The Recording Studio Singer Job Description

by Gary Powell

It was brought to my attention from a reader that there is no how-to-succeed to-do list for becoming a recording studio session singer on my site. Before giving you the career path for becoming a professional recording studio session singer, I thought you should have the job description.

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  1. Many recording producers will rely on the studio singer to come up with their own vocal parts in the session. Even if the producer has an idea for what the parts might be, few have the ability to score the vocal arrangements or even dictate musically the notes you should sing. In this regard, you will literally become the vocal arranger. Singers with this skill will simply work more. I do all the vocal arranging for my Austin recording sessions; some are scored and some are simple “head charts” meaning we do it all by ear. I have found that singers who have honed the ability to dictate or score vocal parts have had more experience singing in vocal ensembles and have amassed a higher level of musicianship. Some of the most talented singers who work here started out as either pianists or reading instrumentalists.
  2. Certainly most producers will ask you to match the vocal tone, style, and performance gestures of other singers. These may be other singers performing with you live in a “group sing” or they may have been previously recorded. Regardless, you will have to manipulate ALL the elements of your sound on demand. You will also have to be an expert about how to accomplish this with your voice as most producers won’t be able to tell you how to do it. They WILL know, however, when they don’t like it.
  3. Your ear will be held accountable for your pitch accuracy. Regardless of what you’ve heard about “Auto-Tune”, I simply don’t use singers who have chronic intonation problems.
  1. You will seldom know exactly what you are going to sing when you get the call for a recording date. If you are a soloist, the producer often has a recorded “scratch” track or demo of the vocal melody line. You will be expected to learn it by ear with only a couple of times-through hearing it and then deliver a stellar performance immediately.
  2. As a studio singer myself, I have never been given musically scored vocal parts (unless I was hired to write it), so don’t freak out if you don’t read music. A great ear which is well integrated with your singing ability can cover for your music reading deficiencies.
  3. You will, however, need music sight-reading chops if you want to work in a jingle-house which specializes in jazz-voiced radio I.D. tags or similar group sing work. Almost all a cappella vocal jazz charts require some knowledge of music theory in that most ears just won’t hear these harmonies outside our Western popular music harmonic vocabulary. I do have singers who work with me, however, whose ears are so well developed that they can work in these sessions ordinarily restricted to music reading vocalists.
  1. Don’t try to fake, hide or be embarrassed by your inexperience. Everyone started out knowing nothing. Most producers like to help out inexperienced talent. It’s to their advantage for you to grow and improve. Be confident, but not arrogant. Let them help you and it will be to your advantage in the long run too.
  2. Don’t bring your personal music projects into another client’s recording session. This is not the place to promote your solo career. If you have a recording you secretly wish someone would ask you about, then stick the CD in your briefcase just in case someone asks about it. Otherwise, don’t mention it no matter how tempted you are. If you do, it could be your last session. Believe me that there will be plenty of other egos in the room that will need to be serviced before yours.
  3. Be on time. In fact, be early. Follow the rule of professional orchestral players who are in their seats tuning their instruments and looking over their parts 15 minutes before their session’s call time. Dress well and appropriately. Greet and meet everyone in the studio even if no one is gracious enough to introduce you. Look happy to be there. Remember that someone in the studio is vested in the outcome of your performance.
  1. You will be asked to work quickly and intimately with singers whom you have not met. One of those singers will be the leader whether it is spoken or not. Put up your antennas to figure who that is just in case it’s not formally announced.
  2. You will certainly be expected to learn parts. As mentioned before, you may even have to instantly become the vocal arranger. You should learn all the parts that your voice could even possibly sing as these parts are being assigned to other singers. Often, you will be asked to switch parts or double someone else’s part or just exchange parts in order to stack or record the same parts again to thicken the sound. If you have already learned all the parts you will be a time saver for the producer and be recognized as a valuable asset for future recording sessions.
  3. Don’t point your finger at other singers who may be singing out of tune or the wrong part. Even if you are right you won’t be popular with anyone. You may eventually move to a leadership position which will allow a graceful supervision of others. Until then, let the producer or session leader take this responsibility.
  1. Recording sessions are great fun when well organized, well prepared and well cast with talented people. However, add in a time crunch, a singer having a car wreck on the way to the session, a room full of advertising account executives, an arrogant untalented producer, studio equipment failures, a singer who is singing out of tune, re-singing a session you’ve already recorded because of a technical issue or a focus group…….and your fun experience can go South quickly……and this is the short list of inevitable studio circumstances. All this to say that we all live in the real world where things happen which are out of our control. As a producer I do everything possible to eliminate the bad juju from coming in my studio. However, when these things happen, your professionalism must shine.
  1. Singers are notoriously the worst musicians in the world. Their lack of knowledge of common musical language is appalling to me. Singers are the super models of the music business. So, if you bring NO musicianship or studio skills to a session then you will probably be forced to become the star at a later date.
  2. Before stardom occurs, however, you might want to learn the common terminology of music harmony. If asked to sing a minor third below your current note, then you should know what that means. Familiarity with the language of music theory will be helpful to you. Know how to spell any chord in any key. Can you answer this question? How do you spell a minor seventh 4-chord in the key of A Flat? The answer is Db, Fb Ab, Cb. Okay this a little tricky, but this is the language of music. Learn it. Know the intervalic relationships between all the chord members; the root, the third, the fifth, the seventh, etc. You will be asked to sing them. If asked to sing the fifth of the 5-chord in Bb what note is it? (It’s a C) Although this is not absolutely necessary, being a complete musician as a singer will amaze people and will help you get work.
  3. You will also be expected to know the common vernacular for musical rhythm such as time signatures and note values. If someone asks you to sing the pickup as an eighth instead of a quarter note, you should know immediately what that means.
  4. The ensemble experience of having played or sung in a school band, choir or orchestra will help you greatly in the studio. Although the language used in non-classical sessions has been colloquialized, the intended results are the same.
  1. In Texas we often have Spanish language recording sessions. You don’t need to be fluent in the language, but you do need to know the correct diction of the language. I took a music course in college called “Diction for Singers” which was designed to teach singers the correct pronunciation of the French, Italian and German languages. It was a great course and has been very helpful in my professional career. Depending on what part of the world you are in, language skills will help you get work.
  1. Learn how to control your plosives which are your popped “p’s”. This is air from your mouth which hits the microphone diaphragm causing a low frequency explosion which must be dealt with by the mixing engineer later.
  2. Learn how to control the sibilance of your “s’s” and “f’s”. Despite the electronic tools we have like de-essers to control this problem, the recording will sound better if you take care of this yourself. Talk with the engineers you work with about how to do it. They will probably know. If not, you can learn to either shorten, drop the pitch or lower the volume of just your “s’s” and “f’s”. You will be very popular as this saves valuable time for the mixing engineer later.
  3. Talk with the recording engineer about how you can help him control your recording level. The engineer will probably be cutting (recording) with some compression, but you can be of great help by backing off the microphone for loud passages. Encourage the recording engineer to assist you in making smart decisions about volume and distance from the microphone. This will help him with his technical issues in capturing your performance which will make you sound better naturally AND be greatly appreciated.

If you read this far, I’ll give you this: the paradigm shift you need to undertand is simply to make your clients look good. We singers think it’s all about us looking good. It’s not. Make your clients look good and you’ll be invited back to the party! However, you can only do this with your competence and integrity. All other methods are hollow and won’t deliver your desired results over time.

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6 thoughts on “The Recording Studio Singer Job Description”

  1. This one is one of my favorite blogs! I am going to share it with some of my performers. It is full of wisdom! Thank you again for your expertise! Looking forward to having you come up to Buffalo again! We could take advantage of what you just wrote in this blog!!! And THIS time, we can use MY new studio!!! I am so glad you suggested that I get this one up and running! It is already a success! Thank you again! Debbie Bello

  2. This post should be mandatory reading for EVERYONE who thinks he/she is a singer starting around the age of 5.

    A great read! Thanks!


  3. Wow, this was really interesting to me, knowing next to nothing about this stuff.

  4. Well said. I agree this should be mandatory reading for anyone that is thinking about a singing career. Thank you for reminding me to brush up on my music theory! Better watch out for those intervals:) I look forward to seeing you in Buffalo. All the best- Michael B. Chadwick .

  5. Pingback: Session Singing: Background and Experience

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