A few years back, before the era of DAWs, I was living not far from Nashville and took the opportunity to mix a MIDI project (that I had developed all on a Korg M1) at a “real Nashville studio”. It was one of the smaller recording studios, but still had records from Amy Grant, MWS, Larnelle Harris, and the Imperials up on the wall (that had, at least in part, been recorded there). It was a great and increasingly rare experience to have had, particularly in today’s age of home studios.
Back to my story…the engineer spent a fair amount of time mixing an instrumental track, and it was sounding great, ready for a lead vocal to go over the top of it. One problem though – there never was going to be a lead vocal. The song certainly had a melody line, often played by a solo instrument, but the engineer had apparently gone into auto-pilot and mixed the music as he normally does as a sound track with space for a lead vocal.
Once I figured out what was going on, I had to step up and discuss this with him. He cautioned me that perhaps I had “demo lust” (that affliction whereby you are asking for a professional mix, but really just want it to sound like the demo), but I assured him it wasn’t that, it was just that the melody wasn’t speaking. Several hundred dollars later, we had a great mix I could live with.
Making sure the melody speaks (is louder) is one of those things that gets drilled into you with piano lessons. When you get to a certain level, you even get to the point where you’re expected to voice the melody within a hand i.e. while playing other notes, even if other notes are above the melody. I can’t say I was ever highly successful at this, but I am at least aware of it (thanks, Alfreda Winninger!)
The lesson to learn is an important one, and one we have yet to learn well. As obvious as it may seem, as cliched as the title to this piece is, we have to be deliberate when we introduce harmonies, and ensure those harmonies never obscure the melody.
There are a number of practical steps we can take to ensure the melody speaks. Perhaps don’t use harmony vocals on the first verse at all so that everyone can learn the song (even the visitors!). If we need backing vocals on the chorus, sing them in unison with the melody the first time. Only after the melody is well established, should we introduce harmonies, and then, never let the harmonies be voiced louder than the melody (sound engineer – I’m looking your direction)!