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Identity Crisis

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Identity Crisis:

Producers and Engineers Can Avoid This with a Few Valuable Tips


On the heels of the wildly successful American Idol, contest TV has yielded some of our new superstars. During one of the many talent contest shows recently there was a scene where an artist broke down crying and said over and over again, if only I could find someone (presumably a producer) to work with who really got ME. This seems to be a recurring dilemma for many singers  both new and established.

They know who they are and just want to be recorded authentically by someone who believes in them and is truly inspired by their individual talent and special identity. Most artists are under the impression that the producer's job is to tell them what they have to do to attain their goals.

This holy grail perception of the producer's role is truly misleading and has become somewhat of a myth for vocalists. Who knows how many great careers have been compromised because the artist was under the impression that they should do as they were told rather than be who they are.

It would seem that there is a giant void in time between when an artist gets signed to a recording contract and when they actually make their first CD.

This void in time also exists for accomplished artists who are looking tore-invent themselves. The process of self discovery is the key to laying the foundation for making a great CD yet there is rarely an opportunity for an artist to go into a studio with someone who will allow them to experiment, develop and explore their vocal identity.

All singers hear their voice in their mind. Unfortunately, the voice they hear in their mind rarely makes it to the recording. The reasons for this are many, but stem from the importance of the almighty dollar. Setting up studio sessions is complex and expensive. It is also difficult to find someone who will patiently work with them in a way that empowers them to take chances and truly experiment with their voice.

Singing is a deeply profound, personal and physical form of communication. Just as a great public speaker will refine every detail in their vocal inflection and phrasing, so do singers. The catch is that the only way to know if an idea is working is to hear it recorded. Because there are so many options in recording vocals, it is also imperative to experiment with everything including the engineering aspects from EQ, compression, headphone mixes and effects. Just changing an effect might motivate a singer to completely re-interpret a song.

When working in the studio with a singer, it is also very important to give them information about studio technology that they might be interested in.

So many singers feel a sense of intimidation by the equipment. This can also inhibit delivering a great performance. Creating a supportive and comfortable learning environment is essential. So many artists have questions about technology they just do not feel comfortable asking when there are many people in the room. Learning some basics and developing a working vocabulary will help a vocalist more effectively communicate with an engineer and/or producer. By giving the artist this knowledge, they feel less isolated from the recording process.

Armed with some studio knowledge, an artist can effectively participate in the making of their own record. Just as they can hear their voice in their mind, they can also hear the music for the song. When an artist makes a suggestion, they usually have a great idea, but feel shy about saying anything. Given some understanding of the studio lifts their confidence and they are more likely to make wonderful contributions to their project.

The process of working in the studio really addresses one very fundamental skill. This is the ability to become a great listener. Because making CDs is usually a hurried process, the vocalist has to be able to actually hear all the detail in their voice. They have to listen for the technical aspects of performance such as pitch, tone and rhythm. More importantly, they have to learn to listen for all the nuances that comprise a great performance. That is a lot to listen for at once. By spending time listening only to their voice, their skill level skyrockets, as does their ability to judge their own work.

Studio work also teaches something that is a learned skill. It can be called listen and react. This means that as they sing they learn to connect what their ears are hearing to their vocal cords and soul and react instantaneously. Fundamentally, we as human beings are naturally conditioned to react to visual stimuli. We effortlessly react to what we see. The same is not true with sound. Connecting our brain to sound and reacting is a learned skill, and therefore it takes time. When a singer can connect their ears to their voice, something truly magical and liberating happens. They are no longer distracted by the mundane technical aspects of singing. A powerful freedom emerges that allows them to channel their emotions into the song.

Great singers have sung all their lives. They probably sang before they spoke. They have, as part of their talent, a deep sense of singer's confidence. This is what motivates their need to communicate through vocalization. Working in a private studio environment focuses in a subtle yet nurturing way on singer's confidence. When this confidence starts to flourish is when the great performances and true vocal consistency becomes a reality.

Another issue that most all singers struggle with is consistency. One night they might be great on stage, and the next night not so good. Frustration sets in when they are unable to identify the root of why. One reason is that vocalists sing based on instinct, not consciously knowing exactly what phrasing, inflection or vocal ornamentation they are going to use.

After working in the studio and identifying their vocal vocabulary, they can better know, in a much more defined fashion, what they are doing at all times. They become free to pick and chose what aspects of their voice will work the best for any performance. For every performance their approach has been like putting a puzzle together without a picture of what it is supposed to look like. It takes a long time and a lot of guess work to do that night after night. Instead of just singing, a plan for each song emerges accompanied by a palette of vocal choices from which one can consciously continue to evolve.

Vocalists young and old need to remember Shakespeare's words To thine own self be true.

Jonell Polansky is a Nashville based producer/engineer that specializes in vocal technique in the studio. She can be reached at www.dacapomusic.com.

She is also the Founder and Executive Director of Music Competition Network, www.musiccompetitionnetwork.com.


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