A Letter to Recording Vocalists

I am writing to you as I’m seated in the mixing room. Within this same space is the band, the manager, the producer and the engineer. At this moment, our bassist is recording his lines. Two hours ago, I was in the recording booth doing my vocal tracks for a song in our upcoming album. In that span of time, I was probably in one of my worst bouts of self-deprecation as a singer.

There’s a bedroom-bathroom singer in all of us. Some sing their favorite songs while others hum as a byproduct of Last Song Syndrome (LSS). In such a situation when nobody’s listening – loved ones don’t count – we believe we’re the best singers in the world. Sometimes, the belief even brings about the reality: we actually hit Adam Levine’s stellar notes or nail Adele’s divaesque slurs. We play air guitar and drums with or without the mirror. We’re gods.

But that only goes as far as the walls of our homes.

I walked into the recording booth with a silently eager stride. My fingers were tapping on my leg and my eyes were admiring the microphone before me. The tracks played and I began warming up. Nice.

First take. I sang the song through. Not bad for a first take, but I left mental markers on the bits where I my notes were shaky (uneven breathing), where I hit flats and where my syllabication went off-rhythm. These were fixable. No problem.

Second take. I sang from beginning to end. There seemed to be more spots on the slate. I couldn’t do the verses justice – possibly even worse than the first take. I was asked if I was straining myself by purposely making my voice sound rough. I was guilty, but I could shift the placement of my vocals.

Third. It was decided that I do the verses and choruses separately so I wouldn’t wear myself out. I sang with a new vocal placement. The notes flowed more naturally but the take wasn’t perfect. Fourth. I tried it again, but the tracks stopped in the middle of my line. Again.

Fifth. I was called on being conscious. I was singing with my hands clasped tightly behind my back (like Liam Gallagher) but I wasn’t sure if I was doing that by habit or mindfulness. I was also asked if I was comfortable with the rest of the band watching and listening from the adjacent room. I could see them through the dividing glass. I requested that they leave.

Sixth. Before I could even pronounce the third word, the music was gone. My posture had turned rigid. It felt like winter where I stood. My throat was dry. The glass I took with me was already emptied of water. Seventh. Nope. Eighth. Again. The nth take. Not much luck.

Reading the restrained exasperation on my face, the engineer spoke up from the mixing room through my headset. He said that singing is much like acting, and that the best form of acting is pulled off when the actor doesn’t act. At all. No fog of doubt, pretense or pressure to do well. No audience, whether real or imaginary. Just be, just do. Let the breaths flow, let the notes happen.

Then he told me to take a break with a tone of pity.

Next take. My breaths were neither deep nor shallow. I let my arms loose on my sides as I shut my eyes. I had already lost count of the number of takes I made. This was a good thing. The music played and I sang. The strength was from my gut now.

Stop. The producer said it was perfect.

I was relieved – I had found the zen state of mind. If I hadn’t, I’d have gotten the hell out of the booth, face in palm. Everything was easy from that point.

As I have mentioned earlier, there’s a bedroom-bathroom singer in all of us. That’s when we sing our souls out because nobody’s there to listen. No restraint, no pressure. In being overwhelmed by this whole recording thing, I crowded my head with all the rules and techniques of “proper singing.” I consciously pushed myself for the perfect take. Bad move.

Each mistake I made was a blow to my self-esteem. This would be the Downhill Mentality: the less confident the artist becomes as the takes rack up in number. It’s a trap that most, if not all, artists fall into. It will most likely happen to you. Maybe it already has.

The moment where I was told to just let go when recording struck me. That’s the same spirit of bedroom-bathroom singing: no inhibition, no audience, nothing. Just the singer – just you. I didn’t know that I had already been applying this zen mode at home, in my room. This way, it made more sense to revert to something within than strive for the illusion of another externally – and fail.

Dear vocalist, I am writing this letter to you so that you may learn from my experience in the recording booth. Let my words be your support on the days when you record and feel like a crap singer. Because you aren’t a crap singer and you should know that.

The next time you find yourself in a chilly recording room, remember: just do, just be. Let the breaths come and let the notes go.


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