Recording your voice can be one of the greatest and most awkward things you’ll ever do as a singer.
Unless you’ve recorded a lot, it can be just like performing live for the first time. And while both require singing, they are two very different ballgames. So let’s talk about how to get the best recording of your voice.
Choose the recording software that is easiest for you to use
If you’ll be recording yourself, the software that’s easiest for you to use will be the one you get the most done in. There are always bigger, better programs but unless you’re really up for a major learning curve (or are already comfortable using ProTools or Logic, etc.) stick with a basic software (or hardware.)
If you don’t have recording software, Audacity is a free basic software available for both PC & Mac. Google for tutorials to get up and running fast.
If you have a Mac, GarageBand is a great piece of software that’s even easier to use. It offers more features than should be allowed in software at this price (free with iLife) In fact, some professional labeled bands have been known to use it to lay down vocal or instrument ideas or even record full projects in GarageBand.
If you have GarageBand but aren’t sure how to use it be sure to join us this Thursday for our webinar where we’re being giving some great producer tips for recording in any software plus a tutorial specific to GarageBand.
Use a recording mic – not a live mic
A condenser microphone is made for recording in a studio environment and buying one doesn’t have to cost much. A live mic looks like the traditional ‘lollipop’ live mic. A mic that does not specify that it’s a condenser microphone is most likely a live/dynamic mic, so look for one that does.
Watch the tutorial video on how to choose the right mic here. The video goes into the main differences between a condenser and dynamic microphone, how much to spend, how to test mics and where to buy a good one. If you have very little budget (under $60) just stick to good brands (listed in the video) and wait for them to go on sale, especially around Christmas and spring online and in music stores. You’ll get a much better product than going for a cheaper brand.
You don’t want to use a built in microphone, a webcam microphone or a USB microphone that says ‘dynamic’ anywhere in the name or description when recording vocals. Again, the video goes into detail so I’ll skip that for now but the main reason is that you’ll never have a prayer of sounding nearly as good in the end as you will using a condenser microphone. And isn’t that what we really want? 😉
Use the right headphones the right way
You always want to use headphones when recording but skip the earbuds. You want headphones with padded ears. Pick up a great pair of Sony headphones for under $50 but skip the cheap or unknown brands. A quality brand gets great deals on parts because they buy a lot and can build a lower price point product that still has higher quality parts than a little know or knock off brand.
Once you have the right kind of headphones to hear what you need to hear to sound your best when recording your voice you’ll need one more headphone tip: only listen to 3/4 of what you hear.
You may have seen people record with one headphone off their ear. But the best way to hear what you need is to have one side fully on and the other half off. The reason is that if you completely remove one ear it throws off your pitch reference. If you’ve been doing it this way you may have gotten used to it. But is sounding even a little better worth trying it a new way? Try it!
Understand that you will ALWAYS sound your worst when recording
This is the #1 thing I wish someone had told me when I started working as a jingle singer at 15. I had no recording experience so I just assumed I had suddenly lost every bit of ability I thought I once had.
Why is this true? Simply because you will be hearing your true voice without room noise, effects, or any other sounds that come with singing live plus you’ll be hearing it all in headphones with no way to escape. This means you’ll probably hear mouth noises, cracks in notes and all sorts of things you didn’t think were there.
You’ve been warned.
Now that you know that, expect it. Don’t let it freak you out or keep you from recording. Just understand that effects, music, etc. should all be added and adjusted after vocals are recorded for the best sounding recording. Never give into the temptation to add effects when recording. You’ll actually sing better if you hear all the flaws than you will if they’re hiding under effects when you record. It won’t feel like it, but you really will.
Sounding horrific in the studio was my main driving reason to get better. It’s responsible for being able to work (ie. make a full time living) as a vocalist for decades. So let the things you hate drive you to get better. Better yet, tell your Voice Club instructor what you didn’t like and we’ll make it better even faster!
Warm up and don’t over do it
Unlike singing live, you can go on forever recording. And it’s not uncommon for a vocalist to push way to hard way too long when recording since they still hear mistakes and the show is technically never over.
So do yourself a favor and sound your best by following these two tips:
1. Warm up
Bubble the way you were taught a good 4-7 times nice and slow. This is not time for exercises or other workout tools. This is warmup time only so stop after your bubble has bubbled it’s last bubble.
2. Watch for signs of fatigue.
If you start sounding worse than the last take and this happens a couple times, it’s time to wrap it up. Once your voice begins to fatigue everything will become harder, you will hear it all more clearly and try to compensate and the cycle will continue until you and your voice are way more burnt out than you should be.
When this happens just plan to come back to your recording another day. Just be sure to follow 1, 2, and this next tip when you pick back up:
3. Choose the best take – because there is no perfect take.
Whether you or someone else will be mixing down your recording, no one is going to want to listen to twenty takes (times through) of you singing your song. And if you’re paying for someone’s time you don’t want them to!
The more you record, the fewer takes it will take before you really feel like you’re doing pretty well. In the end you want to have 2 or 3 takes you like to choose from. Even 1 or 2 is good.
If you’re doing your own recording and have little to moderate experience, knock it down to one so you can focus on putting it all together. If you don’t it might never get done.
You will learn more, grow more and accomplish things you didn’t think you could as a singer by going through the recording process. So do it as often as possible. There’s no excuse! You now know more than most singers when they pay big bucks to record in a full blown recording studio. So get recording!
High power notes might get all the attention but the unsung hero of a great vocal range is the bottom end. After all, no one knows just how high you can go if they don’t know where you started!
Where is the bottom of your range? Well, it can vary slightly depending on what time of day it is, how warmed up your voice is and other factors. But there’s a simple way to give it a test run: just sing one note at a time down to where you can’t clearly go any further. Now, for the magic ‘expand-o-range’ trick:
Starting anywhere you like, say “Ahhhh” and slide gently down as low as you can comfortably go. “Ahhh” should feel like your sinking into a comfy chair at the end of a long day. Try it again and try sliding gently lower. Do this a couple of times a day and you’ll actually start to expand your usable bottom notes (as long as you are accessing them the same way when you sing and not ‘shoving your voice down’ to them).
Singing Low Notes in a High Song
When the melody of a song only briefly dips into the bottom end of your range before sailing back to the top your brain only wants to think about the high notes. It thinks the low notes are easy and need no help but the truth is that if your bottom end isn’t warmed up on a song like this your voice just ain’t going low without a fight. Many songs start low in the verses and fly high in the chorus, so it’s extra important to prepare your voice to relax to the very bottom before you sing them. Check out the video below and see how I helped a student prepare for just such an occasion:
Give your low notes the credit they deserve. Warm them up, continually expand them and they will thank you with an overall increased vocal range and a comfort starting in almost any key that you never knew was there!
If you’ve never sung jazz, you’re missing out on the opportunity to learn some of the most important lessons a great singer can learn.
Our members at The Voice Club are getting ready for a Jazz vocal challenge. There’s a lot to learn from dipping into jazz. Hey, Lady Gaga did, so it must be worthwhile, right?
Jazz music has rubbed shoulders with the roaring 20’s/big band/swing era, sideswiped R&B and even skims along the lines of pop music. Just like ‘country’ can be honkytonk to pop, jazz covers a lot of territory.
Most people think of jazz as creative chord progressions with all those extra notes (how’s that for music theory). But for the singer, who can sing only one note at a time, jazz requires a special set of skills.
Feel the Music
When jazz was new it was the cutting edge, in your face music of the day. Yes, that means parents of then-teenagers hated jazz. One of it’s biggest appeals to the youngin’s was that the words were honest and raw compared to other popular styles of the day. It was casual, intimate, lazy, loud and a little over the top emotional. And what teenager doesn’t love music like that?
Singing jazz well goes far beyond singing some notes with words. It’s classic storytelling on a very personal scale. The greatest jazz singers didn’t sing songs, they told you their personal story or at least made you believe the story was their own.
Watch this classic example of jazz legend Carmen McRae and watch how she’s practically speaking a story. Watch how her styling is a result of her emotion. In current music, most emotion is contrived as a result of aiming for styling (trills, runs, singing breathy, power notes, etc.) Which seems more authentic?
Get Up Close
Jazz was the first official ‘genre’ to benefit from the creation of the microphone. For the first time, an audience could really hear the little nuances of the voice as singers learned to ‘work the mic’.
The first microphones required the voice to be right up to the mic to pic up sound. And while current microphones, including my super retro Shure Super 55 (the original ‘Elvis mic’) are more advanced, a great jazz singer still uses the microphone as a crucial tool in their performance.
‘Working the mic’ originally referred to staying close enough so that it could pick up the sound of your voice. Today ‘working the mic’ is much more about using the distance around the mic as a playground for expressing emotion and being a convincing story teller.
Getting super close on a soft note is like whispering directly in your audience’s ear. Backing up for a big power note allows you room to express huge emotions with appropriately cool body movements.
By the way, this is a picture of me and my Super 55. And while it looks super cool, is not a great live vocal mic. In fact, this photo shoot was the only time I used it. But I have to say, when you have a sexy looking mic it looks a lot cooler to ‘work’.
Make it Easy
One of the great benefits of most jazz songs is that the melodies generally sit in the ‘sweet spot’ for most singers. That means chances are great that you’ll find several more jazz songs you feel comfortable singing than you might find in other genres. And that means more success AND more chances to ‘color’ or style your songs, which means you’ll not only sound better, but you’ll have a lot more fun singing.
Don’t limit yourself to songs from your gender. Instead, think about which areas of notes (high, medium, low, etc.) you sing most easily and find singers that sing in that neighborhood. You’ll sing better and impress your friends more easily.
Let ‘er Rip Tater Chip
Singing jazz is not for the timid. Many times we use an illustration of ‘running naked in the streets’ to help our singers understand what a singer puts on the line every time they step in front of a mic. Being a great singer requires great vulnerability. Being a so-so singer does not.
To sing jazz well is to not only run naked (vocally & emotionally only, please) through the streets, but to do it while screaming all those things you never say out loud.
Many singers choose classic jazz songs like “At Last” for their power notes and swells of emotion but completely forget that those things don’t just automatically appear: they have to pour out of the singer.
Think about how many times you’ve heard a completely forgettable version of this song. And how few times you’ve heard an unforgettable version. The difference is more in the abandon of the singer than it is in the perfection of the notes themselves.
So if you’re gonna do jazz…let ‘er rip.
Search the Greats
Every great singer is influenced by other great singers. Every mediocre singer copies great singers.
Listen to some of these jazz singers and see what you like about them; is it the texture of their voice? Is it their power? Their emotion? Their ‘cool factor’?
Now ask yourself ‘which of these things come most natural for me?’ If you’re a power singer, just watching that quality in other great singers will give you ideas of things to try.
Identify what appeals to you in other great singers and try it out. But never stop there. That’s just copying, and anyone can do that.
A great singer uses the things other singers do as idea starters and builds pieces of them into their own unique styling.
Here are some classic jazz greats to Google to get the ideas going:
Nat King Cole
Sarah Vaughan (who btw, won an ‘amateur night’ contest, later opened for Ella and took her place on the charts)
Louie Armstrong (known more for his trumpet playing than singing, but all jazz)
Tony Bennett (who is THE best at merging old jazz with new artists with performances with pop stars like Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga)
A few current jazz singers that are worth checking out:
Harry Connick Jr.
Jamie Cullum (don’t know him? Watch this:)
And two of today’s most promising up and coming jazz singers:
Whether you’ve been crooning for years or you’ve never tried to sing jazz, it’s time to mix it up. Try classic jazz, new jazz, dixieland or smooth jazz. Just step out of your box. Our vocal challenges are designed do that because that’s how great singers grow fastest. And you should be doing it too.
Because no singer wants to just be a good singer if they knew they had the option of being great.
If there’s one question I hear all the time, it’s ‘how do I know if I’ve done something damaging to my voice?’ which always makes me think of something someone once told me about child rearing. “It only takes one time to touch a hot stove before they know better.”
Unfortunately I wasn’t that bright in my younger years as a singer. So let’s take that analogy a bit further.
These are the tell tale signs that you’re taking your voice down a dangerous road. (If you have medical concerns about your voice please see a highly recommended ear, nose and throat physician/ENT/Otolaryngologist.)
Pain is our body’s way of saying, ‘hey, knock that off!’ It is NOT a signal that you just had an intense performance. It means you are requiring things of your voice that will damage it.
Singing should not be painful, even if you’re a rock star. A qualified vocal coach trained in vocal repair can help remove the pain without sacrificing your ‘signature sound’.
Ever scream at a huge sporting event and find your throat is sore the next day? Probably no shocker. Yet we seem surprised when the same thing happens after singing.
Hoarseness is another red flag that tells us your voice is not in balance and is being utilized incorrectly. Hoarseness can also be a symptom of vocal cord polyps, granulomas (a growth caused by acid reflux and accompanied by ear and throat pain) and other medical conditions.
Loss of Voice
This is another way your voice protects itself from damage, it says ‘I’ve had enough, thank you.’
We’ve all had times when we’ve had an adrenaline packed performance and required more of our voices than we should, but if you are losing your voice for any length of time after you sing you are heading down a road that could lead to nodes, cysts and surgery (oh my).
Almost every voice that is out of balance will have weak or unreliable ‘sections’ and notes that can be in the same general area. But if you find that you have specific notes in your range that are consistently weak (‘honking’) or missing (‘airy’) all of the time take it seriously. This is a classic sign that you’ve damaged your voice.
Nodes or cysts are like blisters on the vocal cords. Wherever they develop the cords have trouble coming together. Once the problem is diagnosed and fixed either with vocal repair training and/or medical intervention, those notes will most likely return.
Why Voices Get Damaged
There are many incredibly talented people who misuse their voices, many times unknowingly. And many times they can get by without audible damage for a long time. But misusing the voice leads to a shorter life for your voice at best, and the loss of your voice at the other end.
A good ENT or Otolaryngologist who has worked a lot with singers will suggest working with a qualified vocal coach to reduce strain, prevent further damage and/or repair any damage that does not require surgery.
If you’d like to find out what’s causing your voice pain or strain check out our Vocal Repair Clinic. We’ll help answer your specific questions, give you some helpful tips and help stop the pain.