Do Vocals define Music Production?

Do Vocals define Music Production?
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In the light of some recent discussion, I wanted to create this thread separately to not take away from the original thread

As producers and as musicians, just how much importance do we give to lead vocals ? I understand that the answer is different from each perspective.
Anyway, here are my thoughts…
Full disclosure - with my orchestral background, I have a certain small bias towards the instruments over singers, but I wanted to hear everyone’s thoughts revolving around the subject.

I personally think that our music over the last few decades has revolved around vocals. We have migrated more towards stardom, hero worship and fanbase over the art of music making itself. There are many times when I am listening to music… and hear a beautiful harmony played by lets say a piccolo… only to be obscenely interrupted by the loud sound of some singer (no offense to singers), pushed 6 - 10 db over the rest of the instruments, singing about something entirely different than what the imagery of that music inspires, taking all the bandwidth and attention. I simply can’t stand that.
When I listen to music, I listen to the piece as a whole, an certain imagery comes to my mind with every note played. I feel like vocals often impede on that imagery, as more often than not, the lyrics are about relationships or love or money and rest of music is muscled in to make the singer not sound so awful… is that really what our job is as producers? as musicians?

Vocals are also given top priority during mixing, mastering and production. Everything revolves around it, from panning to volume levels. It seems to me, we are more focused on creating a star than a piece of music for the world. To me, vocals are just another type of instrument in the blend of harmonies. Which is why I am very particular on who I listen to from singing perspective. Most of my favorite pieces are instrumental for that very reason.

Feel free to add your thoughts

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To be clear I love vocal music and only have recently gotten more into instrumental. That being said I have always and most likely always will consider the vocal as an instrument. I struggle to push the vocals out as far as many would like. It may be one of my favourite instruments but I don’t think it has to be the star of the mix at all times and find that lyrics are another way of creating mood.
Really good insight Michelle and a good point of discussion.

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Very insightful, and I would agree…

I know I made a crack (all in fun) about you being weird for liking instrumental music more than vocals in the other thread, but the fact is, I’m similar to you in some ways. While I grew up on (what is basically) vocal-centred music, the era of the 60s and 70s , and even the 80s still had a big instrumental focus.

Take, for example, my very first “favourite” album - Dire Straits’ self titled debut. Mr Knopfler basically talks his way through it. The focus is very much on his guitar playing, which tells the story of the songs equally as much as the lyrics do. I know people who just can’t stand MK’s “talk-singing”… I could never understand how they could miss all the great stuff that was happening musically in the songs, and how he “illustrated” his lyrics with answering guitar figures.

In fact, many of the great guitarists were adequate to decent vocalists (Clapton for example), but that never stopped them having hits in that era… and guys like Satriani never sang at all (well, very little)!

A lot of the music from the golden era of rock focused much more on presenting the power and instrumental prowess of the ensemble, and as a result, vocals tended to be mixed much lower.

That said, as a mixer/producer, you have to set all of your personal preferences aside and realise that, in this day and age, the vocals are where it is at in the mind of the public - it is definitely a case of conditioning of the public mindset. There is still an art to be found in starring the vocals without obscuring all else.

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Yeah vocals are pretty useless, but you gotta have something to keep the guitar solos from running together right? I mean god forbid a drum solo! Well there was that one time I picked up a bass guitar by accident, that was pretty cool but the bass dude copped an attitude big time so . . .

Ok it’s an old joke but with a lot of truth to it. Superfluous vocals and self indulgent soloing, endless repetition of simple progressions, the tyranny of the back beat, meaningless lyrics, so much of pop and rock is ruined by that for me.

Once in a while something shines through and there is a lot of that on IRD thankfully!

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I believe most people prefer music with vocals because the human voice tends to be closer to our hearts than other instruments. Add lyrics to that and it becomes almost twice as powerful. I love guitars and most stringed instruments and I love a great bass line or drum grooves and fills, but for me I prefer to write music with vocals because there is often more relatability when a human voice and lyrics are used in a song. The voice is an awesome instrument! It’s totally unique unto every owner. Everyone has something in their voice that can’t quite be captured in another’s voice. Your voice is like your soul.

My songs are almost always written with vocals being the top consideration. Not necessarily lyrics, just vocals. Although lyrics can be very effective in creating the vibe you’re searching for too. Words have sounds and expressions that can be used in conjunction with melody and phrasing…I find that as often as not, an intelligent lyric can sound worse than an unintelligent lyric. It all depends on your vocal phrasing and the SOUND of the words…Not necessarily the meaning of the words.

Instrumental music can be refreshing for sure, but I tend to be less interested in instrumentals. They have to be epic and have to be loaded with personality to keep me coming back to them over and over again. The human voice in a song is almost like the central character in a movie. In an instrumental that central character might become the guitar, a violin or some other instrument, but those characters are less relatable to most humans.

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I think I’m in two camps. Most of my life has been listening to instrumental music, whether it be Indian or then guitar and then synth based music.

I ask myself how we would treat the vocals of Hendrix, or Joplin or Dylan if they were up and coming artists now. One thing I can say is this: I can listen to a full anthology of Led Zepelin, start to finish and Robert Plants vocals, shrill and raw as they are, never grate my ears. I can easily switch on some modern rock or synth music.

When my daughters playlist is on our home system, about 4 songs in and I find myself having to move somewhere else. I find it fatiguing to listen to, and the vocals are a big part of that fatigue in my opinion.

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If the vocals are getting in the way of the music, then there’s two possibilities. Either that kind of music just doesn’t float your boat, or it’s simply a badly produced song.

I love vocals, I love lyrics that are evocative, I love the poetry made real by the symbiotic creation of a world of sound. And the world is full of beautiful vocal led music. So I suppose I reject the premise of this thread. Go and find incredible music that speaks to your soul!

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It’s the vocals that make or break a song for me. If a song is designed to be instrumental, then nothing sounds worse than vocals sitting on top. But if the song was designed to be sung, the only job the instruments have is to support the vocals. That isn’t to say the instruments don’t matter, but if instruments are clashing with vocals, then it’s the instruments that need to give. The instruments can have their fun when nobody is singing.

Good instruments can obviously have a big effect on the way the vocals sound.

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And then you have a cappella…

I totally agree with you, Josh. The music I make is centred around vocals, so that speaks for itself.

…that said, I can also definitely see this happening, and I find it slightly disturbing:

To tease that thought out further, The Beatles made (arguably) some of the most memorable, evocative, (yes even) poetic music of the modern era, yet they never presented as, or are remembered for their spectacular vocal prowess…

To me, music is an inclusive art, so the trend towards focus on the individual vocalist as some sort of untouchable, godlike, singular figure actually detracts from music’s most attractive quality - human connection and vulnerability.

For me personally, the greatest music made is all about the whole of the people in the room being greater than the sum of the individual parts. A good singer can be a great one with the right band behind them.

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This, to me, is the absolute hardest part about making music. A good singer with the wrong band/songs will sound bad, no matter how good they are. I think the bands that are successful are the ones that can match the singer to the music. The singer doesn’t even have to be great, the voice just has to match the music. It’s really hard to put a metric on what that even means, but it’s obvious when you hear it.

Trying to cram the wrong singer with the wrong band sucks.

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LCD Soundsystem are in that category for me. James Murphy would not work fronting a rock band. But he makes synth-based music rock, and his songs, lyrics and voice really get to me.

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Vocals alone don’t define Music Production. No single instrument defines it, unless it’s a song with only one instrument. The most important aspect of music production is the SONG, not the vocals, not the guitars or other instruments. In most songs with singing, usually the vocals are at the top of the food chain. The mixing, mastering and general production of the song is secondary to the song. If you’ve got a good song it will be easy to display it, even with a half decent recording. Sometimes you can recognize a good song even with a bad production.

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Ah this is a difficult one for me. On the one hand, I am a singer songwriter for who the song is everything. And I love some songwriters whose music is not all that complex (Neil Young for one), so where you could say the singer determines the strength of the song. But I was also a huge fan of the Beatles when they started exploring new realms and in the seventies went over to (what is now labeled as) prog rock. Listening to Yes (Close to the edge live Yes Songs version) again recently there’s a lot of very complex instrumental pieces going on and the vocals are just another instrument (in fact John Anderson’s lyrics had no meaning, that was up to the listener). So quite a step from Neil Young who I listened to just as much in those days. Both are valid, both are absolute top musicians and I still love both. So to me there is no principal clash, but there is a lot of pretty terrible music out there. Sure the vocal gets in the way, but in the way of music which doesn’t have a hope of being interesting for more than 20 seconds anyway.
But then I guess piccolo’s are pretty rare in pop music and if you have this rare opportunity to hear two of them doing a duet I can quite understand how you’d rather hear that then some autotuned meaningless singer :wink:

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I thought about it some more as I did an evening quarantine walk just now.

I don’t think if the art’s decent you can even make a distinction between “vocals” and “music”.

When I write, the vocals are usually inspired by the music. Often, the arrangement will be built up around a vocal sketch, then when the arrangement’s in place and I feel like I can inhabit the world, I might scrap every last bit of the vocal sketch and come up with something totally different, based on where the music’s taken me.

At that point, the idea that someone might try to split them up for separate analysis/ judgement is a bit strange to me. They were borne out of each other.

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Interesting topic… I’m wondering now about my mental division between modern and classical music. I can easily listen to classical music without vocals but in ‘modern’ music, I often find that I get disengaged without a vocal. For me, the human voice is an amazing thing… it can touch hearts so readily. Rather than a ‘vehicle for stardom’ it seems a conduit for connection. Plus the magic of words… they draw me in so readily… But I am highly biased… when I write music, for me, the words usually come first… then the melody via the voice and then all whatever and sundry!

As I exhale after the tremors of Covid, music seems a wondrous and enchanting thing!

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Some great points by everyone! Keep em coming!

The biggest issue here is you’re looking at it from a musician standpoint. The mainstream world does not hear or interpret things the way we do. Just take a look at what the biggest selling music is. Stuff like Nicki Minaj will outsell anything you or I could ever do alone or together. The majority of listeners can’t dance in front a mirror playing a flute or a guitar. They can’t twerk with a Tenor Sax around them the way they want. Orchestral stuff is best when you hear it on an elevator or fancy room to the mainstream buying public.

Look at guitar players, there was once a time when instrumental guitar was so popular, it made it on the radio. You can’t even get an Indy label to look at it these days. Guitar Hero is still popular with kids and very inspiring, but anyone getting any type of deal as an instrumental guitarist is still going to work a 40 hour day gig doing something else.

Unfortunately, we that are musical will always take a back seat to the vocalists. As long as you have America’s Got Talent and The Voice, it’s going to promote vocals even more. So, you have choices…

  1. If you can’t beat 'em, join 'em. I’ve put more into my art as a guitar player over the course of 40 years to the point where I can seriously hang with anyone famous that plays the styles I play in. I honestly don’t mean that to sound egotistical. I’m simply stating that I’ve paid my dues and can play for and with anyone. If I can’t after 40 years, it’s time to hang it up. LOL!

That said, the other instruments I play have always been equally important to me. Anyone that plays multi instruments, knows how hard this can be. I feel the exact same way about my drumming, bass, keyboard and trumpet skills. However, the hardest challenge for me has been to establish my voice to where I no longer sound like a back up singer trying to sing lead. I think I’ve finally gotten past that point as of the last 2-3 years. Quitting smoking (nearly 8 years smoke free) has worked wonders as well as really concentrating on my voice as much as the other instruments. There are people that are naturals. That sure isn’t me with vocals. I’ve been working on them since 1988 and it’s taken me until probably 2003 to sound somewhat like a singer. By around 2010, the lead singer sound was way more defined. Today, I think I’ve finally nailed it.

So with that said, as much as we may prefer other instruments and feel vocals can sometimes walk all over what we’re doing, it’s easy to see why they get most of the limelight. You not only have to be a good singer, but a performer and front person otherwise, you’re just a body with a voice. Sometimes a great voice does nothing for me if they stand there and don’t sell it. Putting on a show is what it’s all about.

  1. Accept that you are an orchestral spirit and do what you do to the best of your ability. You’ll forever be in the background, but like every good singer, they are only as good as the players behind them as a bunch of A cappella gets boring to everyone after a while. And hey, you can always create your own thing. Look at Blues Traveler…if you would have told me we’d one day have a shredding harmonica on mainstream radio, I would have laughed and told you “no way”!

So maybe, just maybe…it’s up to the instrumentalist to figure out a way to be more in the front along with the vocals so that all the voices become an entity. Maybe this can be your challenge. What can bring you from the back to the front. How can you sell it to where it’s not just a background instrument competing for the throne? In this day and age, “originality” is the key to what gets people in a better place. Do what hasn’t been done. Take your craft to a new level and think of ways to deliver it to the masses.

Think about all the people who “introduced something” into the world. Innovation is awesome and sometimes right in front of us. Music is also about entertainment. If you got it, flaunt it. Eye candy and insane performances while acting out the parts and showcasing talent is paramount. Look at the world we live in. Sex appeal sells, but it can be classy without being a pig. It’s all in the presentation and delivery of the songs both musically and physically. Listening to something is one thing. Seeing it is another. Ever see a video where the song wasn’t great, but the video sort of sold you and you wound up liking the song because of the video? Then when you heard the song without the video, you sort of had this appreciation for it? Visuals sell music too, and quite well I might add. I’m an entertainer. Everything to me walks hand in hand. Make them notice you. Deliver the goods in every aspect and create something that hasn’t been done before. Just my 0.2.

-Danny

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I like the form that was popular in the '30’s with the big bands. The groups were large by today’s standards and included a variety of instrumentalists and vocalists. The tunes might be instrumental or vocal or often a combination with trade offs between group instrumental, instrumental solos and vocals sharing the spotlight.

With the advent of mass media and ‘singer-songwriters’ the commercial focus changed to vocal stars and the cult of personality rather than large groups. There are exceptions; a couple of my favorites are Chicago and Tower of Power which followed the older format with an updated sound featuring a variety of instruments.

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Interesting topic. I think a lot of it boils down to the composers expectations of who will hear their music, and whether that is even important to them.
Music, to a lot of us, is a way to communicate, and using vocals to help relay the message is going to be more effective in almost all cases. Records like Blow by Blow, Surfing With The Alien, or Ah Via Musicon. are rare enough to be considered nonexistent in popular music. In my opinion that’s due to the fact that there are millions of great instrumentalists, but the number of those that can truly communicate through their instrument alone is extremely rare.
We have a need to understand what we’re hearing, so we latch on to words. If the words tell a story, it becomes easier to understand. If the story matches the delivery, then the ability to relate it becomes much greater. We are all accustomed to not being challenged by what we listen to.
If you don’t care if your music gets heard, you should stick to your guns and do it for yourself. That’s where the rare exceptions come from that change what we perceive as popular.

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