You’ve chosen your song list, and rehearsed the heck out of it. Time to start tracking. Here are ten tips on how to make it a happy and successful process… and to make sure your singers still like you when you’re done!


(Note: This is not a blog about choosing mics and how-to-set-up-your-recording-space… there’s plenty of info about that on the forums, so I thought I’d talk about the actual putting-stuff-on-disk process.)

10. Singers, Be 90% Prepared

Why not 100%? You want to hit the sweet spot between knowing the music cold, and having some flexibility in the studio. Some singers will “lock-down” their performance if they over-prepare, and no amount of notes or suggestions will help them change it. And as you get into the studio, you’ll notice a million little errors and oddities that you never heard when the whole group sings together. Get used to hearing “Oh…. THAT’S how it goes!”… and make sure they can still change it up.

9. Two-Hour Sessions… Three Hours Apart

In my thousands of hours of recording time, I’ve found that golden “session-time” for a singer is about 2 hours. More, and the singer’s energy and focus will start to drop, and you may hear it as the song goes on. Plan for 2 hours per part (maybe three with a break if tracking multiple singers)… but leave an hour buffer between sessions. If you go over by a bit (over even use the full 3 hours), you won’t mess up your schedule. If you get done early, you get a break… or you can start comping the part, or getting to the dozens of other bits that need to get done in the meantime.

8. Make it a Groovy Room

Acoustic treatment and mic placement are only part of the story… the real magic comes from the vibes of the singers. So, help that along by making the space fun, relaxing and inspiring. Put little “tchochkes” — decorations, souvenirs, a rubber chicken, whatever — in the room. Go for some nice lighting. Make sure there’s lots of drinking water handy, and maybe some little fruit snacks or other voice-friendly nibbling things. A comfy chair for those couple of minutes of downtime. If you’re in a dry climate, put a humidifier in the room and turn it on in between sessions. Anything to make that room — where you’re essentially locking in your singers for hours at a time — somewhere you’d actually *want* to spend time.

7. Pacing, Pacing… Pacing

Running a session is a little like running a rehearsal, but more intense. You know exactly what you need to get done, and how long you have to get through it. Keep an eye on the big picture (and the clock) as you’re tracking. It always takes a while to get rolling, so by the halfway point of your session, you should be about 35%-40% through the song (unless all the hard stuff is at the end… then you’d better be halfway at least!) If you use this as a guide, you’ll hopefully avoid the trap of spending an inordinate amount of time on one stupid phrase, then having to rush through the rest of the song.

Pacing also has to do with momentum in the booth. Human energy and focus is a very fragile thing, and you want to keep your singers as focused and relaxed as possible. Try not to keep them waiting while you’re fiddling with audio files and waveforms… do that on your own time. At the same time, no need to rush the singer. You’ll feel natural breaks in the focus/energy. When focus is dropping, have a giggle, tell some jokes… then get back to it when you’re ready. I call these “commercial breaks”, and they help keep the focus good and the vibe happy.

6. When to Push, When to Let Go

Every singer is different, and if you pay attention you’ll get a feel for each singer’s own personal rhythm. Some are one- (or two)-take wonders… excellent the first time, but actually getting worse over multiple takes as they over-think and get sterile. Some are “warmer-uppers”: the first 3 takes just gets them started, and takes 5 and 6 are the keepers. Regardless, you’ll feel it: each series of takes feels like a wave, getting better and better, hitting a peak, and then gradually getting a little worse. Once you’ve hit one or two getting-worse takes, you know you’ve reached and gone past the peak… that’s when it’s time to move on. No amount of repetition will make it better after that.

5. What to Aim For

Of course, you want each take to be absolutely perfect…but realistically, you want the best you can get. Although you don’t want to adopt a “fix-it-later” mentality, it is worth keeping in mind what can be edited and what can’t.

In a nutshell… you can fix:
– tuning
– timing
– vocal anomalies like mouth-clicks, spit noises and such

You can’t fix:
– dynamics (“edited” dynamics tend to sound fake)
– vocal timbre/blend
– energy/emotion

The most natural thing is to say “it was flat… do it again” a dozen times until you get a perfectly in-tune and totally uninspired take. But you can fix the tuning… you can’t breathe life into a dull take. Take the flat-but-interesting take every time!

4. Keep the Best 3… No More

What?! Don’t keep every single take? Not for part-singing, whether it’s either right or wrong. Keeping more that that will bog you down later in endless choices that will make little-to-no-difference in the final product. You need 2 takes (for possible double-tracking) and one spare in case you need to swap-out a bad note or two. If you want a really lush sound, keep four: 3 for the triple, one for a spare.

Big Exception: for leads… *keep them all*. Something interesting may pop up that was totally unexpected, and maximum choice is the key here.

3. Comp On-The-Fly… And Take Notes

I like to make a rough comp as I go, while I’m in the moment with each take and phrase. It’s faster, and especially good if you have another singer coming in right away and they need something clean to sing to. Even if you comp later, while you may make some different choices, you’ll find 90% of your work is done. If you’re producing and someone else is engineering, keep notes on each take and why you liked it (i.e. “Take 10: rushed but energetic”)… it will make the choosing process that much easier down the road instead of saying “um… what was this take like? Why did I keep it?” And of course if you only keep a few takes, you’ve made it much easier on yourself. Trust me on this one: there is such thing as *too* much choice.

2. Watch Out For “The Microscope”

You know that moment… the one where you find yourself zooming in, focusing on one tiny little phrase, word, or interpretation. Your singer just can’t get it right, so you do it over… and over… and over. 15 minutes have gone by, you’re grinding your teeth, your singer is having a meltdown, and your engineer is checking his email in bored disgust.

Why is it happening? Your focus is just too close. Sometimes zooming in so tight on one thing makes it easy for the performer to develop a mental block, incapable of doing it the way you ask. Sometimes it’s a communication thing: you hear something in your head but can’t quite articulate. Solution: zoom back out, and work on the larger context. Gloss over that bit if it isn’t quite right… but you’ll probably find that it will sound just fine once you’ve put it back in context.

And the final and most-important tip…

1. Keep it Easy and Fun

Remember… it’s music, not brain surgery! No-one gets hurt if it isn’t perfect. This is not a suggestion to avoid excellence: it’s a reminder that what we’re doing, ultimately, is spreading joy with the music we make. We’ve all heard perfect-but-sterile performances, and then there are the ones that make your spine tingle. Well, that spine-tingle doesn’t come from pure accuracy, spotless editing or amazing mixing. It’s the singers’ emotions that make it happen. Good vibes make it “to tape”, and your listeners will feel it. Make that your primary focus, and you’ll have a great recording.

*postscript: I’ll be working on a book on a cappella producing someday soon… let me know what you thought of this article!*