Tips to Make Your Vocals Sound Great Live
by GoGirlsMusic Co-Executive Director rorie kelly
(That’s me! Photo by Ian Darson; all rights reserved.)
A lot of music/business advice is not one-size-fits-all, but here is one piece of advice I think every performer ought to take: Learn how to make yourself sound good.
You don’t have to be a master engineer. Live sound is a craft, and it doesn’t have to be your craft. But you owe it to yourself to learn enough to be able to communicate well and make some informed decisions. People should be walking away from your performances talking about the music--not about how they wished they could hear it better.
So without further ado, here are five tips for better live vocal sounds.
1. Learn to avoid (or troubleshoot) feedback.
The most common source of vocal feedback is a mic pointing at (or too close to) a speaker. If your speakers are behind you, make sure you and your mic are not directly in front of one, and tilt the speakers so they are aimed away from the mic. Covering the mic with your hand generally is not a helpful move, but in my experience getting and staying physically close (so your body is a bit of a blockade between the mic and the speaker) can help if you’ve got a hot mic during a performance. On the board, turning down the treble can also help.
2. Sound check like you mean it.
Wayyyyyy too often, I see people "soundcheck" a mic by putting their face right up to it and saying "CHECK, CHECK ONE TWO" in a loud low voice. All that does is establish that the mic is on. Unless your act consists of you loudly bellowing "CHECK ONE TWO," it will not allow you to set appropriate levels. Take the time to do a proper sound check where you are actually singing the way you will sing in the performance. Play with loud instrumentation to make sure your voice does not get lost in the mix. Belt to make sure you don’t clip. Be pushy about this if you have to--for many listeners, the lead vocal is the main focus point.
3. Work the mic.
As a general default, your face can be a few inches away from the mic--when you’re sound checking, make sure your distance from the mic is one that you will be generally comfortable with. During the performance, come right up on the mic for softer lines that are at the bottom of your range, or tend to get lost in the mix. Back off a little when you’re belting at top volume. Word to the wise for singers who switch between their "head voice” and "chest voice" -- your head voice may feel weaker and more unsupported, but those high notes are probably louder than you think.
4. Enunciate with care.
Some consonants get lost too easily in a live setting, making it difficult to understand the lyrics. Others can pop explosively (P's are a major offender, but also look out for K's and T's and hissy S's.) As a general rule, be delicate with the more explosive letters, but otherwise overenunciate like a fussy schoolmarm. It will make your lyrics more comprehensible. It can also help a lot in a situation where your soundcheck was not ideal and your vocal is getting a little lost.
5. Listen and learn.
Record your performances when possible--both video and audio, ideally--and check them out later with an attentive ear. Things sound very different live with a band versus home alone in your shower. When you listen back, your ears will tell you right away where you might need to adapt your technique. It’s also an opportunity to clean up your performance generally--you may notice a part of a song you thought sounded great but actually falls a little flat, and you’ll probably also notice something really cool you did off-the-cuff that you want to repeat. Don’t waste time and energy judging yourself harshly--just learn from what you hear and apply it in your next performance.
What are your favorite tips for getting great live vocal sounds? I’d love to hear them in the comments.