We discuss all things vocals with music producer D.Ramirez

This week we caught up with music producer Dean Marriott, better known as D.Ramirez, talking all things vocals.

Ivor Novello nominee D.Ramirez is responsible for a multitude of ground breaking releases. These include 2009’s #1 underground anthem ‘Downpipe‘ with Underworld & Mark Knight, plus ‘that’ genre defining remix of Bodyrox’s ‘Yeah Yeah‘ Top 40 #1 in the mid-noughties. You may even remember him as The Lisa Marie Experience.

One not to be missed.

We discussed his experience of working with vocalists & topline writers (as well as vocal samples) in the studio, plus his comprehensive approach to vocal production.

This inspiring interview is brought to you straight from his London studio and is jam packed with useful tips and information whether you are a vocalist, topline writer or music producer!

Watch the interview back here now.

Are Topline Writers & Producers equal in the collaboration process?

As you will know we have been putting the finishing touches to AR Vocal Agency’s ‘The Topline Library’ – a service which provides pre-recorded acapella vocal toplines, primarily to music producers. The Topline Library will be launching very shortly, and will be updated with new toplines every month. Since you are a subscriber you will gain exclusive access to the library on the first Tuesday of every month (like today) so mark it in your diary.

In order to make the service the best it can possibly be for both our clients (music producers) and our content generators (topline writers/vocalists), we have surveyed and interviewed several music producers, topline writers and vocalists from our community. You may be one of them. Hearing your thoughts on, and experiences of, the topline process has reaffirmed for us the fact that an industry standard – if one exists – is rarely adhered to. Furthermore, the contribution that both parties make during the collaborative process, and the respective rights attributed to both producers and topliners/vocalists, remains an area of huge misinformation and misunderstanding. This has become a topic of fascination at the AR Vocal Agency and we hope to better understand the opinions and feelings of producers, topliners and vocalists, so that we are able to better inform and add value to those within the music community. With that in mind we would love to hear your thoughts, and open a conversation around the topics which we see sparking greatest debate.

With that in mind, we would love to hear your views and provide a platform for the music producers in our community to converse directly with the 2000 topline writers and vocalists in our community, starting today. So, without further ado, whether you are a music producer (or someone who works with them) or a vocalist/topline writer we would like to hear your thoughts on the following question – in the collaborative process between a topline writer/vocalist and a music producer working together on a track, do you feel that the topliner and the producer’s contributions (skills, talent and time) to that track are equal?

Please comment with your thoughts here.

We hope that this will be both insightful and useful for you to be able to make direct contact with one another. As such, as well as our usual content, this will be a regular feature for the AR Vocal Agency community moving forward.

Join us over at the conversation now.

What Makes a Good Vocal? Here are some tips

In electronic music what is it that makes a ‘good’ vocal? This is something we think about a lot in trying to ensure that our Topline Consultancy services and The Topline Library are as valuable to music producers as possible.

Yet there is not necessarily an industry, or musical, set of standards that make a vocal work. Our subjective views on the sounds we hear also mean that for every person who loves a particular vocal, there will undoubtedly be another who doesn’t.

So what is it that makes a ‘good’ vocal?

Vocals sell records

There are the tangible qualities of a vocal – the singers range and technical ability, how it is recorded and where, type of microphone used, for example – which we can measure. However, the intangible features of a vocal – a far longer list which would include everything from the tone and timbre of a singers’ voice, the lyrics and phrasing they use, how emotive their performance is, the song arrangement, and the creativity and innovation of the producer/studio engineer – are entirely variable and non-formulaic.

These cannot be measured, and it is often hard to describe why a certain vocal track speaks to us above others. What we can universally agree on is that the vocal in a track is what resonates most with listeners – fundamentally, the vocal is most often what sells a record.

 

Vocal Quality

When it comes to vocal toplines, our focus at the AR Vocal Agency is on quality.

First and foremost, that means the quality of a singer’s voice (though not necessarily how ‘good’ a singer they are).

Our ears are piqued by interesting voices – unique tones, original deliveries, and natural ability. Such voices may not be trained, technically perfect or on-trend at that time, but if they are able to capture the right ‘feel’ we don’t think it matters.

Conversely, we are also rightly impressed by wide vocal ranges, unmatchable technique and vocal control; there will always be room for these in commercial music. Our role in supplying vocals for such a wide range of sub-genres means embracing an equally broad variety of vocal styles.

 

Vocal Production

Second, and just as important, is the quality of the vocal production, using the most suitable recording technique for the vocal. This can mean a different approach is taken to the recording of each individual topline.

The producer must ensure the singers’ best performances are captured, showcasing their unique sound and the atmosphere they create accordingly.

We are concerned with the recording studios used and their equipment but, most crucially, with how experienced the producer is in vocal production – a skill that requires patience and keen attention to detail.

 

Some things to consider for your tracks:

  • How ‘good’ (whether that’s interesting, unique, emotive, suited, soft, strong etc) is the vocalist?
  • Using a vocal producer – a producer who specialises in vocal recording
  • If this isn’t possible, ensure you are always honing your vocal production skills – vocals should never be an afterthought in the production process
  • Focus on the vocalists’ performance as well as their technical ability – capturing emotion is key
  • Do offer the vocalist guidance & reassurance when recording – studio singing is often more challenging than live performance
  • Allow the vocalist to perform/record vocals in the way that makes them feel most confident
  • Record as many takes as possible – you may need to comp extensively
  • Have the vocalist do a great amount of ad libs – often these ‘finish’ a track and add feeling
  • Ensure the microphone used, and the set-up, is the best fit for the vocalist
  • How are you processing the vocal takes? Is this best suited to the feel you are trying to create?

 

Learn More

For more information on vocal production, read tips from Kuk Harrell, vocal producer to Rihanna, Pentatonix, & Mary J Blige; Music Tech’s 20 Vocal Production Techniques; and The Little Known Recording Trick That Makes Singers Sound Perfect.

 

Artist or Singer?

There is a distinction to be made between an ‘artist’ (in the musical sense) and a ‘singer’, which is rarely acknowledged when discussing vocals.

To be clear, both are an art and both possess a clear skillset. This skillset may vary from artist to artist or singer to singer, but can be strikingly different between an artist and a singer. So what is the difference?

In the broad sense an artist is most often someone who writes or produces their own music, as well as playing and performing it. They may of course sing –  their voice could even be their most defining feature as an artist (Adele springs to mind, despite her songwriting prowess), but it will seldom be the sole focus of their art. The genre of music they create, or their own individual style and distinguishing musical features, may remain fairly consistent throughout their career.

A singer is someone whose primary talent is their voice, which they may have trained through years of study and practise. For professional singers, their voice – and possibly this alone – is their stock and trade. Their accompanying skillset may be based around vocal technique, range and ability, reading music proficiently enough to sight-sing, harmonising and vocal arrangement, microphone technique, genre-versatility, plus knowledge and maintenance of their vocal health. They do not necessarily write music or lyrics.

It goes without saying you can be both an artist and a singer, and there will certainly be crossover of the varying different skills both employ. However, how a vocalist identifies them self – artist or singer – can make for huge differentiation in how they approach their vocation and the transactions between themselves and those they collaborate with. If you are a producer, this is of importance when deciding which type of vocal you are seeking for a project.

In artistic terms, you have to ask what it is you need your collaborator to bring to the table creatively. Do you need music and lyrics written as well as vocals delivered? Is there a specific voice, tone or vocal range you require? Are you hoping that your collaborator’s profile will add credence to your project? What type of parameters are you working within?

Is the role you now have in mind better suited to the skill set and assets of an artist or a singer? In practical terms, this differentiation also extends to how each is remunerated for their art. An artist may be seeking (or already engaged in) recording and publishing deals; potential ‘passive’ income from royalties being how they monetise their art over the long term. To this extent, their own songwriting and recordings are of most value to them. The business transaction between a professional singer and anyone employing them may be far more straightforward – their time and vocal efforts will be exchanged for a fee. They are a session singer and will expect payment for each session or performance they do.

Securing the right type of vocalist for your project, and the subsequent smooth running of your collaboration, depends upon understanding this differentiation. Once this has been defined, identifying the right person for your project – whether artist or singer – should be clearer. Furthermore, ensuring that in turn the vocalist identifies themselves the same way and mutually agrees the expectations under which they are working is key.

As always, there may not be a definitive ‘category’ for each vocalist you work with and, like you, their careers and sense of self professionally can and will evolve. But an understanding that there can be a difference between artist and singer should be kept in mind when seeking vocals for your respective projects. Likewise, some food for thought for vocalists and the career paths they choose to follow…

Vocalists: What’s in it for them?

Easing the process by which music producers acquire vocal toplines means recognising the obstacles which can slow (or even prevent) them receiving their desired outcome – a vocal that meets what they have envisaged in their minds.

One of these obstacles is in getting the vocalist/topline writer to take on or, more frustratingly, see a project through.

Producers often report vocalists they have engaged on a project going AWOL somewhere between agreeing to take it on and actually delivering. This usually seems to happen at the final hurdle, once the producer has already heard and approved the vocalists idea for the track. Or, even more last minute, once the track is finished but before agreed contracts have been put in place.

I’m sure most of you have experienced the disappointment and inconvenience this causes. But have you asked yourself, during the creative transaction, what’s in it for the vocalist?

Ensuring that those you are working with are incentivised, to the best of your ability, can only help deliver better results for you.

So with each approach you make to potential vocalists, here’s a short list of the incentives you may want to consider offering. Which of these are right for your circumstances will be dictated somewhat by the type of artist you choose to work with.

 

Royalties

You may be happy to offer a reasonable share of both performing and mechanical royalties, but can you guarantee that the record will be exposed enough (either through performances, plays or sales) to make this worth their while? Vocalists (especially those who are not predominantly songwriters) often find it hard to see the benefits of this intangible and delayed form of commission.

 

Payment /Advances

Are you making an upfront payment to the vocalist/topline writer for their time in writing or recording a demo? For their time arranging the full topline for you? For their time rehearsing vocals? For their time recording the vocals? For their studio or engineer costs (if working remotely)? Travel to the studio?
There are many ‘hidden’ costs involved in the writing and recording process for vocalists. Payment for all/any of these are often reserved for the few, elite writers and artists only. However, just because your chosen vocalist isn’t known by name to you, don’t assume they don’t have better paid or higher profile work elsewhere – most established session singers worth their salt will.

 

Feature Credit

Will you credit the featured artist by name on the project? For full toplines and distinctive hooks in particular, make no mistake that the vocalist/topline writer’s contribution to the track is as great as the producers.

 

Personal Appearances

Is there the possibility you will use the vocalist for your future live performances and DJ sets? What about if a music promo video is made for the record? Will they be paid for these appearances? Or will you be employing a different artist for these engagements?

 

Aligned Styles/Positioning

Is the vocalist/topline writer already active in the genre in which you are working? Is this collaboration going to help them advance their standing in this scene? Gain them relevant exposure? Are they passionate about your genre/style? If the answers to the above are no, they may see this project as simply a commissionable gig for them (perhaps one of many).

 

Skillset

Have you heard much of the topline writer’s previous work? Are they familiar with the style of writing required of this genre? Have you briefed them and provided guidance on structure, requirements, lyrics, arrangement etc? You don’t want your collaborator to end up feeling out of their depth or disheartened.

 

Communication

Have you liaised clearly and regularly throughout the collaborative (and administrative) process? Have you gotten to know, and built a trusting working relationship, with the vocalist? Feeling included and valued, with visibility over how the project is progressing, is key to your collaborator remaining invested.

 

The vocalist/topline writer you wish to work with may already have a busy schedule of paid work, plus their own creative passion projects – don’t just assume that they’re going to appreciate the ‘exposure’ you are providing them.

And don’t devalue their art. If they’re good enough for you to collaborate with, they’re good enough to be remunerated, even if you can’t yet do that in cash.

The one crucial asset you need to get the right vocal

There is one crucial asset that producers looking to have a vocal topline written and recorded for them need – time. Time to carefully consider what type of vocal will be best suited to their track, time to source the right songwriter and vocalist, time for the writer to do their best work, time for demos to be submitted and considered, time for re-writing of the draft topline, time for final amendments to be made, time for the vocals to be professionally recorded, time for mixing and mastering, time for liaising with the vocalist, time for negotiating the vocalists/songwriters agreements and relevant royalty shares. Even with a team in place to ensure each of these individual steps are covered, it is rarely an entirely smooth process and one that needs – as we said – sufficient time.

We know that in reality it’s not an asset that producers or their record labels/publishers always have. There are myriad reasons for this, not least of those touring schedules, which can greatly halt momentum of the topline process. This is a real issue for independent producers and managers who may be overseeing the entire topline process and liaison with the vocalist unaccompanied. It becomes even more complicated when working across countries and time zones with your chosen vocalist. And what if the vocalist is also independent and may be gigging – who is motivating and time managing them?

However, the most time constrained projects occur when a producer’s instrumental track gains a lot of traction and a vocal topline is then added to help snowball this success. Under these circumstances the release of the new version is often tightly scheduled, and a vocal scrambled for, so as to capitalise on this. But retaining traction shouldn’t mean compromising the quality or suitability of the vocal; otherwise the release campaign itself is rendered somewhat pointless.

As a vocal agency, the main role we play is in streamlining this process for our clients. We oversee each step, working across projects on a full-time basis to ensure no momentum is lost and that liaison between the producer and the vocalist remains fluid and structured. Also key is managing producers expectations on the amount of time needed to source the best suited vocalist for their track and, in turn, for the vocalist/songwriter to be able to deliver their best work.

Things to consider:

  • Before starting, carefully estimate and be realistic about the amount of time needed for each step of the topline process
  • Try to avoid a ‘scattergun’ approach to finding a vocal topline i.e. approaching dozens and dozens of vocalists about one track. Often this wastes more time than it saves. A more focused approach – clearly understanding what type of vocal you feel would best suit your project and then focusing on finding the right person (or small number of people) to work with – is usually more effective
  • Have a structured timeline for the process, and stick to this wherever possible
  • Schedule in liaison times with, and deadlines for, the vocalist/topline writer
  • Don’t schedule release dates for the vocal version of a track before securing the vocal, if possible

 

Of course, some of these are practicalities in an ideal world only. For those occasions when time is truly limited we are soon to launch our Topline Library – a library of already written and recorded acapella toplines. This will be exclusively available to access directly for subscribers of our mailing list. Subscribe to join this here now.

-AR

What To Look For In A Vocal

Before being able to find the right vocal for your track you have to know what it is you are looking for. Whilst this may sound obvious, producers often approach us for help in finding a vocalist or producing a topline with very little idea of what they want. Or, with an exact idea of what they want but without carefully considering whether the vocal they have in mind is the best fit for their track. Is it what the track needs?

If not, this is usually only discovered after having tried various different singers, recordings and vocal arrangements, all to no avail. This can not only use up valuable time and resources, largely for the producer, but it can also kill creativity for the producer, the vocalists and any co-writers involved. The outcome? Sadly, we have had many of the producers we work with tell us of their frustration at having to shelve tracks they loved, convinced that no vocal would ever fit.

To try and minimise this happening, the first step in our process when working with any producer is an in-depth consultation. Whilst we are happy to A&R vocals/toplines on behalf of producers, it is hugely important to us that their vision for the track is realised, whilst also advising them on what may or may not suit vocally. Not only does this mean taking into consideration the producers’ personal taste (voices they like, styles they favour), but also the genre they are operating in and their objectives for that particular track. Have they considered all the various directions they could go in with the vocal? Are they thinking broadly enough (outside the box)? Certainly, what we do know is that simply taking cue from what your producer peers are doing, the latest charts, or recent successful tracks is not enough. The process needs to be more refined than that, and tailored specifically to you.

So, what to look for in a vocal? If you are currently sourcing a vocal for your track here are some of the questions to consider before beginning your search:

  • Will this track be improved for adding a vocal?
  • Who/what have my influences for this track been?
  • What are my objectives for my track a) creatively, and b) commercially?
  • Which emotion does the vocal need to convey to listeners?
  • Which tones of voice do I most like/dislike? (Generally speaking)
  • Which style of voice might be best suited to my track?
  • Does the vocal need to be of the same genre as my track? Might a juxtaposing vocal be more interesting/original?
  • Do I already have a vocalist in mind for my track? If so, are they the best fit for the track, or just the easiest option?

Being able to answer these should clarify what it is you are looking for. As such an integral part of the record, a vocal should never be an ‘afterthought’ and due care taken at every stage of the process, including before even beginning.

– AR

How to get the best out of vocalists in the studio

Every single vocal track, let alone each individual producer, takes a unique journey in reaching the final record we eventually hear. One of the key stages in this process is capturing the best possible vocal for that track. Not surprisingly, this means a common question facing the producers we work with is how to get the strongest performance from the vocalists they are collaborating with.

There are so many factors to be considered in ensuring the vocal performance recorded in the studio embodies everything the producer is hoping for. Just some of these include the microphone used, the vocal booth (if you have one), studio equipment and software, the vocalists health, the time of day the recording takes place, the amount of time allowed for recording, how clear the brief is, how experienced the vocalist is in the genre required, how confident the producer is in directing the vocalist, and the list goes on. Crucial amongst these is a good rapport between the producer and the vocalist.

The combination of so many variables means that achieving the perfect set of conditions to get the best out of vocalists in the studio can be tricky. Would they even be possible to purposefully create?

Of all these there is one condition that we believe to be the most important in capturing the ideal vocal performance – environment. In our experience, where the vocalist is, their surroundings, and how relaxed they feel, are paramount to them delivering a performance they are proud of. More often than not, for a vocalist this place is home. Usually home will be a far less sterile environment than most studios, and therefore where they are best able to connect with the lyrics and underlying emotions of a song.

The drawback to this approach is that the vocalist must record remotely, away from the direct guidance of the producer. However, most professional vocalists today are set up to record high quality vocals at home, recognising that this is a necessity in being able to work successfully as a top line writer/vocalist. While this may feel counter intuitive to producers, time and again we find that what they lose in ‘control’ they gain in much ‘freer’ vocal takes to work with – something that is achieved predominantly because the vocalist does not feel under any extra time or performance pressure. The other key benefit to producers is that this opens up the possibility of working with vocalists from around the globe, no matter how hectic the producers work/touring schedule. Suddenly, the playing field is wide open.

Whilst recording at home doesn’t always ensure that the other potential pitfalls detailed above can be overcome, in most cases, the professionalism of both the producer and the vocalist should allow successful navigation of these. Sometimes, the best way to get the best out of vocalists in the studio is simply to take them out of it.

-AR

Vocalists – is the talent pool larger than you think?

One of the key reasons I began the AR Vocal Agency was to increase the options available for music producers who were seeking vocalists and top line writers to work with. For many, it seemed that the pool of talent from which to choose was restrictive in either its size or its accessibility. If you were an artist/producer who happened to have the support of a great A&R, a proactive publisher, management with a musical background, or a large number of your own singer contacts then you were perhaps at an advantage when it came to finding vocalists/top lines. This, provided you were also time-rich to do the necessary searching and extensive listening required to source just the right vocal for your track. For emerging artist/producers the former of these – a strong support team – can be rare. For established artist/producers the latter – time – is a luxury. The result is that often the choice of vocalists and top line writers to work with can seem, if not be, very limited. And where to look?

There is no one set route, nor ‘correct’ process, for finding the right vocalist on any given project. I have heard stories from at least one of my own music idols, whose most iconic vocal dance track was delivered by a neighbour of his ‘who happened to sing a bit’. Sometimes, whatever works, works. However it is hugely important to me that artist/producers recognise that the pool of talent out there is incredibly wide – if you know where to look, or are willing to dedicate time to searching through all the haystacks in order to find the needles.

Here at the AR Vocal Agency, sourcing the vocalist/top line writer who is the best fit for each individual project we work on means looking far outside the circle of those who are tried and tested. There is nothing we enjoy better than partnering an established artist with an exciting new talent – ideally long before their peers are on to them. In fact, being able to introduce voices and writers who were previously unknown to the commercial music community is a source of huge pride. Whilst our network of vocalists is extensive, staying true to this ethos means that our search for new voices must be consistent.

In staying so, my hope is that the AR Vocal Agency can help to ease any frustration music producers have around sourcing the vocals and top lines best suited to them. In turn, we also wish to provide talented vocalists with a platform to be seen and heard by the people who need them most. For both parties, this is especially important where the support of publishing, management or a label may not be in place. And it might just be perfect for anyone lacking in time.

-AR

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