The real cost of a vocal topline – Part 3

Last week we looked at the costs incurred by a vocalist/topline writer in writing and recording a vocal topline (you can see this here).

For balance, and to help instil a mutual respect between vocalists/topline writers and music producers, we also wanted to look at the costs to a producer when working on a collaboration. Again, please note that these are based on average costs and only applicable where the producer has recruited the vocalist/topliner to write and record a vocal for them.


  1. Time – an indefinite amount spent researching and sourcing the right vocalist/topline writer; working up the instrumental track; placing the vocalist’s initial ideas onto a demo; producing the final version of the track; mixing & mastering; liaising with the vocalist/topline writer, and shopping the track to record labels, for example.
  2. Production & marketing costs – Considerable: on studio time (whether hiring a studio or working from home with equipment purchased); mixing & mastering costs (if not doing this themselves); legal costs (for potential contractual agreements with record label, publisher and possibly the featured artist); artwork; marketing & promotion costs, including digital marketing, radio plugging, club promo and social media strategy, such as Facebook advertising.
  3. Vocalist session fee – traditionally, anywhere between £250 – £2000+ depending on the scale of the release and the level of the Artist a producer has asked to feature. As a benchmark, for a professional ‘demo’ recording by an experienced session singer (not the final featured Artist – this is often done as a ’placeholder’ vocal for the producer to work around) a typical fee can be £350. A separate fee would then be applicable for the final recording session. Obviously very established vocalists and topline writers, including ‘names’, will ask for whatever their current market value is deemed to be – this could be considered more a ‘feature’ fee rather than a ‘session’ fee. Whilst of course producers and vocalists often negotiate lesser fees between themselves, the Musicians Union currently advise a standard recording session fee of £120 for 3 hours, with overtime paid at £30 for every additional 15 minutes of time (correct as of 2016 – reference).
  1. Publishing split – the producer should expect to offer the topline writer a split of any publishing income generated by the track, as a co-writer on the track. Please remember that the vocalist and topline writer may not be the same person, in which case a split of publishing for the writer becomes even more pertinent.

In practise, the above scenario and related costs can differ hugely; it is a very competitive area of the music industry and there are several variables that affect exact costs and remuneration for the producer. We often (understandably) see shortcuts being taken (using uncleared samples, not paying singers/topline writers) by producers who do not have the same resources available to them as those who are very established/major label backed. This breeds innovation but too often this is applied to their business dealings, as opposed to their creative process.

So, what would help make sourcing affordable, quality vocals easier for producers? We’d love to hear your thoughts over at our Facebook 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.


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.


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