Owning the booth: 6 tips for building your confidence as a vocalist

Illustration: Leonard Peng

I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I first stepped into the booth as a young vocalist.

Up until that point, I had only performed songs on stage, first in choir and musical theater, then as one half of a female rap duo with my best friend. When I first stepped into an honest-to-goodness vocal booth – never mind the fact that it was a repurposed closet in someone’s basement – brand-new feelings of anxiety and doubt swelled inside of me. I felt so out of my element, literally and emotionally isolated, without an audience in front of me or my bandmate beside me to hype me up and calm my nerves. I didn’t know how to navigate recording as a vocalist (Do I record the entire song in one go? How many times can I track it before it’s annoying?), and with each pass, I felt more and more like a failure.

For the first year or two that I recorded my own music as a vocalist, going to the studio felt like going to the dentist. I hated listening back to myself; I felt I sounded amateurish, unpracticed, and unprofessional. I didn’t have the language to communicate the way I wanted my voice to sound, or the self-awareness to thoughtfully listen back to takes. I floundered, constantly deferring to the engineer (while being overly concerned about wasting their time), and felt deflated most times I left the booth.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that to be an empowered vocalist and music maker, it’s impossible to level up without taking ownership of the way you sound. I was waiting for someone to swoop in, tell me exactly how to hit my notes and phrases and which takes sounded best, and more than anything, tell me that I, myself, was worthy. I wanted to be able to sing into a mic and for it to arrive beautifully on a bounce without effort, and for my self-esteem to be lifted in the process. But as a rapper/singer in her early twenties just coming into herself (and with no budget, might I add), a vocal producer was not going to fall out of the sky. And more fundamentally, there is absolutely no substitute for the amount of time one must invest in themselves to level up as a recording vocalist.

Now, over a decade past those first cringe-inducing sessions, I have not only found confidence as a recording vocalist, but I’m also entering the next phase of my career as a vocal producer and executive producer with emerging artists. More than anything, I have climbed over my feelings of inadequacy as a music creator. My primary instrument is my voice, and I’m not a ProTools wizard, but I’m fully capable of being a producer on a song or project. Feeling empowered in my craft as a recording vocalist is the key to my growth in this industry and my ability to contribute to excellent records.

I’m proud to have released my first ever vocal pack as part of the Splice Originals series because it feels like a testament of how far I’ve come as a vocalist, that all of the uncomfortable moments of growth have been worth it. I felt great stepping into Splice’s beautiful studio in Manhattan, sure that I could spend a few hours riffing, improvising, and writing hooks and melodies that could help contribute to new original productions. It’s a reminder of the hours and hours I’ve put in with all of my projects, especially writing and tracking four EPs and LPs with my band The Flavr Blue in the same tiny converted closet, stumbling into my sense of self as a musician. And working with Matt Young, who I’ve had the good fortune of knowing and collaborating with for years, on producing the “Ethereal Vocals” pack was an affirmation that making music is all about positive collaborative vibes and working with people who make you feel good, are highly capable, and further shape your craft.

Below are a few tips I’ve found important and empowering for my development as a recording vocalist.

1. Learn how to track yourself, even if it sucks

My biggest regret as a recording artist is not investing more time in my own home studio setup when I was just starting out. Even after I had gotten over hating the sound of my recorded voice and learned better vocabulary to communicate effectively with engineers, it took me a while to realize that I had grown codependent in my creative practice. If I always needed an engineer to get things done, how could I be improving at a steady rate? Imagine if I had put many of those hours of running around and coordinating with someone else into myself and my work!

I still dip into a recording studio to track final vocals so that I can be wholly focused on my performance, but now for writing sessions with other vocalists and for other work-for-hire projects, it’s important to me that I’m able to track on my own and bounce stems that I can then send to another collaborator to clean up and juice up. And recording on GarageBand for these purposes is totally fine! When I listen back to vocal passes I record myself, I sometimes get that familiar twinge of repulsion that I felt when I first heard myself in the booth; it doesn’t sound slick. But now, I trust in the potential of what it can be, and don’t let a vibe-less vocal tracking experience inhibit my writing and delivery. In an ideal world, I’ll continue to improve as an engineer and my home-tracked vocals will sound radio-ready, but for now, it’s important for me to be capable enough so that I don’t need another person to activate my creative process.

2. The “hook-up” is great, to a point

The first few years that I recorded music, I was a student with no income and deeply dependent on the kindness of friends and acquaintances to get me into the studio. I began to realize, however, that a “hookup” – free or deeply reduced studio time – often came with its own non-monetary costs: waiting days and weeks for bounces or edits, getting session times pushed constantly to compensate for other paying clients, and unclear expectations across the board. It only made sense; something’s gotta give!

In an ideal world, you’ll find an engineer who’s just as hungry to learn and develop, thus working with you for free, as you are. Even in these circumstances, it’s always good to have an agreement in place. Can you provide vocal services for trade for their projects, or some other type of service – social media marketing, referrals to other potential paid clients, etc.? What can you afford to ensure that things stay streamlined and professional? The last thing you ever want is for your recorded work to be held hostage by an unprofessional situation or a disagreement, so do the (sometimes slightly awkward) work up front to make sure you and the engineer are on the same page. And if your engineer is also a producer for your work or is helping you with songwriting, have very clear communication about the ownership of the music, both the master recording and the publishing splits.

3. Warm up before the session to save yourself the money

If you’re going into the studio for a final tracking session, set yourself up for success by coming in prepared, hydrated, and ready to be on the mic. Know your song inside and out, and arrive at the session having already warmed up vocally. I highly recommend “The Art of Screaming,” a customizable app that can walk you through a 10- to 40-minute vocal warm up. More than saving you money and time, you save yourself the headache of having to listen back to bad takes as you warm up on the mic.

Many vocal coaches are far more qualified than me and often have vastly differing opinions, but this is a universal truth: no iced drinks when you track! Treat yourself to it after. Don’t do your vocal chords the disservice of shrinking them right before you perform.

4. Let yourself get down with the music

To get yourself fully loose and ready to track something incredible, feel free to get your groove on. While being in a booth can feel isolating and a bit intimidating, it can also be your own private dance club of one. I’ve found I can do the zaniest moves, hand gestures, and facial expressions to get myself in the zone, and getting as physically comfortable as I can in the booth allows me to have the best vocal takes possible.

5. Study up on how you want to sound

The best way to learn how to be a great recording artist, outside of actually putting in the time, is to research vocals. To start, identify a vocal reference or two that you’d like the recording engineer to be familiar with when you start tracking. Many vocalists enjoy having some “sauce” – live effects – on their vocal while they track so that they can be in the moment; bringing in an example of how you wish to sound can help the engineer understand what you’d like to hear. Furthermore, I highly recommend connecting with a recording engineer in-studio, not just to track your own vocals, but to sit at the monitor and learn from them as to how they mix. Understanding how EQ, reverb, delay, panning, distortion, and more can shape vocals will deepen your musical awareness and make you a sharper vocalist in-studio and when it comes time to mix your project.

6. Don’t get autotune-dependent

Autotune is your friend, to a point! In a day and age where autotune and Melodyne can make even the most tone-deaf vocalist sound decent, I highly encourage developing vocalists to be mindful of how much they depend on autotune to get a solid take. It’s a nightmare of mine for someone to receive dry vocal stems from me that sound off-pitch because I was tracking with autotune and didn’t care to be actually on key (yes, we could have printed the vocal with autotune on it, but it’s the principle of the thing.) For reference or scratch vocals, tune your voice to the gods – who cares! But when it comes time for final tracking, I believe you will be a stronger vocalist and deliver a stronger product if you allow yourself to track with less tune, or pop an ear off of the headphones so you can hear yourself in the room. Just know that you’re doing your future self a favor.

Do you have any tips that are important to you as a vocalist? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

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July 8, 2019

Hollis Wong-Wear Hollis Wong-Wear is a musician and songwriter. Originally from the Bay Area, she reps Seattle and calls Los Angeles home. She is the lead singer of the electronic R&B trio The Flavr Blue, was GRAMMY nominated in 2014 for her collaborations with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and will be releasing her debut solo EP in the fall of 2019.