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Don’t presume that’s a real chorus of kids on the children’s music coming out of Nashville studios. More likely, it was someone like Dale Richardson, who owns KidCall Talent and has been singing in a child-like voice on recordings for nearly three decades.
“You just start learning to manipulate your voice,” she says. “And I guess I was good at it because I’m still doing it and I’m like an adult.”
On a recent Sunday night, Richardson and her troupe of singers were in the studio recording children’s praise songs for the Methodist publishing house. After one run-through, they step into the recording booth. But after a few lines, Richardson cuts off her little chorus.
“Can you get younger? Really young,” she asks.
As a middle-aged mom, Richardson is by far the oldest in the studio on this evening. Her group includes teenagers and college students, but she’s shooting for a seven-year-old sound.
Richardson says teenage girls have the easiest time passing as little tikes, though it still takes some work. Guys have trouble once puberty starts.
Sounding like an untrained child takes real skill, but it’s a talent voice coaches tend to frown upon. Richardson says sometimes they’ll send a teen to her in order to get some studio experience, albeit singing like a kid.
“A lot of kids today, they sing like they want to be on American Idol,” Richardson says. “I’ll have a great little singer come in and audition for me. And she’s like trying to sound like Beyonce or somebody. And it’s like, ‘no no no, just sing straight, pure.’”
Richardson’s star protégé is – no surprise – her daughter Maggie, who now studies music at Belmont University. Together, they’ve performed as a younger version of themselves on everything from Veggie Tales albums to baby lullabies. And they’re pretty convincing.
Friends and acquaintances often ask Maggie Richardson to sing on the spot.
“They’ll find out that I did Veggie Tales or something and they’ll want to hear a little sample,” she says. “I tell them to close their eyes and don’t look at me because I make a weird face when I do it. I smile really big.”
Why Not Actual Kids?
Maggie Richardson says children aren’t perfect, so she’ll intentionally be a little off key from time to time. She says the idea is not to sound like kid robots.
But if perfection isn’t the aim, why not just wrangle some neighborhood kids to do the job?
“It’s hard to get them to come in exactly on the beat,” says Dale Richardson. “Or if we have a really interesting rhythm, it will take them several times to get it.”
Time gets wasted on multiple takes, and in a studio, time is money.
Producer Dennis Scott, who has won a Grammy for his children’s albums, has tried using untrained children.
“It’s a lot harder than it looks because it’s precision singing,” he says. “Live, you can get away with so many things and if somebody goes off to a wrong note or doesn’t end at the right time, it’s forgivable. But when you go into the studio, everything is under the microscope. And little things you wouldn’t hear live, you hear everything.”
Even modern recording software can only fix so much. At the same time, “there ain’t nothing like the real thing,” Scott says.
His secret to getting a true child sound is having at least one really little kid in the studio, and she or he often sits on a stool closest to the microphone.
“That young timbre, you can fake it only so much,” Dale Richardson says. “That pure, just innocent, sweet, bright, it’s hard to emulate.”