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IAMA Podcast 2015

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Acoustic Music Radio

Acoustic Music Radio

Song list on this radio program:

“A Bakers Dozen” by Muriel Anderson
“Waterfalls” by Meghan Trainor
“Crayon Days” by Carl Wockner
“Wonderland” by Downhill Bluegrass Band
“Hearts” by JoJo Worthington
“From Joe To Betsy” by Jared Mahone
“Hurry Home” by Zane Williams

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7 Ways to Improve Your Live Performances

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7 Ways to Improve Your Live Performances

by Bruce Wawrzyniak

IAMA Winners Downhill Bluegrass Band  performing live on stage

IAMA Winners Downhill Bluegrass Band performing live on stage

Booking the shows, playing the shows, promoting your live dates, keeping up your website and social media, and writing and rehearsing. These are all a regular part of the schedule that a singer/songwriter keeps. But where in there is time left – or where in there are you making time – to evaluate the end product?

You’ve got the songs written, and certainly those are the key. Not only because without songs to sing you’d be on stage in front of mic like a stand-up comedian, but, because you can be real good at booking yourself, but if the songs don’t move anyone, no one is going to attend all those shows you so successfully scheduled yourself for.

Here are some tips on making sure that once you step into the spotlight, the people stay – and listen.

  1. Arrange to have a couple of your live shows filmed. Yes, it’s great content for YouTube and/or your website, but more importantly, this is for your own internal review. You know how you sound on-stage, but do you know how you look? This doesn’t have to be a huge production or a new line item in your music budget. Even if you just put a camera on a tripod and leave it there, get some footage you can watch. I’m not a big advocate for video off of a smartphone, but to just have something for your own study, that will even suffice so you can see what the audience members are seeing.
  2. Don’t do your entire show sitting down. Singer/songwriters face enough stereotypes (see the aforementioned stand-up comedians). Don’t add to it by sitting on a stool for two whole hours. (Dare I say don’t even bring a stool at all?!) Stand up, move around, and give the audience a reason to not nod off or look down into their phones. If you don’t look interested, why would they want to give you their undivided attention?
  3. Be very strategic about your set list. I’m amazed at people who tell me, “I don’t do a set list. I just play what I feel in the moment.” And thus they play four ballads in a row and start losing audience members to sadness or disinterest or fatigue. Mix up the ballads and the mid-tempo and the up-tempo songs. Plus, during the booking process, ensure that you can play all originals. If they want a mix of cover songs, have a good combination that will keep people interested when you start playing a song of yours that you want them to know.
  4. Be a good storyteller. There’s a huge difference between saying, “Here’s a song I wrote about my first car,” and painting a picture of what the make and model was along with the color, any defects, the reason it had meaning to you, and why it made enough of an impression on you to actually write a song about it. Imagine going to a songwriters festival and just playing your songs without any explanation or setup. The stories behind them would be noticeable by their absence.
  5. You don’t know what the audience members are each going through, good or bad. Hopefully you are playing shows where they’re paying to see you. That in itself should be a big reminder that they’ve made a conscious choice to hear you add to their celebration or help them with their current plight. There should be no cruise control setting in your act. Play every time like it’s your first show and your last show.
  6. Pick one table or audience section to play to and draw them in. Then move on to the next table or section. And so on. Don’t play just to the person or people right in the front. The guy at the back deserves to hear you just as much and he could very well end up being that “you never know who might be in the crowd” person.
  7. The devil is in the details, as they say. Practice good mic technique. Befriend the sound tech. Have your guitar in tune so you’re not adjusting on the fly during your very first song. Don’t close your eyes the whole time you’re singing. These are all a part of the equation that add up to a live performance you can be proud of at the end of the night.

As they say, wash, rinse, repeat. Use the above as a checklist and/or create a Live Show checklist so that you are ready each time you take the stage, and leave the audience members applauding and wondering when and where they can see you perform next.

————-

Bruce Wawrzyniak is the president of Tampa, Florida-based Now Hear This, Inc., which specializes in management, promotion, and booking for musicians. He is the host of the weekly show, “Now Hear This Entertainment,” which has gotten listeners in 80-plus countries around the world. He writes a weekly blog at www.NowHearThis.biz and is the author of “Bruce’s Bonus Book: A Collection of Tips for Up-And-Coming Entertainers.” He is a regular attendee of songwriters festivals and served as a speaker at a Young Songwriters Workshop in Nashville. Look for him as a panelist at a major music conference in the southeast later this year.

For more information on the 12th Annual IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), go to:

http://www.inacoustic.com

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A Record Producer on the Importance of Pre-Production

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A Record Producer on the Importance of Pre-Production
By Michael Beinhorn

Pre-Production

Pre-Production

A few months ago I met with a band who were planning their next recording.

 We began discussing time frame and logistics in order to figure out how their time and money would be best spent. At some point in the conversation, I casually enquired about how many days they had allotted for pre-production. Slack-jawed and confused, to a man, the band and their management all stopped speaking and stared at me as if I’d just recited a sonnet in Ancient Greek.

“Pre-production? What’s that?”

Over the past 10 years, I’ve become increasingly surprised by how many artists are ready to waltz straight into a recording studio without doing pre-production or prep-work. Still more surprising is how often people who comprise the support teams of many artists––such as managers, A&R, publishers, even some record producers––completely ignore pre-production because they figure it’s unnecessary or a waste of time.

A Few Basic Premises
Actually, pre-production is one of the most essential stages of a recording project—perhaps the most essential. I see it as an insurance policy which guarantees that every aspect of every song I’m producing will be functioning properly (and the band/artist will be performing them as flawlessly as possible) by the time recording begins.

I can summarize the process of pre-production by breaking it down into four parts: analysis, discovery, revision and implementation/rehearsal. First, the music is analyzed; through that analysis, flaws are discovered; through discovery of these flaws, repairs are made and through rehearsal, the repairs are implemented and the music is improved.

As well as improving an artist’s music, pre-production helps direct him to work methodically and, thereby, smarter. By introducing organization into the creative process––which, by its very nature, can be highly disorganized––pre-production saves time on a recording project (which also means saving money, and that is especially beneficial for artists with small budgets).

It also provides an opportunity for the artist(s) and the producer to work together under “real world” conditions, instead of initializing their working relationship in a recording studio. This approach tends to set a better tone for the rest of the project.

Of course, the pre-production process can be difficult and even awkward at times. There’s nothing comfortable about having your babies––the fruit of your creative womb––rent asunder by someone you barely know and don’t yet fully trust.

However, the objective examination of your material prior to recording is also a necessity. In over three decades of producing records, nearly every artist I’ve worked with has acknowledged that the pre-production work we did played an essential role in taking their work to the next level. Most of the recordings I’ve produced––such as Soundgarden’sSuperunknown––wouldn’t even exist in their present forms without extensive pre-production. And that is the end result that always justifies the means.

 Analysis and Discovery
Since I’m producing the artist’s music, I need to know it intimately. By listening to the artist’s demos, I develop an impression of the material and of the artist as a creative individual. This means I have to be everything from a songwriter to an arranger, to a psychoanalyst.

I listen to all the music we will be recording, as well as previous work the artist has done (including material he may have that is in various states of completion). All of this gives me greater insight––as well as context––to the music—and the artist. By simply being aware of how the music is making me feel as I listen to it (whether that’s good, bad or indifferent) the impressions I form about it come naturally.

The listening process initiates an internal dialog in me. That internal dialog involves questions such as:

  • What do I feel is the artist’s intent?
  • What is he saying––or trying to say––through his songs?
  • How does he project himself into his songs?
  • Am I getting a complete sense of who he is, or is something missing/being hidden?
  • What is this artist’s strongest asset?
  • What is he best at?
  • What is his weakness?
  • Does he rely on his strongest or his weakest asset to express himself musically?

I also start keeping notes that include my thoughts about the material (and fixes for problems I’m encountering), as well as the internal dialog and any additional impressions I may have. I also keep notes about how the band play together and how they use instrumentation to facilitate (or impair) each song. All these notes become an initial jumping-off point for the work we will be doing in pre-production.

I also make a habit of checking in with the artist to share my ideas, so he can start applying some of them to his songs. Initially communicating one on one is sometimes more relaxed than doing this while surrounded by a group of people in a rehearsal room. This makes it easier for the artist to feel comfortable with me and thereby, more receptive to input.

After a few weeks of prep-work, we are ready to begin pre-production.

Working With the Material (Revision)
Pre-production is always most effective when the artist/band shows up with songs as finished and rehearsed as possible (regardless of any changes that will be made to them). This may seem obvious, but some artists avoid addressing loose ends in their material (occasionally, until well into the recording process).

As an example, when I began producing Untouchables for Korn, they had over 40 unfinished song ideas––nearly all of which were unusable. Inevitably, we scrapped everything, started over and the band wrote the entire record during a very lengthy pre-production that lasted seven months(!).

The revision process in pre-production is an extrapolation of the analysis and discovery I initiated while prepping the record. The artist/band and I start reviewing my notes regarding song fixes and ideas to be auditioned.

The artist/band also discuss their feelings about the songs. Every question and uncertainty about each song is addressed and we must all agree that we are satisfied with whatever solution we have arrived at before moving on.

As a group, we begin peeling back layers of the music to reveal what’s at the core, deconstructing everything in order to see how it all interacts and then, gradually replacing those layers while reintegrating the structure into a far better state than when we began. We examine everything; we see what works and we change—or eliminate—what doesn’t.

Songs are interesting creatures, as are song structures. You always know when a song structure is working, because you’re not paying attention to the structure—you’re listening to the song. However, when a song structure is problematic, you can’t focus as easily on the song because the structural issues affect the song flow.

You may have a song with great parts or sections, but if they are structured poorly your great parts will be rendered meaningless. My experience is, you ignore structural issues in your songs at your own peril. If you don’t address them prior to recording, you will revisit the same issues later when they have become systemic; your options are more limited and your solutions more time-consuming.

When I analyze a song structure, I always consider the following elements. These categories tend to overlap, but I like to keep them separate for the sake of clarity:

1) Song Flow/Arrangement: how the song progresses and how this progression unites the song as a unified, integrated piece of music.

2) Dynamics: how elements develop in the song to maintain a listener’s interest.

3) Orchestration: which instruments are being used in the song and how.

4) Rhythmic Elements: how rhythms in the song interact and reinforce the song.

5) Integration: how all the elements integrate/interact with one another—or don’t.

Digging into the DNA of a song always illuminates it in new and unexpected ways. Hearing a familiar song shift drastically by changing the way it builds dynamically, by altering a drumbeat so it’s more supportive of a vocal line, or by adding a melodic bass line to reinforce and interact with a vocal melody, often gives the artist a new appreciation for his material.

Often, my suggestions encourage the artist to arrive at his own solution to a creative issue. This demonstrates how symbiotic and flexible the artist/producer relationship can be when they work as collaborators. I had such a dynamic when I worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They were competitive and enjoyed the challenge of finding their own solutions to issues in their songs.

As they are revised, the songs gradually become more focused and some of them begin to exhibit weaknesses that cannot be repaired. Generally, these weaker songs simply can’t be improved since their issues are more systemic than symptomatic. At that point, they are usually eliminated.

 Honing Musicianship (Implementation)
The analysis, discovery and revision phases of pre-production involve examining songs under a microscope. By comparison, the implementation/rehearsal phase involves examining performance aspects of the songs from more of an overview.

After a few days of doing revisions, the focus gradually shifts more to rehearsing. Depending on the style of music, I start pre-production with a full band. Sometimes, I start only with vocals and one instrument for accompaniment in order to focus exclusively on song structure (and gradually add the rest of the instrumentation to see how everything interacts).

No matter what instrument configuration we begin with, I focus on the rhythm section as early in the process as possible. I feel that quite often, bass and drums are treated as afterthoughts instead of essential parts of a band and I often work with them separate from the other instruments.

Why focus on bass and drums? 1) although often ignored, they are foundational, supportive and propel the other instruments; 2) they potentially provide great rhythmic and melodic counterpoint for the vocal; and 3) I feel they always sound better when played with feel and aggression, instead of being polite and stiff, but spot-on with a click.

People often make jokes about bassists and drummers, but a great rhythm section makes a song come alive. On the other hand, a great song can fall apart when the rhythm section isn’t doing their job. A cursory listen to any Beatles record will thoroughly prove this point.

As I mentioned earlier, when a band comes into pre-production well rehearsed, we are able to implement changes much faster because they are prepared. This also means that we can focus heavily on nuances in their performances, relationships between the instruments, how aggressively the songs are attacked, etc. The musicians are better able to play with more intensity and get the maximum impact from their material.

Sometimes, however, a band is relatively unrehearsed prior to pre-production. When this happens, pre-production becomes a chaotic overlapping of arranging, revising and rehearsing. Suffice it to say, this is never ideal.

Rehearsing consistently makes a performer better at what they do and a better performer guarantees a better performance. Experience has shown me that people always prefer listening to a great performance than a mediocre performance that has been heavily edited.

We who make recordings are quick to believe that average listeners can’t hear any difference; but, believe me—they can tell.

Building Morale
There is also an interpersonal aspect to pre-production (and record making in general). Since creative work often boils down to people working together in a room, it involves relationships. Because I forensically analyze an artist’s creative work (with the consideration that I may have to rip some of it to shreds), the dynamic of my relationship with the artist can be affected.

Generally speaking, people doing creative work in any environment are happy and productive. Conversely, an environment inhabited by a group of artists jointly working on the foundation of a creative project is fragile and potentially volatile.

Along with each individual’s ideas, his ego is also on the table. Depending on a variety of factors, anything can cause the mood in the room to go from cool to boiling hot in a split second. Perhaps one band member doesn’t like a particular song that another one wrote. One band member might become offended by another band member’s flippant comment, or someone had a bad morning prior to beginning work.

In this case, how do I––as the designated driver of this project––constructively handle ongoing interpersonal dynamics? How do I critique an artist without demolishing his confidence? How do I keep everyone in the room happy, working well together, with the same general goal in mind while navigating around any stray agendas that might be detrimental to the project?

Apart from helping hone the artist’s material, my job is to maintain stability. In this aspect, I have to be an office manager, a psychologist, a parent and a traffic cop.

To handle those roles well, I come into pre-production prepared. This starts by knowing all the music and having a comprehensive plan to make it better.

And, to reinforce that, I come in calm and relaxed. In a work situation involving multiple individuals, one person’s mood and state of mind can affect everyone else’s mood (as well as their ability to concentrate); hence, maintaining my calm helps everyone keep theirs.

For this reason, I always make sure to leave my personal issues outside the rehearsal studio door. I also try to meditate prior to starting work.

If there is a disagreement, my responsibility is to maintain a constant overview of the situation. Remaining calm facilitates a better sense of that overview.

I am also conscious of not getting sucked into anyone else’s personal drama. Drama is seductive, especially in a creative environment. However, it serves absolutely no purpose when it manifests in a group of people trying to work. Looking past the cause of drama enables one to maintain clarity.

When I see what is at the root of a specific problem, I parse out all the individual elements that make up the problem and present them to the artist as concrete facts with concrete solutions. I find that people often get frustrated because they are trying to address a multitude of stressful things at once, instead of separating them and dealing with them one at a time. Bringing clarity to a situation makes it easier to defuse.

Providing critique is an essential aspect of my role. When I critique or share ideas with an artist, I keep in mind that the artist may be extremely close and attached to his work; hence, I do it with care. Often, the way information is presented is as important as the information itself.

The most important thing of all is keeping the creative atmosphere positive and upbeat. The best way to do this is to make sure there is a constant sense of progress. Few experiences are better than hearing a familiar piece of music transform, reveal all its potential and recognizing your own contribution to this metamorphosis.

 Some Final Thoughts for the Artist
Producing an artist implies that there is a collaboration between the producer and the artist. Even if a producer has written songs for an artist’s project, the artist’s name is still the first thing people identify with that project.

The relationship is symbiotic, not hegemonic. An artist may consistently defer to a producer by choice; however, this is not appropriate if the artist disagrees with the producer or feels compelled to speak his mind.

What you create is based largely on your own creative instincts. Therefore, as an artist, while it is imperative to accept input, it is equally imperative to trust your instincts and to assert yourself when the situation calls for it.

You may find yourself working with a producer, perhaps someone with a lot of credits and success behind him. Things may be progressing smoothly when, suddenly, he drops an idea on you that you don’t like. In fact, it is an awful idea, one that has (at least, in your mind) absolutely nothing to do with the kind of record you want to make.

What do you do?

Obviously, being open-minded and tactful is a lot more valuable to you than being quick to reject the idea without giving it a chance. Since it might help you to understand why he made the suggestion, you can ask him to explain it.

Perhaps, after he has explained his idea, it still doesn’t make sense. In this case, the next step might be to tell him that although you are still unclear about what he’s going for, you are open to trying his idea, but with conditions. The first condition might be that you’ll try his idea, but you might also want to try your own idea in place of his and compare the two. The second condition might be that if his idea doesn’t work––even after living with it for a time—the song will be restored to the way it was.

This way, a potentially difficult situation becomes a reasonable compromise; one free of conflict where everyone stands to win.

One of my favorite quotes is from novelist William Faulkner and it reads, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” The killing of your darlings, which in this case might be losing a song part that you love but simply doesn’t work, is one of the most difficult—and transformational––things that you can do as an artist.

Change is difficult, but it is also the essence of pre-production. The less resistant you are to change and new ideas regarding your work, the more fruitful the creative process becomes.

And…

In spite of their misgivings, I managed to convince the band at the beginning of this article that they needed to budget a few days in their schedule for pre-production. They agreed to try it for two days. They were so surprised by how much better their songs became that, at the end of the second day, they insisted on three more days.

By Michel Beinhorn

Reprinted with permission of Music Connection magazine

For more 12th Annual IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), visit: http://www.inacoustic.com

 

 

 

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Why You Didn’t Become A Pro Musician Yet (And How To Do It)

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Why You Didn’t Become A Pro Musician Yet (And How To Do It)

By Tom Hess

Professional Musicians playing on live TV

Professional Musicians playing on live TV

There are countless musicians who want to succeed in the music industry but fail to do so. Most of them fail because they are taking action to do things that actually accomplish very little (although they spend tons of time on these things). Unfortunately, this causes most musicians to waste years of their lives only to end up frustrated and disappointed.

Here are six reasons why you have not become a professional musician yet, and what you should do to immediately move your career forward:

1. Your Living Situation Prevents You From Growing Your Music Career

It’s just not possible to grow a massively successful music career if you spend every minute of your free time exhausted because you work full time hours every week.

To start working full time on your MUSIC career, you must develop a strategy for smoothly transitioning out of your day job. One way to do this is to reduce the hours you spend every week at your day job from forty to thirty five and spend the difference working to build your music career. As you begin making additional music related income, you can cut down the amount of time you spend at your regular job and gradually phase in your music career.

2. Your On Stage Performing Skills Are Severely Lacking

Amateur musicians have not yet mastered the ability to perform well in live situations. It’s not enough to just stand on stage and play your instrument. Pros are able to put on shows that motivate people to see the band play again, sell music and take your band to a higher level in the industry. Anytime you play on stage, it should motivate your fans to tell everyone they know about how awesome your band is.

3. You Hold Yourself Back In Your Music Career

Musicians often complain that they don’t have enough opportunities, but if they were only given a chance, they would take advantage of it. In reality, musicians often pass on big opportunities because of their own fears and insecurities.

The main idea here is that these kinds of musicians complain about not having opportunities for developing their careers, and eventually go on to reject the big chance to break into the music industry. I sometimes talk to these musicians years later, and they tell me the identical sad story about how they never got the chance to become highly successful.

Don’t become another one of these unsuccessful musicians. Don’t put things off and allow inaction to be the main factor for why you never became a professional musician. Don’t allow fears of failure to become the DESTROYER of your musical dreams… Take action NOW and begin recording your first album, playing in a new rock band, improving your songwriting skills. To take powerful action to move your music career forward, first build your greatest musical goals, then work with a mentor who will show you how to reach them.

4. You Already Gave Up On Your Musical Dreams, But Don’t Know It Yet

One of the worst ways to ruin your chances for success in music is to listen to the advice of people who have never been successful professional musicians. These people will tell you things like:

“Music isn’t a real job.”

“You want to become a rock star? Dream on!”

“To be a pro musician, you have to become a starving artist who plays on the street corner.”

“The music business is too risky, you’ve got to get a job doing something more safe.”

“You should do music on the side while you get a music degree in case it doesn’t work out.”

Reality is, the music industry is a very safe industry to work in (for musicians who follow the correct steps for earning a good living in music). The majority of the true professionals in the music business are NOT playing on street corners… they make a good living doing what they love to do and are simply not known in popular media. Actually, it is a lot easier to earn a great living in the music business than most people think (while also having that income be very consistent and secure). That said, endless amounts of musicians pay attention to the ignorant advice of others who never even worked in the music business. As a result, they think their musical dreams are impossible and give up on them altogether.

To transform yourself into a highly successful professional musician, you need to ONLY listen to people who have accomplished major success in the same areas of the industry you want to work in. There is truly no reason to accept the well-meaning (but misguided) advice of your peers, friends or family who only repeat myths and platitudes about success the music industry without any true experience in this industry. Remember, your favorite bands and musicians all started at or below where you are now in your music career before they went on to become legends. The only thing that keeps you from achieving what they’ve done is your own mindset!

5. You Are Heading Down The Path To Becoming An Amateur Musician… NOT A Professional!

There exist many differences between how hugely successful pro musicians build their careers, and how amateurs try to build them. Professional musicians expect to accomplish great things at all times and only associate with other like-minded people. On the other hand, amateurs allow their careers to become consumed with mediocre results.

Here are a few examples of what I am talking about:

Amateur musicians invest most of their time performing in bands with musicians who have no true ambitions for greatness.

Professional musicians only work with other musicians who are totally committed to success in the music business. For instance, here is a one question test to help you understand if your band is near or at the professional level: Would every member in your band cancel all their plans to go on a huge tour throughout the country (that could possibly results in losing substantial money in the short term), in order to increase the chances of gaining more profitable opportunities in the band’s future? If the answer is no, then your band is a long way away from reaching the pro level.

Amateur musicians frequently associate with band members, friends or peers who are negative and question their ambitions for becoming successful professional musicians.

Professional musicians surround themselves with other people who motivate and inspire them to reach their musical dreams. They don’t spend any of their time being around people who bring them down.

Amateur musicians (falsely) assume they can achieve everything they want in their music career alone, without a trainer or coach. Instead, they are satisfied with relying on trial and error or merely doing what other musicians are doing. They assume they can accomplish the same success of other musicians by copying what those musicians are doing. This approach is why the majority of musicians don’t understand how to get into the music business.

Professional musicians invest into a music industry coach instead of simply copying what other people are doing, to ensure that every action they take brings them closer to their greatest musical goals.

6. You Don’t Truly Understand How To Earn Money In The Music Business

Amateur musicians use tons of time recording tracks for their albums and improving on their instruments, yet have no clue how to earn a living from all these things. These musicians usually invest months into writing and recording music, then finally release it online where no one (except for their friends) hears it. They become disappointed, their music careers come to screeching halt (before even getting started) and they never again try to accomplish anything significant.

You will not earn a nice living as a professional musician by taking isolated actions as discussed above. Professional musicians make tons of money by developing entrepreneurial mindsets (and taking action on these mindsets), growing strategically interweaved streams of income and working with an experienced mentor to understand how to create their own opportunities in the music industry.

Now that you know why you haven’t become a professional musician, learn how to finally make it in the music business with music career coaching.

About The Author:

Tom Hess is a recording artist, music career mentor and virtuoso guitar player. He trains and mentors musicians of all different experience levels on how to develop a successful career in music. Visit his musician website to get free music career building tools and read professional music business columns.

For more information on the 12th Annual IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), go to: http://www.inacoustic.com/entry.html

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How a Vocal Producer Can Spark Your Next Recording

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By Jeannie Deva

Warren Hunt, Producer; Rena Lovelis, Singer; Jeannie Deva, Vocal Producer in a recording studio

Warren Hunt, Producer; Rena Lovelis, Singer; Jeannie Deva, Vocal Producer in a recording studio

When I mention “record producer” or “recording engineer” to just about anyone in the music business, I usually get an understanding nod. If, however, I say “vocal producer,” more often than not, I see looks of uncertainty about who that is and what they do.

What is it about the vocals that would necessitate a vocal producer? A guitarist doesn’t need a guitar producer, so what about the vocals is different? 

Starting in the mid 1980’s, my involvement with producing recorded vocals began as a response to singers coming to me complaining of difficulties in the studio. They were blowing-out and not giving the performance their producer was trying to get from them and recording sessions were arduously dragging on well beyond projected budgets. Over the years my involvement advanced into a more encompassing role––that of vocal producer. 

In this article I’ll share with you tips and advice from my own experience working with singers in the studio as well as those of several of my colleagues who are Multiplatinum, Grammy-winning engineers, producers and A&R reps. In the end I hope you will gain an understanding of how a vocal producer might help you record hit songs and when it would be appropriate to involve one in your project.  

Let’s start from the beginning. What’s so special about the vocals? What is it about studio singing that would require a specialist? 

Vocals Sell the Song
“It’s the singer, not the song,” sang Mick Jagger way back when. Well, okay––the song DOES matter, but I think you get the point: The singer is the focal point of any recording. No matter how great the rest of your band, the audience usually recognizes you by the sound of your singer.

On your recording, the sound, style, personality and performance of the vocal must be of utmost quality. If so, it will capture attention and interest, building your audience and making hit songs possible for you. In fact, if the singer really knows his/her craft and the recording captures it properly, it’s even possible to transform a “ho-hum” song into something fresh and memorable: such is the potential of an expressive, musical and passionate singer

Studio Singing
Singing in the studio is an art unto itself. As anyone who has both live stage performance and recording experience knows, studio vocal recording is vastly different. To start with, the voice is an acoustic instrument. It is “played” based on how the singer hears herself. There’s a sonic loop between ears and mind that is intuitively used by the singer to monitor the muscle actions of their voice. The many components involved in studio recording can and will influence not only how you sing––affecting your vocal performance—but how you end up sounding on playback. In addition, the choices of gear and various “tricks of the trade,” can greatly influence the sound quality of the vocal recording.

Singer or Setup?
Sometimes the singer is just not ready to go into the studio and lay down an amazing vocal performance; they need more pre-production on the songs and possibly more vocal technique and exercise to develop their voice and sing more freely. But just as often, during my years of coaching and producing singers in studios around the world, I’ve witnessed many producers and engineers who thought the singer was subpar when the actual source of the difficulty was poor choice of gear and inappropriate studio set-up.

In one of the first recording sessions I was brought into, the vocalist was having a great deal of difficulty singing the high notes on pitch and without strain. The producer kept whispering to me that the singer had a big pitch problem. After a few takes that were pretty bad, I went into the vocal booth, put on the headphones and asked for the track to begin playing. As I tried singing into the mic, I found that the EQ cut off the treble part of the sound spectrum. This made singing the higher notes impossible! I directed a change in the headphone EQ so as to “open” the treble and instantly the singer had no pitch problems.

The Two Sides of Vocal Recording
There are two sides to vocal recording: the singer’s performance and the technical production. The choice of recording gear and technical set-up joins the two sides together. If you add musical arrangement, instrumentation and post-production that are all conceived to support the singer and the song message––voilà! You have a final result that can be truly exciting.

To help the singer capture the most outstanding vocal performance possible, each element of the vocal signal chain or pathway must be uniquely chosen and matched to the specific attributes of the singer. This signal path typically includes: type of mic and headphones, type of preamp and setting, make and model of compressor (some are smoother and less obtrusive than others), the EQ, the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, a type of recording software such as Logic or Pro Tools). Even the type of cables, such as those made by Blue or Monster, can make a difference in the sound.

Prior to entering the studio, singers have enough to deal with just practicing and developing their song performances without also having to get trained in the technology of vocal recording and studio gear. And once in the studio, the undistracted focus should be on their singular role and achievement of vocal performance. So, who ya gonna call?

Enter the Vocal Producer–The Recording Artist’s Secret Weapon
A good vocal producer knows the difference between a great vocal performance—one that truly sells the song—versus one that could be better and specifically how it could be better so as to help the singer make it great. Understanding rhythm, phrasing, harmony, note choice and music structure would be part of this skill. By the time the session is over, the vocal producer makes sure there is enough selection of performance takes to create the perfect vocal compilation in the editing and mixing. Toward the end, while the session is underway, every second of each vocal pass is accounted for by the vocal producer ensuring everything will add up to a stunning vocal performance.

To achieve trust and maintain teamwork with the singer, a vocal producer needs good communication skills and has to know how to give constructive criticism and positive reinforcement that is honest. As the multi-Grammy-winning vocal producer Kuk Harrell says, “It’s never, ‘Man you screwed up.’ I can tell Jennifer [Lopez] she’s not singing it the right way without telling her that she’s not singing it the right way.”

In speaking with my colleagues, I’ve found that the description of the vocal producer’s role has variations. Some vocal producers also wear the hat of engineer concurrent with giving directions and guidance to the singer. But a vocal producer does not need to be an engineer.

Some producers simultaneously wear three hats: producer, engineer and vocal producer. However, especially with less experienced engineers/producers who don’t have training as a singer or vocal coach, I’ve observed that trying to do those jobs at the same time can compromise the production of the final vocal. And there are many vocal producers who, like me, prefer to focus all of our attention on the singer and so work in tandem with an engineer and the producer of the overall recording project.

Regardless of our differences, on one thing we all agree: A vocal producer is there to elicit the emotion, style, believability and best performance from the singer during studio recording.

The Importance of a Second Set of Ears
AGT finalist of 2013, singer and award-winning songwriter Deanna DellaCioppa knows both sides of studio vocal production. She has been the vocal producer for sessions with such notables as Sophia Grace (60 million YouTube views) and Paula Abdul. Deanna has extensive studio experience singing background vocals for artists such as Celine Dion and, most recently, multiple backing vocals for Justin Bieber’s song “Prayer.”

We can be our own worst critic,” she told me. “I do not enjoy vocal producing [my own performance] while I’m in the booth for this reason; having a second set of ears outside the booth helps tremendously. As the singer I only want to focus on giving a solid, emotion-filled vocal. I do not want to focus on keeping track of which takes were best, what harmony I should use or the overall vocal arrangement.”

Khaliq Glover (aka Khaliq-O-Vision), producer, Grammy-winning engineer (Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Prince) and mixing specialist shared this with me: “Making a record that communicates and connects with an audience that can’t see you face-to-face is a skill that takes time to develop and it usually needs external guidance. You have to nail a combination of feeling, being on pitch, being on rhythm, having dynamics, having great tone and breathing in the right place. That’s a lot, and it can mess with your head unless you have somebody who can help you keep your eye on the prize and not let you get down on yourself.

The vocal producer,” he continues, “is there to guide and extract the performance from the singer, which also includes the quality of their voice during various sections of the song. Understanding the difference can go a long way towards capturing an awesome performance. Connection to the lyrics is probably the biggest key to a great performance and a great vocal producer will always make sure that the singer is actually feeling what they are singing so that the emotion comes through.”

The Session Vocal Coach
If the producer is not also an experienced session singer or trained voice teacher, as I am, involving a vocal coach in your recording sessions could be a wise move. I’ve heard any number of faulty directions given to singers by producers that include what to do physically to get a certain vocal sound. As the producer was not a trained voice teacher or coach, many of these directions were in fact making singing more difficult.

A vocal coach who knows how the voice works and is armed with techniques to help the singer use their voice freely without blow-out can make a huge difference in the studio. While a vocal producer will give directions pertaining to performance and style, the vocal coach helps the singer know how to do that. I recently worked on a project at Capitol Records with Warren Huart (Multiplatinum producer/vocal producer, mixer, engineer and A&R consultant for Capitol Records) and this is what he had to say: “The best vocal coaches I have worked with have helped to put the artist at ease and warm up their voice without straining them. If an artist has already established a long-term successful relationship with a vocal coach, it can be a great benefit to have them present, especially at the start of a vocal session.”

A session vocal coach or a vocal producer who is additionally a vocal technique expert will be able to help the singer nail the performance while assisting the singer to troubleshoot any vocal or equipment problems that would hinder a free and expressive vocal performance.

Here’s a story to illustrate: Recently a singer studying voice technique with me arrived complaining about a recording session she’d had the previous night. The producer was trying to get her to sing the pre-choruses in a breathy voice but kept telling her that in doing so, her volume was too low. To remedy the lower volume, he told her to “push” her voice out while singing breathy.

The result was that her voice soon blew out, they didn’t get what he wanted for the pre-chorus and in her lesson the next day I had to rehabilitate her voice. Breathy singing is a subdued sound and it cannot be done loudly without straining the voice. If I had been present in the studio, I would have tracked the breathy pre-choruses separately from the rest of the song so that the recording levels could be raised. In the lesson I showed her how to cup her mouth with her hands so that her breathy sound would be amplified by the microphone. Using that technique in the next day’s session, she gave her producer the sound and feel he was looking for without having to “push” and blow out her voice.

In the Studio
• Set-up: The first thing your vocal producer will do together with the engineer is set up the session. Determining the correct match of mic for you can take about 20 minutes of trying out several to determine the one that brings out the best in your voice. When multiple songs are part of the project, the same mic will normally be used for continuity of sound throughout the album or EP. Once the mic has been matched and the headphone mix is comfortable for you to sing easily, the actual session starts.

Coordinate with the Producer: It is important that everyone is on the same page. “You must all have the same vision for the song,” says Deanna DellaCioppa. “If you (producer, vocal producer and singer/rapper) do not share the same vision for the end result, this is a huge problem. The producer generally has final say over the final product, so it is the vocal producer’s job to be sure that is captured from the singer.”

Go for Performance: The entire focus of the singer should be on the performance, not on technique. Any vocal “glitches” can always be fixed in one of three ways: 1. Digital editing such as using auto tuner software. 2. A compilation track for the lead vocal created later (selecting the best sections of different “takes”) 3. ”Punching” (to re-record that phrase or section).

Full Takes or Sections?: As many of us do, Warren Huart decides on his session approach based on the singer and the song: “Some singers can perform songs best in single, full takes. Some songs and/or singers require recording the song in sections. You have to be open to trying different things to find the best approach for the situation and not just using one methodology.”  As I mentioned earlier, when a song has big contrasts in volume, I prefer to record them separately. This allows the engineer to set the input volume correctly for each section so that the singer can use the appropriately contrasting vocal approaches

The Final Track: Once the vocal producer is certain that several choices of great performances have been tracked for each part of the song, the singer’s job is done and the editing and compilation begins. The ears and objectivity of a good vocal producer are invaluable in searching through all the vocal takes just recorded, fixing notes as needed and piecing together sections to make up the final track.

Last Steps: With the vocal compilation track completed, mixing and then mastering are the important final steps. As long as the tracking has been done right, you’ll have all the ingredients needed for your mixing engineer and producer to create the magic. But that’s a subject for another day.

Who Uses Vocal Producers?
Kuk Harrell is the vocal producer for artists such as Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez. Warren Huart has vocal produced artists such as: Isaac Slade (the Fray), James Blunt, Marc Broussard, Tori Kelly and Ace Frehley (formerly of Kiss). But you don’t have to be an artist signed to a record label to use a vocal producer. It depends upon whether you want to achieve a level of quality that a record label would consider good enough to represent, distribute and broadcast.

Aubrey Whitfield, a British producer, mix engineer and founder of London-based indie label 2ube Records, explains something I’ve heard echoed by other labels: “If you approach me and you have a release-ready record that doesn’t need re-recording, then that’s going to catch my attention. Why? …. We won’t have to re-record you. So think smartly and produce something that competes with current Top 40 releases and you’ll be halfway there.”

For lesser budget projects still striving to have the edge of radio-ready songs, you might consider tracking your instruments in your home or project studio. Then track your vocals with a vocal producer in a pro-studio and complete the recording with a mixing/mastering specialist.

The Business of Hiring
Vocal producers and session vocal coaches are hired in any number of different ways. They are hired by artists, labels, managers and even publishers to work by the hour, at a flat rate per song or for the entire project. “Every project is different; there is no [standard] cost,” Warren Huart shared with me. “Also, I generally receive points on album sales. Points fluctuate depending on whether you are working on just the vocal or the whole track plus the vocals.”

Producer points are a percentage of royalties received for working on a commercially sold album. A point would be equal to one percent of the retail or wholesale price of an album. One or two points would be typical, but superstar producers such as Kuk Harrell can demand higher percentages. Indeed, a 2012 New York Times article included: “Having the certainty of Mr. Harrell’s ear comes with a price: several thousand dollars per song and, more significant, a cut of the royalties.”

Since production can also get into co-writing, arranging, etc. and this goes beyond points and enters into publishing rights, anything can be negotiated into a contract. Just make sure you enlist a qualified entertainment attorney if contracts are involved.

(Article reprinted by permission of Music Connection Magazine)

About the Author

JEANNIE DEVA is a Grammy member, the originator of The Deva Method®, Complete Voice Technique for Stage and Studio™, a published author, a graduate in composition and arranging from Berklee College of Music and a recording studio vocal producer/vocal coach endorsed by engineers and producers of, among others, Aerosmith, Elton John, Bette Midler, Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones. Based in Los Angeles, she also coaches online worldwide and travels on location. For info: JeannieDeva.com, @JeannieDeva

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