Sometimes I work with low-pitched singers.
Low-pitched singers can have lovely voices. They can be deep, rich and expressive. They often have a very ‘personal’ sound – one that makes the listener feel as if they’re the only person in the room and the singer is performing directly for her/him.
For a producer or engineer, however, low-pitched singers can be challenging to mix. A deep breathy voice, while beautiful on its own, is easily overpowered by other strong instruments in the song.
Unfortunately, if you’re trying to make such a voice work in a hostile mix, you’ve already lost. It’s like trying to make a single flute heard over a whole orchestra if it’s playing low quiet notes. The ‘usual’ tricks (complimentary EQ, strong compression, etc) won’t get you very far. The problem is not caused by the mix, so why would it be fixed in the mix?
In truth, this kind of problem occurs a few steps back in the workflow – the arrangement and instrumentation. This is the process of determining how best to express the song in sound. Essentially, it is the choice of instruments to play on the song and the choice of what they’ll play.
To create an arrangement that supports and compliments a low breathy singer, lean towards weaker or thinner sounds. Give the voice enough space to reveal its subtlety and depth. If you want harder-hitting sounds, either make them quite low (such as a deep bass or kick drum) or make them sound intermittently (so they’re only sounding some of the time).
Of course, for stronger or more strident singers, it makes more sense to use stronger and thicker sounds. It’ll be easier to mix and help the voice sound less uncomfortably piercing or irritating.
So, certain instrumentation and arrangement approaches work well with certain types of voices. But should you start with the arrangement and choose a singer to suit, or start with the singer and choose an arrangement to suit?
The answer depends on who is the artist.
Sometimes it’s pretty straightforward. If you are a producer for hire working for an singer-songwriter, your job is to make that song shine. You can’t choose the singer, but you have some freedom to shape the instrumentation. Alternatively, if the artist is a composer or producer (perhaps yourself!), there is probably a creative direction that has already been chosen.
Sometimes it’s not so straightforward. The singer-songwriter might have a band or might be stuck on a particular sound. The composer or producer might have some good ideas but can’t find the perfect singer. In these kinds of situations, you’ll need to compromise. You’ll need to pick your battles. And that’s when you need to know just how important the arrangement and instrumentation is. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring the arrangement in the (false) believe that any problems can be fixed in the mix.
An appropriate arrangement that supports and compliments the singer will be easier to mix and the result will sound more natural.
Have you had a situation where the singer didn’t suit the arrangement? How did you approach it?