Practical Tips for Working With Vocalists
As someone who has featured several singers on my productions, I've learned a few things about working with vocalists that I thought I'd share for those who might find it helpful.
Working with singers is such a personal thing and there are no rules. Each producer and vocalist is unique, so our experiences will be different with each artist we work with. I'll add that some of these same discussion points can also apply working with session musicians or collaborators in general.
There are three main points that came to mind when I thought about what I've learned:
Let's dive in...
1. Finding Vocalists
If you've never worked with a vocalist, it may be a challenge to find that first one. But you can be comforted in knowing that as you work with more vocalists and as your output becomes more prolific, you'll be able to find vocalists more organically.
Often when it's our first time, we want to be intimately involved in the recording process and to be physically present for that, so that limits the talent pool to who we can find in our local area. I've been fortunate to find a couple of great singers in my small metropolitan area of 200,000 people in the middle of cornfields. So don't discount the community where you live and work -- there is often more talent than you think.
So... where could you start looking for singer?
Even fairly small cities often have an "Arts & Entertainment" section in their local newspapers that lists shows of local musicians, and that can be a fruitful source of people to potentially contact.
It may be uncomfortable to reach out cold to other artists, but more often than not artists are usually more than happy to connect with and work with other artists in their home city. Naturally, leveraging your existing professional local network is less intimidating than cold contacting artists you don't know. If you know other producers in your city who have already worked with vocalists, ask them how to connect with the singers.
Also, local recording studios often work with a lot of musicians and they may be able to make some connections for you.
Of course with technology, we aren't limited to our local geographic area. We can literally work with vocalists from anywhere in the world. Services like Fiverr and AirGigs are out there, but I don't have any personal experience with using a service like that. You might consider posting on social media that you're are looking for a singer, but personally that is not the way I would source talent.
If your approach is too casual you may get lucky and find some real gems, but you're more likely to get responses from people who sing well in the shower, the car, or at Karaoke but who have never treated their "skills" seriously.
I'm a big believer in dreaming big, but I also try to be self-aware by approaching singers who are at roughly the same "level" I'm at in my career. That can be hard to gauge, but an extreme example of what not to do would be a fairly new producer asking someone like Inaya Day to sing on their track.
On the flip side, some singers will work with anyone and everyone, but it's not always to your advantage to feature an artist on your tracks who is also on 100 records that year. There is something to be said for originality and freshness.
At the end of the day, there are many creative ways to find vocalists, and it can be like magic when you finally click with someone who is professional and that you vibe well with.
Those relationships need to be nurtured. You want to be the kind of producer that they want work with on multiple projects. When you're an established producer who has worked with multiple vocalists you'll have a full Rolodex of singers you can contact for your projects.
At that point finding singers won't be an issue.
2. Manage Expectations
So you've found a vocalist and now it's time to discuss that chart-topping hit you have envisioned.
Whether your project is the vocalist's first recorded piece or they're a seasoned professional, there is a bit of a learning curve for you as the producer. Growing pains are to be expected, and it's important to manage expectations as best as you can up front. Clearly defined expectations will set you and the vocalist both up for professional and creative success.
Do You Need a Contract?
(THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVISE)
One of the first things people might be thinking when discussion expectations is: Should I use a contract? Short answer: No. I personally don't feel a formal legal contract is necessary when working with artists. But my thought is that if the essentials elements are in writing via email then that is good enough for me. Others might disagree with me on this, and you need to do what you feel comfortable with.
On the other hand, there may be things you don't think about or that you omit that would otherwise be covered by a legal contract. I have used contracts before, and these days it's fairly easy to find a standard "work for hire" artist contract if that's the direction you are going with your project.
If you expect that your record is going to blow up, then you might need a contract.
Roles & Responsibilities
Some things to be absolutely clear about are roles, capabilities, and responsibilities.
You as the producer likely have already produced a good portion of the music, but who will write the song (lyrics and melody)? Does the vocalist have the ability to write a melody and lyrics? Does she prefer to write the lyrics and music herself?
If you're writing the melody, does the singer need a lead sheet or a reference vocal from you? What will the songwriting split (percent) look like?
There are no right or wrong answers here, except that both you and the singer get on the same page at the beginning of the project.
Possibly the most important expectations to cover before working on the music are the financial terms.
Will the singer be considered a "work for hire"? Will she participate in sales and publishing royalties? When will the singer get paid? Is their fee within your budget? And speaking of fees, be sure to pay in full and on time. This industry has too many shady D-bags already.
Scheduling and Deadlines
Another thing to nail down is logistics, schedules, and deadlines.
If you have a deadline that you're working against, you need to make sure that the singer is able to work within that deadline. I have found that I need to allow enough time for rescheduling because "stuff" happens; people get allergies or sore throats, transportation issues come up, or sometimes studios or artists double book. When these issues happen just take it with a grain of salt, be patient and professional about it.
As people say, you never truly know what someone is going through, and empathy goes a long way.
File formats and Transferring
Expectations for the final deliverables should also be well defined and communicated.
In what file format, bit depth, and sample rate will the vocal recordings be delivered? Will there be a specific shared drive that you expect the singer to use? Is WeTransfer acceptable for sending files back and forth? All of these considerations don't necessarily need to be enumerated in a formal contract; often a simple email with the key points is sufficient.
The more that is discussed up front, the better, but also you'll need to keep communicating consistently throughout the project.
3. Working Remotely
Being willing to work with singers remotely will provide a lot of flexibility, since you'll have a bigger pool of talent to choose from.
If you're okay with not being in the studio at the same time the singer is recording, the singer can work on their own schedule. We need to trust the vocalist's professionalism and experience; seasoned vocalists will deliver a great product whether or not you're there. In fact, a lot of singers prefer to work asynchronously so that they can batch their work and be more efficient with their time.
The up front communication and preparation discussed in the "Managing Expectations" section will help ensure that they will deliver on your vision. If you'd like to be more "hands on", there are ways to mimic the experience of being in the studio when the singer is recording, but I don't have any personal experience with that so I can't speak to that situation. You may be able to get on a video call while they are working. She or the studio may be able to loop you in with ListenTo by Audiomovers.
One way that I've helped to communicate my vision with singers is to send them reference tracks that capture the vibe and style that I'm looking for.
Send a Scratch Vocal
If I'm featuring the vocalist on a song that I wrote (lyrics and melody), I'll send them a mixdown of the song that has a skeleton arrangement and me singing the melody on it (with and NDA that they'll never share the recording of my awful voice - ha!). I'm no singer by any stretch of the imagination, but sending some kind of reference reduces some of the guess work that the singer might have to do for figuring out your intent and vision.
Should Singers Have Their Own Recording Equipment?
Ideally, the singer will have their own recording setup or at least an existing relationship with a studio so that the vocalist's fee includes studio time.
If the singer has their own setup, it can save you time and money because you don't also have to pay for studio time above and beyond the singer's fee. It also potentially saves time since any rework can easily be scheduled. If you're using a third-party studio, you may want to plan for additional budget and project time for possible rework. Be patient.
On a personal note, I wouldn't necessarily discount a singer who doesn't have their own recording setup; everyone starts somewhere.
At some point a professional singer should have the tools of the trade in order to be the most professional they can be, and that includes having a simple setup for recording -- even it's just for a scratch vocal for a "draft" version of the recording.
Whether you're new to working or a seasoned pro, download my "Working with Vocalists Cheat Sheet". I've distilled more than 40 quick tips into one page so that you can ensure that your vocal projects are a success.