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.

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.

AVERAGE COST TO PRODUCER

  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.

The real cost of a vocal topline – Part 2

On last week’s blog we began discussing the real cost of a vocal topline, having observed a devaluation of singers and topline writers within the electronic music community. We asked if you agreed with this statement or not and received some interesting responses from both topline writers and producers (you can see these and join the conversation here).

In order to gain a clearer understanding of the cost of writing, recording and producing a vocal topline we have broken down the topline process, determining the approximate cost to the vocalist/topline writer for each step. Please note that these are based on average costs and only applicable in a scenario where the vocalist/topline writer is collaborating remotely with a producer.

THE TOPLINE PROCESS – STEPS
1. The vocalist/topline writer writing the melody, lyrics, harmonies and full vocal arrangement
2. The vocalist/topline writer recording demo(s) for the Producer’s approval
3. The vocalist/topline writer making amendments to the topline in preparation for final recording
4. The vocalist/topline writer recording the final vocal topline stems (including comping etc.)
AVERAGE COST TO VOCALIST/TOPLINE WRITER
1. Vocalist/Topline writers time – indefinite; Vocalist/Topline writers training and experience – years
2. Vocalist/Topline writers home studio set-up and equipment costs – several £100 minimum; OR the Vocalist/Topline writer hiring studio time and engineer to record demo(s) – between £100-£350 minimum
3. Vocalist/Topline writer’s time – indefinite, depending on how many amendments the producer may want. Further recording costs may also factor at this stage.

If you are a producer who has requested the services of a Vocalist/Topline writer to feature on your track, recognise that the process alone means that they will be incurring several expenses – often into several hundred pounds. This does not account for possible lost earnings elsewhere, whilst they take the time needed to complete the above process. So, it could be that the vocalist/topline writer has spent largely on expenses and/or lost revenue, long before receiving a session fee and co-writing split, the norm which is usually agreed between the two parties.

Of course, no one size fits all, and every circumstance must be considered individually. The point we wish to make is that the business of making and releasing music is expensive. Whilst the overall return on investment in releasing music has declined, the time, skills and experience required to make a quality track have not. It is here where the disconnect which can lead to vocalists and topline writers being devalued comes.

Agree or disagree that you need to invest in your music, if it is to reach the standard you hope for? Head over to our Facebook page and leave a comment there now.

Next week we will be looking at the overall costs to producers in procuring a vocal topline, but for now we’d love to hear your thought on this topic.

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.

 

The Subject of Subjectivity

The subject of subjectivity – in music it’s a big one. Not simply that we, of course, have differing tastes, musical influences and ways of expressing ourselves musically. But we also seem to hear, and certainly feel, music differently. The very definition of subjectivity being ‘based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes or opinions‘ speaks of a purely emotional response, rather than one informed by facts or science. This has given us a rich musical tapestry, none of which is better illustrated than in electronic music– an umbrella term for a diverse and often polarising multitude of sub-genres (here are just some. Gulp). This is no doubt a positive, for both music listeners and music creators; the scope for musical expression being so broad that people of all tastes and influences can find escapism in it. But it can cause an issue when applied to the business of music.

This is never more true than when producers and topline writers come together to create a track. There are a number of reasons this can be the case–a fusion of the twos differing musical styles, ways of writing, and inspiration included. However, it can be far more complexed than that. If people hear and process music somewhat differently to one another, this is a very minor disparity compared to how we describe and talk about music to one another. What is generic to the topline writer may not be to the producer, what is underground to one may not be the next, likewise what commercial, universal, leftfield or catchy are, to use some terms frequently bandied about in electronic music. We even recognise differences in the way sub-genres within electronic music are understood or described. This is largely where misunderstandings and setbacks can occur within the topline process. It is with this in mind that we ask all of our clients (the producers) to provide musical references which illustrate the key stylistic traits they have described to us in their topline briefs. This must then be followed with extremely clear communication of what is required to the topline writer.

One thing that does seem to be widely accepted within commercial music is that all producers (not to mention their respective publishers and record labels) are looking for hooks– those short riffs or phrases which catch as many listeners ears as possible and make a song accessible. Again, not exactly a scientific definition but we all know them when we hear them. They can be created within the produced track itself, but are more often left to the topline writer/vocal to bring to the track. At the very least a producer needs to have allowed the required space and flow within a track for the topline writer to embed them (when writing a topline to a pre-produced instrumental that is). There is a formula to writing in such a way, however to achieve this by speaking purely in (very subjective) musical terms is near-impossible. It is for this reason we ask all of our clients, in addition to the (subjective) style or feel of music they are hoping to create, what their objectives for their track are –who is it to appeal to and on which platforms? Which record labels are they hoping to find a home at? What are their radio targets for the track, ideally?It is in identifying these types of clear-cut goals to a track that musical subjectivity can remain a creative gift, without becoming an obstacle to the topline process.

-AR

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…

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