Vocals are arguably the most critical part of the track. It is the first thing that the listener connects with when they hear a song. So this is why a lot goes into recording vocals. If you haven’t been recording vocals for a while, you may not understand what’s involved in this process.
Half the time an engineer spends recording a project goes into recording the vocals.
Nonprofessional/young engineers and producers think getting good vocals means placing the microphone in front of the vocalist, pressing record and then the magic happens.
But there is no magic. There are recording techniques that are required to produce professional sounding vocals.
This guide outline the fundamental practices beginner often overlook when recording vocals. The article finishes with tips for recording vocals in a home studio environment.
1. Choosing the right mic for vocal recording
If you step into a professional recording studio today, you will find that there is a variety of vocal microphones, each with its purpose.
Each microphone will work differently on different voices. So the engineer will go through each mic and find the one that best suits the vocalist.
Matching the right microphone to a vocal will turn a recording into a great one.
Most vocal recordings are done using large-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphones.
Condenser microphones are more sensitive to detail and tend to capture cleaner sounds.
But, this isn’t a rule, as many great recordings are done using small-diaphragm dynamic microphones.
The type of microphone isn’t as significant as matching the microphone to the vocalist.
So you don’t want to skip this step if you have the opportunity to compare a range of different mics.
That said, not many home recording studios have the luxury of owning more that one microphones.
If this is the case for you (you only have one microphone), you just have to use what you’ve got.
You are still able to get good vocal takes with any microphone you use as long as you consider the other steps.
2. Microphone positioning
The distance and angle of the microphone to the vocalist’s mouth will affect the mic performance and how well it captures sounds.
If you are using a cardioid microphone, the closer the vocalist is to the microphone will result is what’s knows as proximity effect, which is a boost in the mic low-frequency response.
This will be more of an issue with dynamic microphones if you decide to use one over a condenser mic.
The distance from the microphone will depend on the type of mic and its frequency response.
Make sure the diaphragm of the microphone is in line with the mouth if you are using a cardioid mic, about 6″ to 12″ away.
A good condenser microphone will allow as close as 4″ from the microphone. Dynamic microphones must position much future away to reduce proximity effect.
Positioning the microphone just below the vocalist’s mouth or above about forehead height can produce tonal qualities you may like and reduce sibilance issues.
About 5’’ below the mouth with the diaphragm pointing upwards towards the mouth will capture resonance from the chest area.
Hanging the microphone about 4’’ away from the vocalist pointing downwards will pick up a strong vocal tone with lots of energy because the vocalist is forced to sing from their belly.
Keep in mind, that the future away the microphone is from the performer, the more room ambient gets picked up by the mic.
Avoid positioning the mic too far from the vocalist if the recording space isn’t acoustically treated.
3. Poor room acoustic
Once you press record, the microphone will pick up the singers voice and any background noise. So you will need a quiet room for recording vocals.
But even the quietest room the microphone with still capture the reflections from walls and surfaces if the space is not acoustically treated.
Reflections that gets into the microphone will corrupt the vocal sound you are recording, which will cause issues at the mixing stage.
You can’t remove room reverberation that gets picked up with the vocal recording, and its effect only gets more noticeable when you add processing during mixing.
Room acoustic is key to getting good vocal recordings.
But you need not worry if you don’t yet have any acoustic treatment in your room.
There are ways around this all you have to do is improve the acoustics around the microphone.
You could use a reflection filter, placing it just behind the microphone.
However, this will be of little help if you are using a cardioid microphone because cardioid pattern naturally limits incoming sounds from the back.
You will need absorption on the wall behind the artist, on the floor and the ceiling.
A carpet will reduce the reflection for the floor. A duvet alongside and behind the singer will reduce the reflections from the walls.
Any absorption material that you can stick to the ceiling area above the singer with the job.
4. Not using a pop shield
A pop shield is useful for two reasons. The main reason why we use a pop shield when recording vocals is to reduce sibilance.
Using a pop shield will not only help filter out the popping on plosive sounds that happen when we pronouns ‘P’, ‘T’ and ‘Ss’ but also guarantee the vocalist keep the right distance from the microphone.
Pop shields are not optional they are essential.
5. Not uing a mic stand
This shouldn’t be on my list, but, I’ve come across people trying to record vocal whilst holding the microphone.
It is ok when you are having a rehearsal session, but when you are ready to record the vocals, isolated the microphone from all interference.
6. Recording Level
Once upon a time, when hardware was all we used in the studio, we had to record at the loudest level possible before distortion to minimise the noise floor of equipment.
But with the rise of digital and DAWs with 24 bits resolution, we no longer have to worry about noise floor or record at the maximum level.
A new problem arrives with digital, which is distortion. Digital distortion happens when you record too hot.
Once distortion gets into the vocal recording there little you can do to remove it.
When setting the recording level, aim to minimise noise floor and avoid distortion.
In a 24 bit system (your DAW), an average input level of -18dB, with the loudest parts of the recording peaking at -10dB is go enough to achieve this.
Don’t adjust the channel fader in your DAW. Adjust the input gain on your mic preamp or audio interface so that the level peak at -10dBFS in the DAW.
When the vocalist first starts singing, they’re going to be cold and not projecting as much as they will be later. As the session progresses, they’re going to get warmed up.
Keep checking the input level and adjust it as the vocalist performance level changes.
7. Good headphone mix
A good headphone mix is just as important as choosing the right mic and placing it correctly.
The artist’s headphone feed must be as clear and articulate as possible. If the artist can hear themselves well, they will perform well.
Ask the artist what works best for them. Ask if their levels are right. Some artist likes a bit of reverb, compression and even pitch correction (autotune) in their headphone mix.
How comfortable your reference headphone is, is also crucial. Will the artist enjoy wearing the headphones for however long you both are in the studio?
A comfortable studio environment will also encourage the artist performance.
Having the right room temperature, having water or tea are ways to make the artist comfortable.
Each artist will have their own needs and method to get themselves in the ‘zone’. Understanding this will help you to meet them.
Tips for recording vocals at home
Recording in a home studio isn’t the same as recording in a professional studio. It is not as isolated or has the acoustic treatments you find in professional studios.
To get clean vocals, start with soundproofing the room as best as possible. If you live in a noisy area, schedule your recording sessions during quiet times.
Acoustic treatments will also reduce room modes that will cause unwanted frequencies to build up in your recordings.
Also, invest in a solid recording chain.
You often hear, it’s not about the price/quality of the gear but how you use it and that is true.
There is a mic preamp or two in every professional studio. No vocal recordings are done without one.
The mic preamps in some upper-priced audio interfaces do sound great. You may be able to do without a mic pre if you own one.
If you are using a cheaper audio interface, it is worthwhile to get a mic preamp.
The final tip for recording vocals at home is to get the artist prepared before you start recording.
Make sure their lyric is ready, and they are in the ‘zone’