Recording: Take your vocals to the next level

Recording session

Make the most out of your next recording session by following the advice of top vocal coach Jono McNeil. He explains how to banish bland vocals and inject colour, emotion and individuality into your performance.

I’ve been lucky to spend a great deal of my time in recording studios and I’m not going to lie, singing in the studio didn’t come easy. Trawling through long sessions and trying to keep my enthusiasm and energy high, while dealing with the synthetic, noiseless (and often vibe-less) environment was a big ask and took some getting used to. Over time, I’ve grown to love these strange environments that capture indelible moments of our artistry and creative output, our songs! 

So how do we make these sessions count? Whether you’re laying down vocals at Abbey Road or dealing with the slightly less intimidating demands of your private home studio, those vocals need to capture not only accuracy, but identity, style, ingenuity and in many ways, innovation. As an artist, vocal coach and vocal producer, I’m obsessed with the characteristics of a great studio vocal and I’ve found the key is understanding style.

The contemporary singer, and particularly the pop singer, needs to remain up-to-date, studying the trends and considering them in their own creative output. This can come quite naturally to some, but for others it can seem awkward and unnatural. But popular music by its nature is always changing and it’s important we allow ourselves to try new things.

If you were to take a sample of a classic pop vocal from the past five decades, you would find they all have distinguishing characteristics that make them current to that era. Just like clothes or food, there are fashions and trends to singing. In the Sixties (The Beatles, Chuck Berry, Diana Ross), it was all about:

  • Bold phrasing styles
  • Light vibrato
  • Spoken style.

In the Seventies and Eighties (Tina Turner, Carol King, David Bowie, Madonna, Billy Joel) we heard a lot of:

  • Rich and thick vibrato
  • Scoops at the beginnings of phrases
  • Spoken approach to phrasing
  • Twang (and lots of it).

The Nineties (Alanis Morissette, Brandy, Jennifer Lopez, Jewel, Mariah Carey, Bryan Adams) brought us:

  • Use of frequent vocal runs
  • Breathy quality
  • Cry flips
  • Heavy accents
  • Distortion and creak.

Vocal trends are in no way an exact science and I appreciate I’ve generalised a little here, but it’s looking at these trends in detail that helps us bring the identity and presence to our own vocals. 

When you’re singing, it’s important to reference innovative artists that you love and listen to them in detail. Take Nao for instance. This exciting newcomer on the UK scene comes from a jazz background, which she merges into her heavy electronic production. In terms of her vocals, she:

  • Often tracks in octaves, giving an expansive and powerful sound to her more delicate tone
  • Includes harmonies with upper extensions (7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths)
  • Often uses laryngeal trills to decorate phrases (instead of vibrato). These are tight and fast.
  • Alternates the ends of her phrases between aggressively clipped words and soft delicate offsets with vibrato
  • Uses a subtle and breathy tone in verses with crisp consonants, and vowels sung through a generic “smile”
  • Uses a fragile light vocal cord closure
  • Incorporates a lazy time-feel/groove on syncopation and generous use of triplets, sometimes pulling back on the final note of a phrases even more.

So much content to experiment with for the developing R&B singer.

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Justin Vernon, the lead singer of Bon Iver, takes his innovative indie band to an exciting place, with stylistic influences culminating in an evocative and dynamic soundscape. The haunting melodies and innovative technologies in songs like Woods established his tell-tale sound. There are so many vocal ideas to play with and here are some of them:

  • Generous use of clean falsetto sound with a dark tone and light diction style (a delicate balance!)
  • A slightly untidy spoken affect to the vocal phrasing, almost like a chat
  • No vibrato – this is hard to do but can give a new spin on the typical singing styles
  • Tapered, disintegrated ends of phrases, almost in an “exhausted” fashion
  • Spoken fall-offs at the ends of words
  • A free non-metronomic approach to rhythm.
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The final artist I want to explore is Frank Ocean, an innovative and influential recording artist. He’s given way to a new direction of pop music that needs to be quietly sat with to discover its more subtle layering. Ocean’s stylistic traits often include:

  • A very a-rhythmic, conversational approach with constant change, which comes from his through-composed songwriting style
  • Understated and disaffected phrased verses in the lower register. He makes this work by infrequently accenting or nudging key words to add meaning and context
  • Breathy offsets, giving a casual and gentle approach to the ends of phrases
  • Breaking up phrases mid-sentence. This breaks the rules we were all taught but, surely, they are there to be broken? He allows interesting and unusual phrasing styles to seem natural and effortless.
  • Muted vowel colours.
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