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What to Look For in a Studio Vocalist
By Bill Pere - 10/30/2013 - 02:56 PM EDT

The decision to have a particular vocalist make your demo is a very critical decision, and is not really as simple as it sounds.  Most people look as far as the voice and the proce tag, and that's it.  Or,  you can easily send off a track and lead sheet to a demo service, but without discussing all the issues below, you never know what you will get back.

As an independent songwriter, you are the CEO of that company known as YOU.  Hiring a demo singer is just like a company filling an important position in their business.   You are the Human Resources person and your job is to interview candidates and most importantly to ask the key questions so that you get the best person for the job.

When hiring a demo singer, you have to consider far more than just their voice. There are both business and artistic elements to address.  The vocal is usually the most important element of a demo, and it is your job as the writer to convey your vision to the singer, and to make sure that they execute it the way you want it.   To do this, you need to be aware of all the parameters that affect a vocal performance, as discussed below.
Before hiring a vocalist, some of the first considerations would be:
-- Hear samples of their work.  Is their voice a good fit for your song?
-- Know their range.  Are your highest and lowest notes within their comfortable range?
-- Do they understand 'work for hire' i.e. that by accepting your payment, they have no future claim to any income the song may generate.  They should sign a written agreement that includes this provision.
-- Make clear that you own the final recording and have the right to use it in any way you wish, including posting online, getting airplay, and releasing for sale. (or any other agreement you wish to make, with any restrictions specified in writing).

In terms of the actual performance and artistic/technical elements, remember that the singer probably has no idea what your vision is for the song, so you have to make that clear to them, especially if you are working long distance and cannot be present for the actual recording.  There are several factors:

Cadence and Prosody:  Many demo singers, even with good voices, do not have a detailed sense of prosody and will not de-emphasize a wrenched accent (unaccented syllable falling an on accented musical beat) unless you are explicit about it.    They (and you) also need to fully understand the Principle of Contrastive Stress, which can make or break any line in a song. 
See Songcrafters' Coloring Book: The Essential Guide to Effective and Successful Songwriting for a complete discussion of prosody and contrastive stress.  These are critical elements of songwriting and vocal performance.   Of course it is best to avoid these issues by writing correct prosody in your lyric in the first place.    The responsibility is ultimately yours as the writer.

Vowels:  Another significant consideration is your preference for vowel-shaping. You need to provide detailed direction about how you want vowels pronounced -- a  mis-shapen vowel can ruin a demo or unintentionally change it from one style to another.

Elision:   You need to specify how you want the consonant elision handled -- choral style (blending the end of one word with the start of the next) or with clear diction, using stops and more distinct adjacent consonants, e,g,   would "kiss this guy" have a a connected s-g to sound like "kiss the sky'  or do you want clear enunciation of both the s and the g sounds?   Would "reached to touch her hand" elide "reached and to" to sound like "reach to touch..."  or do you want  two clear "t" sounds i.e. "reached / to" where the tongue has to pull off from the front palate two distinct times.     Would you want to elide 'touch and her' to make "toucher"  or get a distinct "h" sound with a soft glottal-stop?

Usually you'd want the latter unless your song is a choral piece.  Most classically and chorally trained vocalists will do the former, as will uncoached pop vocalists.     This is something to listen for in the work samples that the vocalist provides for audition. If your lyrics matter to you, you must be sure the vocalist treats them the way you want something valuable to be treated.

These are questions that you as the lyric writer have to decide by going through each phrase of your song and determining where there could be a problem, and then providing the specific instruction for the singer.  This is the role of vocal coach, an essential role in making a good recording (See Songcrafters' Coloring Book for a discussion of the vocal coach and other roles in the recording process).   Along with your lead sheet, you should provide an annotated lyric sheet that specifies all the issues being discussed here.

Rhythm/White Space:    How do you want the rhythmic interpretation of your lead sheet handled?   Have you written it with the exact nuances of syncopation that you want, or did you notate it  'straight'  i.e. mostly quarter and eighth notes, expecting the singer to add the white space adjustments (See discussion of White Space in "Songcrafters' Coloring Book").  Vocalists tend to have one of three singing styles:
  (a) on the beat,  (b) anticipating the beat (c) laid back after the beat. 

If your lead sheet is not exact in detailing all the dotted notes and syncopations you want, then you need to get the right match between the vocalist's style and what you want to hear.  Don't assume that it will just 'happen'.

These details are often addressed by having a vocal coach at the recording session, but if you're working long distance over the Internet, the best thing you can do is to provide a scratch vocal for the singer, that you do yourself, showing how you want the precise phrasing.  The pitch and quality don't have to be great, since that's why you're hiring the vocalist, but the aspects of precise rhythm and enunciation are things where the vocalist is going to need a guide.  Alternatively, you can provide a reference track that has you playing a melody line which shows the rhythmic and dynamic nuances, but that won't convey the pronunciation issues.

If the samples of the singer's work indicate that they have the right natural style, timing, and vowel-shaping for your song, then you don't have to be as detailed with your instructions, but you should still look at every phrase of your song to find potential points of elision or prosody that could cause a problem.

A final musical consideration is whether the vocalist always hits pitches spot-on from note to note, or whether they sometimes carry a pitch from a previous note to the next note and quickly slide to the next pitch. (i.e. a rapid jump, not a slow scoop, which is usually undesirable).  This is typical for many songs and often conveys more emotion than a clinically perfect and clean pitch transition from note to note.  There are times when each is appropriate (even within different parts of the same song) and you want to be sure that your vocalist is doing what you want to hear.
This of course assumes that you know what you want to hear.

Remember that your song is like your child, and if you are going to entrust a part of its development to a nanny, you want a nanny who will follow your guidelines -- however,  it is up to you to provide clear guidelines.   Interview demo singers just as you would a potential business employee, and look beyond just their voice and their price tag to make sure your song gets all that it deserves.

For detailed discussion of all the elements mentioned in this article, see Songcrafters' Coloring Book  by Bill Pere

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