The reasons are many, however the most important point here is that just because a given singer sounds great singing one song, does not mean he or she will sound great singing your song. Hence the importance of the task “picking a vocalist for your song”. Also the reason I give it a special article within the “Evolution of a Song” realm.
There are very few singers that can “sing the bible”. Just watching song-competition reality shows is enough to prove that. So how do you know when a vocalist is the right vocalist for your song.
After you have decided what your work-in-progress-song is about, you should be able to know what genre you would possibly be leaning towards during the production phase and the overall mood and vibe you would like invoked and the message you would like to pass (a rocker vocalist may not be the right person to sing an opera piece, needless to say). All of that should be factors to weigh for making a decision. A final decision is not necessary at this point, however here’s where the “relationship” and “network” factors come along as handy, if not necessary. So for the purposes of this article, I will assume that you already know a number of singers from past projects and you are aware of their pros and cons. You also have a physical and an on-line network of people who might be the right fit. So one way to start filtering people is by envisioning who might be the right person for the job (sing your song).
When you look up the internet on info regarding different voice types you will find a technical approach and terms like Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, Contralto for females and Countertenor, Tenor, Baritone and Bass for male singers. However such jargon and theory, although useful to be cognizant of, is not necessary. I like simplicity and the bottom line so I know that when I hear the right singer for my song, I will know it immediately. As simple as that sounds, it’s complicated enough however. For example, what makes Dave Gahan’s voice “click” so well with Depeche Mode’s sound? Many factors. The point is that, if you wrote a song that would sound dramatic, epic, on a Bach-like Toccata-in-D minor scale and intending to use very dramatic, “large” electro sounds from your favorite virtual synth, Dave’s voice would not be the wrong decision to make. Of course, that assumes you have access to him singing your song but well...I am using an extreme case to make the point.
One major factor I pay attention to is the texture and timbre of a singer’s voice and its relation to the range of my song’s melody (which the chosen vocalist is supposed to sing). Meaning, different vocalists sound great (perform at peak performance) between a certain note range (e.g. from C3 and A4 = a Tenor’s typical range). So after you have your melody down, look at the range and compare that to the range of the singer/s on your lists. Which assumes that you have classified the singers you have in mind beforehand with respect to range and performance. One way to do that is by observing their past work. Listen to their voice, identify their best sounding range and note that down. Then compare with your song. Transporting your song’s melody may be a needed as long as everything else within the instrumentation (you may or may not have at this point) sounds OK. I never have instrumentation when I am searching for the right singer. I only have a piano melody with a left and right hand down, which allows ultimate flexibility. Remember, the core of your song at this stage is that piano melody (or you singing it with a guitar playing the chords, etc).
As you know by now, I do not like technical terms that complicate things and steer us away from the bottom line however related lingo to the above paragraph would be Tessitura and Clef. Texture and Timbre are also interesting to read more about. Look those up if you only crave to enrich your knowledge around music theory. Always great to know the theory, but not necessary.
Another factor I do not take lightly is the thinness or thickness of a singer’s voice. There are many female singers for example who naturally have a thin voice. A thin voice is….simply a voice that you hear and think “this needs to get fatter”. And then during the mixing phase you take measures to improve upon (there are blog articles and videos within www.SongwriterAndProducer.com which address such challenges technically). One of many techniques is to use the right EQ plugins and apply the right settings.
Another factor I look at very often is the singer’s different types of vocal registers. You probably have heard of the terms: a vocalist’s chest voice, their middle voice and their head voice. Depending on what song you wrote, these are important variations to know about and identify in a singer and match with your sought-after sound. If you wrote a song that requires more than one vocal register, then something called the Passaggio becomes critical. That’s the way a singer passes from one vocal register to another (for example from chest to head voice) and the goal being to produce similar timbre throughout those passages (passaggi).
Finally, let me say that it will be impossible for a singer to do well on a song they do not like. Your goal to know when that happens, or does not happen.
However….you know what? Even if you do not know any of the above theory and have enough experience to know when a singer is the right singer for your song….well, that’s all that matters in the end. Let me reiterate our goal here: we create music to invoke emotion. If you hear that singer and you feel he/she establishes that goal, then all of the theory in the world does not matter. So again, we go back to….your taste, your musical and sound judgment being the important factors for making the right choices for a highly sought-after result. A great song that invokes emotion in people’s minds and hearts.
Finally, if you are new to the songwriting and/or producing world and have not had the time to build a network, it should not stop you from finding great vocalists for your work. The internet will help with that. There are websites where vocalists will charge you a fee and take over your project and send you their vocals, however you have to know how to coach them remotely, since having them in your home studio is probably not feasible. More on this on my next articles.