For most listeners, vocals make or break a song. No matter how top-flight your tune, performance, and tone may be, a badly recorded lead or backup vocal part will crush your project.
Today, we’re getting together to set you up with 10 tips for recording pro-sounding vocals at home that will prevent Bad Vocal Syndrome from contaminating your amazing tracks.
Most of us don’t have the luxury of making our music in a big studio with an expert producer but a little knowledge, practice, and experimentation will get your home vocal sounds where they need to be.
SETTING THE STAGE
The most important part of a great vocal track is capturing a great performance.
To this end, setting up a comfortable and functional area in your room is of prime consideration. You don’t need to construct a full-on vocal booth, although that would be really cool, you just need to create a space where both your vibe and your voice can flourish.
Acoustic treatment helps a lot if you have the budget for it. If you don’t, one easy hack is hanging a heavy blanket behind where you or your singer is going to be standing. Most condenser and dynamic microphones in use today use a cardioid pickup pattern that hears what’s directly in front of it and rejects most everything else. This makes what’s behind your vocalist crucially important.
A heavy blanket will deaden the surface behind you and eliminate unwanted frequencies and reflections. This, alone, will give you many more options when mixing than a sketchy track with room issues. If you have the space, you can make a serviceable vocal booth out of additional blankets hung over a PVC pipe frame.
Give your vocalist the ambiance needed to succeed by using comfortable lighting and decor.
Nobody wants to sing in a space that feels like a medical office.
Use your own taste and judgment to create a chill, creative environment.
- Don’t back your singer up against a bare wall or window. The reflections will destroy your track.
- Don’t bring in too many spectators or otherwise create a high-pressure environment for your vocalist of the day. The last thing you want is freezing them up with performance anxiety.
- Don’t distract them by messing around with your gear. Have your workflow together before you start.
INVEST IN A QUALITY CONDENSER MIC
Your choice of vocal mic is a big deal.
You should budget a decent amount of money for one and shop for it carefully. What you want is a large-diaphragm condenser microphone. In the old days, only well-funded professionals had these beasts in their mic lockers but now excellent mics are available at all price points.
Condenser mics are the best and most common microphones used to record vocals, acoustic instruments, and other vital sound sources. They require 48 volts of phantom power to operate but most mixers and audio recording interfaces can provide it.
Dynamic mics, which don’t need phantom power, can also be used for vocals but that Shure SM58 in your gig bag probably isn’t the best choice.
Instead, check out Shure’s legendary SM7B, which is the microphone Michael Jackson used to record Thriller and has become a standard issue in recording studios and broadcast facilities around the world. As long as your mic preamp can put enough gain behind it, you’re good to go.
No matter what kind of mic you get, be sure to also get a compatible shock mount for it. This will help get rid of noise coming from the mic stand and floor.
Don’t just buy the cheapest mic you can find and hope for the best. Educate yourself on the best mics in your price range.
- Don’t forget a quality mic stand. Hand-held mics are a no-go for recording. Noise is the enemy!
- Don’t overlook getting a good cable for each mic you use. If you don’t remember the last time you replaced your mic cables, it’s time to do it again.
SET PROPER LEVELS
Setting proper recording levels is one of the biggest things new home recording enthusiasts often struggle with.
In the analog world, hot input signals mean everything. Pushing your meters into the red results in that delicious tape saturation/compression we all love. These days, most of us are recording digitally, which is an entirely different situation where different rules apply.
- In a digital recording session, keeping out of the red is the name of the game. Digital distortion, called “clipping,” is an unpleasant sound no one can use.
- Set your lead vocal level fairly low and use a brick-wall limiter on your singer to avoid it.
- Remember that your track will pick up more gain further into the production process and your whole mix will be compressed, anyway. There’s really no good reason to start off by coming in hot.
- Don’t treat digital like tape. Each format requires a different mindset.
- Don’t forget to set your fader at 0 and make level changes with your Trim control. This will make mixing much easier.
- Don’t expect your singer to always put out the same level. The limiter is your friend here.
USE YOUR POP FILTER
A pop filter is a piece of tightly stretched, sonically transparent fabric over a metal frame that goes between your singer and your microphone, usually by clipping onto your mic stand.
It has a couple of jobs. First and foremost, it helps tame down raging “P” and “B” sounds, called plosives, that help to create a nasty rumble in your vocal track that won’t get you anywhere.
Some of the rumble can be EQ’ed out in certain cases but it’s best to stop it at the source. Garbage in, garbage out. Again, this approach will make mixing vocals a whole lot more productive.
A pop filter also keeps your singer’s spit and germs out of that expensive vocal mic you just bought. If you want to roll old-school, you can make your own DIY-approved pop filter out of a nylon stocking and a wire coat hanger. You’re just so punk, aren’t you?
- Don’t think you can get away without a pop filter. You can’t.
- Don’t forget to keep it and your microphone clean. Hygiene matters, especially these days.
GET BETTER HEADPHONES
This may seem obvious to more experienced readers but it’s absolutely worth mentioning for the newbies out there. You need a good set of over-the-ear, sound-isolating studio headphones for your singer to wear while cutting their vocal takes.
- Spend some money and get good cans, the best you can afford.
- Insist that your singer keep them on both ears. That one-ear-off technique is strictly amateur hour.
- Get a decent headphone splitter so everyone on the session can hear what they need.
- Don’t go cheap. Anything less than full coverage will allow the sound of the track being sung to bleed over into the vocal mic and ruin the take.
- If your singer isn’t in a soundproof vocal booth, whoever is engineering the recording session needs to wear a set, too, for the same reason.
- Lightweight headphones and ear buds will be of no use once you start cutting tracks. Save them for listening to your final mixes.
ALWAYS BE RECORDING
Not all singers and musicians are comfortable in the recording studio.
It can feel like performing under a microscope naked with all flaws completely exposed. Red Light Fever is a real thing and sometimes even experienced players melt down when the “record” light comes on. The best way around this is to always be recording.
As soon as your singer gets on the mic to set levels and warm up, record everything they do. Some vocalists who get self-conscious while recording often deliver a stronger, less inhibited performance when they think they’re doing a warmup take that won’t be saved.
This advice works for instrumentalists just as well as singers. That first time someone hits a track, you get their gut-level reaction to it, which is frequently the keeper take. That first take or two is where the fire lives, so don’t let it slip away.
- Don’t assume any track or take will be a throwaway, ever. Greatness happens when it happens. Capture everything!
- Don’t tell the band or singer you’re doing this. Just let them do what they do.
- Don’t forget to save after every take. Deleting the keeper is a cardinal sin.
Environmental noise will kill your vocal tracks like nothing else.
This is another point that may seem obvious but it needs to be addressed for best results in a home studio.
- When it comes time to track, turn off your air conditioner and fans, unplug your refrigerator if it’s nearby, and shut off those buzzing fluorescent lights you’ve got overhead.
- Make sure everyone involved in the session turns their phones off, as well.
- Sounds from outside your studio can be destructive, too, so don’t forget to consider what’s going on in your neighborhood on the days and times you want to do vocals.
Most home studios aren’t adequately soundproofed so a little planning can go a long way. The last thing you need is the crashing and clanging of a garbage truck leaking into your mic.
- Don’t forget that your microphone hears things much more intensely than you do. What might sound small to the naked ear will sound like a freight train coming through any good mic.
- Don’t forget to solo your vocal tracks to see what sounds might have snuck in behind the performance.
- Don’t overlook editing out breaths and other sounds between lines of lyrics. Clean it up!
USE GOOD MIC TECHNIQUE
A microphone is an instrument just like an acoustic guitar or a piano and it helps to know a little about how to play it.
Mic placement and good vocal recording technique are both major components of a good vocal sound. A handful of simple tips will help you achieve the results you want.
Start out with your singer standing about six inches directly in front of your mic, pop filter in place. If necessary, coach your vocalist to note exactly where they are standing in relation to the mic and to keep their feet there for every take. The idea is to maintain a consistent distance from the microphone.
If a singer gets too close to the mic, they risk clipping and overwhelming plosives. If they get too far away, the recording can contain too much room sound and lose focus. If plosives and sibilance, which means excessive “S” sounds, are still problematic, try shifting your singer a few degrees off-axis to the left or right of the mic.
Use a limiter to even out peaks and valleys in your singer’s performance.
- Don’t let your vocalist dance around the microphone. This will create level-matching nightmares on mixdown day.
- Don’t EQ the vocal while tracking. Go as flat as you can and make adjustments later.
BOOST YOUR TOP END
Want to fool people into thinking you’re tracking with some ultra-posh boutique condenser mic? Use an EQ to boost your top end.
Most of those expensive mics have an over-emphasized high-frequency range the likes of which can be easily duplicated.
- Employ a high shelf then start with a 2dB boost at 10kHz. From there, experiment with the amount of boost and the frequency being targeted.
- As long as it doesn’t come out sounding too bright and brittle, you could go up to 5dB over 10kHz. Use your ears and see where they take you.
- Don’t add too much treble or your track will sound like an ice pick to listeners’ ears.
- If you don’t feel confident in making this move, don’t do it or your mistakes will be made permanent. Track it flat and EQ later.
RECORD DRY FOR EASIER MIXING AND COMPING
Sometimes, the old ways are still the best ways. The best thing you can do for the big picture of your song and mix is to capture a clean, clear vocal performance with minimal signal processing on it.
Doing this leaves processing options open until the mixdown stage and avoids you having to live with a questionable processing decision made in haste on tracking day.
Excluding obviously dramatic special effect parts and such, this is a solid, best-practice approach that is good to adopt. Every engineer has a raft of cool plugins to show off but this is just not the time.
Tracking dry also makes it much easier to comp a keeper vocal take out of multiple lesser ones by editing the best parts of them together into a final master vocal track. Using effects during the tracking stage or recording at vastly different levels will make it much more difficult for whoever is mixing your track to get one good, consistent-sounding track.
Comping, or compiling tracks is a regular business in the modern recording environment so it’s a good idea to keep it in mind from the start of your session.
- Don’t slather processing all over your vocals. It just sounds unprofessional.
- Don’t commit to any effect or sound without trying other options, too.
- Go for crisp and clean, not wet and messy.
These are just a few of many possible ways to make your vocal tracks pop and stand out. Other things you can do include making sure your singer is keeping up their vocal health by getting enough sleep, getting a good warmup in before recording begins, and avoiding alcohol and excessive caffeine.
If you have a collection of microphones, experiment with them to find out which one compliments your singer’s vocal styling the most. Not every mic is right for every voice so, again, use your ears to determine the right mic for the job at hand.
Finally, it’s also vital to learn your gear so well that you can forget about the tech and simply make music. You want your talent on the mic to feel the flow and turn in an award-winning vocal performance. That isn’t going to happen if you’re struggling to route signals, get your mic in the right place, or accidentally erasing the best takes of the day. There’s no substitute for fluency in these situations and you’ve got to be frosty enough with your skillset to grab the magic when it happens.
I hope you enjoyed this and found it to be enlightening and educational. Recording is just as much of an art as creating music is and it takes knowledge and practice time to produce good results.
Few things are more satisfying than making music from scratch, though, especially when your songs sound amazing. Now, get busy on your vocal tracks and we will meet up again soon to keep boosting your studio knowledge.