Episode 56 – How to Record a Great Vocal

A great vocal can be magic. It is the essential element to creating hit songs and classics that are listened to for generations.

There are vital elements the singer needs to bring together for a vocal to work on the highest levels.

In this episode, John breaks down these essential parts and explains what you need to do to raise your recorded vocal to a top-level performance.

Episode Links:

Episode 28 – Acting Your Song



Episode 56 – How to Record a Great Vocal


Hey, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of the Intelligent Vocalist.

You know, I was just doing some pretty sophisticated math here. And in my calculations, if they’re correct, it would appear that this podcast is now three years old this month, which is I guess, a milestone. Not as exciting as five years or ten years – we like those nice round little packages, but you know, three years is quite a bit of time. If you are born within three years, they’re walking around, they’re starting to get control of language – they’re doing all sorts of things and advance themselves in ways that I really haven’t in three years. But I managed to survived three years, and I managed to keep the podcast in three years. And I want to thank you for listening.


You know, one of the things that has really been great about this podcast, and it’s not how I intended it, but I’ve been cutting back my teaching hours, involved in some other things, and I’ve kind of been open to people who listen to the podcast if they inquire about lessons. If they mentioned that they’re podcast fan I kind of bumped them in front of the line, if you will. And Man, this has been one of the greatest screening processes I’ve ever done. In terms of teaching because if you listen to this podcast and you connect to this podcast, then it would make sense that you connect with me and that I would connect with you. And the people that are coming to me were fans of the podcast. I’m just so enjoying teaching that I’ve just been opening up some extra slots in my teaching schedule.


So if you are interested in lessons, if you think we might be a good fit, you can go to my website johnhenny.com and click on LESSONS, or you can just email [email protected].

I’m not trying to make this a big commercial because I really don’t have that many open slots but I’m just really so happy with the people who listens to the podcast who are working with me. Everyone’s just been a great experience, and it’s just been very rewarding as a teacher.


So today, I want to talk about recording a great vocal.

Back in my day, when you are going to go in and record, Man, you have to save up your pennies and had to go buy your 16-track tape, maybe if you’re fancy you’d go for more 24. But usually we go to a 16-track studio and you’d have to book the time. And it was kind of a treat just to get in there. And now I am speaking on a mic that does a great job, it didn’t cost me that much money in to my computer that’s a far more powerful recording studio than I ever set foot in. As a matter of fact, my phone is a more powerful recording studio than The Beatles ever had. The technology now is pretty profound so your opportunity to record is greater and greater.

However, you will find yourself, if you’re really serious about singing, in higher and higher level situations where you’re working in better studios. Not that you can’t record in your home, but you start getting in where you’re getting into a better studio and maybe you’ve got a producer and you’ve got a good engineer, you’ve got some songs that are really strong. You really need to create an amazing vocal.


The idea for this podcast is really an off-shoot of my new Youtube channel. Another mini commercial – if you just go on and search on Youtube John Hennny, you’ll find my channel. I’m doing a new series called Why I Love This Vocal. I’m breaking down great vocals so you can understand what’s going on, just not in terms of technique but also in musicianship.

And one of the things that I just keep hammering and hammering and hammering is you can’t just be a singer, you also have to be a musician. I know it’s a bit of a dig that you know I’m a singer, therefore I’m a musician. But more often, not musicians on the level that people who play instruments are. And we kind of get a bad rap from people who play instruments. I really want singers to be able to delve in not just in vocal technique but also deep deep musicianship. And really good choices as well as that magic emotional component that is the spark of a great vocal.


The next episode I’m planning on doing for my Youtube channel, as I changed my mind which I’m known to do because it’s my channel and I can do whatever I want – but I’m planning on doing Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”. The reason that I’m choosing that is, here was this artist who’s basically unknown outside of her native Canada. And even in her native Canada, she was just kind of like a teeny bop star doing little Pop songs. And “Jagged Little Pill” was her debut as an adult artist. But she was basically coming in unknown. On the radio at that time, you know, she was dealing with really big stars. You had Mariah Carey, you had Sheryl Crow, you had all these artists that would eat the available slots of Top 40 radios. So as you know, a new artist breaking through is really really hard.

“You Oughta Know” was the lead single in that album and that album became one of the largest selling albums of the 90s. I think it’s the largest selling female debut. There are some records that she broke. The album just suddenly caught fire, it was a bit of a phenomenon. And that opening single “You Oughta Know” instantly, I can still remember hearing that song the first few times and I just felt like this young woman grabbed me by the throat and forced me to listen to her pain and her betrayal in that song. And she did it so brilliantly by interjecting emotion into her performance.


If you go back and listen to the song if you haven’t listen to it awhile it opens up very interestingly. It’s just a drum, a snare drum, and they’re using brushes, which is really uncommon. Brushes are like, instead of stick, it’s this flat thing of wires, and you kind of drag it across the drum head. It’s more used in Jazz, and really not used much in Pop music. It opens up just with this drum and her alone, there are no other instruments, and you’re immediately grabbed. As a new artist on commercial radio, she only has a few seconds to grab somebody if you don’t know who they are. I mean, if somebody says “Hey, it’s a new Beyoncé single” you’ll give it a chance, but if it’s someone you don’t know you’re really not going to give it a chance. And I will argue, it’s her emotional connection and the way that she made you feel what she was feeling within the context of a 3-4 minute of pop song that made that album a phenomenon.  So I really want to touch on it.


If you’re going into the studio, and you really want to create a great recording and get a great vocal here are some basic steps and principles that I want you to really think about and really consider.


Now, there are all kinds of other things, from mic choice and how your voices EQ’d, and all of these things that are in the realm of the producer and the engineer. But myself as a voice teacher and a little bit as a voice coach, which means, as a voice teacher work I work on the technical, and as a voice coach I work on the performance and stylization. But I’m primarily a voice teacher which means that I am very interested in the technique.

And I will tell you, when you go in to record your vocal, I don’t want you worried about technique. Technique isn’t important, in fact it’s so important that I don’t even want it to be a consideration because technique is not the highest level of singing. When you are trying to record a vocal, if Alanis Morissette was more interested and concerned with her vocal technique, first is her emotional connection, we would not have had the hit song that we did.

Actually the vocal technique on her performance, you can argue, was not perfect, which to me actually made it perfect. She actually threw technique out because she was more interested in the emotional connection. And that’s really where I am. Even though I teach technique, emotional connection is the highest level. But if you have a particularly hard song and you have high notes, you have long sustains, and all of these different things that you need to get taken care of, get those taken care of. Get those on muscle memory, and autopilot as much as you can.


Now in the perfect world you never have to worry about your technique. In reality, it’s going to up and flow. There are certain notes where you have to think about it a little more and then you can pull back and not think about it much at all, if any. I want you to be more in that second state as much as possible, but realistically there are notes you’re going to have to think a little about. But we want to get the technique as down and solid as possible, which then I want you to really understand the musical landscape of the piece.

If this is something someone else has written, even if you’ve written it, you’ve either arranged it yourself, or you’ve had other musicians come in and play. I want you to just really sit and consider the key that the song is in, where were certain notes are sitting, if they’re higher, if they’re lower, the vowel sounds themselves, if that vowel needs a brighter sound, a little more intensity, or if you can darker that a little bit, what you’re going to do with dynamics, with your phrasing – you need to understand what the musical bed is. You don’t just walk in over thinking “Oh, I know my melody and I’ll just going to pop this out over this musical bed”.


As the instrumentation changes, as it grows, are you intensifying your vocal performance? As there are less instruments, are you pulling it back? Is the rhythmic groove, understanding the rhythm of the song, is this the song that you can phrase and maybe lay back a little bit? Or do you need to be rhythmically precise on everything? There are some songs, you will hear great singers where in the verse they will lay back and they will be a little lazier because the groove is not as rhythmically driven. And when they get to the chorus they will suddenly start to pop right in the pocket rhythmically and will start to use accents, and they will use consonants, note length, and vowel color. They will use all of these to help create the musical experience of what’s going on. They’re really tied in to their music.

And you as a singer, when you are onstage, I will tell you – there’s a growth period in a musician where you’re onstage and you’re mostly listening to yourself, and you’re mostly focused on yourself. And then the day comes where you realize “Hey, there are other musicians here. And I really need to listen to them, I need to interact with them, and I need to be in this experience with them.” And there’s a communication that’s happening musically that then is transmitted to the audience. And when it comes where you’re actually listening to the other musicians more than yourself, you’re reaching a new level of musical maturity. It’s actually a wonderful place to be. When you hear really great vocalist, they really are there.


I’m going to go way way back, and I’ve just thought of this, but one of the ones struck me was American Idol (I don’t know, it was ten years ago), it was Taylor Hicks, the soul patrol guy, who was not the greatest singer – he was up against much better singers. Yet he did the finale against Katherine McPhee who was a better singer than him in terms of technique, very polished. But Man, Taylor had this innate connection with the musicians. He had toured a lot and he just played all kinds of dyed bars. And this is the guy who loves singing and loves performing.

I remember when he did “Try A Little Tenderness”. When he was just building that and popping those rhythms, and just getting down in that pocket, you could hear the band start to play better. I remember specifically hearing the musicians start to play better under him because he was connecting on a deeper musical level with the musicians that these other better singers, much better technicians weren’t. He just had this stanky, nasty groove where he really felt some of these rhythm and little pieces that just talked to the musicians, and they played better for him. And he ended up winning. He didn’t go on and be the biggest American Idol of all time, but I thought it was rather profound.

I remember Simon at the time, losing his mind to why this guy (won). Simon didn’t even want him on the show. I remember this season, for whatever reason, this is the one season of American Idol I really watched. I’m forever struck by Taylor Hicks, and just his innate musical ability and his musical maturity. It just confounded Simon – he didn’t understand why this mediocre vocalist was going to win this thing but yet he did.


So, really getting in to the musical landscape, and then on a deeper musical level, understanding the vocal colors that are going to come in your voice based on the words that have been written. So if there are higher notes, maybe written on an OO vowel or an EE vowel, look at that. Is the composer may be wanting you to go to a falsetto because they have written vowels that tend to go heady really really easily? Or do they want you to belt that?


Sometimes songwriters just write words and they stick it to music, but there are songwriters who understand the connection of what vowels are, the colors of the frequencies that the vowels produced, as well as the tessitura of where they’re writing, the note choices. And they will pick vowels sounds. Sometimes I think they’d just do this instinctively but they will pick vowel sounds that really correspond well to, not just the emotional color of the word but the sound color of the emotion that they wanted, how it’s tying into the music.


So really start breaking that down. Start paying attention to note lengths. Just don’t hold the note and let it end. Do you want to make it shorter? Do you want to make this a little more staccato? Or do you want to make this more legato? Are you going to add a vibrato? If not, why not? And play with these and just see where the musical truth for you lies in relationship to not just the song itself but the production of the song, and how your voice fits into the song.

And then, you have got to connect all these wonderful vocal techniques, musical insight, and vocal colors, and all of these choices, to emotion. That is the highest level. I will probably put, as far as your audience is concerned, technique at the lower level, musical choices the next level, and then your emotional connection at the highest level.


I have vocals that I absolutely love, that technically are pretty darned mediocre, but emotionally – absolutely just are gut-punched. Whether they just bring me joy or they bring me bittersweet pain, these songs are just so reliable that I know I can go to them again and again. And I can get lost in a safe emotional world and I can feel emotions such as loss, pain, and sadness, and safe place where actually it’s kind of cathartic which is why we are drawn to music. And that’s what the audience essentially wants from you. They want an experience where you’ll allow them to touch this emotion without really having to go there. And it’s almost like going to a scary movie and getting scared but you’re not really scared. You can allow them to feel sadness. And you know what, they’re in a really particular place in their life and you can actually fully take them there. And they will use your performance as a conduit to work through whatever is that’s going on in their life.

The emotion, I cannot tell you, is so vitally vitally important. I’ve done a previous podcast on this. I’ll put it in the show notes because I’m not going to remember what episode it was. So just go to johnhenny.com click on PODCAST. It’s actually just going to be johnhenny.com/56. The latest ones I’ve always just use the episode number. You can go there and get the show notes.


You can’t just choose. If you go into a song and go “okay, my emotion is I’m sad.” That’s not going to cut it. That’s just some bland monochromatic choice that’s not going to give you the performance that you want. Because, when you break down a really good performance, even though the song may be ultimately sad, the singer will have different intentions. And a great singer will be choosing, you know, “I’m going to express my sadness. But now I’m going to have a little bit of anger. And now I’m going to have a bittersweet reflection on what I lost. And maybe even a glimmer of past happiness.”

It really becomes this beautiful painting of different emotional contrast, and light and dark. And if it’s a happy song you’re not just going to be happy through the whole thing. You’re going to maybe just reveal something as to why you’re happy. And then you’re going to express that happiness. And then you’re actually going to maybe command or demand something, that you want more of this. And now you’re not particularly just happy but you’re also like demanding. Then maybe you’ll reflect back to a time, or maybe you’re a little bit sad, which makes the happiness that you’re feeling now even more profound.


If you just choose “I’m going to be happy”, either that song’s really simple and it could warrant that, and that’s going to get you through it, or you’re going to give a dull performance.


Now, there are all sorts of other things working in the studio. But Man, one of the things I found with great vocals, I’ve got some tracks where I can isolate the vocals, and I’ve been doing that in my Youtube channel – when you isolate vocal, you can hear all kinds of things you shouldn’t be doing in the studio. I mean, Michael Jackson is stomping his feet, he’s snapping his fingers, and he’s kind of WHOOO-ing off the mic, and he’s so wrapped up in what he’s doing, and you almost hear him dancing. He’s breaking all the rules of not making extra sounds. But it doesn’t matter because it’s an absolute magic vocal that Michael is completely connected to. That really is the place you need to get to. That’s really the hierarchy of it.


Get your technique out of the way. Figure out what it is you’re doing musically on a deep level. And then get your emotion connected. If you can get all three of those, you are going to have a killer killer vocal. You’re going to have a vocal that people can’t ignore.

If I sing, I would much rather have somebody say “My gosh, you moved me” rather than “Wow, that was a really well sung high note.” I don’t mind hearing that, but it is that deep deep connection that I really really want.


Hey, once again I want to thank you so much for listening. If you do enjoy this podcast please consider going to iTunes, or Stitch, or wherever you listen to it, leave a review. And you can share the podcast it really really helps it grow.

I really do like, when I talk in this mic, I really do appreciate others listening.

For more information about me, it’s johnhenny.com. if you’re interested in learning how to be a voice teacher I have a brand new course Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy. Just click on Teacher Training in my menu to get more information about that.

And until next time. To better singing! Thank you so much. Bye.