10 Tips for Professional Session Vocalists
With over 15 years as a writer and session vocalist in studios from Nashville to LA I have picked up some good tips for other singers as they enter the studio.
1. Always Be On Time
Professional studios are as much a place of business as a place for creating art. Being on time (or a little early) shows that you respect your colleagues and their time. If you want to have your vocal business treated as a business- act like a business. Time is money in a studio even more so than most places.
2. Be Prepared
When you show up to a studio for a session you need to be as prepared as possible. Yes many studios will have everything you need for your session at the studio, but coming fully prepared is worth its weight in gold to busy producers and engineers. Plus it always feels weird having an intern fetch you a bottle of water before the session.
Being prepared means bring your own drink, (room temp water is my go-to. Never drink iced, carbonated or dairy drinks during a vocal session) have the lyrics ready (with your personal notations included), and know your song to the best of your abilities.
Most producers will give you a reference track to learn from before the session. Learn your part.
3. Vocal Warm Ups
Do your vocal exercises and warm ups before you get to the studio. Nobody wants to hear you saying nonsense sounding like a broken siren. My favorite place for vocal warm ups are on the way to the studio in my car. That way you're fresh and ready to go ASAP.
I do a few things for warm ups but my system is a bit unorthodox because of the different vocal techniques I like to employ. Some of my warm ups might include things like throat singing, humming and vocal fry as well as normal vocal stretches. Whatever system you employ just make sure you start low and soft and build up to high and hard.
4. Be Ready for Changes and Experimentation
No matter how prepared you are sometimes things don't go as planned. Thats why it is crucial to firstly always be prepared, but secondly be prepared for anything.
Some songs are straightforward and a breeze to sing through, but some songs require more finesse and are subject to quick changes. As a professional singer, things like key changes, melody rewrites or lyircal edits should never throw you off your game. Be as prepared as possible but know that things can change fast. As long as you keep flexible and pivot quickly as needed, it should be no problem to perform as needed.
Sometimes experimentation is needed in the studio. This means you have to be ready to feel like/look like an idiot (especially as a singer). You have to be willing to look like a fool in order to discover gold sometimes. That is when the trust between talent and producer is most important. A good producer will never make you feel bad for trying out an idea. This is why a studio will try to cultivate a sacred space kind of feeling in the room.
5. Enunciate for Your Genre
Being a session vocalist you will need to fit your vocals into different genres of music. Not only does that mean the tone in which you present your voice, but the manner in which you actually say your words. The way I sing "baby" will sound different when I'm singing country as opposed to when I'm singing rock or pop. Certain consonants are dropped and certain vowels will be emphasized depending on the song you are currently working on.
This is when it's good to know your audience. Who is the writer on the song? What genre is it for? These are important to understand. Some country writers don't want a lot of twang anymore and they want more of a pop or rock sound. That is when it is good to know who your writer is. Hopefully by the time you are in the studio you know most of this, but if you need a little help - ask your producer! Always try and direct your questions to the producer because they are the filter between you and the writer and they are the ones driving the session forward. The producer should already have a good idea of what the writer is looking for.
6. Be Ready to Wait
Even the best studios can fall behind schedule or have technical difficulties. If you are a hired singer for a project it is imperative that you show up on time but that you are also flexible with your time there. It's always a pleasure to be in the studio doing what you love.
Sometimes you may have to wait for the singer before you to finish up a song because they went over- "No problem! I'll be in the next room reviewing my song!" or you can sit in on the session if it seems appropriate.
One thing is to always be aware that other musicians and singers can become self-conscious when a new person walks into the control room which can make their performance suffer. Keep in mind everyone in the studio is doing their job to keep "in the flow" so make your decisions accordingly- sometimes its best to wait in the next room. (Many studios will have a sitting room in close proximity to the console and recording rooms often stocked with some snacks and water)
7. Dress Appropriately
Always be dressed for the part. Everyone knows the old image of the dirty rock star but studio work is tight quarters, up-close and personal. Session singing is a business like any other so tailor what you are wearing to the situation you will be in.
You might be more comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans in a small studio with people you know more intimately but if you're walking on to Warner Brother's sound stages in a wife beater and mustard on your pants, you might not be asked back despite your stellar performance. I am always respectful of people's time and their space which includes being appropriately dressed and well presented. When your voice is your business, your look is part of your brand.
8. Do Another Take, and Another, and One More for Good Measure
Punching in, rerecording a line, fixing a word here and there- doing another take is unavoidable unless you're Frank Sinatra. A whole myriad of factors come into play when recording someone else's song. It is not YOUR vision. Everything from enunciation to notation and timing needs to be a certain way and sometimes we just don't hit it right the first time. Or the second time. But we do it until we get it right and we do it without complaint. I love it when a producer is pushing me to do a perfect take on one specific line. It's stretching me as a professional which is how I grow.
Often a singer will sing a line perfectly and the producer will still ask for a few retakes as "options". That's perfectly normal and it doesn't mean you sang it wrong. Sometimes producers will want a slightly different variation just to have an option to edit it in later. Give them something to play with!
9. Never Take Direction Personally
In a usual studio setting where a session vocalist might be called in, the singer will be taking direction from (hopefully) one person- the producer. The producer's job is to take all of the ideas of the writer and then pull together all of the components to make one cohesive track. This means finding the medium between the vision of the writer and the talent of the musicians. In many cases the producer will know his talent pool well enough to have a good idea of what they can accomplish.
As a session vocalist sometimes the way you sing something doesn't fit the vision of the producer or writer which is okay! That is why producers communicate the needs of the song to the talent. If you are asked to change something in the way you sing, never take it personally. Your goal, and the goal of everyone else involved in the song is to record what is best for that particular song. That is why I practice multiple forms and styles of singing, so I can customize my voice to the needs of a particular song.
10. Have Fun
This is a business but it's the business of art and music which requires a certain amount of playfulness and exploration. Not to mention engineers and producers live their whole lives inside of the studio- don't make their work more work than it has to be. Some of the best session singers I have met are also some of the most hilarious and joyful people in the studio. And why not? They get to do what they love- sing!
It's such an interesting place to work between the lines of "business" and art. To be a successful session vocalist you must have both aspects of work and play. Without play some of our best ideas will never come to light. Without work those ideas will never come to fruition.
To learn more about what I do as a session vocalist or song writer feel free to visit my contact page.
Randall Thomas © 2021