5 Vocal Recording Tips for That Perfect Vocal Sound
About to do some vocal recording in your home recording studio? Here are 5 vocal recording tips to get that perfect vocal sound. It often feels like there are more than 5,000 steps or tips when it comes to recording vocals in your recording studio.
It often feels like there are more than 5,000 steps or tips when it comes to recording vocals in your recording studio.
Well, truth is, there probably are more than just 5 steps & tips. However, they’re not all equal. In fact, you’re encouraged to be flexible and to try new things as a music producer.
However take these 5 vocal recording tips as a starting point to record professional vocals at home. Then slowly add the knowledge you gain through experimenting and learning from mistakes.
Let’s get started with the 5 tips, where I’ll share a few vocal recording techniques & secrets.
1. Creature Comforts
If the singer ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
It’s a poorly kept secret that the best audio engineer or producer can also be masters of psychology. Assuming your vocalist has the right voice & talent, their mindset would be the next hurdle in recording great vocals.
A badly designed studio handled by a producer with a poor attitude affects not only a singer’s ability to perform but also their ability to write lyrics.
Red light fever is frequently a culprit. Back in the days of big, expensive studios using big, expensive rolls of tape, every second was big and expensive too.
Therefore recording studio featured big & expensive red lights to show those on the recording floor that it was time to shut up and do your job. While experienced session musicians had little reaction to the red glare – many used it to warm up their studio tan – inexperienced singers, particularly those with little time in front of a studio mic, could immediately freeze up.
Since nerves get in the way of an engineer and their post-sessions, it is in their best interests to make sure that the singers remain in the best mood possible, relaxed and free to follow their muse.
It’s funny how someone completely at home versus being in front of hundreds in a live audience can be intimidated singing alone in a room with a bunch of studio gear, wiring and a bunch of electronics. It doesn’t matter if it’s a home studio or a million-dollar pro recording studio facility. It’s different, and that may always muck up the mood.
So here are a few of my favorite techniques to put a singer at ease:
1 – Lower the lighting – Candles aren’t just for Valentines Day. You’ll notice many studios often have dimmer lights, just to ease the mood.
2 – A place to sit and a place for a cup of tea – yes, the singer will be standing when they perform, but make them a comfy little space. It will keep them grounded.
3 – A cup of tea – There’s a table there now. Use it. A kettle and cups may be the most important studio accessory.
4 – Set up the singer on an oblique sight line – facing the big glass panel, watching the record producer working is a very exposing feeling. Have the singer looking away. Back to back in a home studio is not a bad setup, since you’re probably both in headphones in the same room. You can turn and talk between takes.
5 – Record EVERYTHING. Block the view of any red-light indications of recording. Lie if necessary. If it’s a sin to tell a singer that this is just a test run-through for technical purposes when in fact recording is active, then I’m doomed to hell.
As mentioned by Graham Cochrane in his article on TheRecordingRevolution, “From lighting, to scent, to pace, to the number of people in the room: everything must be setup in such a way that the singer (and this could be you) is comfortable.”
2. Large Capsule Microphones
There are some dynamic mics that do amazing things to vocals.
Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which sold a few copies back in the 1980s, used a Shure SM7. The Electro Voice RE20 is another dynamic with unique qualities. Ten zillion radio announcers can be wrong, but they’re not in this case.
If your aim is to record vocals in the studio, a large capsule or diaphragm condenser mic is usually the way to go.
Don’t go for the little pencil condensers, but the big ones with the one-inch capsules. That’s the secret, – large capsules.
Many condenser mics suitable for vocals can be had for under $200 nowadays. These generally give the sparkle and sheen that the average hand-held live vocal mic just cannot.
In fact, as we’ve mentioned in the ‘Ultimate Guide to Choosing Microphones for Your Recording Studio‘ post, it’s recommended that you buy a condenser microphone if you can only afford only one microphone in your studio.” They’re a really great all-around microphone and are perfect for vocals.
If your vocal session is very important, you can also consider renting microphones. The advantage to renting microphones is that you can get hold of some good ones that are way beyond your budget and work with them for a day or two.
Some really good microphone examples are like the Neumann TLM 103 that has never betrayed me, and its big brother, the U87, which is probably the vocal mic used on most the hit music you hear on radios.
If you’re buying on a budget, here are some recommendations below $100
- Behringer B-1
- sE Electronics X1 A
- Shure PGA181
Like to learn more about microphones? Read the choosing & buying microphones for your studio guide.
3. Vampire Reflections
I hear you asking, “Vampire reflections? What are those? Vampires have no reflections.”
Exactly. Neither should your vocal mic.
This is especially important when you’re recording in a room that’s not acoustically treated for vocals – namely, your bedroom or basement. The walls, floor and ceiling all bounce sound back to the singer’s position and mess with the pure signal from the singer’s voice.
Once you notice it, you’ll recognize it as the sound of your room and it’s nearly impossible to un-hear.
When recording vocals it’s extremely important that you record a dry signal. That is recording the with the least amount of room acoustics or room reverb. That’s why bigger studios spend so much on treating their studio. Even the simplest reverb plug-ins sound better than most home recording spaces, so killing ambiance without prejudice is paramount.
That said, you don’t have to spend too much to treat your home studio. Our goal here is to get a dryer sound by using some budget-friendly equipment or using some home-made soundproofing items.
I’ve had great success with the Primacoustic VoxGuard VU. It’s a portable isolation barrier that attaches to a mic stand blocks room reflections from entering the sides and back of the mic position. The front is blocked by the singer themselves.
The idea behind the isolation barrier or sometimes known as reflexion filter is that it’s like an acoustic barrier in itself, creating an isolated environment emphasizing the vocal performance. Similar reflexion filters include those from sE Electronics and Aston Microphones.
If you’re not looking to spend money on an isolation barrier, you could look at cleverly utilizing your room and using home items as well. In a rectangular room, place the singer facing a long wall, toward, but not quite, in the center of the room. The added distance to the sides reduces reflections from those directions.
Take an unused boom-style mic stand and set it up in a “T” shape, about six inches behind the microphone. Drape a heavy duvet, sleeping bag, moving blanket or similar over the T. Voila, instant isolation for zero dollars.
If you think that is silly, remember that nobody really cares how your studio looks like or what you use. What’s more important at the end of the day, is the quality of your recording.
4. On the Level
As an engineer, you’re responsible for obtaining the best overall level on the vocal track. You’re not allowed to blame the singer, the singer’s mic technique, the limiter or compressor. You’re responsible for setting the record stage for different types of singers in your recording studio.
You’re the pro, so if it’s obvious during setup that the singer’s level will be all over the place, do what you need to do to even it out. Here are two very useful tips:
- Set up a pop filter at your desired distance. Farther back if the singer frequently overloads, or closer to if they frequently fade away. Instruct the singer to maintain that distance. I prefer small filters or positioning so the singer can see over it.
- Ride the Fader. Or knob. Whatever controls the vocal mic’s input. You’ll get a feel for the singer’s performance after a few run throughs. Anticipate the performance and adjust gain as needed, smoothly, up and down. The goal is a final take averaging around -6 dB with no extreme highs and lows.
On the topic of pop filters, check out the video above.
If “P” pops are an issue, asking the singer to turn away slightly is fair game, but that should be about all you ask of them from a technical point of view. The better solution alters the mic position so that the direct force of the plosive misses the mic’s diaphragm.
Pro Tip: Record the singer making plosive and sibilant sounds separately, for later use. Include “P,” “S,” “T” and any other sound that may be an issue. If you have to extract an overloaded pop, the take may be saved by dropping in a “puh” sound later.
5. Leave Them Breathless
In your journey of working and recording vocalists, you’ll find out that along with their singing takes, you’ll also record a lot of breath noise. Some singers are capable of doing it more elegantly and induce less breath noise into the recording, but regardless of the singer, you’re always going to find breath noise in your recording.
Yes, it’s a chore, and if you’re wondering, I’ve never found a way to perfectly automate it. Cut out those breath noises and do it manually. Here’s my workflow:
- Duplicate the vocal track
- Solo the track to edit
- Fill your screen with the audio waveform of the vocal
- Highlight and erase sections where the singer isn’t singing (there’s likely background noise at a low level) and between words when they’re taking breaths
- Combine the resulting clips into a full track
You might feel inclined to use a gate or expander plugin to automate the process of removing breath noise, but often, you won’t get great results doing that. So if you’re producing music for something big, then work hard on it.
There are exceptions to the breath rule. If they are meant to be emotive and expressive, leave some in and add it to the overall recording performance.
The Final Mix
Though the surface seems scratched woefully thin, following these steps will give you a great start to do great vocal recordings in your studio.
Vocals is usually the most important part of many, many recordings, are often overlooked or given short shrift. In fact, most electronic music even though if produced as an instrumental, often include snippets of vocals or human speeches.
We, humans, have some tendency to tune into familiarity, and a vocal or human speech is one of that. Adding them to your mix, instantaneously makes the piece feels a lot better.
So don’t make this rookie mistake! Treat vocals as the most important part of your recording.
A final thought: Never fully trade emotion for technical perfection. When you have a singer who delivers both, it’s heaven, but it’s also a rare bird. Creating a space for the singer to do their thing, and staying out of their way as much as you can, creates the best chance for you to capture magic. It’s out there!
What do you think? What are some vocal recording techniques you do in your home studio? Let us know in the comment section below.