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The Art and Psychology of Recording Great Vocals Print-ready version

by Tony Bacon
Reverb
August 27, 2020

When you're working with musical collaborators of any kind, it's crucial how you get on and how you affect one another. That's perhaps most obvious when you work with a singer - maybe as a producer or perhaps as a supporting musician or a songwriting partner.

Larry Klein has worked with many of the best singers of the last five decades, from Joni Mitchell to Madeline Peyroux, Tina Turner to Kandace Springs, Corinne Bailey Rae to Melody Gardot, and many more. Here the multi-Grammy-winning producer shares some thoughts on the methods and skills required to capture great vocal takes.

Larry reckons that, in some ways, little has changed in the 38 years since he first worked with Joni Mitchell on her Wild Things Run Fast album. "I'm still trying to capture a kind of honesty and genuine emotion that communicates to people in a strong, immediate fashion," he says. "Of course, there are certain types of very stylized records where people go after a premeditated effect with the vocal, like Billie Eilish, for example - which is completely valid. But I'm going for a natural expression that somehow reaches into you and grabs your heart."

When Larry began learning the craft of production, he made a lot of mistakes, as anyone who starts out in a new field will do. "I discovered the most important thing is to keep a good spirit in the room and to not convey any kind of analytical perfectionism in the way you approach getting a vocal. The most interesting part of it to me turned out to be the psychological side - the things it takes to get the best out of people to produce something that, hopefully, has a transcendent quality."

Joni: From Helium to Poetry

Larry started in music playing bass in rock and pop bands at school in California. He progressed to playing with many of his jazz heroes but decided a life on the road was not for him, and shifted to studio session work. "I learnt how to do what's needed in the studio and to be a good musician in a recording situation. That led to wanting to learn how to use the studio as an instrument, which in turn led me to producing. And I'm still doing it today."

He says his most important training ground in the '80s and '90s lay in the work he did with Joni Mitchell. He was married to her for 12 years during that time. At first, a mistake he made consistently was to try to solve any problem that came up, whether it was in the arrangements or how Joni was approaching the song vocally. "She really reprimanded me quite severely about that," Larry says with a laugh, "and it was good that she did. That was just the way my mind worked as a musician, and in more of an engineering capacity - thinking OK, how do we make this design work well?"

He considers it a turning point in his understanding of making records. "Joni said, 'Why don't you stop frowning and put some encouragement into this endeavor?' That was a very valuable lesson that I needed to learn, because I really was sitting there with a scowl on my face trying to figure out whether the bass-drum pattern was right on something, or whatever."

By the time he was producing Joni records like Night Ride Home, released in 1991, he'd hit his stride and was helping to create the kind of honest and unselfconscious expression he's been aiming for ever since. "I gradually discerned that the technical part of the act of getting a great vocal is the relatively minor part of the process," he says. "That's just capturing something in a way that is accurate or complementary, or both, that has the feeling of a person's voice. The big part is setting up an atmosphere and reacting to situations, an immediacy that communicates what the person is singing in the most visceral way."

Larry observed at close quarters how Joni's voice evolved and changed. She smoked; she got older. "Joni would say, 'When I listen to myself from the early records, it sounds like I'm on helium - I don't even like the sound of my voice at that time.' She adjusted her perception to where she was in life and used it to her advantage."

"The rest of it really lies in the minutiae of imperfection. That's where the poetry really is." Joni began to like the gravel in her voice, the little bit of dirt, the little bit of texture, as opposed to when she could hit certain notes in a pristine and perfect way. "She began to treasure the imperfections, which I think her audience to a large degree did as well. There's only a certain amount that can be communicated by technical acrobatics. The rest of it really lies in the minutiae of imperfection. That's where the poetry really is."

Larry's biggest job with Joni was communicating to her in a subtle fashion about what she was singing, avoiding anything with even a whiff of scrutiny or analysis. "Much more zen," he suggests, with a laugh. "Sometimes when I talk to people about what it is that I do, I say that at the highest level it's kind of a ninja-like zen process, where you're trying to guide people without having them feel guided. To let them feel like they're finding their way toward something. Maybe just giving them a nudge here and there, saying, 'Oh, what if we went down this road?' Or you talk about something that's only obliquely referring to what you're dealing with. That way, artists always have this feeling of discovery and curiosity."

Forget That You're Singing

Madeleine Peyroux was busking in Paris in the '90s when she was spotted and signed by a big record company. Larry describes her as a completely intuitive, natural singer.

"She has a way of using her voice that connotes another time and era. Most people who listen in a cursory manner think: Oh, she sounds exactly like Billie Holiday. Well, she grew up listening to Billie Holiday, so there is a certain kind of similarity there, just because that's how she learnt to sing. She's a beautiful singer, and she's capable of getting at what I think is pure magic, in the way she phrases things, the melodic things that she does - and it's completely unpremeditated."

Larry discovered, when he produced Careless Love in 2004, that getting a good vocal sound was not difficult at all. Just set up a decent mic - he has a favorite Neumann U 67 he's had since the '80s - put it through a good mic pre and a nice tube compressor, and Madeleine sounds amazing. "The tricky part of the process is getting her to forget that she's singing," he explains.

"I found that she would get in front of the mic to do several passes of a vocal, and she'd be singing and thinking about trying to do a good job, and like most us she's a bit insecure and wondering if she's doing a decent job. She stiffens up. It's almost like she loses the ability to perceive herself as a singer, and things get very stilted and strange sounding. Most of what happens is not at all what I'm looking for in a vocal, and certainly not what I hear if I go see her in a club or in a concert, where I'm touched by what she's doing."

Over the course of making that album - and Larry would go on to make three more with her - he figured out that his job was, first, to make sure that she memorized the lyrics, so she wasn't reading them, and second, to distract her from the fact she was singing and that they were in a recording studio, trying to get something done. He developed what he calls a whole bag full of tricks.

"I would talk to her about various things, just dealing with the situation in a very casual and humorous way. A big part of our relationship has been humor - she has a similarly dark sense of humor. So I would go and sit with her with headphones on in the room that she was singing in - not in a vocal booth - and we would just chat while we were doing vocals."

They would rattle on about this and that, laughing, have a great old time. "And then at a certain point I'd say, 'OK, let's try one.' She'd do a pass, and at that point the act of singing just became part of the conversation. She was as comfortable as can be and was just letting herself do this thing that she knew how to do intuitively. And not thinking about doing it."

After the vocal takes were recorded, Larry has a method - "nothing groundbreaking" - that he first saw Joni Mitchell use. It consists of all the individual lines of the song written out one after the other, next to a grid of vertical lines. "I gradually evolved this system of hieroglyphics where I put little symbols that denote what it is I like or do not like about a line, how it feels to me. Does it feel great, do I love that line? Is it OK, mediocre, or just not something to even consider?"

He would go through and comp from Madeleine's takes. "The act of comping things together also is an art," he says, "because sometimes you can take every strong line on the grid - and it won't lead well as a story or as a natural sounding vocal. Maybe because you're jumping around too much, or everything's a highlight, so to speak. Sometimes you need certain lines to have a matte quality to them. There's all sorts of levels of subtlety in how you comp and how you can use that system."

Looking back to the '80s, when he started producing, there was a lot of emphasis on perfection. "But if you look at the history of music, the things that are magical about a Muddy Waters record are certainly not the technical perfection of them," he says with a smile. "And the thing that makes an orchestra sound huge is the imperfection, right? Everything is slightly out of tune and the phrasing has a looseness that gives the orchestra that certain kind of sway."

It's a common misunderstanding, he says. "Technique does not always equate with excellence in music. Of course, technique helps you to get at emotional expression. But in the end, sometimes it's the mistakes that make it all have a touching quality."

This article has been viewed 613 times since being added on August 29, 2020.

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