An Engineer on the Qualities of a Professional Singer

Gustavo Borner at Igloo Music
Grammy Award Winning Engineer and Producer Gustavo Borner gleans insights from the vocal artists he’s worked with.

You’ve worked with so many award winning singers known for their unique, characteristic voices – are there any qualities that are shared between them?

Singers like Phil Collins or Elton John have such characteristic voices that when they do the first take your jaw drops. Yet, one of the qualities they share is being humble, wanting to work and get the best performance. They enjoy singing and don’t mind giving you another take or punching in a line.

Do these singers do anything to get into “the zone” for recording in a studio setting?

It depends on the singer.  Some of the biggest names just get in the booth and sing. Some need time to get into the zone.  Some get into the booth and do warm up and range exercises to be ready. First takes may be a warm up as well, but since you are recording you can eventually use bits and pieces. There’s also something about a first take that is unique. 

Name one time when you had goose bumps as an engineer/producer when working on vocal tracks?

A few years ago we did a duets-album with Engelbert Humperdink and I was able to record “You really got a hold on me”, Smokey’s song that the Beatles covered. Engelbert and Smokey did only a couple of takes and both were perfect. Having heard that song so many times it was a very emotional experience witnessing those two record it once again.

The Studio E recording booth at Igloo Music Studios

Other than practice and rehearsal, what can aspiring singers do to prepare for studio work?

Reading music is incredibly important for professional work. You don’t know if you’ll get a lyric sheet (words) or a lead sheet (notes). If you can read a lead sheet, things move much more quickly and professionally.

Is there a baseline of technical knowledge that can help a singer in the studio?

Most everybody has a studio at home or some sort of setup with a mic and recording software. Learning to use those tools is very helpful. In the same way that an engineer or producer talks  about music in a language the singer can understand, the singer should learn “tech” language. It’s also helpful to know main differences between mic types, when to get closer and why (proximity effect), and when to move further away and what that does to your sound through the mic.  It’s great, too, to know how to shape your mouth and what that will do to the mic’s capture.  For example, it’s not the same if you are frowning compared to if you are smiling.  This is your natural “EQ” – and knowing how to get the different sounds is really helpful in the studio.

Many singers are recording their voices at home for sharing on social platforms – any tips or insights you have for them to “up their game”?

There are so many things, but the most important is to listen.  Whatever you are doing, listen to what is coming out and make sure you like it and it’s comparable with other recordings.  Sometimes it’s not about having expensive gear but knowing how to use well what you possess. Placement in your home, lawnmowers, kids – you’d be amazed some of the demos or recordings we get…

Gustavo Borner is the co-owner and chief engineer at igloo music –  See

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