| By Thomas Brett |
When it comes to the technique of singing and screaming, there are few people as knowledgeable or experienced as Voicehacks founder Mary Zimmer.
Alongside being one of the most talented professionals in the field of vocal coaching, Mary has honed her craft over the years as an in-demand session vocalist and the lead singer for bands such as Luna Mortis, White Empress and Santa Marta.
White Empress – The Ecstatic and The Sorrow
In a recent interview with Mary, I asked her what it takes to make it in the session business, the importance of proper vocal technique in the studio, and a bunch of other important vocal-related questions:
Can you tell me a little bit about your technical singing background?
MARY: I got my degree in classical music fairly young at the age of 22. Even after my music degree, I did an absolute ton of research on the anatomy of the voice and tried to absorb all of the information that’s available out there.
People seem to think that you can just get your bachelor’s degree and you’re done, and while It does gain you quite a bit of knowledge, I felt I had a lot more to learn after getting mine…
Even now as a vocal coach, each time I teach somebody I run into a different set of challenges which I need to figure out how to solve, which is also an excellent source of education.
VoiceHacks with Mary Z – How to sing with Grit
Overall, I feel like my MBA in music came from actually being in the music industry.
School is ok for a formal education, but I don’t actually recommend people starting out there…
You also studied audio engineering?
MARY: I kinda had to create my own recording minor in the broadcast department of my school because they didn’t have one at the time.
I was taught about all these different microphones, how they sound, how to run a real 48 channel desk, how to record on reel-to-reel tape… It was fun to learn about, but I personally don’t really enjoy recording or mixing… It takes a painstaking amount of detail which I personally don’t have the patience for.
If I had to do it all over again nowadays I probably wouldn’t pay a university thousands of dollars, I’d just join URM instead!
Recording is a heavily male-dominated business, why do you think that is?
MARY: I don’t know! It’s not particularly masculin, or like you have to be physically stronger to do it…
It still astonishes me that all these years later I’m still one of the only women who knows anything about this stuff… It’s just weird!
How did you make your start in the session musician business?
MARY: I think it was mainly the fact that I had the skills necessary to record my own vocals, and that I had a certain amount of “business professionalism” which made it easier for people to trust & hire me.
It also came from my connections to producers I’d worked with in the past. For example Jason Suecof, who I’d worked with while I was in Luna Mortis, called me out of the blue a few years back and asked if I wanted to do some opera vocals on the Motionless In White album “Infamous”.
What he needed was someone who could perform classical singing on a professional level and also record themselves properly, so I got the job!
Motionless In White – Synthetic Love
Musicians like to roll their eyes when I talk about the importance of professionalism in the studio, but it matters, and can definitely have an impact on whether you’ll get hired or not.
In this business, professionalism means being polite, having a set of terms, and being able to accept some changes and criticism from the people you’re working with. After all, if you’re at home then the producer isn’t in the room with you to give direct feedback as you’re recording, so you have to be reasonable to fulfill their needs.
How important is it for session musicians to know how to record themselves?
MARY: Very important! A lot of people ask me about how to get guestwork, and I’ll tell them that they have two choices: You can either try and get really lucky in a place like Nashville or Los Angeles and work for hire as an “in” person for other producers, or… you can just learn to record yourself at home and work worldwide.
Of course, recording yourself means you have to make a few investments which can seem expensive to a beginner, but a decent vocal setup is definitely a lot cheaper than recording something like drums or guitar…
Matte Black – Weiss (ft. Mary Zimmer)
As a session vocalist, if you don’t learn how to do this stuff for yourself then you’re kinda shooting yourself in the foot, as you’re gonna have a much harder time finding any collaboration work that you can actually take part in from a distance…
Is there any value in audio engineers learning how to sing?
MARY: Definitely! When I was working with Jason Suecof and Mark Lewis on the Luna Mortis album, Jason would often lay down some great additional backing vocals after I had left the studio.
Luna Mortis – Anemic World
There was a similar thing with Kane Churko recording like 12 layers of backing vocals on the Papa Roach song which was on Nail The Mix. If you’re an engineer who can sing, it just makes it easier to try out that kind of vocal production stuff without having to rely on somebody else to perform the parts.
PS: Speaking of great vocal layering… Click here for a free download of the full, raw vocal stems for Asking Alexandria’s “Into The Fire”!
What are some “easy-to-correct” vocal mistakes that a lot of singers and producers seem to make in the studio?
Mistake #1 A lot of bands don’t have the right key for the singer figured out from the start, and it’s much harder to change that stuff AFTER you’ve already tracked an entire song…
The solution is to introduce some basic vocals into the fold early on in the writing process. That way you can put things in the right key for the vocalist. Otherwise, they’ll be straining to try and hit certain notes, and if they’re not gonna get it, they’re not gonna get it…
Mistake #2 Stop getting vocalists to aim upwards into the microphone while recording! It’s well intended by the engineers, but actually causes their throat to respond to the thought of looking upwards. The result is the singer’s larynx shooting up in a non-relaxed position, making it much harder to sing…
It’s way easier for a singer to sing a high note while looking DOWN! This being the case, I want all engineers to stop putting the microphone above the singer, and instead to place it straight in-front, or slightly below their mouth at a 45-degree angle.
7 Voice Hacks With Mary Zimmer
Mistake #3 I’ve been in so many vocal booths that have an air conditioning vent blowing air right on top of you. This air dries your vocal cords and can really screw up your takes!
A better option is to put a humidifier in there instead and get rid of any blowing air from vents. The moist air helps the vocal cords to move smoothly and will vastly improve people’s takes, even if they don’t know what they’re doing or haven’t warmed up!
Mistake #4 Stay away from black/green tea and caffeine drinks in the studio! They can really dry the vocal cords out… Mint tea on the other hand is really helpful during and after a performance, as it can reduce inflammation, moisturise the throat, and prevent you from getting hoarse.
Mistake #5 Vocal rest is really important! If you feel that the singer doesn’t have great vocal technique then make sure to pace them and take regular breaks.
Also, don’t push the vocalist too far if you notice they’re voice is sounding fatigued or their mood is going downhill. The more frustrated a vocalist gets, the worst the takes are gonna get. In these cases, just stop and do something else for a while!
As a vocal coach who has to push people to do things out of their comfort zone on a daily basis, I’m telling you: singing isn’t the same as other instruments… It’s not all “no pain no gain”, it’s connected to their mind, and if they get blocked, it can only get worse…
What about some advice for the engineers who are tracking singers in the studio?
MARY: I tell engineers this a lot: You can’t speak to singers in the same way that you speak to other musicians… You have to always keep it very gentle, and be careful not to push them to the point of breaking. It’s all in their head, and if they get a mental block then it’s all over – everything will clam up in their throat, and you’re done for the day…
A lot of the inexperienced singers don’t understand the process of comping takes in the studio. You have to basically handle them with kid-gloves at all times and explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, as well as reassuring them that every album is recorded that way regardless of how good the singer is!
CONCLUSION: Thanks for all the excellent advice! To top off this interview, have you got any current/future projects that we can look forward to hearing soon?
MARY: I’ve done a bunch of session work for a few people abroad in the last few months which will hopefully be released fairly soon.
Apart from that, I’ll have a new EP from my current band “Santa Marta” released at some point this year, and as always, I’ll continue to release more lessons and podcasts on the Voicehacks YouTube page on a regular basis.
Santa Marta – Cersei
This concludes “Vocal Perfection (With Mary Zimmer)”. I hope that this article has given you some new ideas to try out during your next project. Be sure to comment below if any of this information has helped you out, or if you have any questions.
Stay tuned for more production/mixing related articles in the not-so-distant future!
Thomas Brett is a producer, mixing engineer and songwriter at Brett Brothers recording studio in the UK. Check out the Brett Brothers studio website for more information and articles on all things mixing www.brettbrothersstudio.com
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