Just because you don’t have the budget to book out a world-class studio doesn’t mean amazing vocals are out of reach. Believe it or not, some very successful songs had their vocals recorded in the middle of a living room with what many would consider to be a less-than-ideal mic.
Nevertheless, we should always try to maximize whatever we have available to us. Here are some ways to record great sounding vocals right in your own home.
1 - DEADEN THE ROOM & WATCH YOUR BACK
Why do people spend hundreds and thousands of dollars in studios to record? There are a few reasons, perhaps. But one of the main ones is the room. Sound cannot exist in the vacuum of outer space - it needs a medium to travel through (air), and therefore a space. You can have the most expensive signal chain running, and if you record in a crappy room, the recording will sound like crap. Heavy math goes into calculating all sorts of things like bass traps and nodes, but we needn’t worry about those acoustic challenges - simply try to minimize the effect the room has on your recording by eliminating it!
Got a couch? Record near it. Got blankets? Hang them from the wall. Got carpet? Stand on it. Got a bookshelf full of books? Vinyl? Bring them in! Extra mattress? Stand it up. Anything that will absorb sound (and therefore decrease reflections) will improve your recording conditions. We want the mic to pick up the voice, and as close to nothing else. Avoid things flat, smooth, shiny, and parallel. I know rooms are inherently parallel (floor/ceiling, walls) but do your best to break these symmetries with the stuff I just mentioned, plus anything else you can think of. Don’t stand directly in the center of the room either, stand off to the side, facing off-center. Give the sound a chance to bounce around a bunch and get lost. Maybe consider one of those reflection filters that go behind the mic, but please keep in mind the microphone’s recording pattern should be configured to record only in the direction of the singer. So what’s the point of the reflection filter going behind the mic? Well, imagine the vocals being sung at the mic… they also pass the mic, hit the wall, bounce back towards you, hit the wall behind you, and bounce right back into the mic. The reflection filter will limit the amount of sound escaping past the mic, and therefore any possible reflections that can make it back into the recording. The key here is to pay attention to what’s behind you, because this is what the mic will be picking up.
2 - LESS (GAIN) IS MORE
Recording vocals too loud is a common mistake engineers and producers make all the time. With all the compression that will be happening in your DAW, there really isn’t the need for a big vocal signal. You’ll have ample opportunity to make it plenty loud. To cite a visual reference, the vocal signal should ride along in the middle third of your DAW track, popping out every now and again. You should NOT be clipping, nor hitting any red. It shouldn’t even be in the orange or yellow, except maybe a moment here and there. 95% of your vocal should sit comfortably in the green.
3 - FILTER THE POP
Pop filters are important - they subdue those gusts of wind that only become apparent when you are speaking way too close to someone’s face, or recording. Linguists use an assortment of fancy terms you didn’t even know existed, such as oral occlusive, oral obstruent, tongue blade, and pulmonic stop, but for us musicians all we need to think of is P! Hold your palm in front of your mouth and say the word “pasta” but leave out the “-asta”; that gust of wind will explode in your microphone, and potentially rupture your speakers. The ideal pop filter will be sonically invisible, so a decent one isn’t a bad investment. You can also make effective filters out of things like hangers and stockings - a quick online search can teach you how. Place it about 2” in front of the mic, making sure it’s not close enough that it could accidentally bump into the mic and make noise.
4 - INVEST IN YOUR EQUIPMENT
We are all well aware of the schemes out there… companies will often try to sell you the latest-and-greatest just to take your money. One of the ways they do this is by working to convince you that a) unless you have the absolute newest version, you are missing out on crucial features; and b) the more money you spend, the higher quality you’ll get.
For many circumstances, it’s good advice to be careful of these traps. However, when it comes to professional gear, your budget can become a real limitation. IMPORTANT: This is not to say that without fancy, expensive gear, it’s impossible to create successful music. Quite the contrary! However, if you are looking for those pristine pop vocals, you need to spend the dough.
The more you invest in your signal chain, the higher quality audio you can preserve. It all starts with the microphone. This is what captures the sound source - how accurate is it? How much does it sound like the real thing you’re recording? How much “color” (good or bad) is it adding? Is it picking up all the details? When you listen back, does it sound like you’re right there in the room with the vocalist?
Next comes the Pre-amp. Microphones operate at a very low voltage, and therefore a very low signal level, which yields such an incredibly low volume that it won’t even register in your DAW. The Pre-amp is responsible solely for making the microphone louder. Although this seems simplistic in function, it actually requires a multitude of high quality components to yield desirable results.
If you choose to record through a compressor, it would come next. Compressors can also add a bit of color, but are more intended to effect the character of the sound.
And finally, the interface. This is responsible for, amongst other things, taking that analog signal you’ve worked so hard to create, and turning it into 0’s and 1’s for the computer to process. Precision electrical components, as well as chips and algorithms, all go to work together. It’s the quality of these conversions that ultimately determine how your audio will sound, and you definitely don’t want to skimp here.
While we’re discussing the gear, I think it’s also worth mentioning the importance of headphones. I use a standard professional, inexpensive pair ($80-100) that you find in almost every studio. They aren’t the best by any means, but they are excellent for recording. Every vocalist I’ve ever handed these headphones to have been very happy with how they sound. They are able to hear their voice clearly, which is crucial for a good performance.
While engrossed with the music, we forget that it’s signal we’re dealing with. Literally, voltage. And this voltage passes through components any electrical engineer would be all too familiar with - capacitors, transistors, resistors, just to name a few. But this signal isn’t responsible for making a ceiling fan spin, it’s literally getting transformed into the audio that we will hear (by moving the speaker cones). These electrical components are expensive to make - they take feats of engineering, combined with materials from the Earth that are not easily come by. I hope you can understand fundamentally why spending money on quality components directly effects your end audio result.
5 - PREPARE & PERFORM
As the engineer / producer, make sure you stay positive and encouraging. Artists (and people in general) will always perform better when they feel confident, and showing you believe in someone’s abilities is a guaranteed way to get the best results out of them.
Set the vibe in the recording area - make sure there’s fresh air, water, a clean surface (to write on, for notepads, computer, phone, etc) comfortable temperature and humidity (to the best of your ability), tissues, and hot tea (there are some brews specially formulated for coating the vocal cords).
While in “recording mode”, don’t stress (or talk) about other unrelated things. Don’t check email or Instagram - be present and involved in the session, giving constant feedback.
The vocalist should be warmed up and ready to go upon arrival, having already familiarized themselves with the lyrics and melody. So should the session also be prepped - instrumental is ready and correct from start to finish, a bunch of empty vocal tracks are ready to receive audio, and the busses are routed with a preliminary mix. You can setup pitch correction before anything is even recorded just by knowing the key of the song, as well as some basic compression and effects. That way, when you hit play, things are already sounding great.* This will inspire even better results from the vocalist, as well as move things along at a nice pace and keep the momentum up.
* (Notice I said “when you hit play, things are already sounding great” - I tend to record my vocalists dry, and have gotten my best results this way. This is so they don’t hear something false and think they are performing better than they actually are. Then, when we hit play and listen, the inspiring results get them performing even better because as they record, they can now imagine what it’s going to sound like.)
Do your best to use (or remind the vocalist of) good microphone technique. This means no part of the mic (or stand) is being touched by anything. If the vocalist doesn’t already know, they should back away just a bit during the loud parts (a matter of inches), and turn away for breaths. This will save lots of headache in the editing & mixing process.
And always remember: a bad recording of an amazing performance will always win over a pristine recording of a crappy performance. All this energy and effort into the recording process and performance itself will be very worthwhile.
6 - EFFECTS
Now I know this is supposed to be about recording at home, but I felt this article wouldn’t be complete without a finishing strategy. And so, here’s a list of preliminary effects you can add to the vocal track. This is not a list of all things that should be added, but if you do add any of these, follow the order:
- First comes the tuning plugin. You want it to have direct access to the pure vocal, so that it can do its best in pitch correction.
- Next, compress your vocals, twice. Once for controlling the sharper peaks that jump out, and another that will generally smooth everything out a bit. The first compressor should have a fast Attack (so it reacts to the peaks right away), as well as a fast Release so that it quickly gets out of the way. The Threshold and Ratio should be light - you don’t want it jumping around all over the place, just tickling the edge. The second compressor can have a slightly slower Attack & Release, as well as a bit more robust of a Threshold and Ratio, and this can sort of “ride along” with the vocals.
- Next comes EQ - balancing the frequency spectrum. Give the lows a hard cut so that you’re not unknowingly using up your headroom with low mud that isn’t even audible. Give some attention to the mids, and finally perhaps open up the top end a bit. Be gentle here, no heavy-handed maneuvers. If there’s a specific problem frequency you’re looking to fix, do so with a separate EQ, and put it first before the balancing one.
- Finally, the glory: reverb and delay. The general rule is: Pick a reasonable reverb that makes sense for the song and its concept - don’t put an intimate, personal, whispery love song in a canyon or up in the mountains. Similarly, don’t make Lion King’s ”Circle of Life” vocals bone dry, right in your face. For delay, take note of your tempo, and pick a musical duration. Quarter notes and eighth notes work very well, as well as their dotted versions. Set your delay feedback so it isn’t repeating too much - listen for melody clashes or distractions as an indicator of appropriate feedback length. And make sure the delayed vocal is EQ’d differently (cut the highs and lows even more) so that it stays out of the lead’s way. This also goes for the reverb.
Vocals can be a challenge to record, but hopefully these tips will help you get better sounding recordings without going too far. Do you have any tips for improving the quality of your home recordings? Please let us know!