times it can make you really not understand how to make it sound good while completing the client’s requests. Here’s an example… maybe you were forced to cut some high mids because the way the vocal was recorded was really harsh and the mic was very brittle sounding. You cut the frequencies, compressed the frequencies with a multiband compressor, and have done automation on the volume to get the vocal to sound right. The client says the vocal sounds muffled and wants a boost in the high end. This ultimately will work against all the hard work you have done. The client may love the mix but you now hate it. Sometimes we go through this as mixing engineers. Comment your thoughts! Happy mixing!

Dynamic songs call for vocal automation.

I was working on a piano style pop track this week and it made me think of a great blog topic! This seems obvious but with very dynamic songs like piano songs or ballads, there is a need for vocal automation. Most likely the song starts off lower in volume so the first vocal section will probably need to be turned down if you set the volume for the vocal at the loudest and biggest part of the song. This is normally how I approach the vocal level anyways. Find the loudest section which most times is the chorus, and set the volume fader to cut through the mix.

Now that the chorus is set, the quieter sections like the verses are going to sound overwhelmingly loud. Use your ears and play the parts over and over to set automation to turn down just those vocal sections. Once that is done, now there’s another challenge! Does it sound right blending from the quiet section to the loud section? It should sound like the vocal is one volume throughout the song. So now use you ears and loop the playback where it transitions from the quiet section to the loud section. Sometimes a slight gradual increase from the end of the soft section to the beginning of the loud section can do the trick! This way we can have the level we set for the quiet section, but then transparently fade up the volume into the louder part. If you can’t get that to sound right, keep playing and experimenting with the volume of each section until it blends beautifully! I hope this was helpful! Look out for video tutorials on the Perfect Vocals Academy youtube channel in the near future that will go into more detail!

Can some simple encouragement result in a better vocal performance?

Let’s talk about something not so technical. Let’s talk about something psychological. Have you ever recorded a singer or yourself and felt like the singer was getting stuck in a rut? Like no matter what each and every take is progressively getting worse? This happens folks. Singers lose the energy mentally. They can even start to question their purpose of being a singer. Their mind can be telling them “just give up, no professional singers have to try this many times!”

Unfortunately this is a real thought that happens for the artist and it’s very common. Here’s the bright side, your opinion as a recording engineer or producer is very valuable! Sometimes it can even act as the key ingredient to change their mindset completely. Maybe the singer hasn’t heard the words “hey, you are really great at what you do, and what you offer is very authentic! No one can replicate what you do!” A little pep talk, it can be very short, can shift the singer’s mindset and give them rocket fuel!!

On the other hand if you are recording yourself, you could try bringing a friend in the studio to give their opinion or email the track to them. Tell them “it’s not a finished product but overall what do you think?” Odds are, they will give you a positive response that will recharge your battery! You could also take a long break and watch some live videos of singers you look up to and realize that they don’t even sing perfectly! Rather than being perfect, it’s about the heart you put into your vocals. When you watch your favorite singers live, it won’t be perfect, but 9 times out of 10, their heart is in the right place and passion pours into the mic! If you have any other ideas to encourage a singer or yourself in the studio, please leave a comment!

Panning techniques can create tons of width in your vocal mixes!

I was hesitant writing a blog about panning because it’s a no-brainer. Most of you are probably like “yeah yeah panning is easy”! It is very easy but let me open your mind a bit!

In my early days of mixing all I ever seemed to do is hard pan everything. One vocal all the way to the left, one all the way to the right, and one up the center. Although there are times I still do this, there’s a lot of experimenting that can be done with panning less than that. Sometimes panning hard left and hard right can be a little distracting to the center vocal. Also, don’t forget that hard panned vocals need turned down because they cut through way louder once panned. Here’s a couple methods to try…

Panning 50 percent each way can sound nice and full. 30 percent each way can sound nice too! If you have a lot of vocal layers to play with, you can have hard panned and less panned! This is actually the best because it fills out the whole stereo field! Imagine 1 vocal and a vocal double panned to center, 1 vocal hard left, 1 vocal hard right, 1 vocal at 50% left, 1 at 50% right, and a couple vocals panned 30% each way or 70% each way for a wider sound. With this method you will create a “wall of vocals”! Try it out and tell me how it goes!

Sticky subject, but what do you do when you are recording someone that can’t sing very well?

First off I want to clarify that this isn’t coming from a disrespectful place. There has been times a singer has sang completely off key and completely off time. I’m talking about drastically off, not something subtle. Everyone is off a little bit, we aren’t robots. I want to share my experience with recording artists that need a lot of help. The first thing to do in this situation is be accountable towards them. Pretending that they sound good and just hitting record isn’t the right thing to do. I understand you may not care at this point but this is where the producer has to dig in. You do however need to except that even after pushing them and coaching to your best ability that it still may sound very bad. That’s okay, you tried. Try things like record one small line or section at a time and sing or guide them through the take over the talk back button. If you are a producer that can sing… another trick you can try is to go sing the part then they can sing along to your take as a guide. If you are a producer that cant sing, use the program Melodyne to drastically correct the pitch and timing to what it needs to be and use the drastic edited voice as a guide they can sing along to. This is a great method. It works almost every time! Lastly the easiest approach can be to describe to them exactly what they are doing wrong. Saying something like “you are singing too high on this word and singing too fast through the section” can really let the singer understand where to improve. Some people do great with this approach, while others need to hear a guide to sing a long to. Leave your comments below!

This is the best way to trim and edit background noise in vocals…

When recording vocals there’s always going to be some background noise. Noise gates can work but are hard to set to a good setting if the singer has any sort of dynamics. Gates can work well for rap music usually or for rock/metal singers who are always loud. I want to talk about manually editing the background noise out of the vocal tracks. Hopefully this is self explanatory if you are experienced at vocal production but if not then today is the day that you learn to clean up those vocals really nice! What I like to do is obviously cut all the parts of the vocal out that is empty space or any sort of noise that’s not a vocal or a breath. I wouldn’t advise cutting out breaths unless it’s a really bad sounding breath or if it sounds better without the breath. Most of the time you can just manually turn down the breath and it sounds better than being cut. Next, we want to use fade ins, fade outs, and crossfades. Putting a fade-in at the beginning of the clip (in Protools you can place the cursor on the clip of where you would want the fade to be completely faded in, then hit the letter D) is what is needed after cutting out background noise. This is sort of a visual thing and hard to explain over a blog but I will release videos in the near future. Using a fade out (place cursor where fade out on clip should start then hit G) is used when you need to fade out into the part you cut out. Lastly, cross fades (highlight over a section where 2 clips meet and hit F) is used to blend to different vocal takes together that are touching. This quickly fades out of one clip and into another. Crossfades take away the “pop” sound when 2 audio clips meet that were recorded at different times. When an audio waveform doesn’t line up perfectly it creates a “pop”! It’s science!! Please feel free to put your questions below!