Teaching Studio Singers
Today's guest blogger is Judy Rodman. Judy is a vocal coach, session singer, recording artist, live performer, songwriter, author, studio producer and public speaker based in Nashville, TN. She is creator of several vocal training courses and contributor to industry books and magazines. Her blog “All Things Vocal” has over 1 million views and her All Things Vocal podcast is available on iTunes, Android and Tunein Radio. With thousands of studio credits as staff jingle singer and decades as top session singer on hits including her own, Judy regularly works in the recording studio producing tracks and/or vocals, creating arrangements and singing backgrounds.
Judy teaches voice from experience. She has #1 credits as vocal coach, artist, songwriter and producer; she was voted "Best Vocal Coach” by Nashville Music Pros, named "Vocal Coach in Residence, August 2013" by TC Helicon's VoiceCouncil Magazine, won ACM “New Female Vocalist” and BMI Millionaire awards. She teaches major label and indie recording artists, touring and studio background singers, public speakers and voiceover talent. Her clients have appeared on The Today Show, Letterman, DeGeneres, The Voice, American Idol, AGT, Grammys, CMA, ACM & MTV Awards, NYT Best Seller list. She is member of NATS, SAG-AFTRA, AFofM, BMI. Learn more at www.judyrodman.com
As vocal coach, one of the first things I ask a new student who wants to work on songs they will be recording is, “do you sing better in the studio or on stage?” Most often the answer is ‘on stage,' which is where they have done most of their singing. This article will explore the specialty singing skills needed for the studio and how to train singers to bring their stage vocal magic, and even more, to the recording mic.
Singing in the studio is not the same as singing on stage, for many reasons. Here’s why it can be difficult:
It requires precision
The listening ear of the public has become accustomed to hearing precision in recorded vocals. Yes, the audio engineer can digitally edit the pitch and rhythm of the singer afterwards, but the more precise the singer’s intonation and purposeful the phrasing, the less ‘fixing’ is required. The resulting final (post edit) vocal sounds less mechanical and digital, more natural and human. Being able to sing with precision also puts the nuances of tone, bends, licks, phrasing and specific melodic note choices in the hands of the singer, not the editing engineer. Therefore, the singer needs to develop the utmost in vocal control for the studio.
It’s missing the audience
If a song is not understood as a message delivery, the singer will have a fuzzy or incorrect mental focus. Lack of directional clarity will result in vocal performance that is numb, disconnected, over-emotional or otherwise inauthentic. Even if the desired sound is robotic or emotionless, the automatic nervous system which works the vocal apparatus needs to be directed by a conscious intention to create that sound. So the singer needs to understand the primary function of the voice as communication of message, not perfection of sound. For the studio, the singer needs to develop a bit of acting technique… the ability to make the listener who is not actually in the room understand and react to the message at an emotional level.
The recording situation feels artificial and strange
Except for veteran studio singers, even the best studio situation is not normal for the voice. The very strangeness of it can result in an unconscious guarded posture. Guarded posture sabotages breath support and control. Breath issues will sabotage vocal technique, tighten the throat and undermine confidence because the voice is not working like the frustrated singer knows it should. Mental focus goes out the window, vocal fatigue and strain set in, and a negative experience is experienced for all involved. Singers need to learn tactics to normalize their experience, no matter what studio situation or ambience they walk into. Part of this process is singing in aforementioned studio simulation, or getting some practice singing in a real studio.
Very few production teams know how to help the singer
Great producers and engineers know how to operate recording gear, how to choose mics and settings that sound best with each singer, how to digitally edit and mix. They recognize when they are hearing a great vocal performance. But they rarely know how to help a singer who is struggling. Common directives they offer include ‘give me all you’ve got’, ‘be stronger’, ‘push harder’, ‘just tell the story’, or ‘you’re flat, sharp, numb, I can’t understand you’ or ‘one more time’. Very often these comments result in overblown and strained vocal cords, numbing of delivery, loss of vocal control, draining of confidence, frustration for singer and production team, and a vocal recording that must be much more heavily comped and edited to be of any use.
I had a former major label recording artist fearfully begin lessons with me some time ago. Years prior, his producer had stated during a frustrating studio vocal that something was going wrong with the artist’s voice, and that once the voice started failing like that, in his experience it never got better. The artist’s remaining confidence plummeted. He lost his record deal and literally stopped singing for 4 years. The producer should have simply sent him for vocal lessons! After about a year of vocal re-training, he recorded a great new album and began live touring again. Learning how to help studio singers can make your vocal lessons an invaluable part of pre-production, as well as protection for recording artist careers!
Someone is paying by the hour
Unless the singer owns the studio and is engineering his own vocal session (creating an even worse situation for singing well) there is a financial incentive to get an adequate vocal within the shortest time possible. Even if the client is on a major label, someone is paying the studio, engineer(s), producer and/or vocal producer for the studio vocal session time. The irony is that the quality of the vocal is the most important factor for the success of the recording project! Studio vocal training can keep a project from going over-budget, without sacrificing great vocal performance.
Here are some lesson topics for your recording students:
Preparation for studio vocals
You know the saying… an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure. Help your students avoid recording vocals before they are physically, vocally and psychologically ready. For demo singing or worktapes, some shortcuts can be taken. But when master quality is desired for best recorded vocals, these steps can make all the difference:
Weeks or months before –
Train physically and vocally. Learn songs deeply. Experiment with style, embellishments and tonal nuances. Memorize the songs to be recorded because looking at lyric sheets can create a distraction from total commitment to message delivery.
Days before –
Sing! Yes, do vocal warmup before practicing songs, but just doing vocal exercises is not enough. Strengthen vocal stamina by singing full voice (using great vocal technique) daily for at least 4 days before recording. If vocal technique is correct, the voice should feel better and stronger the next day. If not, the student should do a vocal lesson immediately to correct the problem! Also… raise levels of nutrition and hydration. Continue physical workouts, get adequate sleep.
Day of –
Do some light physical exercise. Do an adequate vocal warmup. Otherwise, chill out! Save energy for singing! Limit talking. Limit anything that may tire, stress or distract from centering and deep breathing. Eat a nutritious breakfast, such as a protein smoothie. Do NOT just eat a donut! Remember to take everything needed for the studio including water, protein snacks, music, lyrics, checkbook.
How to set up at a recording mic
One of the biggest differences between singing on stage and in the studio is that the performer isn’t holding the recording mic, or their instrument. Have the student practice good posture, body language and facial language skills as if they are at the recording mic. Consider having a boom stand and mic available during vocal lessons to simulate studio conditions. Things they need to know include:
The singer should be set up so they aren’t facing directly into the control room. If they are, let them know they can ask for it to be moved. Even orienting the mic a little off to a corner can keep the singer’s attention off the control room personnel and on the message in the song. Instruct them to sing THROUGH – not TO - the pop filter/mic, so they communicate to the object of the lyric, instead of singing to the mic or engineer. It can be helpful to put a piece of tape on the wall (in your lesson room as well as in the studio) eye level across from the singer so they focus their eyes there.
Move feet towards the mic, so the head has to position balanced over heels to avoid hitting pop filter. Done correctly the singer should experience taller spine with wider ribcage expansion, as well as more open throat, without the student having to think about it. The wider ribs and stretched diaphragm should increase breath control, enabling better vocal control and precision in general.
Use hands to sing! Singing with active hands and arms should help the ribcage expand instead of contract. I actually encourage what I call ‘studio hands’… pressing fingertips together so that the circumference of the ribcage expands.
I give instrumentalists long sticks (I keep backscratchers handy for the purpose) to simulate holding their guitar or piano while they sing. This widens the singer/player’s ribcage naturally, increasing vocal confidence instantly with that familiar stance.
Some years ago I witnessed something strange while I was singing background vocals during a ‘simul session’ (band, singers all recorded in the same studio at once) for Johnny Cash. I was puzzled when the engineer handed Johnny his guitar without strings before he stepped up to his studio mic. Turns out he could sing much better with his instrument than without. It may have been partly psychological, but I’m sure his increased breath control from wider ribs also played a part. This strategy remains an option if the singer doesn’t have a back scratcher!
How to use headphones
Studio singers need to know how to adjust a headphone band for good fit. If in doubt, they should ask the engineer. They need to avoid the practice of holding headphone ‘cans’ with hands; the heaviness of the arms in this position usually causes a degree of ribcage collapse. As the ribs tighten, the neck goes a bit forward, chin sticks out and/or up and the throat is tighter, too. Instead, use hands strategically to widen the ribcage as mentioned above, and try moving one headphone can half-off one ear. This allows the singer to hear the acoustic ambience of the voice while still hearing a bit of track in both ears, with no leakage onto the vocal mic.
The singer may wish to set the headphone cue box to ‘mono’ instead of ‘stereo’ if they do use ½ ear off technique so they can hear the same track/vocal mix in both ears.
During vocal lessons, you could try using a pair of HearFones to simulate wearing headphones, and hearing yourself back. [Disclaimer, I am a HearFones distributer.]
Inform your student to ask for changes in the headphone cue mix that they may need. Options include changes in track components (i.e. take out electric guitar or swimmy instruments if they distract from singing), bass volume (bass overtones are not true and can pull a singer out of tune), reverb settings (more if it helps with emotional delivery and confidence, less if it sabotages pitch accuracy) and mix between live vocal (current vocal track), background vocals and other instruments.
Now that your student knows how to set their bodies up physically at the mic, they need to know how to set their minds up psychologically. Here are some mental focus strategies, and you may recognize some as great acting technique:
It’s not about how you feel… it’s about how you make someone else feel, and the resulting response!
Be very clear to what heart the lyric is addressed. This heart can be real or imaginary, the one composite heart of a group or even to oneself. Also be very clear about what the message is. And lastly be very clear about the reaction/response desired. What would an authentic response look like if the message successfully impacted? Once the singer sets up physically, conscious thought while singing should be focused on getting that response.
The singer must fully commit.
Don’t just rehearse or think about delivering the message, intend to actually deliver it and expect to make that heart feel the message!
Sing with authentic colors.
Ask what vocal tone, volume, phrasing or other dynamic change would result in the desired response. Use that.
Keep the critic out of the vocal booth!
There is only room for the singer and the heart being sung to. Put the critic’s hat on when you go into the control room to listen back, then take it off again when you go back to record. Listen to direction, but then focus back into the one-on-one communication when singing.
Know that if you are nervous, it’s because your single minded intention has drifted.
Take a mental break and get back to the response you want from the heart being addressed.
Specific vocal techniques for studio issues
Great vocal technique is vital studio vocals. Specifically, anything that helps with breath support and control, opens the throat and focuses the mind will help create great recorded vocals. Here are some specific things you can teach your student to use for studio vocal issues they may experience:
Is your singer bored with the song?
Have them rehearse technically much more than they do emotionally. Take problem areas in chunks, diagnose and conquer any counterproductive technique, find breath marks, challenge phrasing and embellishments and help the student memorize how to set up the high and low passages. I call this memorizing the dance of the melody. Choose, or have them choose, purposefully. Ask “this time shall we practice technique or performance?” In the studio, if the singer sings the song too many times in a row, it may be best to stop and come back another day. It happens all the time… no need for the artist to feel bad about it.
Has fear or nervousness taken hold?
Give your student a plan. A lot of anxiety can be nipped in the bud by wise planning before the session, common sense and laser focus. They should wear comfortable clothing and shoes, maybe dress in layers in case the studio is too hot or cold. They should be careful who they invite into the session so they are not distracted by personalities. They should take a lunch or snack break when they are hungry. They should avoid any vocal saboteurs including drying medications, alcohol or too much caffeine and sugar. They can ask for a recess, go for a walk and re-focus on the real task of the voice. They don’t have to please everyone lurking around in their head. The business of music and ego must be parked at the studio door. Keep the task laser simple; just deliver the message with all the skill they have. Vocal magic happens in the creative moment, not in the past or future. If they are perfectionists, remind them that a great studio vocal is not perfect… it’s magic.
Is pitch, volume, rhythm or other control issue a studio problem?
If your student doesn’t know when they are flat or sharp, do some ear training. If they do know but can’t seem to help it, work on their breath control which is the secret to vocal control. Also, direct them to practice at home in simulated studio stance, not stage, if they are preparing for a vocal session. They need singing muscle memory for the situation they will be in.
Is articulation a problem?
First of all, the vocal teacher must understand and take into consideration the genre-specific norms of articulation that the student wants to use. Some are less defined than others. That said, if the listener to the vocal can’t understand what’s being said, the value of that vocal will be diminished. Many times in the studio articulation is muddy and tone is numb because the singer is singing to the pop filter or mic instead of a human being. Re-direct the singer to the heart being sung to… and have them imagine that person is partially deaf. Diction clarity can then be created naturally rather than artificially.
The vocal apparatus need stamina, flexibility, coordination, a thin layer of healthy lubricating mucous, and balanced breath support/control to sound the voice without straining it. The voice also needs a centered, clear mind. So what if the student has to records vocals while not vocally or psychologically well?
- For master-level vocals, cancelling if at all possible is the best option.
- If they have to sing, and are just a little phlegmy/froggy or dry, suggest bringing diluted pineapple juice – 3 parts juice, 1 part water- into the studio. The bromelain enzyme soothes the tissues of the pharynx and makes the voice feel more hydrated. Most of my clients won’t go into the studio without it (unless of course they are allergic to pineapple).
- Remind the student to get enough sleep the night before the vocal session! This is absolutely vital.
- In addition to sleep, I’ve found that one of the most important things you can do when the voice feels under the weather is to increase hydration. Drink more water, sleep with a warm air humidifier in the room, take a hot shower and inhale steam deeply.
- It’s best to avoid drying medications if at all possible. In the process of drying sinuses they also dry vocal cords. I recommend experimenting with how allergy meds affect the individual singer during a day of practice or rehearsal instead of risking unknown effects the day of studio vocals!
- The added bonus of vocal health is that it is synergistically dependent on body/mind/spirit
wellness. Vocal coaches often become mentors in a deeper sense. Conditions of chronic tension, stress, worry, illness, fatigue or pain are best brought to attention and dealt with before serious career-making studio vocals are scheduled.
Vocal Production Services
An informed vocal coach can be a lifeline for studio singers. Teaching with good information that gets results, you may find yourself called in the specialty role of vocal producer. If you want to pursue this specialty role, I highly recommend you increase your own studio singing hours. When we practice what we teach, it truly informs our teaching with what works!
More information at