Singing in the Studio – What It’s Really Like

Close up microphone in studio
Grammy Award winning mix-mastering Engineer Mark Christensen shares essential insights for all singers on the recording process.

Singing in the studio is a separate skill from singing to an audience. There are many pop singers who are quite a bit better at singing to a microphone than they are singing to a live audience.

A singer doesn’t need to move anywhere near as much air. The idea of “projecting into the room” is not really relevant in the studio; the focus is the microphone itself.

A singer can still move a lot of air if the song calls for it, but you have to keep in mind that what is happening directly in front of your face is what the mic is picking up; the room resonances are, generally speaking, not going to be there to support your voice.

How to Listen To Your Voice in the Studio

Learning how to listen to your voice in the studio can sometimes be difficult if you don’t have experience with it.

I’ve worked with a number of famous Broadway singers who have a very difficult time being in tune when they are in the studio because they are not used to referencing their voice (and pitch) through headphones.

Most singers are referencing the room acoustics and the resonance of their own face a lot more than they realize when they are singing, and headphones will largely eliminate these reference sources when singing in the studio.

This is one of the reasons you often see singers with one side of the headphone removed from their ears when they are singing, this is the only way they can hear what they are actually doing in the studio.

In extreme cases, I’ve even had to set up speakers in the vocal booth (out of phase, so they cancel somewhat in the signal path) for singers who literally could not sing wearing headphones.

If you are lucky enough to have a good audio engineer when you are in the studio, the intelligent use of compression and reverb can go a long way toward helping with this issue.

Good vocal producers are usually very picky about the headphone mix for the singers. I’ve spent four or five hours on the head phone mix on a few sessions with “name brand” singers, and it was time well spent.

Focus on Sections

Experienced studio singers are very used to the idea that they are usually going to be focusing on one section of a song at a time (or even one phrase or word at a time) in the process of recording a vocal in the studio.

It’s very rare that we record an entire “performance” of a vocal all the way through a song.

When we are setting up levels, or the when the singer is still getting warmed up, we sometimes will run through the entire song (in Record Mode, so we don’t miss the magic take if it happens!), but generally once we get focused and are ready to get to the “heavy lifting” of recording a vocal, we do it in smaller sections.

With the wonders of digital recording technology, we can capture several takes of a section of a song (sometimes up to 20 or 25 takes), and then go through and do a “comp” of all those takes, turning it back into a linear performance of the entire track.

recording studio
The mezzanine studio at ‘Engine Room Audio’ one of the biggest in NYC

Practice Intervals Before Recording

Singers are often surprised at the precision and exactitude that is required to get a final vocal performance completed for a song in the studio.

I generally don’t like to use any “autotune” if it can be avoided, and tuning is one of those facets of a vocal performance that is really “under the microscope” when you are recording music.

There are a lot of singers who “get away with” being mostly in tune singing live, but the studio can be very unforgiving when it comes to issues of pitch.

As a singer you don’t have any of the room acoustics helping you out (as you usually do in a live performance), and your vocal is very “front and center” in the recording.

One technique that I almost always use with singers before we actually record is to sit in front of a piano with the singer and go over the song that we are about to record and practice all the individual intervals between notes with the singer.

I usually try to get them to sing along with the piano as we play the melody of the vocal line, and practice any specific intervals that the vocalist is not super clear on.

You’d be surprised at how often singers are unclear of what the actual interval is, or what the note actually sounds like when you are listening to the “absolute” reference of a piano playing the notes of the melody.

Singers often slide around and manipulate melody and pitch as part of their performance, and a lot of that can be really cool – but it usually sounds even better if they know what the pitch is that they are manipulating.

Being “sure footed” about where the notes are actually supposed to be before you get in the vocal booth can go a long way towards capturing that “Golden Take”!

Mark Christensen is the mastermind behind Engine Room Audio in New York, a place which has spawned hundreds of great sounding records with an impressive number of highly diverse artists, including 50 Cent, Depeche Mode, Toni Braxton and The Killers. Christensen has worked on hundreds of albums, and five have been nominated for five Grammy Awards as of 2014, with two wins. Christensen has also mastered over thirty Billboard chart top ten hits, and around 25 of the releases have gone platinum or gold.