Duets – How to Get the Best Performance From Your Singers
Unlike most of my terms, this is not going to be an explanation post. I think we all know what a duet is! I included this term in my book because I wanted to tell you how to make sure your performers give their best work on a duet.
Songwriters who write duet songs typically run into three snags with their session singers. I’m going to list each and then give you some tips on how to avoid or fix those, sound good?
First, I’m assuming that you’re hiring both duet singers, but you might be singing one of the parts yourself. That’s totally fine and will still work for our scenarios! Also, these tips work for two or more singers, so a trio and up should have the same solutions. Onward…
Problem #1: A Difference in Quality Between Singers
I’m not talking about vocal ability, I’m talking the actual sound quality. Maybe your singers are using different rooms, different equipment, or just aren’t equally experienced. This can lead to one side of the song sounding more professional than the other. While this CAN be improved somewhat with mixing, it’s a lot easier to avoid this situation by preventing it up front.
Solution: Plan Ahead with Your Session Singers
If possible, have both of the singers come to you or a studio of your choice (if your singers are local). This is the easiest way to ensure that the sound is exactly the same. Of course, the internet has made virtual collaboration an easy possibility, and it’s likely you are working remotely with your singers. In this case, ask them about their setup. They should be able to tell you about the room (is it a professional studio or their bathroom?) their equipment (pro gear or cheap knockoffs?) and their DAW (not necessarily important but could bring issues if their exported files are not compatible. See my post on DAWs here). Ideally, your singers should have similar recording situations. They should know enough about their equipment to use it reliably and to correct any issues themselves before handing the final product over to you.
Problem #2: A Difference in Emotion Between Singers
This time I am talking about vocal ability, as well as the singers’ ability to emote musically. If one singer sounds sad while the other sounds angry, this will result in an imbalance in the song. Your listeners won’t know which emotion to feel and are more likely to disengage. Similarly, if one of your singers surpasses the other in talent, it will be unpleasant to listen to and turn your fans off.
Solution: Guide Your Singers’ Emotions
Use reference tracks for your singers. You can use other duets, or if you have a sound for each singer, feel free to use individual artists’ songs. If you are more confident or more familiar with one singer, have that person record first and send their version to the other singer. This will allow them to get a feel from your other singer and match their emotion. As far as a talent difference, make sure you have clear (and recent!) examples of each singers’ reel. This will let you gauge whether or not your duet song will be evenly matched with talent.
Problem #3: Timing Issues with Session Singers
This can happen if the singers aren’t sure where their parts start and end. They don’t sound confident, and they may start too early or late. They may also step on each other’s parts or clash. Obviously, we don’t want this, but the solution is really easy!
Solution: Spell it All Out in the Lyrics
When giving a singer a lyric sheet, it’s important to be specific. This is especially true in a duet! Make sure you clearly label each part as to which part is for which singer. Use different colors, fonts, whatever you need to do, and make sure each singer knows which part is theirs! Similarly, on the reference track, make sure each singer knows which part is theirs. If you sing it the whole way through, it’s even more important to make sure your lyrics are clear! You can also tune your voice up or down so each part is clear.
Hopefully, these tips will come in useful when recording your duets! For more tips on recording and communicating with session musicians, check out my book here!