How To Produce A Song Starting From Just A Vocal Recording

As music producers, it’s our job to help clients bring their musical ideas to life. We can do this successfully whether or not they are experienced musicians themselves. In fact, much of the time, working with inexperienced musicians can be extremely rewarding. Like watching a child take it’s first steps.

For this type of client, it is very important to make the process as easy as possible for them. Taking the plunge to record their first song with you can be intimidating if they’ve never worked with a producer before. You’ll have to guide them every step of the way. The less they have to do, the better.

If many of your production clients are amateurs or hobbyists, it’s likely they won’t have the skills, resources, and gear necessary to provide you with a quality recording that you can start from. However, it’s perfectly possible to produce a great song for a client with minimal input from them. All they need to send you is a recording of their song, and you can start from there. Even an iPhone recording will do the trick if they have nothing else.

Here is my step-by-step guide on how to create a full song starting from only a rough demo recording. I will refer to Presonus Studio One 4 as the DAW but the principles apply to any audio program.

1. Place bend markers on every downbeat of the vocal

The first and most important step is to iron out the timing of the vocal take. Unless the client has perfect rhythm, you will need to do this manually. The rhythm is likely to be irregular and imprecise- that’s OK. In Studio One, drop the vocal onto a track, and play it back from the start. As you’re listening, use the keyboard shortcut Alt + Insert to place bend markers on every downbeat. Listen carefully and follow their voice as closely as possible with the bend markers. If the performance is very irregular, listen a second time and make sure each of the bend markers are exactly on the beat.

Place bend markers on every downbeat of the demo audio

2. Determine the approximate tempo

Trim off any silence at the start of the vocal, and make sure the very beginning of the audio clip is exactly on the first downbeat of the song. Place the new, trimmed clip at bar 1.

In the track inspector, make sure Tempo is set to “Don’t Follow”

Select “Don’t Follow” in the inspector of the vocal track

Now you can use your bend markers as a visual reference for where each downbeat is in the recording. These need to line up with the bar lines in Studio One. Adjust the tempo of the song until the bar lines roughly line up with the bend markers. If they line up with the first couple, that should be good enough. It’s not going to be perfect at this stage.

Close enough

Find a tempo that seems to match roughly with the recording. 116 looks good here.

3. Quantize the vocal

Here’s the real magic of this process: Select the track, hit the keyboard shortcut Q, and watch the irregular, out-of-time downbeats of the recording snap to the grid lines. You will probably need to adjust some of them yourself. If there are any deliberate tempo changes (such as at the end), adjust the BPM in the tempo track accordingly.

Line the bend markers up with the grid

At this stage, you may also want to do some additional processing on the vocal. When you’ve nailed the timings, bounce the track to finalize the adjustments. Then you can do some noise reduction by using a gate plugin, strip silence, automation, or just cut out the noise manually.

4. Refine the structure

At this stage, you’ve listened to the song several times. You should be able to identify the different sections such as the verse, chorus, bridge, etc. You may like to cut the vocal to leave some space for an instrumental part in between sections. In Studio One, use the arranger track to help you organize the music.

Refine the structure

5. Figure out the key + chords

Now that the song is starting to take shape, you need to analyze the melody to determine the chord progression. It’s a good idea to use a lightweight piano instrument to do this.

Figuring out the chords

Once you’re done figuring out the chords, you’re almost through with preparing the vocal track. You should have something like this.

Song Overview

6. Add Instruments

Now that the vocal has been properly prepared, you can start adding the instruments. I start with drums, then add bass, piano, guitars, and whatever else. This is the fun part for the producer, of course.

From here on, it resembles a normal recording session that’s been put together backwards. Don’t forget to tune the vocal – it will help the singer feel better about the end product if they’re not confident with their singing.

Produce the song as normal

Hopefully this will help you put together tracks for inexperienced clients who just want to hear their songs recorded.