How to audition a vocalist?
May 25, 2005 12:42 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to audition a vocalist?

My band is currently seeking a vocalist to fill out our 3-piece (guitar/bass/drums) progressive metal band (think "Tool", "Dream Theater", "Rush", etc., if it matters). While we know our material well, we haven't cut our first demo CD yet, let alone our first album, so nobody else is gonna know our songs. The other musicians seem to be fine with just playing a song and having the auditioning vocalist try to come up with stuff on the spot, but unless the singer is telepathic, I can't see how this would ever work -- he's too busy trying to learn the song and compose his own part on-the-fly for us to get a fair idea of his vocal quality, range, etc. (Those guys probably do smoke too much weed...)

I have a few ideas to remedy this:
1. Have us three musicians learn 3 or 4 very well-known cover songs that most any prospective vocalist can sing to.
2. Contact the singer ahead of time, ask him for 1 or 2 songs he'd like us to learn, then play them for him to sing with when he arrives.
3. Acquire a library of 20-30 karaoke tracks (songs without lead vocals), and let the prospect just pick a few and sing along.

I actually like the last option the best -- anybody know where can we find free (or very cheap) instrumented (non-MIDI) songs without vocals? (I've tried software to remove vocals, and it's pretty lousy...)

Anybody got other/better ideas of how to approach this?

Or is the engineer in me over-thinking this whole deal?
posted by LordSludge to Media & Arts (10 answers total)
 
I agree with your bandmates, and I don't smoke weed.

If you don't play your own music for the dude, you will never know how he is going to sound playing with you. And he will never know what kind of band he's getting himself into. Melody improvisation isn't impossible, lots of people can improvise something after hearing a song once or twice. It's not any more difficult than the dreaded "jam song". It may not be perfect (or even pretty) but you can hear what the singer will sound like in the band.
posted by 23skidoo at 1:02 PM on May 25, 2005


Learn the three cover songs. Tell the prospectives that they'll be doing the one of their choice with you. Before that, give them the option of bringing their own karaoke or other accompaniment tape to use for one song. Finally, have them try the improv stuff with your original material, if that's what you'll be expecting them to do. So start with the easiest thing for them, something they've prepared and selected, and get more difficult as you go along. No need to assemble a karaoke library. ((shudder)) That's my two cents, good luck.
posted by rainbaby at 1:07 PM on May 25, 2005


Seems to me you might want to have a several-pronged audition, as I think there are several components you want to look at. Music-making is not, after all, only about making music.

First, make sure you know exactly what you are looking for: type of voice, ability to improvise, how they get along with the rest of the band, etc. And then leave room to be surprised, so that if someone comes along who is “right” but doesn’t exactly fit the objective criteria, you won't discount them.

Your main objective is that the vocalist be able to make music with you--with the established band. You have your own sound, they should be able to fit in, not make you bend around them (and some divas will want you to do this). So I wonder if it’s possible to make a recording of one of your songs and get it to the vocalist beforehand so they can prepare it.

Then I’d want to let them do something they know and love, so that you can evaluate how they work when they're totally comfortable with the song. Your karaoke idea would work well here. You would get a sense of their taste in music, and their actual vocal abilities. As far as that goes, there’s nothing wrong with asking them to do a few vocalises, some scales, etc. so you can see what their range is like.

And then I’d want to work with them on a song that the band knows that is new to them. This will show you what they can do on the spot and how well they work with the established group. Do not discount personality issues, Both good and bad. If there is “magic” in how you all interact, that could show up here—and be very exciting. And if someone's work methods are irritating to the rest of the band, best to find out here.

I think it’s important to actually work with them, so you can see if you all “play well together” and I think it’s equally important to watch them—when you’re busy playing music yourself, your perspective on how the music sounds is different, not to mention that you could be distracted by playing your own part.

And if you have a lot of folks auditioning, there’s nothing wrong with using some of this as a first cut and then having one day where you actually work with the best, say 3 or 4 to make your final decision.

I hope this helps.

Good luck—I hope you make wonderful music together!
posted by altobarb at 1:25 PM on May 25, 2005


I think altobarb has detailed the exact sort of audition I would like to step into if I were to audition for a band. Give the vocalist a chance to do something comfortable for them - that way you get an idea of what they can do. Most vocalists will choose something that shows them in their best light anyway, so that's a good start. Then you can move on to your stuff as a "part two".
posted by ArsncHeart at 1:44 PM on May 25, 2005


I'm with altobarb. Exactly. And yeah, I've done a lot of auditioning, and what she's described is exactly what a good experience would be.
posted by Specklet at 2:01 PM on May 25, 2005


I'm not a singer, but if I was, I would hate to be thrown in and told to improvise a melody to a song I'd never heard before, especially if everyone else knew it really well.

Altobarb's suggestion of sending them a cd or whatever of the song beforehand sounds OK, except.. would you also want a potential singer to be responsible for song-writing too? Do your songs already have lyrics? You might want to consider that in some way - it can be a bit much to ask someone to be a good singer and a good songwriter.

(If your songs do already have lyrics, mostly ignore that last paragraph).

My idea of a good audition would have 2 bits - your cover song idea, to get an idea of how they interact with the rest of the band and their performance style, and also get them to bring a song they want to sing, either a capella or with a backing cd or something, to get an idea of their range and how they are as a soloist.

Also have a chat with them - it always helps if you know what a person is like before you commit yourself to spending lots of time with them :)

Good luck!
posted by Lotto at 2:20 PM on May 25, 2005


I agree with the approach that altobarb outlines. If no karaoke for step 1, then some agreed upon or common cover songs from bands in the direction you'd like to go. I'd also add that some pre-screening upfront can be a lifesaver for all parties involved. Record a demo of one or two of your songs (how about the one you'll ask them to work with you on as part 2 of the altobarb program) and have that available as an mp3 and ask for mp3s of your candidates' previous work. While I wouldn't exclude anyone for not having mp3s, it's very handy if you/they do have them and both parties can know in advance what they are getting into (even in an audition). Written descriptions of your and their respective sounds are one thing, the music is another. Good Luck!

Before mp3s were so common I couldn't tell you the number of times I've agreed with someone's influences or what they say they sound like and been absolutely shocked upon hearing them play/sing/whatever! A lot of folks don't seem to get the difference between what they like and what they sound like when they're negotiating an audition. And how many times I've been charged with the same crime? I don't even want to know. It's a Slint meets Shellac meets Lightning Bolt at Sonic Youth's backyard barbecue drinking with Husker Du, the Ex Models, and Outkast kind of thing!
posted by safetyfork at 2:44 PM on May 25, 2005


First and foremost have a beer with him. The success of the band relies on your ability to get along more than the quality of his karaoke Final Countdown. I'm speaking from experience.
posted by fire&wings at 3:29 PM on May 25, 2005


Whomever you decide on, let them know that, nothing personal, but they are on a trial basis for 3 - 6 months - whatever you decide. Sometimes it takes that long to find out if you are going to be able to get along and work with someone. A band is a pressure cooker and everybody's got to be on the same page for it to work. Ultimately, none of them last, but if everyone is like-minded and pulling in the same direction you can have a decent run.
posted by wsg at 12:30 AM on May 26, 2005


Cool, thanks all for the ideas and well-wishes. See ya out there!!
posted by LordSludge at 11:30 AM on May 26, 2005


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