Often, a song becomes stuck. Sometimes it is the arrangement. The song is boring, slow, or repetitive, or a hook is missing. Sometimes it is the mix. Perhaps the bottom end is hollow and unexciting. There is too much in the middle. Perhaps the mix is just a flat nothing going nowhere. Sometimes it is the song itself. Maybe the lyrics are corny. Or the melody has so much pop and march that it belongs only in a movie soundtrack – probably only in a western.
This is all much too dramatic though. When one of our songs is stuck, it is simpler – usually, it is the vocals. We cannot lay down the vocals that we want. It makes sense: I am not a trained vocalist. Neither is everyone else in the band. I wanted to play guitar. Everyone else did too.
We sing in key. We have a good sense of rhythm and melody. We have some nice songs. But this is only half the battle... probably even for trained singers. If the vocals are off, reasons could be:
1. The singer does not like his or her own vocals
This is not really a good reason, is it? But it happens often, sometimes for no reason at all. Perhaps they find their own voice odd when coming from anywhere but from inside.
We took an important decision early on - authors would manage their own songs. There were unexpected consequences. Authors became singers, who became producers, who were more than willing to drop a song only because of the sound of their own vocal.
2. The vocals do not fit in the mix
The vocals are miked, but often not too produced. In comparison, a guitar is plugged into an amp. There is usually some compression and some drive.
The vocals are too acoustic and the guitar is too electric. I suppose the drums are simply miked too, but we are a lot less picky about drums. They do not stand out against the guitar as they occupy different frequency ranges.
3. The vocals are muddy
This happens, but not necessarily because of the vocal track itself. More often, the vocals get muddied up by something else. Perhaps the guitar and vocals bump against each other.
You would think that 3 here - vocals do not stand out - and 2 above - vocals stand out too much - are opposites, but they are not. One is likely to make the other worse.
This is a problem of arrangement. Yes, you have a nice riff, but that does not mean all instruments should use it.
4. Vocals are boring
Well, yes, unless you use your vocals as an instrument rather than just as the source of narration, they will be boring. But the song does not have to be.
This is another problem of arrangement...or speed, or key. Maybe the voice will do better with a livelier tempo. Maybe the voice will be livelier in a different key.
5. Vocals are not practiced
Now, this is a problem with the vocal track itself. At least it is not a problem with the singer.
You lose so much when trying to sing a song you have not practiced. Phrasing can be so much more interesting if you do not have to focus on lyrics, melody, and rhythm.
So what do you do?
1. You practice, rearrange
In my experience, if you want to do things well, you should practice and plan. Of course, this requires work and takes time.
2. You mask problems
For the sake of not starting over, you mask. Perhaps, you try to produce some more – equalize, compress, reverberate…redo…maybe add some short delay. This works sometimes.
You add harmonies. Harmonies are nice either way. They are anything but boring. Sometimes, they take over and provide you with new ideas.
Not all songs are conducive to harmonizing though. In my head, there is a right level of how "busy" a song should be (which has changed over the years). Also, in my head, harmonies do not belong in some of the stories to be told and emotions to be conveyed.
3. You just drop the vocal
…Nah, then you get an instrumental. Instrumentals could be nice, cause your audience needs time to go to the bathroom, but an instrumental is not a song.
(Though I do remember dropping a solo from a song and going for a whole measure of just basic rhythm – drums, bass, one guitar.)
4. You drop the song
If it does not work, it does not work. Maybe it should be revisited later. Maybe later your tastes would have changed enough and the song would no longer matter. Just as well…
5. You drop the singer
Wait a minute. That is usually me…