Bad Vocal Recording Session? Try These 3 Quick Tips

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  • Learn how to avoid creative conflict with your clients.
  • Discover psychological ‘cues’ to help with bad vocal recording sessions
  • Learn the importance of ‘concrete feedback’.

People skills are part-and-parcel of being a producer. In fact, by today’s standards, the role of ‘producer’ can encompass everything from composition, recording, mixing, mastering, PR, marketing, social media (the list goes on and on).

Wearing several caps is something you have to accept as part of the role, but telling a musician they sucked is never easy.

With my own musical projects, I have a level of self-control (though it’s mostly self-doubt) with how a record could and should sound. I have the luxury of doing as many vocal or guitar takes as I want, because the only expense out of my pocket is time.

However, when producing other people’s projects, my clients aren’t subject to the same luxury of time and money.

Vocalists all want their performances to sound amazing by the second or third take, and while it can happen, the reality is it rarely does.

As a producer, it’s your job to step in and tell the singer if they are just not ready to record. It’s never fun, and can become highly confrontational and aggravating for both parties if not approached carefully.

That being said, there is no reason why we can’t deal with bad vocal recording sessions in a professional and empathic manner.

In this article, I explain my personal 3-step process that I use to diplomatically tell singers that they just need a little more time and practice.

If you’re looking for specific vocal recording tips and strategies, head to our complete guide by clicking here.

Bad Vocal Recording Session? Try These 3 Tips

Form relationships with vocal coaches in your area

The best way to approach giving critical feedback is to not only point out the problem, but also offer a practical solution. You might be a brilliant producer, and your ears can probably pinpoint exactly what’s wrong, but if you’re not a singer, the advice you give them to fix the issue could be completely useless.

This is why I feel it is of great importance to develop your contacts in the industry, and have a vocal coach you know and trust who could either come in and offer advice, or if they are not comfortable with that arrangement, you can offer that they give them a call for a one-on-one session.

Sometimes it might only take a couple of sessions with a capable vocal coach to iron out any problems with technique that you do not want to be fixing ‘in the mix’.

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I highly recommend sitting in on a few vocal coaching sessions if you can as well, as you’ll learn a lot about technique and just generally become a more ‘well-rounded’ producer.

Utilize the ‘compliment sandwich’

The ‘compliment sandwich’ is a popular technique in psychology that has helped managers from all walks of life deal with difficult, confronting situations regarding employees or clients.

It basically comprises of 3 layers: praise // corrective feedback // praise

Here’s an example of it in action.

Me: “Hey, Nate. Good job back there. I really dug the way you laying into that chorus. It was super emotive, however I think you were pushing so hard that a couple of lines were going out of pitch…  Keep it up though, we’ve almost got it”

Nate: “Ah, thanks… yeah, that bit is really tough for me.”

Me: “Look, I really want this to sound absolutely perfect, and I know just the person who can help us out.”

This feedback method effectively ‘sandwiches’ a negative between two positive pieces of feedback. It is useful as it softens the impact of the negative criticism, and offers up an easier entry to discussing the technique problems at hand, and offering up a solution like referring them to a vocal coach.

It establishes a level of trust between both of you and doesn’t completely crush their confidence.

In my experience, most vocalists have been thankful for being upfront and honest, and end up taking the advice on board.

Use concrete feedback

Applying the ‘compliment sandwich’ doesn’t mean you should be offering up vague critique that serves no value at all, even if you aren’t a vocal coach yourself.

Be descriptive to the vocalist about exactly what is lacking/overbearing in their performance. I have rarely seen anyone get offended by telling them that their posture looks too ‘tense’, suggesting that they focus on controlling the dynamics of their vocal passages, or asking them to open up their diaphragm more to nail those belting screams.

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I highly encourage you as a producer to also sit in on a few vocal coach lessons. There’s a lot you can learn from them on how to offer up concrete feedback, and that’ll be an asset in your producer arsenal that clients will keep coming back for.

Final notes

Tread carefully. Vocalists, like anyone else, can be quite sensitive about being told to “go for lessons”, and this should be done without the band or anyone else around. Respect their privacy with a topic that can be quite sensitive and intimate, and assure them that you are only offering this advice with their best interests at heart. Be objective in your argument, and make it about ‘technique’, and not about ‘talent’. Explain to them that it’ll be worth the extra time to get right.

There are going to be situations where your opinion doesn’t matter, simply because the artist is completely happy with how it sounds. All you can do is offer your 2 cents, and ultimately it is up to them whether they are happy with it or not. After all, they are the ones paying you.

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And let’s face it — no matter how good your concrete feedback is, you’re not going to make them a better vocalist right off the bat. You’re an engineer, not a sorcerer, and sometimes that means being the bearer of bad news.

Just be professional and empathetic about it, i.e. don’t be a dick.

Have you ever encountered a bad vocal recording session where you feel your vocalist or instrumentalist is not up to scratch and needs to further refine their skills? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments section below.