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One common misconception in audio is that it's all about equipment and techniques. But having good equipment and software, and knowing how to use it, will only get you so far. Equally as important is being able to get the best out of the people you work with.
So imagine you are tasked with recording a singer who really isn't very good. "Get a better singer" might be your response, and there is a lot of merit in taking this very sensible option if possible. But often you just have to work with what you've got. And in this case it's a singer who isn't very good.
My thoughts on this are prompted by an e-mail I received a couple of days ago, which said this...
"I am a very good singer and wish to make singing my profession. But one challenge I have right now is that my voice is very horrible and I don't like it. I need your help."
Hm, there seems to be a degree of desperation in this, and something of a contradiction. How can a singer who claims to be very good have a horrible voice? Well it's like someone who can play the violin really well losing his Stradivarius and having to play on a $100 starter instrument. It isn't so much of a contradiction, but let me examine the potential problems in more detail.
Suppose you have in front of your studio microphone someone who claims to be a singer, but doesn't sound too good. There are three ways this can happen...
These are the essentials. There are many other details, but if any one or any combination of these problems happens, then you have an issue that needs to be resolved.
Suppose you're the singer and the problem is you
It's easier for me to write it this way and actually if you can learn how to sing better yourself, you will be in a better position to help any singer you work with.
So let's suppose that you have recorded your own vocal. You listen to it back and you don't like it.
The first and most likely problem is that your singing is out of tune. If you can hear that it's out of tune, then it's a problem that's fixable. If you can't hear that it's out of tune, then either it is in tune or you're a hopeless case, singing-wise. But let's suppose that you can hear that there is a problem.
At first your reaction might be to think that it's all so hopeless that the only sensible option is to give up. No, don't do that...
Listen again and find just one line that sounds reasonably good. Or even half a line. If there's something in there that is passably good, then there is no reason it all couldn't be like that, and better.
Since you have now found a line that you can sing quite well, let's concentrate on just this one line. You don't need to work to a backing track, but you can if you like, so highlight a section around the area of interest so that you can record and play back repeatedly.
What you need to do is record and play, record and play, record and play. Concentrate on improving your performance of just this one line. Don't give in easily, and don't strain your voice. I have used this technique in the past with sub-par singers and it always works. It might not be possible to get through the whole song this way in a single session, but it can be a useful start on the road to progress.
Do it with delay
Here's a useful trick that I came upon back in the 1980s but I couldn't get to work due to the limitations of the technology of the time. But it can work very well now.
Set up your recording channel with EQ, compression and reverb so that you sound as good as you can to start off with. Also set a delay where you can hear the original and a single repeat. Set the delay time so that you can sing a whole line, then hear it back immediately. (This is why I couldn't get it to work well in the 1980s. My delay unit, which cost the equivalent of $2500 at today's values, had a maximum delay time of just one second, and at a mere 8-bit resolution!)
This trick saves a lot of clicking on the computer keyboard. Once you have set the channel up, you can practise and improve for as long as you like. You don't have to record anything but, when you start to feel things are getting better, it's good to record something, take a break, then listen again. There may be a degree of discouragement at this point, but you will have improved. By isolating a short section of a song you can really concentrate and home in on problem areas.
Copy the greats
If you search on the Internet for 'isolated vocals' you will find a good selection of solo vocal performances by many excellent singers. Pick one by the singer you would most like to emulate and, by whatever means necessary, load the audio into your DAW. Now you have a challenge to match up to. Once again, pick a single line and record, playback, record, playback, each time trying to get your own vocal as close to the example as possible. Listen to the tuning, the tone of voice, the inflections. Getting the little details right, such as maybe the opening of the throat during a sustained vowel sound - all of this will help you learn how to 'play your instrument', which is of course your voice.
Tuning and tone
There are two issues to tuning. The first is to acquire the skill of really listening to yourself from moment to moment, and all the time assessing whether you're hitting and holding the right notes to a very fine degree of accuracy of pitch.
The second is to be the master of your instrument. Just as a violin player needs to learn how to position his or her fingers to an accuracy of less than a millimeter, you need to learn a very precise control over your vocal cords (now often known as 'vocal folds') and all of the muscles of your throat. You will learn this by continually striving to sing better and listening to yourself carefully. The techniques outlined above will help a lot.
As well as mastery and control, you need to develop strength. This is done by singing a lot, but not straining. One useful exercise is to sing long sustained notes and try and keep them as consistent and unwavering as possible. Use different vowel sounds, and different degrees of opening of the throat. Be extremely self-critical, but don't give in. You will improve.
By the way, singing teachers will often having you doing breathing exercises and practising scales, arpeggios or note patterns. That's all fine. But there's nothing as important as really listening to yourself, concentrating on the fine details and correcting even the tiniest of errors of pitch or tone. Simple mechanical repetition will help strengthen your voice, but that's all.
Following the methods described above will help you sing to a better level of technical perfection. But that isn't going to help you sell records. It gets you to base camp.
So pick a favourite singer, same sex, similar range, and load one of their slower, more emotional tracks into your DAW. Set up your mic, EQ, compression and reverb as necessary to get as similar a vocal sound as possible.
Now listen and copy, listen and copy, listen and copy, preferably in short sections of just one line. Try and get the very small details correct, because this is where the potential for emotional communication lies. Few people who achieve success in vocal performance sing each note plainly. Always there is an inflection, a modulation, a fry perhaps or a little catch in the throat. These are techniques that you need to learn, by listening to and copying the greats. As you pick up and absorb these techniques into your vocal skillset, you will find that you can put across more of the meaning of the song and make your performance compelling to listen to.
Chest voice/head voice
I've said a lot about listening and truly this is the most important skill in learning how to sing well. But there are other elements of technique too, so let me outline a couple of what I consider to be the most important.
Singing teachers will tell you that you have a head voice and a chest voice. You don't. You have a larynx and it's in your throat, as you well know. But there are ways of singing where you feel as though you are projecting your voice through your head or through your chest. It feels that way.
There is a whole mine of information, or I might say minefield, about this on the Internet, but I would simplify it like this...
To achieve a chest voice, start by lowering the back of your tongue as far as you comfortably can, at the same time widening out the back of your throat. Now sing. There's a sound coming out of your mouth that you probably haven't heard before, and it's a good sound. Now, without changing anything else, experiment with the breathiness of your voice. You will find that you can open up your vocal cords and sing with a breathy tone, or close them up and create a more focussed sound. Practising in chest voice is an excellent way of achieving a fuller and stronger sound over time.
Head voice on the other hand requires more precise control, so it is also useful to practise. To find your head voice experiment with higher pitches just on the borderline between normal singing and where you can switch into falsetto. Head voice is not falsetto, but it's a very light tone just on the verge of falsetto. Having skills in both chest and head voice can give a singer an amazing range of potential emotional communication.
My final useful method is Lesson 1 with any decent singing teacher - breathe from the diaphragm, not the chest. The simple reason for this is that the diaphragm is more controllable. As you breathe in, feel your diaphragm descending rather than your chest expanding. As you sing and breathe out, raise your diaphragm rather than collapsing your chest.
In summary, I truly believe that anyone can improve the standard of their singing. That's not the same as saying that everyone can become a great singer. Singing in tune, and singing to a standard that is pleasant to listen to however is, I believe, very achievable with dedication and practice.