Pstudio Psychology: Vocals Are All In Your Head — With Life at 3am
October 15, 2012 by Rick Slater
My friend and client, Joe Gigs, says that at 3 AM life slows down, and it’s a time where you can finally be one with yourself. Well I’m often one with my clients (or I’m trying to be) as we attempt to capture that great performance that represents the artist’s emotion and translates it to the listener.
In fact it’s all about psychology when you get down to it. As a producer, you are trying to help the listener into the mind of the artist and to do that you need to be there every step of the way, without disturbing the artist’s flow. Most times producers need to use psychology to get to the goal: those little tricks we all do to vibe out, distract, refocus, and outright cajole the artist into a great performance.
Yup, it’s all psychology! It’s this Pstudio Psychology that I endeavor to cover in this series. Hopefully it will spark some great ideas and dialog.
Hey Joe, Here We Go Again
Recently I co-produced an eight-song release for Joe’s latest incarnation, a band he calls Life at 3am. I had worked with Joe on two previous records: one a noisy rock band which Joe played guitar in, and the other an experimental release using loops created by Joe’s guitar and manipulated such that you hear broad washes of sound not recognizable as a guitar.
All of this made things quite interesting when Joe called me with a bunch of very intriguing, yet more straight-ahead rock tunes. Actually it was a bunch of great riffs and cool rhythms – and that was all there was as Joe didn’t sing.
Little did I know that Joe had a lot of stories locked up in his head, and Joe as lyricist would be a first. You can imagine that this was a very tender issue as it was all new to Joe, and quite frankly, it was my first time with a newbie lyricist. As luck would have it, the lyrics were insightful and engaging looks into a vignette of people’s search for love, kicks, and happiness… or not. The true test for Joe and I would come later, when Joe decided to give singing a try.
Building the Team
A lot of the early discussions centered on the overall sound of the record. While it would be grounded in a more traditional background, Joe was quick to point out that he wanted it to be a modern-sounding record. At this point we were listening to Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age, and The Black Keys– all firmly rooted in traditional rock music but modern in their sound and arrangement.
We decided on tracking the project as a trio, so we brought in Mike Garofalo on bass and Dana LaMarca on drums: two young musicians with great chops and a modern approach to the songs. Joe is a very driven person and works hard to achieve his goals, and I needed to surround him with people who could match his energy and enthusiasm for playing these songs, in order for the record to feel like a well-seasoned band playing with confidence.
On the other side of the coin, it was important to get the musicians to understand Joe’s intentions for the songs and yet feel relaxed enough to freely contribute any ideas they wanted to try.
By building a team whose personalities would mesh, we were able to quickly start dissecting the material and set about determining arrangements and tempos. We rehearsed about eight evenings for a three or four hour stretch, mindful to set a song down once the band was comfortable and able to play it through with great feel, in order to keep it fresh on the recording.
It should also be noted that we recorded the rehearsals so the band could all reference them, and Joe was able to open the sessions on his Pro Tools rig at home and overdub vocal ideas. Now he’s singing on the demos!
If You Want it Done Right, Do it Yourself
At this point it became apparent that there was a unique and engaging quality to Joe’s voice but the conversation so far was to find a singer to cut the final versions. That is, until one day Joe asked what I thought about him taking some vocal lessons and giving it a shot.
I quickly realized that Joe was comfortable with the sound of his new voice — at least comfortable enough to put it out there and ask me if I thought lessons were worth doing. We both agreed that any vocal coach should concentrate on the mechanics of singing, and leave the style and inflection to Joe.
This took some hand-holding and positive reinforcement at times. Singing in front of the band and still playing guitar would be difficult, and it was important to work out the monitoring so that not only would the band hear the new melodic ideas, but that Joe would sound good in the PA and feel encouraged to stretch his newfound vocal talents.
I made sure to stress the fact that there was no pressure to sing during the instrument tracking sessions. Normally I would cut a reference vocal for a myriad of reasons, but it was important as Joe was developing his vocal sound to remove the pressure for him to actually sing as the bend underwent the tracking process. By doing this we were able to develop vocal approaches to the songs in a demo form that the band could reference as we headed into tracking, while still minimizing the stress on Joe.
The tracking dates at Quad Lakeside went off smoothly with studio owner and resident tube aficionado Lou Gonzalez tweaking some of Joe’s amps. This helped elevate Joe’s mood a lot, and we springboarded from there into a very productive string of tracking days.
Back at Area 51
It was the vocal overdubs that really caused me to get busy with Pstudio Psychology. I decided that Joe needed a studio in the city that he could quickly access from home. The studio needed to have a good mic locker, great front-end, and be small and comfortable so that Joe would feel like he had his own private studio in which to create without a lot of traffic outside the door.
I chose Area51 NYC as our overdub studio for all these reasons, as well as the fact that staff engineer Jon Lurie could drive Pro Tools while Joe and I concentrated on performance.
So there we were tracking vocals — and suddenly Joe was singing in a completely different style than I had ever heard. It was as if he were trying to act. It was strange to hear, but instinctively I knew what was happening in his head and I knew I could save a lot of time by stopping the process and discussing the approach.
I asked Joe right off the bat, if he was trying to project a character in his singing. He said “Yes,” and we talked about how this approach might be good for a Broadway show but it wasn’t necessarily working on this record.
The question was how to get in a singers head and take a newly-found voice with minimal training, then equip him to give a memorable performance that truly conveyed the essence of the song. The quickest way to that point, in my mind, was to ask Joe to make me feel the way he felt when he first wrote the songs.
The response was immediate: Joe stopped trying to over-project and gave honest and inspired vocal performances rather quickly. The key was to be calm and honest about the music, and to let Joe know I wanted the best for the songs.
By the time we got to mixing the record, My Little Lie, Joe was used to hearing his vocals out front due to the vocal sessions — but as a finished product it was still a big leap to let people hear his voice front and center in a radio-ready mix style. In the control room, I was always careful to make sure that his voice was always in context when visitors were present, consistently presented with the full treatment and never soloed. You can hear the results for yourself — just give the album a visit at iTunes.
Once a few trusted ears confirmed that they enjoyed Joe’s vocals, the final psychological hurdle had been cleared. A newborn singer of life’s adventures had been born.
Visit the band at www.lifeat3am.com
Rick Slater is a NYC-based producer/engineer who’s recorded and/or mixed with Chuck D, Robben Ford and James Chance, and worked in NYC studios such as Mediasound, Quad and Sony. Learn more and get in touch at www.slatermix.com.
Transformed into a front man — see Joe and Life at 3am do it live.