Vocals should be easy to record. One microphone, sing into it, bam.
That’s actually pretty much how it goes, from a technical point of view. On the first vocal session we tried out four mics, picked the best one, and put the rest away.
The bit that isn’t technical or easy is the performance. Vocals need to be as convincing as they are well executed – when we listen to music, we have a whole section of our brain dedicated just to listening to voices. And not just listening – we judge those voices based on timbre, pitch and delivery, even before we get into what’s actually being said.
It’s harder to get it right in the studio than a live show. Watching a live vocalist brings the rest of your critical brain into play too, watching the expressions on the singer’s face and the way they move to the music. With our singer it’s quite easy to tell that yes, he’s into it, and yes, it’s moving him. He sings from the heart. The fact he’s grabbed YOU by the cheeks and is trying to sing straight into your soul is a clue.
On record, all we have is a voice. That voice is the most important thing on the record, because it has to reach through time and space and move you, the listener. And that voice is naked. You can hear any wavering notes, any off key moments, and you will hear them because your brain will draw them to your attention – “HERE! HERE IS A WEAKNESS!” I promise you, if the singer is going through the motions, you’ll be able to tell. How can you be moved by a recording of someone who isn’t feeling moved?
Our singer is called Whitty. I’ve never met anyone even remotely like him before.
My favourite ever Whitty recording moment came during the recording of our last EP – Whitty had his first go of opening track “Poker” and it was pretty good, but didn’t quite have the attitude. Chris, the recording guy, told him to give it some more bollocks. Whitty took his trousers off for the next take. He was literally hanging it all out there for the world to see, but for the slight obscuration by speakers, a bunch of wire, and a mic.
He delivered that vocal to us.
The man takes it seriously. He gets pumped up. He stretches. He does his best at times to be insufferable because he knows it’s a performance just like any other. His worst takes would shame most people.
With a strong vocalist like Whitty there are two main things to be judging in each vocal take, and I try to keep them in my mind as I’m choosing vocal takes, cutting lines and phrases, looking for the perfect vocal.
Pitch and attitude.
It’s natural that when singers get excited, go for the high notes, or try to create tension, they’ll place parts of their melodies slightly out of tune. It’s not bad or wrong, it’s one of the ways a good vocalist expresses himself and sounds human. It’s the reason I hate autotune – remove these “mistakes” and you remove the soul.
Sometimes you’ll have a part that is sung to perfection in one take, and with complete attitude and conviction in another take even if the pitching isn’t as good. You’ve got to decide which one is better, leaning as far as you can into the realm of soul and guttural truth without sounding like a wild pack of dogs barking into the night.
I like to think that me and Whitty are two people balancing each other on the line between genius and madness, but I’m never quite sure who’s on which side.