Important Tips On Recording Quality Vocals
Artists like Jay-Z, Eminem, Kanye West, and Drake have the option to work with top producers, such as Grammy-nominated songwriter and mixer Ken Lewis, but for independent musicians recording vocals of their own, where do you begin?
This article breaks down the process is for laying down vocals, from preparation to recording.
Note: This is focusing on the recording process only – post-production, after vocals are recorded, is a completely different thing!
About The Recording Process
The recording process is when vocals are recorded… (duh, obviously haha)
It’s really important to get your recording process as perfect as possible, because there are some things you just can’t fix in the mix afterwards. If you have a poor vocal performance combined with a shabby recording technique, even the best post-production software and skilled engineers won’t make a significant difference. You get out what you put in when it comes to recording.
Decide Who Will Be Recorded
This is the most basic decision before any technical elements are considered.
If you’re a competent singer/songwriter, then go for it! But if you’re a better songwriter than singer, you’ll be better off hiring a singer or guest vocalist so your track is performed at it’s optimum. Forget about name-droppers or reputation – look for a singer/rapper that fits your song.
Get an honest opinion from a music producer, before stepping into the booth. Even though you love them, your family or friends aren’t brutal enough if you really do suck at singing or rapping.
Before you start the process, the artist and technical crew should be well rested, well rehearsed, physically comfortable, and under low psychological pressure. Do whatever you need to in order to relax.
Choose The Recording Space
Isolation: The ideal set-up is to have the singer in a dedicated recording space, isolated from both external noise and internal noises such as other people and equipment in the studio. Remove any technical gear or amps (to prevent mics from picking up the whining of fans) and turn off air-conditioners during the recording.
In a commercial studio this is a given, but even in-home studios a separate room for the singer is often possible.
If you do not have the luxury of a dedicated recording room, you should consider using a portable vocal booth to record a quality vocal. Personally, I use the Reflexion Filter Pro from sE Electronics. I love it!
Acoustics: Besides isolation, the other main consideration is the acoustics of the room itself. Here’s a quick 3-step physics lesson:
- Sound travels in all directions from the sound source (singer).
- The sound wave doesn’t stop at the microphone, it continues and bounces off all surfaces including walls and equipment.
- Depending on the room’s shape, the sound will return to the source and mic. If the sound returns within 20 milliseconds (ms) it merges with the original signal and distorts the sound of the voice. This is important to know because it will affect the tonal quality of any voice, no matter what mic you use.
Because of the speed of sound and the way it travels, to get past the 20 ms delay time, you must be at least 12 ft or 3.5 meters away from any surface. The reason for this is that the sound must travel to the surface first before coming back to the mic. The total length of travel from the sound source will determine the delay time.
Prepare The Technical Stuff Beforehand
It’s possible that you will be playing dual roles of engineer/producer and singer, or maybe you have hired a vocalist while you control the technical side?
If you’re recording quality vocals yourself, try and set up all the technical elements before you record, and once you begin to perform try not to get distracted by the recording process.
If you’re recording someone else, it can be tricky to get all the performance if you haven’t set up everything before the get go.
The most common mistake is recording vocals too loud or too soft – for beginners, it’s usually too loud.
Some things to consider when prepping the technical stuff:
Choosing A Microphone: Everybody’s voice is unique so you must pick a mic to best suit the artist. Mics include dynamic, condensers (the preferred type for professional recordings) and ribbon mics.
If you have several mics to choose from, record a vocal line with each mic and see which is most flattering to the singer. Rappers with bright voices may actually sound better with a dynamic mic.
(image: Shure condenser mics – itechnews)
Mic Techniques: Beginners sometimes make the mistake of singing right into the mic – this should be avoided as it creates bass-y effects (the official term is proximity effect).
A solution is to make sure you have a pop screen/filter set up, which is a guard which attaches to the microphone stand and separates the singer and microphone. It’s designed to minimize the popping sounds from a singer’s mouth (typically the ‘p’ and ‘b’ sounds) and to encourage the singer to keep their distance from the mic.
You may have seen professionals use a big boom stand which extends above the artist’s head and drops the mic down in front of the singer’s mouth. It works well as it allows the singer to keep their head up, maintain good posture, open their throat and project their voice.
(image: mic & pop screen – Alibaba.com)
The Headphone Mix: Spend some time perfecting the headphone mix, and check your headphones to make sure you can hear both the music and vocals clearly. If the music is too loud, the singer will feel they need to compete to be heard.
The Mic Preamp: Selecting the best quality mic preamp is the next stage of the recording process. A decent mic preamp will have lots of headroom and will not distort if the singer cranks up, but you must always monitor the gain (volume) as the voice starts to warm up. Some interfaces include a preamp. If your interface does not have one, you may have to buy a separate module to phantom power your microphone.
Compressors: Compressors have sparked many discussions because a lot of people don’t understand how they work. A compressor’s purpose is to automatically lower the volume when the input exceeds a threshold. They level the dynamic range of a musical signal from soft to loud, lowering the louder parts and bringing up the soft parts. If you don’t have significant experience handling compressors, and/or don’t have access to a high-quality outboard compressor, it is recommended to put a compressor on your monitor playback only.
Now that you’ve got the fundamentals on the preparation side of recording quality vocals, you’re ready to start!
There are a wide variety of digital audio workstations (DAW’s), mixers, equalizers, VSTs, and all the bells and whistles to aid in the recording process. ProTools, Logic, FL Studio, Cubase, Reason, and Ableton can all be used for recording vocals.
(image: Reaper DAW)
To understand how sound goes into a computer via a mixer, we will try to start simple:
- Turn volumes down on mixer and digital audio workstation (DAW). Plug in your mic.
- On the mixer, enable phantom power (make sure your headphones are unplugged or you’ll hear a loud pop).
- On the mixer, put LINE/MIC button to MIC position.
- Connect the mixer’s main output to the Main Input or Channel 1 of your DAW.
(image: mixer connection – sos.com)
- Bring up the mixer’s Channel 1 volume meter to zero and the same with Master Volume of the mixer.
- Create a new mono audio track on the DAW. Now you can start and test if there is sound.
- Adjust the gain until the sound you intend to record at doesn’t create digital static.
- Connect headphones to the DAW, turn down monitor volume and turn up headphone volume. Now you can hear yourself through the headphones.
- On the DAW, you can start to record.
- Press Stop. Turn monitor volume up, take off headphones and listen to the recording.
- Breathe and repeat if necessary!
When you’re recording, remember every situation is unique and no one setup will work for every situation. There is a balance between capturing a great performance and getting the technical fundamentals right. Your aim is to record a performance that keeps the listener interested in the song. Does the recording have passion and move listeners? If yes, you’re on the right track.
Thanks for reading this article. I hope it has helped answer a few questions about recording vocals. Feel free to comment or share this post on social media.
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