8 Tips to Get a Great Vocal Performance

Learn how you can coach a vocalist to deliver a high-quality vocal performance.
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As a Session Singer, it’s my job to provide a great vocal performance to a project. However, there are certain things that you can do to help me help you! You might also have an inexperienced singer or someone who just needs a little extra help. We all know that vocals can make or break a song, so here are 8 tips to help you get a great performance from your vocalist:

1. Make the Vocalist Comfortable

If your singer is nervous, put them at ease by telling them stories about your studio, or about how you first got started. Talk them through it. If they’re cold, give them a warm drink or a space heater. If they’re hot, a cold drink is a bad idea (it contracts throat muscles) but you can cool them down with a fan. A comfortable singer will give a much better performance than an uncomfortable one. 

When I first started session singing, I was an anxiety-ridden, 14-year-old girl. The experienced producers noticed, asked me about it, and did their best to make me comfortable. Now I know what I need and I make sure to have it, but please be kind to your singers!

2. Give Them Lyrics Before Their Session

I realize that sometimes this isn’t possible, but it’s always helpful. If we come in knowing our parts, we’ll be much better prepared and can record faster. This applies to working virtually too. Some clients will send me the files a day before they want the project done. While this isn’t impossible, it’s much better to have a few days to review the material. 

If your singer is bringing their own material, they should obviously know it prior to coming in. If they don’t, I strongly recommend making them reschedule. It will save everyone time, and will also set the tone for what’s expected in the recording studio.

3. Set Studio Expectations

I’ve been in hundreds of studios, and the culture in each one was a little different. Some were very relaxed, with any of us lucky to have actually done any recording that day. Some were strictly business, with work starting the minute we were ready. Many were in between those extremes, but it’s up to you to decide how you want your studio to run. This will also give you a good idea if the singer is a good fit for your studio, or if it may be better for both of you to work with someone else.

4. Over-Communicate

I talk about this on my blog all the time. I even wrote a book about it. Communication, in my experience, is the single greatest factor in determining how successful a session is. Make sure the singer understands exactly what emotion and tone you want. Give examples if they aren’t sure. This is even more important if you’re working online since you won’t be able to speak in person. If you feel like you’re over-explaining, you’re probably not. I would much rather you over-explain something than not give me enough information and end up unhappy with the final product.

Here’s an example: “Sing softly,” is sort of descriptive. “Sing in almost a whisper, like you’re a little afraid of what words are coming next,” is way more descriptive and will prompt a better performance.

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5. Offer Them Drinks

This seems weird, but trust me. When I first started, I was way too shy to ever ask for a drink. Singers need drinks. Room temperature water or warm tea is best. Some singers might be shy, or some might just not think about it. If you offer them one (or even insist they take one), their voice will be in better shape for the session.

6. Make Them Warm Up

This should be a no-brainer for vocalists, but sometimes we go to a studio assuming we’ll warm up there. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Warmups are essential for vocalists and are absolutely necessary for a great performance.

Here’s what to do: When they walk in the door, hand them a water bottle and ask if they’ve warmed up. That takes care of two issues at once. If they say they haven’t, they can either do it there with you (if you know your scales) or they should do it in their car. I bought a few vocal warmup albums online that I give to other session singers. That could be an option as well, just buy one and have your singer run through it before starting.

7. Ask for Feedback

Many songwriters and producers assume that singers are totally comfortable with the song they’re singing and don’t ask for their input. However, it might benefit you to ask the singer what they think of the song. Is it difficult to sing? Are they having a hard time with certain phrases? Are you pitching the song to another artist? These are things they’ll need to know!

Of course, regardless of how we feel about it, it’s our job to give a great performance on the track. So while you might get some good information from the singer’s perspective, feel free to take it with a grain of salt.

8. Have Fun

This is really important. We’re in this business because we love music, right? If we’re not having fun 24/7, that’s fine (and not even possible), but recording sessions should be fun at least some of the time. If your singer is relaxed, comfortable, fully understands what you’re looking for, and is having a great time, you’ll capture an awesome performance.

Now, you may be working with your singer online. Collaborating online is becoming increasingly popular. I would say 99% of my clients are now remote, and that’s totally fine. In that case, you really only need to focus on tips 2, 4, and 7. I can make sure I take care of the rest since it’s my own studio.

One Last Note - Revisions

Whether you work online or in person, you may decide later that you want to make some changes to the singer’s performance. This is normal and okay, but I strongly urge you to work out an agreement ahead of time in order to handle revisions. For example, I will do one revision free, and any further changes are $25. This is addressed with the client prior to the project even starting because my hope is that they will be clear on what they need in order to avoid multiple revisions.

Before you start working with your singer, discuss revisions as a possibility and determine a plan of action in case they need to return to your studio or make changes online. This will avoid confusion and arguments later! I have free revision sheets available on my website, which will help you clearly communicate the changes you need. Whether you use them or not, it’s important to over-communicate on your revision requests as well! Hopefully, these tips will help you and your singer have a great time, and most importantly, create a great song.

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