Talent Only Works When Talent Works

Bringing live performance–and life–back to the recording studio.

Posted Apr 14, 2019

My husband and I have a bit of of sonic war going on in our home. I tend toward musicals and music—capital ‘M’, ahem—whereas John puts on heavy metal every time I turn around. Whether our five-year-old is getting a well-rounded music education or becoming an audio schizophrenic remains to be seen.  

This morning, I brought out the Indigo Girls "Rites of Passage," an old favorite of mine. I hadn’t heard the record in a while and was transported back to my youth listening to “Galileo” and “Love Will Come To You."

I was also reminded of the talent and musicianship required to sing live in the studio. One pass, all heart, no technological games.

Amy Ray’s guitar vocal on that album, a cover of Mark Knopfler's “Romeo and Juliet,” is a perfect example. She’s not playing to a click track, she’s not singing in an isolation booth. Multiple passes haven’t been comped or her breaths edited out. It’s one take, raw, real, and righteous. And it’s incredible.

Of course, some vocalists still bring their top performance chops to the studio.

But a lot don’t.   

I work with many singers and recording artists who have never–and I mean never–done a top to bottom take of a song in the studio. Everything’s punched in, comped, and flown. And then EQed, auto-tuned, compressed, and everything else-ed.

To be clear, these tools aren’t inherently bad. Used correctly, they augment even the best singers' performances. Which is important, given our current culture’s expectation of sonic perfection...an expectation created by the technology itself.

But they can also keep singers from doing the work of keeping their voices and performances in top shape.

In my own performing days, I sang backup with Def Leppard at the VH1 Rock Honors, a night dedicated to newer bands honoring the legends—and the contrast in their performances was startling.

I’m not talking about inherent talent; I’m talking about what happens when talent works. As opposed to resting on their–and their engineers’–laurels.

Yes, the older bands playing that night have been around and performing together longer, but that’s not why their sets were so much stronger. It’s that throughout their careers, they had to deliver day in and day out, live and in the studio. Whereas today, technology in both often picks up the slack for the vocal weaknesses that used to be resolved by continuous practice and the constant need for a full, top performance. 

Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra, and Celine Dion were all known to walk into the studio, sing two takes of the day’s song top to bottom, and then leave. They brought everything they had to the proverbial table and left it there, singing as if their records depended on it… because they did.

This isn’t the case any longer.  

Technological wizardry may often be necessary to comply with current music and tastes.  But when singers let those tools do the heavy lifting–the vocal work and training they alone are responsible for– they get lazy.  Vocally, musically, and creatively. And both singers and audiences suffer.

If you have a moment, listen to Amy and the chances she takes on “Romeo and Juliet.” Listen as she pours her whole self into that microphone.

One live take. One shot. Real life. 

Let’s get back to that. Singers, by all means learn the technology and how to use it. But please don’t let it keep you from remembering what you’re trying to capture in the first place—music and performances at their most real, most raw, and most honest.  And therefore, the most compelling and beautiful.

Jennifer Hamady is the author of The Art of Singing Onstage and in the Studio. Learn more at www.FindingYourVoice.com