best vocals ever

10 Groundbreaking Vocal Productions

It’s time to journey through ten classic tracks whose vocals stretched the technology of the time, launched a genre or two, or went on to define some of the most recognisable pop songs ever made.

best vocals ever


Picking ten ground-breaking vocal recordings across (at least) six decades of music making is a frankly ridiculous goal to set yourself, but we’ve done it right here, and each and every one of our choices is a remarkable recording for a very different reason. We’ve included revolutionary multitrack recordings, the cutting-edge use of the Mellotron and Leslie speaker, voice vocoding wonderworks and multi-microphone techniques. And, in one case, just turning around on a swivel chair and recording one of the most amazing voices ever with a very average studio set-up.

It’s a varied bunch – that was the main aim, but if you think we’ve missed out something equally pivotal, then please do let us know. Now tighten those cans and wallow in some of the most sublime vocal recordings of all time…

10: The Beatles, Tomorrow Never Knows, 1966
Producer: George Martin
Recorded: Studio 3 Abbey Road/EMI

Tomorrow Never Knows
You can, of course, pick countless innovative Beatles tracks, but Tomorrow Never Knows still sounds like it was recorded tomorrow. Aside from sending several young Gallaghers into a spin, its painstaking assemblage and Leslie cabinet use impacted several genres of dance music.

It was certainly was a glimpse of the future, both in music and technology terms, yet the bulk of …Knows was recorded in just three days, all in the key of C, and on an obscenely small number of tracks. It was titled from a throwaway, whimsical Ringo expression which John Lennon thought would counter his more profound Tibetan Book of the Dead-powered lyrics. Its main focus is three-fold: the drum break, the tape loops – many of which were reversed – and the partly distorted vocals, the first time all these techniques had been heard together in pop music.

Each of The Beatles had Brenell tape recorders which they used to record tape loops, six of which – a sped up ‘seagull’ electric guitar or ‘laugh’, orchestral chord, sitar, two Mellotron sounds and a wine glass – were placed onto mono tape machines from which engineer Geoff Emerick created a live mix, an event George Martin would later say could never be repeated.

For the first half of the song, Lennon’s vocal was manually double-tracked but for the second half it was fed through the Leslie speaker of a Hammond Organ and then recorded by Emerick, an effect that so impressed the band that they wanted to record every track that way. “I don’t think anyone had done that before,” Martin would later recall with typical understatement.

9: 10cc , I’m Not In Love, 1975

Producer: 10cc
Recorded: Strawberry Studios, Stockport

best vocals ever, 10cc

I’m Not In Love sounds like it’s a multitrack-produced wonder, full of smooth velvety pad like vocals which sound as if they’ve been created electronically. Yet, this wasn’t the case and the idea for the song might easily not have been realised. Eric Stewart, singer-songwriter with 10cc, had written the main melody for I’m Not In Love but it only proceeded beyond its demo stages thanks to a window cleaner.

Stewart told The Guardian: “We were about to scrap it and wipe the tape but, as I walked around the studio, I heard the secretary singing it and the window-cleaner whistling it. I knew we had a tune. Kevin [Godley] suggested doing it again, but with banks of voices. I thought that meant hiring a choir, but Lol Creme, our keyboard-player, said we could do it using tape loops.”

And that’s exactly what Creme used, a laborious process that made use of a Mellotron, previously used to reproduce individual sounds of an orchestra, but now filled with individual vocal recordings made by the band made by singing countless ‘Aahh’s into a Neumann U67. Eventually they captured 48 different voices for each note, making up 624 recordings in total. It took three weeks to construct but was well worth it; the song was a monster hit around the world.

So, I’m Not In Love is a classic track from the 70s that sounds like it was recorded in a syrupy sweet future with a mountain of technology. Yet all they had was yards (and yards) of tape and a lot of patience.

8: Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, 1975

Producer: Roy Thomas Baker
Recorded: Ridge Farm, Rockfield, Roundhouse, Sarm East Studios, Scorpio Sound and Wessex Sound Studios

freddie mercury amazing vocals

The most recognisable and iconic vocal recording, Bohemian Rhapsody is, of course, the ultimate Queen song and much has been documented about its recording. Notable equipment included Neumann mics along with a Shure Unisphere I Model 565 favoured by Freddie Mercury, plus a Bechstein piano, supposedly used by Paul McCartney on Hey Jude and Rick Wakeman on Bowie’s Hunky Dory.

Rhapsody opens with Mercury’s extraordinary ‘is this the real life’ harmonising and closes with his double-tracked outro, but it will always be remembered for its bizzare operatic mid section, sung by Mercury, Brian May and Roger Taylor. It was recorded over three weeks with 12-hour days producing 180 separate overdubs using then state of the art 24-track recording.

In a ‘making of’ video from the Greatest Video Hits DVD, May recalls: “Three of us would sing one line, do the same thing again, and then probably triple it. The ‘thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening’ line sounds like a lot of people singing. Part of that’s good construction and part is luck as our voices blended very very well.”

The band used the ‘bells’ effect for the ‘Magnifico’ line where one singer comes in, holds a note and then three or four more come in and sing a note. “It cascades into a chord,” says May, “a nice little trick and it does work very well.” They then join forces for the battle choir ‘Bismillah’ section, all the time with Roger singing the highest voice and Freddie and May supplying the lows.

With three main sections and six sub sections, Bohemian Rhapsody sounds like three songs bolted together – because that’s what it it effectively is. But as a complete demonstration of Queen’s song-building prowess it has become a legendary piece of music thanks to constant airplay, reissues, Wayne’s World and the Queen biopic of the same name, it’s destined to remain a classic for centuries to come.

David Bowie, “Heroes”, 1977
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
Recorded: Hansa, Berlin

is bowie the best ever vocalist

“Heroes” is perhaps the too-obvious Bowie choice, but the track not only surrounds a stunning vocal with cutting edge technology but the unique manner in which the vocal was recorded allows it to barge its way into our top 10.

Co-writer Brian Eno’s synth work, Carlos Alomar’s rhythmic guitar chugging and Robert Fripp’s Frippertronics – guitar (played into an Eno controlled synth) all play massive parts in “Heroes” but no-one can deny that Bowie’s towering vocal performance delivers the core power – yet this was the last main element recorded. The idea was to use the sound of the large live room in Hansa, so Tony Visconti set up three Neumann mics, close up (a U47), and 15 feet and 20 feet away, the latter two U87 with gates that only recorded when Bowie’s vocal hit a certain level.

“That reverb on his voice is therefore the room itself,” Visconti told Sound On Sound. “None of it is artificial, and it’s his voice triggering the gates. What is really great is that the sound of the opening two verses is really intimate. It doesn’t sound like a big room yet, it sounds like somebody just singing about a foot away from your ear. The whole idea worked, and what you hear on the record is probably take three. We wouldn’t go beyond that.”

“Heroes”, like so many of our top 10, has gone on to find many lives of its own, cropping up everywhere and anywhere, from the Olympics to the fall of the Berlin Wall

6: Donna Summer, I Feel Love, 1977

Producers: Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte
Recorded: Musicland, Munich

Donna Summer amazing vocals

You could argue that without the high profile club success of I Feel Love, disco would not have had its first crucial synth-injection, and dance music itself would have been delayed. That’s maybe being a little melodramatic, but I Feel Love, along with Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, were the first glimpses of synth pop for many. Clubland certainly embraced Moroder’s arpeggiations – sequenced via a Moog Modular 3P and recorded to a 16-track Studer via a Harrison desk – and the track stamped the sound of the synth on many a young producer’s brain.

That said, it’s that very human Summer vocal in contrast to Moroder’s machines that creates the glorious juxtaposition here, and the mix element that makes the song, teaching the world that machines and humans can literally coexist in perfect harmony.

And a short hop on a train away in Berlin, the sound of I Feel Love was already capturing Eno and Bowie’s imagination – ‘I have heard the future of music,’ Eno famously and rather tactlessly said after hearing I Feel Love, when the two of them were supposed to be creating just that in Hansa. Never mind, it all panned out well in the end.

5: Laurie Anderson, O Superman, 1981
Producers: Laurie Anderson and Roma Baran
Recorded: The Lobby Studio, New York


O Superman features some of the best vocals ever

To say that Anderson was ‘a reluctant pop star’ is almost as big an understatement as saying O Superman was ‘an unlikely hit’. Yet a single repeated ‘ha’ vocal by Anderson would light up the UK pop charts in 1981, reaching the top three thanks to (who else) John Peel, after he championed this New York Performance artist’s song about the failure of technology when the US army tried to rescue hostages during the Iranian Embassy crisis. The song’s main vocoded vocal alongside the ‘ha’ was inspired by a 19th-century aria by Massenet that began with the words ‘O sovereign’ which Anderson replaced with ‘O Superman’.

“The lyrics are a one-sided conversation, like a prayer to God,” Anderson told The Guardian.  The looped “ha ha ha ha” was produced on an Eventide harmoniser. “I wanted it to be like a Greek chorus – not just one voice – so I used a vocoder, which was originally developed as spy technology to disguise voices. It fitted the concept.”

She later expanded on this use of a Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus to Uncut; “[The Vocoder] is one of my favourite instruments. I guess I’ve just always been a geek, and I liked especially that it was a coding device in World War II, that’s its origin. O Superman was a kind of code. It used a lot of slogans, of the ‘have a nice day’ and the US Postal slogan variety.”

4: Leftfield, Open Up, 1993
Producers: Leftfield
Recorded: Rollover Studios, London

Leftfield superb vocals

We wanted to include a dance music banger in this roundup and they don’t hit much harder than this, with one of the best vocals surgically extracted out of the punk era to boot. Leftfield were the biggest band in dance music during the 1990s and, of course, John Lydon was the most recognisable face and voice of punk music in the 70s. When they joined forces, the result might not have been ‘murder’ – sometimes chalk and cheese just don’t mix – but in this instance the result really is a glorious slab of dance punk, the best of both worlds combined.

Open Up ended up being a furious piece of 90s crossover music, as Lydon snarls his way through the track, delivering one of his best vocal performances, so good that Leftfield producers Neil Barnes and Paul Daley felt they had to up their game after this recording and reworked several parts of the song. If you want to hear what was so good about punk and dance combined into one record, this is it, and while all our other entries here are already bone-fide vocal classics, this one will become one in 100 years’ time, make no mistake!

3: Cher, Believe, 1998

Producers: Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling
Recorded: Dreamhouse, Kingston, Surrey

Cher innovative

Whether you ‘believe’ that Believe by Cher deserves an entry into our top 10 Most Groundbreaking Vocal Recordings is really dependant on your opinion of technology used in vocal production. Certainly Believe has become, of course, synonymous with Auto-Tune and is really included because it put that sound on the map.

The first high-profile track in a generation of Auto-Tuned songs that use what was intended more as a correctional tool instead more as dramatic, vocal-twisting effect. Of course, technology is often best employed at these extreme settings and it’s not the first time that revolutions have been the result – see also dance music and the Roland TB-303.

However, it might not have been so prominent a use of Auto-Tune had producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling got their way, trying to hide its use in a Sound On Sound interview of the time, claiming the effect was a Digitech Talker with a Nord Rack used to deliver the carrier signal to the vocoder. This was later read as a bit of face-saving Auto-Tune cover up. Now, the ‘inauthentic’ label that Auto-Tune carried is no-more, and producers wear the creative application of the effect as a badge of pride.

We do like to believe the rest of that contemporary feature though, which claimed that Believe was recorded using a standard Akai S3000 sampler, Cubase on a Mac with Cher’s vocals recorded using a Tascam DA88 recorder and Numann U67 mic. A simple setup, great results and the rest is, can you ‘be-lie-ieve’ it, a big chapter of modern vocal production history.

2: Outkast, Hey Ya!, 2003
Producer: André 3000
Recorded: Karma, Tree Sound and Stankonia Studios, Atlanta, Georgia and Larrabee Sound Studios in Los Angeles

Outkast best vocals ever?

Hey Ya! is an impressive vocal recording and song on many, many levels, not least because pretty much all of the varied vocals on here (and it sounds like a lot of people, on occasion) were all handled by André 3000. Then there’s the brilliant mix of acoustic and electronic instruments, the strange synth basses and leads, the ridiculously catchy hook, the gloriously bonkers video… This was one track that crossed not just genres, but whole communities, religions, borders and classes.

“He [André ] would do 30 or 40 takes of each line,” Pete Novak one of the track’s engineers recalled to MTV. “I would say, ‘All right, I better put that one aside, that was a great performance.’ And then he would come and listen to them and the one he would like would be the one I was about to erase. After a while working with him I said, ‘I’m not even gonna try to read him.’”

This kind of experimentation was key throughout the lengthy recording and construction process, with different microphones, a vocoder and all sorts of other processing used as at least 20 different versions of the track were produced before the final one was settled on. Nice end choice though, as that final version went onto win countless awards (including MTVs and Grammys) and went top 10 across the globe, helping Outkast shift 25 million records.

1: Adele, Rolling In The Deep, 2010

Producer: Paul Epworth
Recorded: Eascote, London

Rolling in the Deep

Our final choice is a reminder that, as important as the technology that features in some of the other entries is, a great vocal performance is down to one thing, and Adele’s gazillion-selling Rolling In The Deep is here though that reason only: the power of her voice. Indeed, little in the way of technology was used during its inception, as engineer Mark Rankin said:

“While I was there [in the studio] she would be writing, sat on the sofa behind us with her dog on her lap, and at one point she goes, ‘I’ve got something, let’s give it a go’. We [Rankin and producer Paul Epworth] swung a microphone around, she didn’t move from the sofa and she sang two takes of Rolling In The Deep. She then said, ‘do you want me to do another one?’ and I was like ‘er, no, we’re good’. And I think I literally took like just two words from one take and put them in the other and that was it and that’s what is on the record.”

Incredible, and it was all recorded with just a Rode microphone through a Universal Audio 610 channel strip using a Roland Chorus Echo for reverb. Just that minimal setup recorded a song that went on to shift well in excess of 20 million copies, giving hope to all of us with minimal home studios… until you realise you that an astonishing voice also helps.